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Westside corridor back on county politicians minds

Hillsboro mayor urges ODOT to study ways to ease traffic snarls in Washington County


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Rush hour traffic is already congested in both direction on Highway 26 near Highway 217. A new white paper predicts it will get much worse in coming years but could be relieved by a new Westside Transportation Corridor.The Hillsboro City Council is revisiting a controversial road project intended to relieve growing traffic congestion in Washington County, from Forest Grove in the west to Wilsonville in the east.

The council wants the Oregon Department of Transportation to evaluate the need for a new Westside Transportation Corridor. It is essentially a longer version of the Western Bypass that was abandoned in the 1990s.

The council voted Nov. 20 to submit a bill to the 2013 Oregon Legislature requiring that ODOT study a new automobile and freight link from I-5 near Wilsonville past Hillsboro to the Port of Portland. The study is to be completed in time for the 2015 session.

The vote follows the release of a new white paper commissioned by the council that predicts motor vehicle congestion will spread beyond the rush hours in Washington County — and beyond — without such a project. Titled “Transportation Infrastructure and the Westside Economy,” it was prepared over the past three months by the ECONorthwest economic consulting firm and the Trasnpo Group, a transportation consulting company based in Kirkland, Wash.

“Many of the suburban and rural highways that link Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove with Beaverton, Tualatin, Tigard and Wilsonville will experience heavy congestion. These routes were not designed and built to withstand the growth in urban commuter and freight mobility demand expected in the future. Traffic safety will be an key concern on these routes,” the white paper says.

Although the council is requesting a study, Mayor Jerry Willey already sounds as if he supports the project. In a Nov. 7 letter to regional elected officials, Willey wrote, "White paper data and analysis makes a strong case that the State and northwest Oregon communities should rigorously assess the long-term need for a Westside freight and mobility corridor alternative to I-5."

In his letter, Willey also correctly predicts there will be strong opposition to the proposal because of its potential cost and impact on agricultural and natural resource lands.

"It's hard to imagine that such a project is justifiable. It's well proven that there are less expensive alternatives that can be put into place, like giving people options to using their cars," said Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director of the 10000 Friends of Oregon land-use watchdog organization.

Fast growth

As noted in the white paper, Washington County is the economic engine of the state and has been growing faster than the rest of the region for many years. Between 1967 and 1987, retail sales in the county increased nearly 12 percent compared to less than 2 percent in Portland, which dominates Multnomah County. Since then, companies such as Intel have fueled a high-tech boom in and around Hillsboro. The most recent U.S. Census figures show Washington County grew 1.2 percent in 2012, faster than either Multnomah County at .09 percent or Clackamas County at .08 percent.

The white paper says the growth is fueling congestion that cannot be adequately reduced by transit and other alternative forms of transportation. It contends congestion is spreading throughout an interstate region that stretches from the coast through the Willamette Valley and up into the State of Washington. According to the paper, affected counties include Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill, Marion, Columbia, Clackamas, Clatsop and Tillamook in Oregon, and Clark and Skamania in Washington.

The council believes the extent of the of the congestion makes the issue a matter of state concern.

Oregon and Washington County transportation officials began planning for the Westside Bypass in the 1980s. In 1987, Metro, the elected regional government, formally amended its Regional Transportation Plan to include the bypass. At that time, it was planned to be a four-lane freeway from I-5 near Wilsonville to U.S. 26 near the 185th Street interchange. Construction was expected to begin after I-205 was completed.

Some Washington County residents opposed the project, however, because portions of it would cut through farm and forest lands. They formed Sensible Transportation Options for People — or STOP — modeled after the citizens group that blocked the Mt. Hood Freeway in Portland in the 1970. Aided by the land use watchdog organization 1000 Friends of Oregon, STOP sued Metro, charging that the project violated the state’s land use and urban growth boundary rules. 1000 Friends instituted its own suit against Washington County for its role in project. The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals ruled the county needed to consider alternatives to the Westside Bypass.

As a result, the Oregon Department of Transportation agreed to study a range of options. In addition to the proposed project, they included: a No-Build Alternative that included completion of Westside MAX, expanded feeder TriMet bus service and already funded roadway improvements; a Transportation System Management/Planned Projects Alternative that added unfunded roadway improvements and Transportation Demand Management features, such as parking Charges and “dial-a-ride” transit service; and an Arterial Expansion/High Occupancy Vehicle Express Alternative that added the construction of new express arterials and preferred access for HOVs.by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - The Hillsboro City Council wants the state to conduct a study of traffic congestion in an 11-county region that includes Washington County.

Support never died

Support for the Westside Bypass never completely died, however. The concept has repeatedly surfaced at state and county meetings. During the Columbia River Crossing planning process, activists repeatedly presented the bypass as a lower-cost alternative to the controversial Columbia River Crossing project. And a citizen group called Third Bridge Now proposed linking it to Clark County with a new bridge over the Columbia River. Those ideas were rejected in favor of a replacement bridge between Oregon and Washington.

Many of the Washington County projects in Metro's 1997 RTP have been completed, including improvements to arterial roads throughout the county and improved pedestrian and bicycle access. But the white paper says they have not been enough to prevent growing congestion from strangling the 11 county interstate region. In fact, a recent Metro transportation survey found that the percent of trips taken by automobiles in the region has barely changed in the past two decades, despite increased investment in transit and pedestrian and bike trails. The white paper argues that something along the lines of the Westside Bypass is still needed.

The proposed bill authorized by the council calls for a study new transportation corridor running from I-5 near Wilsonville through portions of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties to Highway 30, which connects to I-5 and the Port of Portland. The exact route would be determined by ODOT.

Although the Westside Bypass project has been declared dead in the past, council's vote comes at a time when once-settled transportation decisions are being challenged throughout the region.

This year alone, Clackamas County voters derailed the long-planned Portland Streetcar extension to Lake Oswego, approved a measure requiring public votes on future rail projects, and replaced two commissioners who support the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX Project with opponents. Voters in Tigard and King City also approved measures that may require public votes on rail projects. And leaders in all three counties now want Metro to streamline its traditional public process and approve spending $34 million in unexpected federal transportation funds on economic development projects.

"It's time we resolve this very important Westside Corridor debate," Willey said in his Nov. 7 letter.




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