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BTA urges against state Flexible Funds for TriMet light rail project

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on February 2nd, 2011 at 11:52 am

"We strongly urge that the state look to other sources for funding this vital project."
— BTA's Rob Sadowsky in a letter to the Oregon Transportation Commission

Last week we shared the news that TriMet is making a major funding request for ODOT's $21 million pot of Federal Flexible Funds. The request is for a 10 year commitment of about $2 million per year to help fund the final portion of their $1.49 billion Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Line (TriMet would then bond against the funds to raise a total of $15 million for the project).

Yesterday, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) sent a letter to the Gail Achterman, Chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission (the OTC is a Governor-appointed body that advises ODOT policy and makes the final decision about who gets this money). In their letter, the BTA wrote, "We strongly urge that the state look to other sources for funding this vital project."

The BTA's letter (signed by executive director Rob Sadowsky and cc'd to ODOT Director Matt Garrett, TriMet GM Neil McFarlane, Portland Mayor Sam Adams, and others) is significant because TriMet is putting some major weight behind this funding request and many people around the table are afraid to speak up against it. Adams and numerous other mayors and business bigwigs from throughout the region have signed letters of support for the funding request; but TriMet's ask has raised serious eyebrows around the state because this funding source is one of the rare pots of statewide money specifically dedicated to biking and walking projects.

Here's more from the BTA letter:

"... the effort to win 10 cycles of funding at roughly $2 million per cycle for a total project contribution of $15 million at a cost of $18 million may make it difficult for many of our other priorities to be successful over time. We ask the Commission to ensure that all of our Oregon communities continue to have full access to future cycles.

... such requests will reduce the amount of money available for new projects that are ineligible for State Highway Trust fund money. ODOT’s current Flex Fund is only $21 million, making TriMet’s request nearly 75% of the total money available. Will this project, therefore, lock up too many “flexible” resources for the foreseeable future?"

From TriMet's perspective, this grant from the Flexible Funds pot is seen as "the closer for this deal." Speaking at a recent OTC hearing, TriMet lobbyist Olivia Clark said any delays could jeopardize the project's future:

"We can't withstand any delay with the project. We're in a queue at the federal level and I'm afraid the door will close on us... If we were to put it [the funding] off, the price will go up and we'll lose our place in the federal queue... A one year contribution is not that helpful, we need the full amount."

Also at the OTC hearing, Chair Achterman raised a stunning question. "Let me ask... and everyone in the room might have heart failure — What if we took $15 million of the entire $21 million and just funded it all at once?". To that, Clark said, "That's a decision for you to make... I think you've selected fantastic projects from around the state, but I don't think you're going to get the kind of leverage with any of those that you get with this one... The 14,000 jobs that come with this project that everybody can taste at this point."

Another issue at play with TriMet's multi-year request is that the future of Federal Flexible Funds is not assured. Congress could make radical changes to transportation funding and, as Chair Achterman said at the hearing, "We're not sure we're going to get all this funding in the future, and we can't read their minds for 10 years."

Another OTC member at the meeting also brought up concerns about regional equity. "I want to raise a yellow flag," he said. "I'm sure there will be questions raised about the idea of holding the Portland area harmless for a 10 year period no matter what happens on the federal level. That will be an issue. I don't know how to solve it, but it will be an issue. Other areas [of the state] will wonder; how can we be held harmless too?"

It's clear there are many concerns about TriMet's request — from members of the OTC, their Flexible Fund Advisory Subcommittee, and from transportation planners and advocates throughout the state. The BTA captured this angst in the closing of their letter to Chair Achterman:

"We, like many of our peers in transportation advocacy, are torn on this issue. At its core, the PMLR is a vital project that we believe is important for the future success of mobility in our region. We are concerned about parity of funding, protecting the intent and goals of the Flex Funds, and building the general capacity of our communities to meet the needs of their projects. We believe that there may be additional solutions available to ODOT in funding the PMLR that would be good for the project and the Flex Funds."

The OTC will make decisions on which projects to fund on Feb. 16th. Learn more about what other projects are on the list here.

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Comments
  • Alex Reed February 2, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Hard to know what to think about this one. Are the prospects for TriMet getting other funding really so dim that these rare dollars for biking and walking need to be tapped?

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  • al m February 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Dollar to doughnuts, Trimet will get what it wants.
    14,000 jobs?
    Pleeeeeeeze!
    The question that should be being asked, is the region going to suffer from this project NOT going in?
    The answer is no, because there is already service to Milwaukie.

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  • Bob_M February 3, 2011 at 7:46 am

    One of those jobs will go to me. That will go to bike shops, grocery stores, home improvement stores as well as mortgage payments and utility bills. If that project is killed for lack of funding the result on my household could be dire.

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  • Michael Wolfe February 3, 2011 at 9:23 am

    After consideration, I'm disagreeing with the BTA on this one. The Milwaukie Line actually does a huge amount for the region's cyclists. Just the new transit/ped/bike bridge alone will be a huge boon for cyclists, and it won't create any induced demand for motorists (unlike the CRC). The project will support a more bicycle-friendly urban form (without the problems associated with the shared-lane streetcar), and has the potential to give drivers an attractive alternative mode, reducing conflicts. I understand the BTA's objection, and I would hope that this project could go through with some other source of funding, but I think this is a worthy investment for the flexible funds if it comes down to that.

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  • Patty Fink February 3, 2011 at 9:49 am

    It should be noted that the Flexible Fund money was not specifically dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle projects. The Flexible Fund Grant program "will be used to support sustainable non-highway transportation projects, programs and services that positively impact modal connectivity, the environment, mobility and access, livability, energy use and the overall operation of the transportation system".
    Transit is an important part of a sustainable transportation network. While I think its fine to argue that this multi-year request doesn't meet established criteria, I don't believe it does anyone any good to suggest that TriMet or any transit system in the State shouldn't put forward projects or programs that allow us to meet our overall goals.

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  • Rob Sadowsky February 3, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I would like to clarify something stated in the post. We sent a letter to OTC listing out concerns about funding the project with multi-year commitment from this pot, but in no way urge a no vote. We want assurances that our concerns would be met. In fact, we have been in discussions with others including Trimet about our position. We do support the project, period.

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  • Lenny Anderson February 3, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    The new Willamette River bridge is a huge gain for bike/ped access between SW and SE in the Central City. That alone justifies the TriMet request. (said by someone who has worked with PBOT on "Going to the River" to will improve bike/ped access to Swan Island...the City's #1 priority for these funds)

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  • Steve B February 3, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    The concern here is NOT whether there is support for the bridge or there isn't. The problem here is Trimet is using the wrong pot of money, and because they are the dominant player in so many ways in Portland, they're likely to crowd everyone else out of the meager funding opportunities that exist for active transportation projects. It will be interesting to see how this pans out!

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  • NJD February 3, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    The BTA just lost a member.

    Seriously? The sheer amount of bicycle infrastructure included in the PMLR project should be supported by flex funds.

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  • Jessica Roberts February 4, 2011 at 9:09 am

    Just sent a letter to the OTC:

    Esteemed Members of the Oregon Transportation Commission:

    I am a planner at Alta Planning + Design, a firm that specializes in bicycle and pedestrian plans, projects, and programs. Our headquarters are in Portland, and we do a great deal of work in Oregon.

    When working in towns and cities around our great state, I am invariably struck by the deep hunger that residents have for better places to walk and bicycle. It gives me hope that our children will benefit from a better, healthier, and more equitable multimodal transportation network when I see how much passion and hard work our citizens bring to the task. City and County staff around Oregon are becoming more knowledgeable about creating complete streets, and elected officials are championing nonmotorized transportation as a way to serve their communities.

    That's the good news. The bad news is that there's a persistent and profound lack of funding available to actually build the walking and bicycling infrastructure Oregonians want and need. One of the only sources of funding available to Oregon is the newly-created ODOT Flexible Funds program. While the total amount of funding is small compared to major highway and bridge projects, it nevertheless offers huge benefits for walking and bicycling.

    Bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure has been called a "cheap date" because a small amount of money can go such a long way. Portland's entire bicycle system, known as the best in the nation, was built for approximately $60 million, or less than the cost of one mile of urban freeway. In return, the census shows that Portland residents bike to work at 8 times the national average (and families like mine can forego car ownership). A recent study out of Baltimore, MD also demonstrated that bicycle and pedestrian projects create more jobs per dollar than either road upgrades or road resurfacing.

    Knowing, as we do, that bicycle and pedestrian investments are badly needed, badly underfunded, cost-effective, and an oustanding job creation method, it would be irresponsible to divert the entire ODOT Flex Funds program to pay for Portland's Portland to Milwaukie Light Rail Project. The fact that TriMet "needs" the money, or that they have no other ideas about where to get it, is no excuse for violating the intent of this funding source.

    Transit is important, underfunded, and worth investing in. I value it, and I would support efforts to increase funding for transit. But it is not acceptable to steal from walking and bicycling to pay for transit, especially when there is so little funding available as it is. By all means, work with TriMet to solve their funding gap. But please, leave the ODOT Flex Funds program alone.

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