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Highway 217 planning funds should be restored

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Metro's multi-level transportation planning process should rethink a reduced level of funding proposed for beginning the environmental impact study to improve highly congested Highway 217.

Originally, $500,000 was sought for the study from a total of $48.4 million in federal funds available to the entire metropolitan region. But the Highway 217 request was cut in half when Metro officials, and its partners in local government, sought to bring into balance more than $133 million in regional grant requests and the actual federal dollars available.

Cutting the Highway 217 share is the wrong message to send Washington County residents, Westside commuters, Oregon U.S. Congressman David Wu and federal planners.

A reduction in funding says that relieving Highway 217 congestion and its negative traffic, community, safety and environmental impacts is not a priority - even though Metro, approximately 20 citizens and regional partners spent almost two years considering how to improve Highway 217. The Metro Council even voted to accept the study recommendations, calling for a full environmental impact and study review. Meanwhile, in the past year, Wu has made it a personal mission to remind local, Metro and state officials that it's time to improve 217.

Finally it doesn't make historical sense to not complete studies to improve the freeway. In the 1990s, regional leaders pledged to do just that after it was agreed to drop plans for a Westside Bypass, in favor of employing a variety of other fixes, including improving Highway 217, expanding Washington County transit service and improving streets.

We understand that federal funds are limited and that almost three times the number of funding requests were made than there is money available.

But by cutting Highway 217 study funds in half, decision-makers appear to be saying that everything than has gone - studies, Metro Council votes, Westside Bypass decisions and David Wu speeches - are just not as important as they once were. It also doesn't work to fund a variety of other projects or programs that have been on the Metro list a shorter time at a higher level than 217.

We think that Washington County commuters and local officials will find such decisions hard to swallow. And we think that Wu will find it tough swallowing a 50 percent cut on a project over which he personally has sought to generate increased support and funding. Regional transportation leaders should think twice about irritating a congressman that they curry favor from regarding other matters.

There are alternatives. Over the next few weeks, prior to the March 1 and 15 meetings by the Metro Joint Policy Committee on Transportation and the full Metro Council, local and regional decision makers ought to reassess past Highway 217 efforts and decisions. They also need to affirm the importance of keeping a member of Congress happy.

This is not a tough choice to resolve. Metro can either find $250,000 in additional funds for Highway 217 by changing the allocations provided other projects and programs. Or transportation planners can get creative and tap into other funding sources to match the $250,000 federal share and restore the Highway 217 project to the $500,000 level.

Either way, it's the right thing to do.