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Region must explore options for mass transit

A rebellion percolating in Portland's suburbs has made light rail its primary target. But despite the anti-rail rhetoric that's being employed by opponents of new transit lines, this particular uprising isn't just about a transportation mode. Rather, it's about larger community values concerning topics such as density, crime and regional planning.

In the past few months, activists in Clackamas and Washington counties have waged very public campaigns to try to block rail projects.

The most aggressive efforts are in Clackamas County, where opponents of the Portland-to-Milwaukie MAX line have collected enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot that threatens the county's $25 million contribution to that line and requires a public vote over future projects.

In a parallel effort, opponents also are circulating petitions to require a similar vote over the city of Milwaukie's $5 million contribution to the light-rail line.

In neighboring Washington County, initiative petitions have been filed in Tigard, Tualatin, King City and Sherwood that could, if approved, force a public vote on financing for any new rail systems in those cities.

In all these communities, the rallying cry has been 'no rail without a vote.' But rail is really just a symbol for what's bothering many suburban residents. Their larger fear is that rail will transform their communities into mini-Portlands, with high-density development and increased crime.

In many ways, this is an old battle between those who believe in the value of regional planning and mass transit and those who don't. However, the fight has grown more intense as the Metro regional government has taken over the task of long-range transit planning while also pursuing the goals of reducing greenhouse gases and encouraging what it views as livable communities.

Although Metro is led by an elected council, the agency's values don't always align with those of individual communities. Suburban residents don't uniformly endorse the idea of urban-style development and transit corridors.

The trick has always been to forge consensus within the metro area while also respecting the aspirations of each city and county.

Those local desires are now fully exposed in the form of citizen rebellions against rail. First, what truly is the future of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line if Clackamas County or Milwaukie voters reject their small contribution to the $1.49 billion project?

TriMet officials say the line is a done deal - that local jurisdictions have made a legal commitment to support it. But if the voters disagree, can that argument win in court, if necessary?

And more broadly, what's the future of mass transit in Portland? Are the days of expensive rail projects coming to an end?

In the past, funding for rail has been cobbled together from local, state and, most significantly, federal sources. That money is drying up, which should lead the region to consider more affordable solutions.

In particular, the proposed transit corridor to Tigard and Sherwood - as well as a future corridor along Powell and Division to Gresham - might be better served by bus rapid transit, which provides rail-like efficiency for a fraction of the cost.

Bus rapid transit, which has been successful in Eugene-Springfield, also could have the secondary benefit of satisfying those who cite the cost of rail projects as their primary reason for opposing new lines.

Whether these dedicated bus lanes would attract the same density of development - a density that some desire and some abhor - is a question to be explored.

But whether it's trains, buses or freeways, the region needs new ideas and solutions - and new ways to discuss them - if it wants to avoid the same old arguments about rail.