by: PHOTO COURTESY: TRIMET - Workers are already connecting rails for the 7.4-mile, $1.49 billion transit project that's 35 percent complete.Clackamas County commissioners last week asked TriMet officials to consider stopping the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project at the Clackamas County border.

TriMet officials say that’s not likely to happen.

The 7.4-mile, $1.49 billion project is 35 percent complete, with construction still going on along the entire alignment from downtown Portland to Clackamas County. Any delay to the project south of the city of Milwaukie would cost the project $65,000 per day, TriMet estimates.

But four Clackamas County commissioners, including three elected in November, are concerned that, with funding uncertainty and value engineering, key elements of the $1.49 billion project may be cut back. Since TriMet assured Clackamas County residents that the project would be built with all the amenities described, their letter argues, the county agreed to provide its cooperation and funding with the “full expectation” that TriMet would honor its promises.

“lf funding cuts are necessary, it seems logical to consider shortening the alignment rather than compromising the quality of the project,” Commission Chairman John Ludlow wrote Feb. 5 on behalf of commissioners Paul Savas, Martha Schrader and Tootie Smith, who also voted in favor of sending the letter.

Commissioner Jim Bernard, a longtime light-rail proponent, voted against the proposal.

In his Feb. 8 response, TriMet Board President Bruce Warner expressed disappointment that the county is considering submitting the project to a vote “...that will have no practical effect on the county’s duty to fulfill its contractual obligations for the project.”

Clackamas County has been an active partner from inception to final design, and voted to approve the project alignment in 2009 and funding in 2010, “...and pledged the county’s good faith and best efforts to assure its completion” in an intergovernmental agreement. Warner also reminded Clackamas County commissioners that the project is the result of more than a decade of collaboration with partners from all levels of government, including Metro, Milwaukie, the state and the Federal Transit Administration, which is paying for half the project costs.

“At this point, no modifications as to scope are possible, and there is no ‘funding uncertainty’ that would change the project’s ‘key elements,’ ” Warner wrote.

Clackamas County paid TriMet $19.9 million toward the project and, prior to the November election, agreed to $2.6 million of in-kind contributions for pending road work and engineering fees. Clackamas County commissioners voted 3-1 on Aug. 31 to make the payment to TriMet, and on the Friday before the Measure 3-401 election requiring countywide votes on public-rail funding, county officials funded the $19.9 million through a 20-year Bank of America loan at 2.74 percent interest.

“We believe that the county counsel accurately assessed Measure 3-401 as prospective in its application only and that no aspect of the project requires a vote, nor would a vote relieve the county of its obligations,” Warner wrote. “Those obligations include the duty to fully cooperate with TriMet and other regional partners to ensure that the project proceeds on time, as designed, and in accordance with the agreements of the parties.”

The county’s Feb. 5 letter says that Clackamas County will seek voter authorization in May before deciding whether to proceed with planned land acquisitions TriMet needs to complete the construction.

In November, Clackamas County voters approved a ballot measure seeking a public vote before committing county resources to finance, design or operate light-rail projects within the county.

“Though we are not certain what the outcome of the vote will be, there is a potential that our voters may not support elements of the project necessary to advance the project all the way to Park Avenue,” according to the county’s letter. “Therefore, we ask that you carefully consider any and all alternatives that terminate the project north of Park Avenue, either in Milwaukie or at Tacoma Street.”

Warner suggested a neutral third party weigh in on the county’s obligations to the project.

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