TriMet's general manager says four big projects — only one of them a light-rail line — must be built if the Portland region is to avert traffic gridlock in the next two decades.
Neil McFarlane said it might be considered unusual for the regional transit agency to promote highway projects in addition to the Southwest Corridor line proposed from downtown Portland to Bridgeport Village in Tualatin.
But he told an audience Monday, Feb. 20, at the Washington County Public Affairs Forum that many of the region's leaders agree.
"There are three big bottlenecks in this region it would be nice to make some progress on," McFarlane said. "These are projects we've known we need to do for some time. They are necessary to keep our region moving and our arterials flowing. But they are very big and expensive projects."
• Rose Quarter in Portland, where Interstates 5 and 84 converge, and I-5 narrows from three to two lanes in each direction.
• Highway 217 from Tigard to Cedar Hills, connecting I-5 with U.S. 26 in Washington County.
• I-205, which narrows from three to two lanes in each direction between Stafford Road in West Linn and the George Abernethy Bridge, which spans the Willamette River between West Linn and Oregon City. North of the bridge, I-205 widens back to three lanes.
McFarlane said the Oregon Department of Transportation has begun project development to estimate costs. All are state highways.
He said regional officials await state legislative action this session on a funding package for roads and bridges, transit, bicycle and pedestrian paths — and a share of lottery-backed bonds for the proposed light-rail line. Such state support dates back 25 years, when lottery-backed bonds helped pay for the light-rail line between Portland and Hillsboro.
A joint legislative committee has begun discussions on a framework for aid.
"The state will provide a great foundation for whatever the region would do after that," McFarlane said.
He also said no single level of government can pay for all of those projects.
Although the state isn't expected to shoulder the bulk of the costs for such projects, a blue-ribbon panel originally appointed by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015 released a report last year urging specific relief for metro-area congestion, which affects movement of goods as well as people.
At a meeting with the Portland Tribune/Pamplin Media Group editorial board in January, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he heard a clear message from a number of groups about traffic congestion: "Fix Portland."
The Portland region is projected to add 400,000 more people by 2040, the equivalent of four cities the size of present-day Hillsboro.
McFarlane said that equally as important are demographic shifts that have resulted in minorities and low-income people — highly dependent on public transit — moving away from central Portland into more affordable housing in the suburbs.
"It means we have to retool the transit system to serve those people well," he said.
A two-year-old report by the Portland Business Alliance and partners forecasts that motorists will experience 69 hours of traffic congestion by then — almost two full work weeks — but that much can be done to reduce it with spending on key projects.
"I am optimistic we can get this done because we have done it before," McFarlane said, referring to past efforts to extend light rail elsewhere in the region in conjunction with highway improvements.
"And frankly, I doubt we have much of an alternative."
Key points in the Southwest Corridor include Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Portland Community College Sylvania campus, and Tigard. The corridor is the only one of five regional sectors not served by light rail. An environmental review is proceeding.
Its current population is about 240,000, and McFarlane said it is projected to grow by 75,000 — the size of Bend — by 2040.
Only a fraction of them (about 15,000) stay in the corridor for work. According to projections, almost 85,000 come into the area for work daily, and 50,000 leave it daily.
A bus rapid transit system had been proposed for the corridor, but light rail emerged as the preferred alternative because it could accommodate 35,000 riders daily by 2040.
"There's not a lot of capacity to build new roads — I would say it's zero capacity," McFarlane said.
More sidewalks also are envisioned.
The current price tag is $2.4 billion.
McFarlane has worked for the agency for 26 years, and has been its general manager since 2010.
McFarlane said TriMet is not neglecting bus service, and plans upgrades in Washington County, including two new lines. One connects Tualatin Valley Highway with businesses in Sherwood, and the second — to start service within the next year — will connect Southwest Allen Boulevard and Denney Road in Beaverton with points south in Metzger and Tigard.
TriMet official: WES is in holding pattern
While TriMet plans to build a new light-rail line and expand bus service, its immediate goal for the Westside Express Service (WES) is simply to maintain weekday rush-hour service on the commuter rail linking Wilsonville, Tualatin, Tigard and Beaverton.
Neil McFarlane, TriMet general manager, responded to a question Monday about its prospects during the Washington County Public Affairs Forum.
The line averaged 1,368 originating trips on a typical weekday — and a total of 351,520 originating trips in the budget year ending in mid-2016, down from a peak of 393,880 two years earlier — according to a TriMet audit. Originating trips are those in which riders start on a station on the line, as opposed to trips that riders board elsewhere first.
"While they are dedicated, I will tell you there are not enough of them right now," McFarlane said.
The 15-mile line, which has just five stops, began service in February 2009. It operates on a limited morning and evening weekdays; there is no weekend service.
It is TriMet's only commuter rail, similar to services operated on the East Coast such as Metro-North, Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit in the New York area.
The 2015-16 subsidy for a boarding ride on WES is $14.22, compared with $1.96 for a single bus ride and $1.12 for a light-rail (MAX) ride, according to the TriMet audit. These subsidies are after passenger fares are accounted for.
Unlike other service, TriMet uses the right of way of the Portland & Western Railroad for the commuter rail. McFarlane said any expansion is subject to negotiation with the railroad.
"Long term, I think we would like to look at more of the day and extended service," he said. "But I doubt it would ever become the frequency of light rail."
Changes made to adds quote from Neil McFarlane about implications of demographic shifts for regional transit system; adds sidebar attached to main story online about prospects for commuter rail (WES) linking Wilsonville with Beaverton.