Topic of high-capacity transit draws big crowd and some heated debate

More than 100 people packed the King City Clubhouse on Jan. 8 for a public forum about the fate of high-capacity transit in the city of Tigard.

Some people came to discuss Ballot Measure 34-210 on the March ballot, which would force Tigard to hold a public vote before it allows a MAX light rail or other form of high-capacity transit through the city limits, but the forum also provided an opportunity for people for and against rapid transit to express their views.

"This is your opportunity to intervene and decide your own destiny," said Steve Schopp, a Tualatin resident who helped put the measure on the ballot. "A public vote is the only way you are going to have that."

Tigard City Councilor Jason Snider opposes the measure, saying it unnecessarily restricts the city from working on the one issue residents say is most important to them: congestion.

"Traffic congestion has been the No. 1 issue raised by our citizens in all our evaluations for many, many years," Snider said.

If passed, the city would officially oppose high-capacity transit and be required to send annual letters to the governor, metro and other cities laying out that position.

The city would not be able to approve any plans for high-capacity transit without a vote of the people and would have to say how much the project would cost and outline how much existing or future road capacity would be taken up by the line.

Hosted by the East Washington County Democrats, the at-times heated debate included questions from the audience as well as time for residents to speak their minds about rapid transit.

Members of Tigard First, a group of activists that formed in protest against a WalMart currently under construction on Dartmouth Street, also were present at the meeting, handing out fliers and information about the measure, which they described as a part of "a larger neo-Conservative movement to reduce funding" for public transportation.

Tigard Mayor John L. Cook said that the measure would tie the hands of the city. While the city would technically still be able to study the measure, it could impact the city's chances of getting funding for other projects.

"If you don't play nice around the table, you don't get anything else," Cook said. "That's just plain politics. Whether it's right or wrong, that's how it works."

The measure's proponents disagreed, saying that the measure would instead force the city to work harder.

"No, what you are doing is negotiating with a very, very firm hand," said Eric Meyers, a Wilsonville lawyer who wrote the measure. "You have to be able to tell the people across the table, 'I need to get the voters' support, so whatever we're going to work out, know that I have to be able to sell it back home.' It's a much stronger hand when you are coming to negotiate."

Former Tigard Mayor and current Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen said that while many people have suggested widening Pacific Highway to accommodate more traffic, that doesn't go far enough to alleviate the backlog of cars.

Cook added, "In the future, as Sherwood grows, as Newberg grows, as Yamhill County grows, (those people have) still got to drive up and down that road. (Light rail or bus rapid transit) will reduce the increased congestion. It won't solve the congestion, but you have to look to the future."

And the measure would also impact Tualatin, where the proposed transit line is expected to end.

"We have horrible bus service in Tualatin," said Tualatin City Councilor Joelle Davis. "It's very challenging for people who live in Tualatin to get pretty much any place in the metro area using public transit. As our communities grow, we will continue to have populations that will continue to rely on this type of transit."

In the end, said John Charles, chairman of the Cascade Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank, it's about having a say.

"I see this as voting before people take action," Charles added. "You could say that's too much democracy, but I don't think it's much different than a school board requiring a vote to approve bond measures. Is that too much democracy?

"You can be pro high-capacity transit and still be in favor of this ballot measure."

But Dirksen disagreed, saying that a charter amendment voters passed in 2012 gave voters exactly what they asked for.

"We live in a representative democracy," Dirksen said. "Don't tie hands of your elected officials. These are your friends and your neighbors that you elected to do this job. Don't add red tape and bureaucracy for them to wade through to get things done. This is already a hard-enough job, don't make it any harder."

Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden added, "We are a region, so transit, transportation and roads impact all of us. To have broken piece of the link is problematic for everybody's vitality."

In King City, voters in the September 2012 election approved a ballot measure requiring a vote by the people before the city spends money on public-rail transportation.

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