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Transit fans stay on track

Once rivals, streetcar and MAX supporters align forces for funds
by: JIM CLARK, City Commissioner Sam Adams, a supporter of an east-side Portland streetcar extension, calls an alliance with supporters of a planned light rail line to Milwaukie, “a huge, good important step forward.”

Supporters of two local rail projects have joined forces in recent months, forging a new political equation that could shape greater Portland's transportation future.

Just last summer, Milwaukie officials were making headlines with fears that their residents would never see a promised light-rail link to Portland.

The 10-year-old plan to connect the two cities was on the political equivalent of life support, and younger projects like the Portland streetcar - proposed to extend east over the Willamette River - threatened to trample the old-timer en route to a too-small pot of transportation cash.

Today, however, supporters of the two projects are working together to secure funding in Salem. It's an alliance that could increase the chance that both will succeed in Washington, D.C.

'There's an accommodation that seems to have been reached at the moment, both financially and politically,' said David Bragdon, president of the Metro Council.

The two projects are now 'connected at the hip,' said Peter Finley Fry, a consultant who is working to bring the Portland streetcar to the central east side.

The alliance is significant because in the world of transportation politics, every project has its own constituency of officials, agencies and business interests. And supporters of Milwaukie light rail and the streetcar's east-side loop had increasingly viewed the other as potential competitors for a limited pool of financial and political capital.

'Moving working-class people from their neighborhoods to their jobs, as (the Milwaukie proposal) does, is still a really important role for transportation,' Metro Councilor Brian Newman told the Portland Tribune. 'Every month or so it seems like there is a new streetcar line proposed by the city of Portland … and it makes some people nervous.'

Projects could share bridge

Members of the streetcar board had even explored sending the streetcar to Milwaukie instead of light rail, thinking that the price tag of light rail barred it from becoming reality. The light-rail project was deemed 'stalled out' by Commissioner Sam Adams, the streetcar's most visible proponent.

Over the last six months, however, the dynamic changed.

For one thing, local officials have realized that lottery-backed bonds issued for west-side MAX will be paid off by 2009, freeing a lottery-backed line of credit that could support construction of the Milwaukie light rail.

That has given the project a 'shot in the arm,' Adams said. He has been among the Portland officials lobbying the state Legislature to allot $250 million in lottery-backed bonds to light rail and $25 million for the streetcar.

Meanwhile, burgeoning development in the city's new South Waterfront area has led to a growing realization that the Milwaukie project's proposed light-rail crossing near the Ross Island Bridge will be needed to ease traffic congestion there.

The city of Portland has asked Metro to consider moving the crossing 400 feet south, for greater access to South Waterfront. And, Newman said, 'the interest of the South Waterfront property owners has changed from benign neglect to enthusiastic support' of Milwaukie light rail.

The bridge could be shared by the streetcar if it succeeds in securing federal funding to extend down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Besides the realization of a shared interest in the bridge, there also was the realization that a fight between local transit interests could sink both projects.

Streetcar supporters 'saw that getting into a fight with Milwaukie was a losing proposition, so let's be partners instead,' said Chris Smith, a board member of the nonprofit Portland Streetcar Inc.

Moving the light-rail bridge closer to the sprouting condo and office towers of South Waterfront could make the Milwaukie plan more attractive for funding by the federal government, which rates projects based on ridership.

'I think people were wary in the beginning about how to make both of these projects move together,' Adams said. 'But we've worked hard to show ourselves that indeed they both can move forward, and having them both move forward is complementary.'

Having both projects become a reality could be 'a huge, good important step forward,' Adams said.

Funding's still an issue

If you don't see news releases announcing a group hug between the projects' supporters, however, it's probably because both still compete for TriMet operating funds - which come from a payroll tax levied on the region's employers.

While the construction-funding part of the puzzle is coming together, 'the part we haven't figured out is the operating costs to pay for the operations of both the streetcar and the light-rail line to Milwaukie,' Adams said.

TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen has said an increase in TriMet's payroll tax approved by the Legislature should leave room for just one large project and one small project in the coming decade.

That means that if Milwaukie light rail is funded, TriMet could not afford to pay two-thirds of the streetcar's operating costs on the east side, as it has with past streetcar segments.

Streetcar supporters hope to persuade TriMet to fund one-third of the operating costs, and get the rest of the money from increased fare revenue and city parking funds, potentially supported by new parking meters in the central east side.

'I don't think we've figured it out yet,' said Finley Fry of the operating-funds question.

TriMet's limited supply of operating funds means that the new alliance, if successful, could lead to the postponement of other projects, including proposals to send the streetcar to Lake Oswego, build a second phase of Washington County commuter rail, and extend light rail north to Vancouver, Wash., and west to Forest Grove.

'There is a finite supply of operational funding, and anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth,' Newman said.

Also, TriMet is under pressure to invest in bus service to reverse a decline in spending, frequency and ridership in recent years. Some transit advocates fear that devoting all the increase in payroll taxes to rail projects will leave bus service out in the cold.

'First and foremost, bus service should be improved,' said Jim Howell, a former TriMet planner and member of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates.

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