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Lessons from a rail rebellion


A rebellion percolating in Portland's suburbs has made light rail its primary target. But despite the anti-rail rhetoric that's being employed by opponents of new transit lines, this particular uprising isn't just about a transportation mode.

Rather, it's about larger community values concerning topics such as density, crime and regional planning.

In the past few months, activists in Washington and Clackamas Counties have waged very public campaigns to try to block rail projects. The most aggressive efforts are in Clackamas County, where opponents of the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX line have collected enough signatures to place measures on local ballots that threaten needed county and city funding.

Here in Washington County, initiative petitions have been filed in Tigard, Tualatin, King City and Sherwood that could, if approved, force a public vote on financing for any new rail systems in those cities.

In all these communities, the rallying cry has been 'no rail without a vote.' But rail is really just a symbol for what's bothering many suburban residents. Their larger fear is that rail will transform their communities into mini-Portlands, with high-density development and increased crime.

In many ways, this is an old battle between those who believe in the value of regional planning and mass transit and those who don't. However, the fight has grown more intense as the Metro regional government has taken over the task of long-range transit planning while also pursuing the goals of reducing greenhouse gases and encouraging what it views as livable communities.

Although Metro is led by an elected council, the agency's values don't always align with those of individual communities. Suburban residents don't uniformly endorse the idea of urban-style development and transit corridors. The trick has always been to forge consensus within the metro area while also respecting the aspirations of each city and county.

The anti-rail rebellions show the need for deeper discussions between regional decision-makers and the communities they represent to achieve higher-level consensus. But at the ground level, there are not only specific points to address but also a broader question about the future of mass transit.

In the past, funding for expensive rail projects has been cobbled together from local, state and, most significantly, federal sources. That money is drying up, which should lead the region to consider more affordable solutions. In particular, the proposed transit corridor to Tigard and Sherwood - as well as a future link between Hillsboro and Forest Grove - might be better served by bus rapid transit, which provides rail-like efficiency for a fraction of the cost.

Bus rapid transit, which has been successful in Eugene, also could have the secondary benefit of satisfying those who cite the cost of rail projects as their primary reason for opposing new lines. Whether these dedicated bus lanes would attract the same density of development - a density that some desire and some abhor - is a question to be explored.

But whether it's trains, buses or freeways, the region needs new ideas and solutions - and new ways to discuss them if it wants to avoid the same old arguments about rail.