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Blumenauer urges TriMet to put transportation funding measure on November 2016 ballot

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer wants TriMet to play an even bigger role in the region's transportation system.Congressman Earl Blumenauer has challenged TriMet to put a measure on the November 2016 General Election ballot to help fund transportation projects throughout the region, including transit improvements, safety upgrades, bicycle connections, and work to reduce the vehicle bottlenecks on I-5 through Portland in the Rose Quarter area.

Blumenauer, who represents much of the Portland area, made the proposal during a half-day retreat of the regional transit agency's board of directors on Wednesday. Speaking directly to the board at the University of Oregon's White Stag Building in Old Town, Blumenauer said, "TriMet should help spark change. Strike while the iron is hot, continue your string of successes."

The board did not endorse or reject Blumenauer's proposal during their retreat. Instead, board President Bruce Warner asked the agency's staff to research the possibility and report back at a later meeting.

"I don't know if there's enough time to do it, but we will look at it," said Warner.

Interviewed by the Portland Tribune immediately afterward, Blumenauer explained the board could ask voters within TriMet's service district to approve a $250 million property tax measure that could help leverage additional spending by such partner agencies as the Oregon Department of Transportation. Blumenauer noted TriMet voters had passed much larger measures in the past to help pay for the MAX light rail system, and that portions of the Banfield Freeway were rebuilt as part of the agency's first line between Portland to Gresham.

"There are much smaller scale projects that could be funded for less money now and still make a big difference. Such a measure could serve to jumpstart other projects with TriMet's partners," said Blumenauer.

Blumenauer's proposal comes as Congress is struggling to long term funding for the Highway Trust Fund, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has said the State Legislature should not consider a new transportation funding package until 2017, and the Portland City Council is considering whether to put a 10-cent-a-gallon gas tax on the May 2016 Primary Election ballot.

Blumenauer also believes voters would support increased transit spending to help solve transportation problems that are only going to get worse as the region grows by an estimated 400,000 more people over the next 20 years. He said the 2016 November election will generate high voter participation because of the upcoming Presidential election.

"Give people a chance to do something," Blumenauer said.

Board members spent much of the rest of the retreat reviewing recent accomplishments and discussion potential future projects. They praised the opening of the Portland-Milwaukie MAX line and payroll tax increase to fund enhanced service as signs TriMet is better meeting the region's needs.

But they also said a number of questions still need to be answered about the next possible high capacity corridors, Powell-Division, where a Bus Rapid Transit line is being studied, and the Southwest Corridor, where no decision has yet been made on the transit mode.

Agency staff presented the board with data showing traffic congestion will grow over the next 20 years, regardless of how much transit services are increased. According to figures gathered by the Portland Business Alliance, car trips are expected to increase 49 percent and truck trips are expected to increase 76 percent between 2010 and 2040. Increased transit service could help reduce the average time stuck in traffic from 69 to 37 hours a year, however.