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Streetcar hits the skids

Bill Tierney, representing the swing vote on the city council, said, 'we just aren't ready' now in LO for the streetcar
by:  Bill Tierney

Supporters of a proposed Lake Oswego-Portland streetcar line could be stuck at the station for a long time.

Citing financial and political conditions, Lake Oswego City Councilor Bill Tierney withdrew his support of the streetcar Tuesday, likely stalling the project indefinitely.

'Some-day, I can see a streetcar connecting us with the services and jobs in OHSU and downtown Portland,' he said, reading from a prepared statement near the end of the council meeting. 'Right now, we just aren't ready.'

Only a handful of people - mostly city staff - were in council chambers when Tierney made his announcement. He said the slow economic recovery, as well as division in the community and on the city council, factored into his feeling the plan should be put 'on the shelf' for now.

In April 2011, Tierney was the swing vote when the council endorsed an ongoing study of the streetcar line.

The effort, years in the making, depended heavily on financial and political backing from a group of public agencies, including the cities of Lake Oswego and Portland, Clackamas County, Metro, TriMet and the state. Federal funding was also anticipated for the project, initially estimated to cost $347 million in 2010 dollars or $458 million in 2017, when the line was projected to open.

Now, it's unclear whether the Portland-Lake Oswego streetcar line will ever get back on track.

'I don't know how it could go forward,' councilor Donna Jordan said after the meeting. 'The majority has shifted.'

The reversal will have consequences reaching beyond Lake Oswego, she warned fellow councilors.

'It's not just Lake Oswego that's involved in this,' Jordan said. 'It's part of Metro's plan for reducing greenhouse gases. There are a lot of different things that will probably be impacted by this decision. This should be a very interesting next couple of months.'

Tierney said he couldn't ignore the financial state of the city or its partner agencies.

'All financial answers were pointing to 'now is not the time,'' he said, citing news reports about Portland struggling to fund transportation projects and a recent discussion with the general manager of TriMet. TriMet had already determined it couldn't afford to cover the streetcar's operating costs for at least one year.

Councilor Sally Moncrieff ultimately agreed.

'I have been a strong supporter of the streetcar project. … But it's always been contingent upon being financially feasible,' she said. 'It takes all of the partners being ready to go at the same time. I agree with councilor Tierney it doesn't look as though we can proceed.'

Other councilors expressed relief.

Mary Olson, who with Jeff Gudman and Mike Kehoe voted against the streetcar, said Portland could still extend its streetcar line with a 'minimal operating segment' that stops short of Lake Oswego.

After the meeting, Olson said, 'I'm relieved that councilor Tierney has come to the same conclusions some of us came to awhile ago, so we can stop spending money on a project that is going nowhere.'

But Tierney's change of heart raises new questions about the future of the Willamette Shore Line right of way, the former railroad route owned by a consortium of agencies, including Lake Oswego. The right of way might revert to adjacent property owners if not kept in active rail use. While some people have advocated for building a bicycle and pedestrian path there, it remains unclear whether the route could be used solely for that purpose.

Tierney said he wants to ensure the right of way is maintained.

'Willamette Shore Line must remain in public hands,' he said. 'I cannot predict what public uses it may have on it, but I am committed to keep it public.'

Also at issue is another hot-button topic in Lake Oswego: redevelopment of the Foothills district, a 107-acre riverfront area slated to become the city's next residential neighborhood.

Redevelopment plans approved in late 2011 were based on bringing a streetcar line to the Foothills area.

Tierney said he has asked consultants to reevaluate the concept without including a streetcar line.

'I look forward to the results, but I know it will be different than what has been presented to us,' Tierney said. 'We will need to make decisions then.'

Mayor Jack Hoffman, however, said the city should 'keep moving' on the Foothills plan with the streetcar line remaining a key component.

'I think the Foothills plan as a transit-oriented development fits in that area,' Hoffman said. 'The alternative, as explained to us by developers, would not be in the Lake Oswego style or be characteristic of Lake Oswego.'

Councilor Gudman, who commended Tierney and other council members for their 'graciousness' Tuesday, said it's possible the Foothills and streetcar projects could still proceed as planned - so long as a private developer picks up the streetcar's tab.

'If developers propose to proceed with the streetcar and Foothills and will pick up the cost of the streetcar, one of my principal protests to the project disappears,' Gudman said.

The city council will discuss contractual obligations and policy actions necessary to back out of the streetcar project during goal-setting meetings Jan. 19 and 20. That could include a conversation about a citywide vote planned for May; the council was supposed to meet in February to craft language for a ballot measure asking voters to weigh in on streetcar plans.

Carlotta Collette, the Metro councilor who represents the Lake Oswego area, said, 'In this economy, all of us have to make prudent choices. A streetcar that links Lake Oswego to OHSU, Portland State and downtown Portland is a good idea. It's probably the smartest way to lighten future traffic on Highway 43, and enable redevelopment of the foothills area in Lake Oswego, and John's Landing in Portland. The problem really isn't with the project, it's the timing. If Lake Oswego needs time to complete other work before moving forward on the streetcar project, I can support that.'

Here is the statement Tierney read near the end of the Lake Oswego City Council meeting:

I wish to inform my fellow Councilors, partners and interested persons I have concluded that because of the economy, the Portland to Lake Oswego Streetcar project will not move forward in the near future.

I supported resolution 11-19 last spring in order to get answers to certain questions most particularly how to finance the project. The jury was out about streetcar and Foothills.

I now believe that both of these can contribute enormously to a healthy, vital Lake Oswego. Neither of these potential opportunities should be abandoned. Now is just not the time. I kept getting more and more information and I finally came to the tipping point. It is time to move in a different direction.

Here is why:

* The economy is not strong. It is getting better but in the near future not fast enough to continue on a track that warrants significant expenditures on this project. One example as it applies to our partners - slow economy directly affects gasoline tax revenue Portland and we receive and lower regional wages mean lower TriMet revenue.

* As a community we need to be more introspective on the future we want to see. Currently, we are too divided to go forward with bold visions. The vision of Foothills with streetcar needs to be better understood and embraced by the public before we should go farther.

* I believe we need to focus on paying attention to the immediate needs of the community and dealing with the issues that have called into question the credibility of government and public service.

* We need to further refine what our community should be. Right now, this Council is too divided to move ahead with bold plans.

Let me be clear. I am not about making it so future city councils cannot re-look at this issue in the future when the economy or circumstances have changed. I am not against staff and Councilors being part of regional discussions. Quite the contrary. We need to continue to plan for the future. We need to keep all options available in our tool-box. We should never shut doors we can not re-open later.

Someday, I can see a streetcar connecting us with the services and jobs in OHSU and downtown Portland. Right now, we just aren't ready.

Delay comes with opportunity costs. I understand that. But until we are more united as a city, as a region, and as a City Council, I believe we should in the near term, put this project on the shelf. Leave it for a future council to examine if they choose to and cease direct expenditures in the foreseeable future.

My decision, which I suspect now has a majority of council support, leads to additional issues. I am asking staff to determine what policy actions are necessary reflecting my change as it relates to resolution 11-19 and our contractual obligations prior to goal setting next week, how do we continue to preserve public ownership of the Willamette Shore Line and steps relative to moving Foothills development forward without this transit option in the near term.



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