The Portland area's transit agency is at a crossroads, for both its bus system and light rail lines. At a board meeting this morning, TriMet's board of directors approved asking voters for millions to improve buses.
At the same meeting, directors balked at spending at least a half million dollars to clear a path for the new light rail line.
I'm joined this afternoon by OPB's land-use reporter, Rob Manning, who was at this morning's board meeting.
Beth Hyams: It sounds like TriMet wants approval of a ballot measure to raise money.
Rob Manning: TriMet convinced Portland-area voters to pass a bond in 1990, to pay for the Westside light rail line. That bond is spent and paid for, and so TriMet wants to renew it. But it's not going for more light rail. It would go toward the bus system.
Beth Hyams: New bus routes?
Rob Manning: Probably not new bus routes – it'd go for the buses themselves. TriMet officials say they have a number of buses that lack air conditioning and easy access for disabled people, and need replacing. They say there are also bus stops that aren't accessible and need sidewalks, for instance. TriMet is expecting an aging population that'll need transit – especially buses.
Beth Hyams: Aren't ballot measures usually done for big construction projects?
Rob Manning: Yes. And that disconnect – that the bond the first time around was for light rail, and now it's going toward the more mundane task of updating the bus fleet wasn't lost on Jon Ostar. He's an environmental justice advocate who spoke at this morning's TriMet board meeting.
Jon Ostar: "What we're doing – what you're doing, essentially, is requiring voters to pass bonds for absolutely essentially service, essential infrastructure, basic infrastructure. Things that we have payroll tax revenue to pay for. But instead, we're now using that payroll tax revenue to pay for non-essential service – light rail - and requiring voters to pass bond measures to pay for essential service. I think that we have it backwards."
Beth Hyams: At the same time, TriMet finds itself in a hole for its next light rail project – the Milwaukie extension.
Rob Manning: TriMet officials say they were led to believe the feds would provide 60 percent of the Milwaukie line's cost. Recently, that figure fell to 50 percent, and blew at least a $130 million hole in the project.
Beth Hyams: Does TriMet know where that money is going to come from?
Rob Manning: No. As it stands, they have money from state lottery bonds, Clackamas County, a Metro-controlled transportation fund, and the cities of Portland and Milwaukie – all adding up to $600 million. To pay for the project they need to push that up to $735 million, or more – but each of those contributions involves local decisions.
Beth Hyams: Is the line in trouble?
Rob Manning: TriMet says it could be forced to make cuts to the line – but doing that also means losing federal matching money. Even relatively small cuts would mean the feds' reviewing the project again – and that could mean costly delays, too.
And there was one indication that TriMet board is getting nervous. Board members delayed a vote to approve spending at least half a million dollars to buy out a property on the route. Hakeem Olanrewaju is one of the board members who approved the delay.
Hakeem Olanrewaju: "Essentially, if for whatever reason, we don't secure the federal funding, then TriMet is essentially on the hook, and we have an asset that we can't use. So that does concern me."
Rob Manning: This whole set of problems – need for new or improved infrastructure, difficulty raising local money, and this apparent post-stimulus decline of federal funding isn't unique to TriMet. It was part of what Metro's chief operating officer addressed in the "community investment strategy" that was launched yesterday.
Beth Hyams: Speaking of Metro – their outgoing president, David Bragdon is leaving a little early. Headed to New York.
Rob Manning: Yes. Bragdon spent 12 years on the Metro Council – the last eight years as the regional government's first elected president. He helped spearhead a huge bond measure to acquire natural areas. He says his getting the top sustainability job in the enormous metropolis of New York is a credit to Portland.
David Bragdon: "You know, every city is different, and New York is a very large and complex place, but I think that my appointment here means that Portland is recognized as a leader on these issues, and that some of the things that we're doing in Portland do have broad applicability to other places."
Rob Manning: This fall's election when Portland area voters will see that TriMet bond measure, will also be the contest for Bragdon's replacement as Metro Council president.