Light-rail line will be region's most costly transit project, TriMet says

A newly released report says the proposed MAX light-rail line between downtown Portland and Milwaukie would be the most expensive transit project in the region - costing nearly twice as much as the current work to add new lines on the transit mall and between Gateway and Clackamas Town Center.

According to a preliminary draft environmental impact study released by TriMet last week, the Portland-to-Milwaukie line could cost up to $1.4 billion, around double the $575 million being spent on the South Corridor Light Rail project, which is scheduled to be completed next year.

'There are many reasons why it is so expensive, including construction-related inflation. All transportation improvements are costing a lot more now,' said Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, the regional government's liaison to the project.

According to both Liberty and TriMet officials, a major factor in the cost is the new bridge across the Willamette River that will connect the South Waterfront urban renewal area to the Central Eastside Industrial District.

The study estimates the cost of the section of the project that includes the bridge at nearly $340 million - almost one-fourth of the entire project.

In addition to connecting Milwaukie and Southeast Portland neighborhoods to downtown, the proposed bridge is considered necessary to move residents and workers in and out of the developments rising along the west bank of the river.

They include residential towers and new facilities for the Oregon Health and Science University.

The bridge - which is not a replacement for the existing Sellwood Bridge - also is expected to provide an east-west connection for the Portland streetcar, and to carry pedestrians and bicyclists across the river.

'It's a small city being built there, really, and people need to be able to get to all the jobs and educational opportunities,' Liberty said.

As Liberty sees it, completing the Portland-to-Milwaukie line will keep the promise of the original system and open up new possibilities, including an extension to Oregon City and east-west connections that do not pass through downtown Portland.

Route to be approved in July

Final construction costs for the Portland-to-Milwaukie line will not be known until the exact route is determined.

Depending on which options are chosen, the report estimates it will cost anywhere from $1.25 billion to $1.42 billion.

Ridership is estimated at anywhere from 22,400 to 25,800 new boardings daily, including 8,000 to 12,100 new passengers who aren't using the TriMet system.

'Everything gets more and more specific as you move on with the options,' TriMet public affairs specialist Karen Winthrow said. 'In this phase the design is really only about 5 percent of what we would need to build it.'

Major decisions include choosing between five options for crossing the Willamette River. When the bridge first was considered several years ago, the route was expected to leave the west bank of the river just south of the Marquam Bridge and touch down near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Since then, the Schnitzer family donated approximately 20 acres of South Waterfront land to OHSU for a satellite campus. Now planners are considering a crossing closer to the Ross Island Bridge.

As a result, four new alignments are under consideration, all running either through or on the southern edge of OHSU property.

According to TriMet project development manager Dave Unsworth, the project will remain in the federally mandated preliminary draft environmental impact study phase until April, when his agency and the Federal Transit Administration will release an updated report for public comment.

Metro, which is charged with planning regional transportation projects, is expected to approve the final route in July.

All but $150 million raised

Before the study was released, the Portland-to-Milwaukie line was estimated to cost around $900 million.

Unsworth said that several factors in addition to construction-related inflation account for the potential $500 million cost increase, including the possibility of extending the line past downtown Milwaukie to a new 1,000-space park-and-ride lot at Southeast Park Avenue.

'A longer line means more money,' he said.

Unsworth also notes that a change in federal accounting requirements has increased estimates.

The federal government now requires certain financing charges to be included in the budgets of such projects, adding hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bottom line that were not previously reported.

Despite the cost increase, Unsworth says the federal government still is expected to pay approximately 60 percent of the project, or roughly $900 million. Of the remaining $600 million or so that must be raised locally, the 2007 Oregon Legislature already agreed to contribute $250 million in lottery-backed bond funds.

According to Liberty, discussions are under way among the governments along the line to raise the remaining money. Although he said it was too soon to reveal details, he believes that sources for only around $150 million remain to be determined for the project.

Anthony Roberts of the Pamplin Media Group contributed to this story.

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