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Rail fight hits the gas

Plans to reduce the region's greenhouse emissions stumble as opposition builds
by: Christopher Onstott Punky Scott, left, owner of The Bomber Restuarant talks with Steven Bebb about signing a petition that will give Clackamas County residents an opportunity to vote on TriMet's light-rail expansion into Milwaukie at a booth along McLoughlin Boulevard.

Community activists from across the political spectrum are waging war on major transit projects planned for the region. Their complaints include the costs, possible social ramifications and potential environmental impacts of the projects.

One project - the proposed Portland-to-Lake Oswego streetcar extension - already has been taken off the table after years of planning.

Still in the crosshairs are the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line and the Columbia River Crossing, which is scheduled to include a new light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver.

The opposition, which has been building for years in some cases, runs counter to the growing image of the Portland region as a national leader in the fight against climate change. Local political leaders repeatedly praise the region's land-use planning policies that encourage density, the growing transit system and the increasing network of regional pedestrian and bike trails called the Intertwine.

For example, when Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff visited in January, he said city and TriMet rail lines were driving growth in the high-density South Waterfront neighborhood.

'The city of Portland and TriMet have hit a home run with this project and demonstrate the enormous economic benefits transit can deliver to a community,' Rogoff said.

But a recent report by Metro says the region must do much more to meet the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals. Metro is the region's elected government. Among other things, the report says the region must invest even more money in green infrastructure programs to persuade a larger percentage of residents to reduce their automobile use in favor of transit, walking and biking.

'Current local and regional plans and policies are ambitious and provide a strong foundation for meeting the region's greenhouse gas target,' says a staff report accepted by the Metro Council in January. 'However, a continued shift in consumer preferences and significant investment, commitment and leadership are needed to realize these aspirations.'

Opposition to the transit projects is undermining that ambitious agenda. For example, a Metro planning document counts the projects as among the steps the region is taking to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. But it seems unlikely the Portland-to-Lake Oswego streetcar extension will be built, and questions continue to swirl around some of the others.

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett is not upset that the region may have trouble meeting the goals if the projects are not completed. In fact, Spinnett is a cosponsor of the petition to require a Clackamas County vote on possible funding for the 7.3-mile, $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

'Fighting climate change is used to justify projects people out here don't want and can't afford,' Spinnett says. 'It's used to justify what I called social engineering.'

Some of the activists offer alternatives to the projects they oppose, such as dedicated bus lanes and a separate light-rail bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash.

But growing federal, state and local budget problems threaten projects that are not at least in the planning stage already. Republicans in the U.S. House recently proposed breaking the guarantee that 20 percent of the federal gas tax be spent on transit projects. TriMet is considering cutting bus and rail service to close a $12 million to $17 million budget gap. And the Portland Bureau of Transportation is facing a similar shortfall next year, in part because state gas tax revenues are not increasing as fast as expected.

Except for Spinnett, few other elected officials in the region are questioning the greenhouse gas reduction goals. Washington County mayors did not endorse the Metro report, however, because they did not have enough time to study it before the council vote.

Projects in danger

In the belief that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to climate change, the 2007 Oregon Legislature adopted statewide reduction goals. Lawmakers called for emissions to stabilize by 2010 - a goal state officials say was largely achieved, in part because the recession slowed economic activity. After that, greenhouse gas emissions are supposed to drop 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to drop at least 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The 2009 Legislature directed the Land Conservation and Development Commission to set reduction goals for all metropolitan regions to achieve by 2035. The goal for the Portland region is 20 percent more than those expected to be achieved by projected increases in motor vehicle mileage.

That same year, the Legislature also directed Metro to develop by Jan. 1, 2012, two or more alternative land-use and transportation scenarios to meet the 2035 goal. Metro is in charge of land-use and transportation planning in the Portland area.

In December, the Metro Council approved a planning document outlining 93 strategies to achieve the goal. The strategies include combinations of more high-density development, new transit lines, road improvements, increased transportation costs, technological improvements and public education campaigns.

By 2014, Metro is supposed to adopt a single combination as the 'preferred strategy' for meeting the 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goal. But that also assumes completion of all of the major transit projects in the Regional Transportation Plan approved by Metro in 2010.

At this time, some if not all of them are in danger.

The major transit projects were identified in a December 2011 Metro planning document, 'Understanding our land use and transportation choices.' They include the controversial Portland-to-Lake Oswego streetcar line, the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line and the Columbia River Crossing's light-rail line.

They also include a Portland Streetcar extension to the Hollywood Transit Center that has not yet been approved or funded by the City Council. In fact, Portland is still looking for around $10 million to connect the eastside streetcar extension to the west side of town, completing the streetcar loop.

Unstable funding

Opposition to future transit projects is especially strong in Clackamas County. Public opinion played a big role in the Lake Oswego City Council's recent decision to stop work on the streetcar line that would have stopped in the Foothills area.

A survey late last year found that 52 percent of Lake Oswego residents opposed the new line. That helped convince Lake Oswego City Councilor Bill Tierney - the swing vote on the project - to come out against it on Jan. 11, effectively suspending, if not killing, the project.

Such opposition to expensive regional transportation projects is shared by other Clackamas County residents. In May 2011, 63 percent of Clackamas County voters rejected a $5 motor vehicle registration fee to help pay for the $269 million replacement Sellwood Bridge project.

In November, a slim majority of county voters approved a ballot measure requiring a public vote on future urban renewal projects - a measure partly intended to prevent the Clackamas County Commission from using urban renewal funds to pay the county's $25 million share of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line.

Project opponents are circulating a petition to require voter approval of any county money spent on public rail systems. They need to collect 9,378 signatures to qualify it for the ballot. Petitioners had six days to collect signatures and don't expect to gather enough to put the issue to a vote in May.

Spokesman Eric Winters says the goal is to prevent TriMet from building the Portland-to-Milwaukie project by upending the funding agreement that was used to secure 50 percent federal funding for the project.

'If the local match is not stable, the federal government cannot go ahead with the funding,' says Winters.

Although opponents initially hoped to qualify the measure for the May primary election ballot, they have about two years to collect the required signatures, meaning it could appear on this year's special election ballot in September or the November 2012 general election ballot.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane says the county is legally committed to provide the money for the project. In a Jan. 9, 2012, letter to Clackamas County Chairwoman Charlotte Lehan, McFarlane wrote, 'I want to emphasize that the county's contractual promise is a legally binding commitment to fund the project upon which TriMet and the region is relying.'

President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the Portland-to-Milwaukie line by including $100 million for it in his proposed budget released Monday. TriMet expects to sign a full funding agreement with the Federal Transit Administration in May that will guarantee the rest of the money will be paid in annual appropriations.

But the federal government's commitment to other future transit projects is unclear. In a party-line vote in early February, Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee voted to stop dedicating 20 percent of the federal gas tax to transit projects. If the change is approved by Congress, it would require all such projects to compete with other federal programs for general fund support.

Transit activists have responded by launching a national drive to maintain federal gas tax support for transit projects. Local supporters include Metro President Tom Hughes.

'I am deeply concerned that federal policies like this could undermine our ability to use public transit to reduce congestion and also hamper our efforts to create livable, well-connected communities,' Hughes says.

Despite the obstacles, some parts of the region already are committed to meeting the state-mandated greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. For example, the Portland Plan headed to the City Council for approval this summer embraces the concept of high-density neighborhoods connected by pedestrian and bike paths.

Other areas are not so sure.

'That kind of stuff might be popular in downtown Portland,' says Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett, 'but it won't necessarily work everywhere.'