Metro evaluates regional transportation needs
Traffic congestion and fatalities are increasing in the Portland region, and cities and counties have identified more that $2 billion in congestion-relief and safety projects that could be completed within five years.
But they do not have enough money to pay for them.
That is one of the takeaways from TriMet's unsuccessful effort to place a regional transportation funding measure on the November 2018 general election ballot.
The regional transit agency had hoped to ask voters within its service district to approve a $1.7 billion bond measure to help fund the MAX line planned for the Southwest Corridor between Portland and Tualatin, along with congestion relief and safety projects in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.
TriMet ran out of time to draft the measure and turned the responsibility for a November 2020 general election ballot measure over to Metro, the elected regional government, last month. But, before it gave up, TriMet asked cities and counties within its boundaries to propose congestion-relief and safety projects that can be completed in five years to Metro, which is in charge of transportation planning for the region.
"Greater Portland is growing by more than 3,000 people a month, and we need to invest in our roads, streets and transit so that people aren't spending two hours a day in traffic, or waiting 40 minutes for the bus," said Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen, a former Tigard mayor who chairs the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, which will be working on the potential November 2020 regional transportation funding measure. "We've heard from the public what their priorities are for addressing the problem, but finding the funding to act on that feedback has been a challenge. I've heard for years about how local jurisdictions are struggling to pay for the investments their residents want."
Although TriMet said $950 million in new funding would be available for the projects if the measure passed, the list totalled more than twice that, demonstrating both the need and ability to respond to the problems if such money was available.
"With the federal government continuing to cut how much it spends on transportation solutions, it's time for a regional conversation about how to fix this problem ourselves," Dirksen said.
The most recent version of the list includes 89 projects. Most are very detailed, proving that a lot of time and thought has gone into them. They vary significantly between the Portland and the three counties, which is another takeaway from the effort.
Portland submitted 48 projects, with many of them proposing to speed transit service. Three are intended to reduce bus delays on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Sandy Boulevard and 122nd Avenue. Others would add safety improvements on such high-crash corridors as 82nd Avenue and inner Powell Boulevard.
In contrast, Clackamas County submitted 15 projects, with many intended to increase capacity and add bike lanes and sidewalks on such major roads as 172nd Avenue, 190th Avenue, Highway 43 and Highway 213.
Likewise, Washington County submitted 15 projects, with many intended to increase capacity and add bike lanes and sidewalks on such major roads as U.S. Highway 26, Tualatin-Sherwood Road, Farmington Road, Walker Road and Hall Boulevard.
And Multnomah County submitted eight projects, with most intended to add bike lanes and sidewalks to busy thoroughfares, including Division and Halsey streets.
Metro says the list was not finalized, after TriMet said it could not complete the measure in time, and some of the projects on it may not have been fully approved for submission.
Traffic conditions growing worse
The MAX line is currently being planned by Metro as part of its Southwest Corridor Project. It is intended to ease growing congestion in the corridor between Portland and Tualatin, and to provide an alternative mode of transportation to those who live and work near it.
Newly released U.S. Census Bureau data for the Portland area confirms previous reports that traffic congestion is increasing. According to the bureau's most recent annual American Community Survey, the number of residents commuting to work increased 18,854 — or 6.3 percent — from 2014 to 2016. Today, an estimated 24,111 Portland residents take an hour or more to commute to work, a 35.4 percent increase in just two years.
Traffic fatalities in Portland have also increased over that same period and are continuing to grow. According to the most recent Portland Traffic Safety Report, total fatalities increased from 28 in 2014 to 44 in 2016. At press time, at least 51 people had died in crashes so far this year compared to 36 at this time last year.
Although the exact alignment of the proposed MAX line has yet to be finalized, the cost is currently estimated at $2.4 billion. Half the funding is expected to come from the federal government.
TriMet, which would build, own and operate the line, has long thought that a new source of regional transportation funding will be required to help match the federal share of the project. The idea of a ballot measure that also includes funds for congestion relief and safety projects emerged during discussions over the $5.3 billion transportation funding package approved by the 2017 Oregon Legislature. During those discussions, TriMet relied on a public opinion poll it had commissioned that showed voters were much more likely to approve such a measure if it also funded congestion relief and safety projects in all three counties.
Originally, those working on the package talked about the Oregon Department of Transportation funding about half of three major freeway improvement projects — rebuilding the Interstate 5/I-84 interchanges in the Rose Quarter, widening Highway 217 to three lanes all the way through Washington County, and widening I-205 to three lanes all the way through Clackamas County. The proposed ballot measure would have provided the rest of the funding, giving voters in all three counties reasons to support it even if they wouldn't benefit from the new MAX line.
But instead, the Legislature decided to have ODOT fund the three freeway projects, with some of the money expected to come from tolls imposed on I-5 and I-205. This prompted TriMet to ask the cities and counties what other congestion-relief projects they could propose for the measure.
In its request, TriMet said the money available to each jurisdiction would be determined by a formula discussed during the legislative discussions that reflected how much revenue would be generated based on population, employment and registered vehicles. By that formula, the largest share of the funding, 41 percent, would go to Portland, followed by 32 percent to Washington County, 19 percent to Clackamas County, and 8 percent to Multnomah County.
The agency capped the total at $950 million, or 56 percent of the proposed measure. Instead, when all the proposals came in, the total topped $2 billion. The largest share, 41 percent, were road and bridge projects. Next came bike and predestrian projects at 30 percent, highway projects at 19 percent, transit projects at 7 percent, and transportation management and transit-related housing projects at 3 percent.
Most of the projects were already on the list of projects eligible for future funding in the Regional Transportation Plan developed by Metro in cooperation with cities, counties and transit districts within its jurisdiction. Some were new, however. They are scheduled to be submitted to the update of the regional plan that happens every five years, and is currently underway.
Although TriMet intended the solicited projects to help form the basis of its November 2018 ballot measure, Metro says it is not bound by them for a potential measure two years later. Matching funds for the planned Southwest Corridor MAX line are still essential. But the exact mix of the other funds is now up in the air.
According to Metro Policy Innovation Manager Tyler Frisbee, the regional government will soon initiate discussions with local jurisdictions to decide how to solicit and finalize a project list for its potential November 2020 measure. Participants will include Portland and three coordinating councils that include representatives of all governments in Clackamas, Washington and east Multnomah counties.