Residents of Lake Oswego, Portland’s wealthiest large suburb, have hired one of the state’s leading (and most liberal) political consultants to oppose a planned streetcar between downtown Portland and their community. Who has the bucks to hire Bergstein? One of the names mentioned is Elaine Franklin, wife of former U.S. Senator Bob Packwood. As Bojack says, “this might be more fun than we first thought.
Why is this even an issue when TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, is nearly broke? The Federal Transit Administration is giving TriMet “only” half the cost of a ridiculous (and ridiculously expensive) light-rail line to Milwaukie, a suburb whose residents soundly trounced funding for light rail the last few times it was on the ballot. As a light-rail pioneer, TriMet is used to getting the feds to pay for 75 percent or more of its light-rail boondoggles.
To make up some of the difference, TriMet is asking voters for permission to sell $125 million worth of bonds (to be repaid by property taxes) to buy new buses. This is really just a ploy to support light rail, as transit agencies almost never borrow money to buy new buses. But the agency lost the last three times light rail was on the ballot, so it hopes voters might think buses are worth funding instead.
TriMet says it also has other “targets” (read: taxpaying victims) that it hopes will help pay for the $1.4 billion rail line, although it won’t say exactly who those victims will be. Update: TriMet now says it intends to make up the difference by borrowing against future federal grants, though it is questionable whether this meets FTA funding guidelines. At best, it means the transportation projects that would normally be funded by those future grants will not be possible.
It is hard to believe that the FTA funded even half of this turkey, which Portland planners predict will have almost no impact on transit ridership, congestion, energy consumption, or air pollution. Just coordinating traffic signals in the same corridor would probably have a much greater effect on travel times and pollution.
Meanwhile, a former TriMet planner named Jim Howell complains that the agency has been cutting bus service in its desperation to fund more rail lines. Howell notes that one route has lost nearly two-thirds of its ridership due largely to service cuts. Howell claims to support light rail, but thinks most of Portland’s lines are poorly planned. (But, as Joel Kotkin says, they are only poorly planned if you assume the goal is to serve transit riders; if your goal is to reshape the city through densification, maybe they are not so poorly planned.)
Despite all its money problems, TriMet continues to plan new rail lines, including the streetcar to Lake Oswego. To tell the truth, I feel a bit of schadenfreude here. Back in 1998, when light rail was on the ballot, Lake Oswego was the only suburb to vote for it. Why not? TriMet wasn’t then planning to build one to Lake Oswego, which meant no threat from densification.
Lake Oswego and the even wealthier but unincorporated community of Dunthorpe, through which the streetcar will pass, didn’t care about light rail as long as it was goring someone else’s neighborhood. But now that it is literally going to pass through the backyards of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the state, they want to stop it. Or anyway, stop that one line. It is still okay to run light rail to Milwaukie, Vancouver, and other places because who cares if those areas are densified?
At the same time, this is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy on the part of TriMet and the Metro planners who are trying to run the entire Portland area. Vote against light rail? We’ll build it anyway. Don’t want it through your neighborhood? Tough. Won’t pay for it with your property taxes? We will take it from your taxes anyway through tax-increment financing. Want to fight it? Good luck when you are just one or two neighborhoods against the entire Metro government and light-rail mafia.
In the end, I have to say “Good luck” to Franklin, Bergstein, and the other streetcar opponents. Anything that can throw a monkey wrench into TriMet’s grand plans can only be a good thing.