County rail fight challenges funding
Activists hope to give Clackamas County projects a rough ride
Cars streamed into the parking lot at the Bomber Restaurant in Milwaukie all last Wednesday, carrying people ready to sign petitions requiring a vote on Clackamas County's $25 million contribution to the 7.3-mile, $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project.
A campaign volunteer dressed as Elvis prowled the Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard sidewalk waving people toward a wooden booth where petitions were being collected beneath the trademark WWII-era B-17G bomber.
'You can feel the energy in the air,' petition co-sponsor Jim Knapp said as he was handed a stack of 240 voter signatures.
Knapp and the other opponents had hoped to collect about 12,000 signatures by the 5 p.m. deadline last week, enough to likely guarantee the measure a spot on the May 15 primary election ballot. Instead, they had received only about 8,000 signatures by late in the afternoon.
Knapp was not disappointed. Petitions had been circulating for just five days. A ballot title challenge delayed the start of signature gathering by nearly three weeks. Knapp is convinced the measure would have qualified for the May ballot without the delay. He is confident of collecting more than enough signatures to place it on the Sept. 18 special election ballot.
'We will make it on the ballot and it will pass,' said Knapp, owner of Knapp Construction Co.
Knapp is also confident that county voters will ultimately reject the county's plan to pay a share of the massive TriMet project. If that happens, the vote will set up a showdown between TriMet and the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners. TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane already has said the commission is legally obligated to provide the $25 million, meaning TriMet could sue for the money if the county withholds it.
But Knapp says opponents are prepared to sue the commission if it provides the money after voters say otherwise.
Key to revitalization
This fight isn't just about the new light-rail line into Clackamas County. The petition drive is one of several high-profile clashes between a significant number of county voters and elected officials in the region.
Although the disputes look local, those behind them say they are actually fighting something much bigger - a vision for their future promoted by Metro, the elected regional government, that looks a lot more like the densest Portland neighborhoods than their much smaller communities.
'Metro thinks we all want to live like people in Portland, with high-rise apartments and streetcars and all that, and we don't,' says Ed Zumwalt, a Milwaukie resident circulating a petition to require a vote on the $5 million the city has pledged to the project.
Metro officials argue that the regional government is not trying to turn Milwaukie or any other city outside of Portland into another Pearl District. They say transit projects are intended to improve livability by reducing road congestion and providing transportation options to people living throughout Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.
'We work hard to find out what communities want to be, and then help them become that,' says Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette, who represents much of Clackamas County.
Eleanore Hunter, chairwoman of the Oak Grove Community Council, says the project has a lot of support in the area.
'Hundreds of people see light rail as the key to revitalizing an area that has been blighted for decades. The project will link us to the rest of the region and end the isolation that has existed for so long,' says Hunter, whose organization encompasses the area south of Milwaukie in unincorporated Clackamas County, where the line is planned to end.
Fred Nelligan, the council's representative on the project's Citizen's Advisory Committee, says the opponents' fears are unfounded.
'Metro is not forcing a vision on us,' Nelligan says. 'The local community will determine how this project turns out in the end.'
The current fight actually started in Damascus, Oregon's newest city in east Clackamas County. The Metro Council voted to expand the urban growth boundary that determines where new development can occur to include that rural area in 2000. Four year later, voters in the unincorporated communities of Damascus and Carver voted to create the city of Damascus.
But many residents rebelled against the idea of an urbanized Damascus. They approved a series of initiatives limiting the new city's tax-raising abilities. Then, in May 2011, they rejected the comprehensive land-use plan for future development by a 2-to-1 margin. An initiative measure requiring a public vote on all comprehensive plans will appear on the May ballot.
The confrontations have spread during the past nine months. Last May, Clackamas County voters rejected a $5-per-year motor vehicle fee to help replace the Sellwood Bridge. In November, voters approved a measure requiring a vote on new or expanded urban renewal areas. A similar measure is on the May ballot in Estacada.
Other battles have centered on rail systems. Although largely embraced in Portland, Clackamas County opponents view them with scorn. Knapp and the others say Metro uses them as a redevelopment tool to force oversized housing complexes on modest residential neighborhoods. They also point to news reports about crime on regional MAX lines as proof they undermine livability.
Such concerns contributed to the demise of the Portland-to-Lake Oswego streetcar extension. A January poll showed a majority of Lake Oswego voters opposed the project, leading the City Council to back away from it. Two separate petitions are being circulated in the county and Milwaukie to require a vote on funding for all rail projects.
Petition drives on the issues have been supported by a mix of political novices, seasoned political activists and current and former elected officials. For example, the Sellwood Bridge initiative was co-sponsored by Thomas Eskridge, a Molalla retiree who was not politically active until recently. Eskridge says he got involved after learning the Clackamas County commission had passed environmental policies that restricted his ability to cut down trees on his properties.
'I used to think government always knew what it was doing,' Eskridge says. 'But after attending a few commission hearings, I realized they were not listening to what the people were saying.'
The other cosponsor, Dan Holladay, is a former Oregon City councilor who is running for a seat on the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners.
Experienced politicians also worked on the urban renewal measure. It was co-sponsored by former Oregon City Mayor John Williams. Contributors included a number of established conservative activists, including Nevada millionaire Loren Parks and Americans for Prosperity, a political action committee with a chapter in Clackamas County.
Several current and former elected officials also support the countywide transit funding petition. Knapp is on the Oak Grove Water Board. The two other co-sponsors are Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett and Lake Oswego City Councilor Mary Olson. The petition has been endorsed by John Ludlow, a former mayor of Wilsonville who is a candidate for Clackamas County chair. In his campaign material, Ludlow is clear the fight is about more than a single light-rail line.
'I am running for Clackamas County chair because I would be proud to help lead this county away from the Portland/Multnomah County agenda the current commission has pursued for years. You don't want to be like Portland, but your current crop of leaders is not listening,' according to a statement on Ludlow's campaign website.
'We've still won'
Clackamas County activists have already proven they can win tough fights. Those opposed to the Sellwood Bridge replacement motor vehicle fee were heavily outspent by its supporters. The fee's opponents, Clackamas County First, collected only $3,628. The supporters, Clackamas County Citizens for Jobs and Safety, raised $145,691 from labor unions, construction firms and elected officials.
Despite the lopsided spending difference, the fee was rejected by a vote of 54,225 to 31,752.
The same thing happened with the urban renewal measure. Its supporters spent just $16,775 on the campaign. Supporters of the county's alternative measure spent $76,528. Although both passed, the citizen-referred measure received more votes and took precedence over the county's measure.
The results make Knapp confident his side will prevail.
'They've thrown everything they had against us in the past and we've still won,' Knapp says.