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Search for better transit options

The opening of the “Orange Line” in September produced an appropriate level of celebratory events for TriMet’s latest MAX route. Now that the party is over, however, the metropolitan region is left hanging with an equally appropriate question: What’s next?

Specifically, local leaders and policymakers ought to ask how the metro region can maintain and expand a transportation system that’s inadequate to handle population growth over the next 20 years. The greater Portland area is expected to expand by 400,000 people in that time period.

Any frustrated commuter can tell you that adding that many new residents to the current road and transit system will exacerbate an already-undesirable traffic situation. Previous predictions that newcomers, particularly millennials, would forever change their driving habits after the Great Recession have been proven wrong. Congestion around Portland now exceeds pre-2008 levels.

Compounding the challenge for local leaders is the fact that no big projects are on the horizon. The Columbia River Crossing is dead. No new MAX lines are in the funding stream. The freeway system is mostly maxed out at three lanes in each direction, and there is limited desire or money to take them beyond that capacity.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Legislature couldn’t get past partisan disagreements long enough to approve a transportation package in 2015, and the city of Portland’s mayor and transportation commissioner have been unable to move forward, as yet, with new funding to maintain streets.

Prospects for additional federal transportation money are dim as well. In any case, federal officials have been saying for years that the era of large investments is coming to a close.

With federal dollars limited in the future, the state and metro area are left to figure out better ways to stretch available transportation money. A few emerging strategies include:

n More reliance on buses and less on rail. TriMet’s next major capital initiative, which is on a fast track, is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) from Portland to Gresham along the Powell/Division corridor. This new line, which can complement the light rail system, will be a model for how BRT can be built at a fraction of the cost of light rail, but offer many of the same benefits. If BRT is successful on the east side, the concept should spread to other areas, where it can bring rapid transit at an affordable price.

n Long-range planning to improve transit in the suburbs as well as Portland proper. TriMet has developed service-enhancement plans for five sectors — east side, Southeast, Southwest, west side and north central. A small increase in the agency’s payroll tax will help make these improvements possible. The payroll-tax increase would not have been justified without changes in how TriMet operates. The agency’s recent labor agreements and other moves ensure the money will be spent on actual transit upgrades.

n Targeting transportation improvements to land-use and economic development plans. As the region tries to attract and retain good employers who provide quality jobs, it also must be smart about how it deploys limited transportation dollars. Money should be directed where it will have the greatest economic impact.

n Persistence in pursuit of reasonable funding streams for transportation, particularly for roads. No one savors the prospect of increased gas taxes or a local street fee, but it’s also impractical for many workers to use mass transit to get to their places of employment. A recent Portland City Club report outlines a realistic blueprint for Portland to move forward. As for the Legislature, it must act in 2016 and stop delaying a necessity.

With freeways routinely jammed and surface streets too often in disrepair, the region’s transportation problems may appear insolvable.

Yet, the metro area’s challenge — planning for a growing population — is still preferable to the alternative, which would be to deal with the economic decline that accompanies a falling population.

No more MAX lines are on the immediate horizon, but the quest for better ways to move people around must continue.