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Voters want mix of road, transit, bike, pedestrian projects in possible regional funding measure

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - Tigard Mayor John Cook explained the proposed alignment of the Southwest Corridor MAX line during a town hall on the project.  Guided by a poll taken last summer, TriMet is soliciting traffic safety and congestion relief projects from local governments to be included in a $1.7 billion regional transportation funding measure on the November 2018 ballot.

TriMet public affairs director Bernie Bottomly says the poll indicates that a mix of road, transit, bike and pedestrian projects are necessary for the measure to have any chance of passing.

Bottomly says TriMet has determined that $750 million must be raised regionwide to help fund the new MAX line proposed in the Southwest Corridor between Portland, Tigard and Bridgeport Village. The remaining $950 million would be distributed to the local governments for their projects. Those will be a yet-to-be-determined mix of congestion relief and safety improvement projects.

According to the poll, 57 percent of TriMet voters are willing to consider spending $180 a year for a combination of light rail, highway, arterial, bike and pedestrian projects.

Although some alternative transportation activists have criticized TriMet for considering road projects in the measure, the poll found that only 18 percent of voters in the TriMet service district would support a measure that funds just a light rail project and bike and pedestrian improvements. That compares to 65 percent who would support a measure that targets traffic bottlenecks on major highways and major city and county streets.

How to pay for the projects is trickier, however. The most popular option, at 49 percent, is a large portion from property taxes and a small portion from motor vehicle registration fees. That drops to 46 percent if a property tax is combined with tolling. A property tax alone is supported by only 39 percent of voters.

Still, Bottomly says the overall results of the poll are encouraging.

"That's enough support to start a conversation with voters," Bottomly says.

The proposed Southwest Corridor MAX line is currently estimated at $2.4 billion. The federal government is expected to fund half the project, leaving $1.2 billion to be contributed by state, regional, county and local governments. Bottomly says $750 million needs to be raised regionwide because of the unique character of the project. Unlike recent MAX projects, none of the property is within an urban renewal area or potentially valuable enough to justify forming a local improvement district to help raise the local match.

"There are not as many local funding tools in the toolbox," Bottomly says.

To help craft the measure, TriMet has asked elected and transportation officials within its jurisdiction to submit lists of additional local projects that already have documented cost estimates and can be completed within seven years. The lists are being submitted to Metro, the elected regional government charged with transportation planning in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.

TriMet is expected to appoint a stakeholder committee to review and recommend projects to be included in the measure in the near future. The agency will also discuss its evolving proposal with the finance subcommittee of Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation.

The TriMet board of directors would need to approve the measure at its July 2018 meeting to qualify for the November ballot. Bottomly says all decisions about the measure — including the projects to be funded — would need to be approved a few months earlier.

Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dylan Rivera says his agency is in the early stages of preparing its list, calling the effort in the "conceptual stage."

According to Bottomly, discussions about such a regional bond measure began during the 2017 Oregon Legislature when lawmakers began considering the $5.3 billion transportation funding they eventually approved. Potential regional and local projects changed as the funding package evolved. Early on, the Legislature considered having the Oregon Department of Transportation create a special regional funding district to match state funds to help pay for three major freeway projects — reconfiguring the I-5/I-84 interchanges in the Rose Quarter and widening sections of Highway 217 in Washington County and Interstate-205 in Clackamas County. That was eventually rejected, although some regional funds might still be necessary to complete the projects included in the final package.

TriMet provided the Portland Tribune with a copy of the poll. It was conducted by Portland-based Patinkin Research Strategies between July 27 and Aug. 5, 2017. The firm surveyed 1,350 likely TriMet voters by telephone using professional interviewers.

The poll found 82 percent of likely TriMet voters consider traffic congestion to be an urgent problem. That's a 10-point increase since the same question was asked on a previous poll conducted in December 2016.

The poll found a large block of TriMet voters — 41 percent — say congestion is so bad, they are willing to spend local tax dollars to fix state freeway traffic bottlenecks. Just 20 percent say only state dollars should be spent on such projects. Sixteen percent do not support spending any money on freeway bottlenecks, and the rest are undecided or have no opinion.

The poll also found that most voters either agree or don't care if funds raised in one county are spent on congestion relief projects in other counties.

In addition, the poll found slight variations within TriMet's service district, which includes most of the urbanized areas in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. For example, more Multnomah County voters consider traffic congestion an urgent problem than those in Clackamas and Washington counties — 84 percent compared to 78 and 79 percent.

And the poll found more voters in Multnomah and Washington counties than in Clackamas County who would support a measure that funds only a light rail project and bike and pedestrian improvements. All figures are either at or below 22 percent, however.

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