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Time for an "adult conversation" about regional traffic

Those who attended the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce’s Business Forum on Tuesday were treated to something that is unfortunately all too rare: a group of elected officials pledging to talk about some controversial issues where consensus is unlikely and political damage almost certain.

The two featured speakers at the forum were Tom Hughes and Bob Stacey. Two years ago, both men were vying to become president of the Metro Council.

It was a bruising political battle. As in most such contests, both candidates were pushed into roles that both clarified and oversimplified their positions. Hughes, the former mayor of Hillsboro, became the proponent of economic development who would champion the suburbs. Stacey, the former director of the state’s top land-use watchdog, became the sprawl-hating urbanite who would focus development inside Portland’s city limits.

Hughes won the 2010 contest and has spent the past two years presiding over the regional government. But last week, Stacey won a Portland seat on the Metro council, meaning he and his former political foe will be soon spending a lot of time together.

Based on their interaction at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, they’ll do just fine.

Stacey, in particular, turned in an impressive performance.

Hughes was on his home turf at an event sponsored by an organization that urged him to run for Metro and backed him in that race.

Stacey, by contrast, is still a proud dues-paying member of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use group that has plenty of critics on this end of Washington County.

But Stacey quickly won over the crowd with his praise of Hughes and some self-deprecating jabs at himself. And Hughes, in turn, predicted that Stacey would be a great addition to the council.

The two men, however, also brought up some big challenges facing the region. Hughes noted that Metro is dependent on fees pegged to the amount of garbage collected inside its boundaries. And, with its push to “reduce, re-use and recycle,” it could become a victim of its own success and face some tight budgets in years to come.

Stacey spoke of a similar dynamic. State and local governments, he noted, build a lot of roads with the taxes imposed on every gallon of gas purchased in Oregon. With the federal government and the auto industry pledging to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks over the next two decades, those tax revenues are expected to drop at a time when growth in the region will put pressure on existing roads.

Stacey said he hoped the region could have an “adult conversation” about how to deal with those competing forces. Such a discussion would include mass transit, of course, but also politically unpopular tolls.

That line of conversation was picked up by Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey who, with Chamber President Deanna Palm, was posing questions to Hughes and Stacey.

Willey wanted to know how the two men felt about the idea of a “beltway” around the west side of Portland to mirror I-205 on the east side.

The mayor was careful not to use the word “bypass,” which in Washington County will forever be linked with the divisive debate over a “West Side Bypass” which was proposed in the mid-1980s.

Several configurations were considered, some simply linking Hillsboro to Tualatin while others envisioned a connection all the way to Vancouver. But every route would have cut a path through residential neighborhoods, farmland or wetlands — and after a decade of fits and starts, momentum for the initiative died.

Now, Mayor Willey is leading an effort to free up some state funds to take another look. As he noted Tuesday, the west side looks a lot different today than it did 20 years ago. Could it be that a by-pass should be routed west of Hillsboro? Is it possible that existing roads, with improvements, could offer a network of paths that would allow both freight and families to move more freely around Portland? Would residents and businesses support tolls to pay for such improvements?

We don’t know, because for the past 10 years no one has seriously asked the question. So, we’re glad that Mayor Willey has begun doing so and heartened that folks like Hughes and Stacey have vowed to support an “adult conversation” on that and other contentious topics.



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