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Citizens' voices needed in Hillsboro street tangle

Thanks to the efforts of one determined citizen, residents of the city of Hillsboro may soon have the chance to register their opinions on a highly controversial decision to reconfigure the orientation of Hillsboro’s downtown streets.

A decision to realign the street grid in the downtown business district from the existing one-way traffic to two-way was made by the Hillsboro City Council and Mayor Jerry Willey in May 2014. The question sharply divided the council, which split 3-3 on the “Two-Way Core Conversion” ordinance. Because there was a tie, Mayor Willey was called upon to be the deciding vote. He voted “Aye” to support the two-way reconfiguration — a proposal projected to cost the city $2.5 million.

But the story did not quietly end there.

Carol Faber, a longtime Hillsboro resident, claimed the mayor was not legally empowered to break a tie on a city ordinance. Faber filed a lawsuit, which a Circuit Court judge subsequently tossed out on procedural grounds. But Faber stood fast, and she and fellow citizen Walt Hellman have now launched an effort to allow the citizens of Hillsboro to make their views known via a local ballot initiative that could repeal the two-way streets ordinance.

Hillsboro’s troubles in pushing this plan through should serve as a lesson to other communities around the area. For example, in Forest Grove, officials have at least informally discussed the possibility of altering the configuration of some of its one-way streets. Although there has been no serious discussion of the idea for some time, if this idea gains steam, Forest Grove’s leaders would be well-advised to make sure the public is fully on board with such a move before going forward.

In Hillsboro’s increasingly tangled case, private citizens are taking it upon themselves to ensure the citizens of the community have a strong voice in this decision. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate that Hillsboro officials — recognizing the divisive nature of this proposal — did not take the proactive step to hear directly from citizens before moving to drastically alter the traffic patterns of the heart of the downtown business district. Yes, having a public vote is above and beyond what cities are required to do, but with a highly charged decision like this one, it might have been the best course.

In our view, the plan to return downtown Hillsboro to two-way traffic was never fully aired with residents. Yes, there was a public comment session a few days before the council’s first vote on the plan, but two subsequent open houses on the project came after the vote to create a two-way grid was finalized. Clearly, they were geared primarily to show how the new street system would work, not to gauge public opinion on the concept.

As Hillsboro’s civic leaders are now finding out, it’s not a wise idea to make such a dramatic shift of the traffic patterns in the center of a community without a groundswell of support from business leaders, city officials and — most important, in our view — from residents of the city.

In 1968, Hillsboro adopted the one-way street system to address concerns about traffic congestion and related troubles. There has never been any compelling evidence that returning to two-way flows will provide any magical boost to the downtown core. Indeed, reconfiguring the street grid — in addition to costing a lot of money — is likely to solve some problems while creating different ones. We believe it’s better to leave well enough alone.

If Faber and her supporters can get the necessary number of signatures — about 6,700 — the voice of the people will finally be fully heard. But in the meantime, any dollars spent on the design, engineering or construction of the new traffic system will be dollars simply wasted.

For that reason, we urge city officials to consider putting the brakes to any further work on this project until either the signature drive falls short or the wishes of those who live here are revealed at the ballot box.

To date, the city has met challenges to the proposed two-way street grid by stating that the project is forging ahead regardless. This might finally be the time for the city to steer a different course — by waiting to find out what Hillsboro residents want.