In all the times it has been on the ballot, Clackamas County has never voted for Portland light rail. But Portland planners were determined to run a light-rail line into the urban heart of the county, so they persuaded the county commission to give them $20 million of the $1.5 billion cost of the 7.7-mile rail line.
Residents, who had previously recalled several city commissioners from office over light rail, didn’t take this sitting down. Instead, a group that calls itself “Clackistanis” put a measure on the ballot directing the county commission to spend no county resources on light rail without voter approval. The commission responded by scheduling a $19 million bond sale to take place a few days before the vote.
The loss of $20 million is not going to stop a $1.5 billion project that is already under construction. But anti-rail rebels now have a play book to stop future rail projects, such as one proposed to Tigard, Oregon, and one proposed (but withdrawn, probably only temporarily) to Lake Oswego, not to mention the Vancouver Washington project. Through a combination of local initiatives, referenda, and lawsuits, they can probably keep any Portland suburb from cooperating with regional planners’ efforts to expand the system.
Historic note: The Antiplanner used to live in the Clackamas County community of Oak Grove and knows some of the Clackistanis, including Thelma Haggenmiller, the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit against the bond sale. When I first moved there in 1989, I knew Portland wanted to build a light rail into the county, and my main concern was that it should be built efficiently, using an existing right of way for what had been the world’s first interurban electric line between Portland and Oregon City. I was too busy working on other issues to think much about it, but in 1995 a couple of students from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Administration (as I think it was called then) came to work for me as interns.
I asked them to take a look at light rail. They said, “We love the idea of light rail.” I told them to keep an open mind and go interview people about it. With no further direction, they went off and came back a week later.
“It’s awful!” they said. “It’s way too expensive, and the planners do everything they can to marginalize opponents.” Thus was my entry into transportation politics.
Update: Bojack reports that Clackamas County got around the opponents to a bond sale by borrowing $20 million from the Bank of America. At the very least, county commissioners who supported the deal face stiff re-election campaigns this November.