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TriMet sues Clackamas County over light-rail delays

Regional transit agency wants judge to make sure county holds up its end of the bargain


by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Work on the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line continued in Southeast Portland as TriMet and Clackamas County wrestled with legal issues surrounding the county's obligation to the $1.49 billion project.TriMet filed a lawsuit in Clackamas County Circuit Court on Thursday afternoon to require the county to follow through on agreements between the two governmental agencies that committed the county supporting the $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.

Clackamas County officials say the court action took them by surprise.

Regional transit officials say in the lawsuit that they’re being financially “damaged in the amount of $1,279,740, plus prejudgment interest,” and requested a judge’s “expedited consideration” since they’re having to put construction on hold for portions of the line in Oak Grove.

(Click here to read the lawsuit.)

Clackamas County is delaying moving forward on final project property acquisitions and about $1.3 million in associated road and traffic-signal construction until voters weigh in on the issue. In its lawsuit, TriMet contends that county code does not require public approval of these aspects of the construction.

May 21 ballot questions will seek public approval for the use of county resources on light rail and TriMet’s acquisition of North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District-owned parcels near the Trolley Trail. County commissioners last month voted 3-2 to put the measures on the ballot, arguing that they’re reacting to voter support of Measure 3-401, which passed Sept. 18 to require special elections for the county’s use of public rail resources.

Meanwhile, TriMet’s construction of the 7.3-mile project is only 35 percent complete, and they’ve promised to have the line opened to the public by September 2015.

“We understand that Clackamas County voters want a say in any rail projects based on Measure 3-401, but that does not affect the current Portland-Milwaukie project,” said TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. “Unfortunately, we have to take this action to prevent delays that could impact the overall cost and schedule of the project.”

TriMet’s court action seeks a declaratory judgment to give the court jurisdiction to ensure the county’s participation until the project is complete.

County spokesman Tim Heider noted surprise at TriMet filing the lawsuit.

“Our contract with TriMet calls for both parties to undergo a dispute resolution process before a lawsuit is filed,” Heider said. “Clackamas County has taken no action to halt construction of the line and has performed under all terms of its contract.”

TriMet officials said they appreciate that the county has partnered with the agency to move the project forward over the years, allowing design, construction and property acquisitions to proceed. Included as evidence in the lawsuit is a supplemental intergovernmental agreement signed on Aug. 29 by former County Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan. The agreement, authorized by a 3-1 Aug. 22 decision by county commissioners, finalized terms with TriMet and allowed the county to make a $19.9 million payment on the Friday before the public’s rail vote.

Clackamas County commissioners also approved the light-rail alignment in 2009, and in 2010, approved an agreement obligating funding and cooperation for preliminary engineering, final design and construction.

TriMet officials say that the county’s cooperation has “dissolved” since the November election of two new county commissioners who oppose the project. During that time Fetsch said TriMet have made “numerous attempts to help the county resolve its outstanding issues.” TriMet has reduced the amount of cash that the county contributed to the project and provided two deadline extensions to allow time to meet conditions of supplemental agreements.

TriMet says its offer is still “on the table” to resolve the matter through alternative means, including mediation or having a neutral third party bring a resolution.

“We continue to call on the county to follow through on their longstanding commitments,” Fetsch said. “Our focus is to keep the project on time, on budget and create jobs as we build a more efficient transit system.”



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