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Tigard Council asks 'What were you thinking' when you voted?

City ponders going back to voters in November to clarify transit stance

The people may have spoken, but Tigard city officials are scratching their heads to determine what exactly was said after last week’s special election.

Measure 34-210 — which passed by 51 percent last week — changes the city of Tigard’s charter to formally oppose the construction of any new high-capacity transit line through town, such as MAX light rail, without a public vote and requires the city to send a letter to regional and federal agencies every year stating that opposition.

“It appears that the majority of our voters who normally vote didn’t pay any attention to this,” said City Councilor Gretchen Buehner. “It wasn’t important enough to them to vote, which is disappointing.”

City leaders have said the measure could jeopardize the Southwest Corridor Plan. The years-long project between the city, Metro, TriMet, neighboring cities and other agencies hopes to bring road improvements, new parks and possibly either a MAX light-rail line or rapid bus line to Portland, Tigard and Tualatin sometime in the next several years.

But that plan is now in question, as city leaders decide what role they should play in planning, going forward.

“The question is, ‘Was this measure designed to stop the planning process?’” said Kenny Asher, Tigard’s community development director. “Because that’s all this (Southwest Corridor Plan) is, for now and for many years to come, this is a planning process.”

Corridor planners are expected to divvy up costs for a two-year-long environmental impact study, which will look at where the transit line would go and where station communities might be.

Tigard’s new position against high-capacity transit puts that study in question. How much money will Tigard spend to study a project it officially opposes?

“The time sensitive and critical question is whether the council is OK continuing to plan, even in this new state, unknowing about construction,” Asher said

Legally, the measure does nothing to stop the city from continuing its work, according to City Attorney Tim Ramis, and any vote is still several years away, but Tigard Mayor John L. Cook said it isn’t clear whether voters want the city to continue that work.

“I am still not sure which way they are (leaning),” Cook said. “Did they vote for this because they want a vote in the future, or did they vote for it just because they hoped it would kill the whole project?”

Getting that question answered is important, Cook said, because the measure requires a public vote before the city can start construction on any new transit line.

“Why would we go two or four years down the road and come up with this great plan, and then take it to voters when we could have known a few years before that they didn’t even want to go down the road with the plan,” Cook said.

Another vote in November?

Cook proposed putting an “advisory vote” on the November ballot, which would give city officials a clearer view of where residents stand on the issue of high-capacity transit. Only 220 votes seperated those who supported last week's ballot measure from the opposition.

“It’s asking, ‘How we can make sure they are OK with us still being at the table and being in that plan?’” Cook said.

A November ballot would also draw more voters than last week’s special election. Cook and others have wondered whether the 36 percent voter turnout on March 11 was indicative of the entire community, or just the most passionate.

Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, who voiced opposition to the Tigard measure, said after last week’s vote that he was not sure if the vote truly reflected the will of the voters.

"Given that the electorate in a low-turnout special election is generally more conservative than in a general election, I'm certain that if it were on a November ballot, the 'no' side would have won handily,” he said.

But the idea isn’t to repeal the measure, Tigard councilors agreed, but to clarify how people are feeling.

“I don’t want to turn this (measure) over,” Cook said. “If we do, next March we’ll be back here again.”

Relationships key

If the city is going to refer something to the November ballot, officials need to hurry before regional partners start to get cold feet about Tigard's involvment in regional planning, said City Councilor Gretchen Buehner.

Tigard has spent years carving out a reputation for itself as a regional player, Buehner said. Those relationships have provided funding for construction projects on Pacific Highway at Greenburg Road and the currently under-construction Main Street.

Buehnerhas already heard concerns that Tigard’s new charter amendment will keep the city from fully committing to the project.

“I got a lot of questions from regional partners after the vote,” Buehner said. “They were very upset, and they were asking if Tigard was going to renege and walk away from these relationships.”

Buehner said the measure would start to impact other projects the city is working on, including building trails, sidewalks and smaller road projects.

“Unless we can maintain those relationships, we can kiss getting funding for local projects totally unrelated to rapid transit goodbye,” she said.

Cook said the city has already heard from one regional partner who is reconsidering giving a transportation grant to the city because of questions about whether Tigard is committed to fixing transportation issues.

“I wouldn’t say he threatened (to remove Tigard from consideration), but it is bringing the question up,” Cook said. “Now I have to go back and smooth over the waters.”

The city has until August to place a voter referral on the November ballot.


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