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Milwaukie, county search for light rail bucks

Funding issues could fuel opposition as TriMet begins work

Both Clackamas County and the city of Milwaukie are having trouble figuring out how they are going to pay their share of the 7.4-mile, $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.

The problems are giving opponents grounds to argue the county and city cannot afford it.

The county has agreed to pay $25 million toward the work that will extend the light-rail line to downtown Milwaukie from Portland State University. Taking out bonds would require payments of between $1.46 million and $1.84 million a year. But the proposed budget for the next fiscal year only includes a $250,000 "placeholder" for the county's first payment.

And Sheriff Craig Roberts has written the commission to say he has already been forced to propose unreasonable cuts in his budget, including the elimination of 19 positions last year.

"Construction of the Orange Line may well be a worthwhile public project," Roberts wrote the commission on May 10, referring to the proposed line by its designated color. "However, it does not exist in a vacuum -- moving ahead will mean moving backwards on public safety, and likely other basic services to county residents."

On Tuesday, Milwaukie's City Council struggled to figure out how to raise its $5 million for the project. Ideas included asking voters to approve a bond measure or striking a deal with TriMet to spread payments across 19 years.

Although TriMet has agreed to the payments, the council is not expected to make a decision until June 5.

A measure to require a county vote on all public rail projects will appear on the Sept. 18 special election ballot. The chief petitioners released a statement on May 28 saying they believe the line from downtown Portland should end at the Tacoma Street Bridge over McLoughlin Boulevard, which is near the border between Multnomah and Clackamas counties. A park-and-ride station is planned for that location.

Light-rail opponents are also circulating petitions to place a similar measure on a Milwaukie ballot. If enough signatures are submitted in June, it could also appear on the September ballot.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff visited Portland on May 22 and signed the full funding grant agreement that commits the federal government to pay half the project cost.

Both he and TriMet officials say Clackamas County and Milwaukie are legally obligated to pay their shares. Other funding partners include the state, Metro, Multnomah County and the city of Portland.

Work on the project is already well under way in Portland.

Reporter Alex Blum contributed to this story.