Hoping to find the final 1% of funding for their $1.49 billion Portland-Milwaukie light rail project, TriMet has set their sights on small pot of ODOT Flexible Funds set aside for non-highway projects. TriMet has requested $1.93 million for the next ten years and they plan to bond against that money. In total, the transit agency hopes to secure $15 million from ODOT for this project.
While the request seems like a savvy move from TriMet, it has some people concerned that they are playing outside the rules.
Earlier this month, we shared the news that ODOT had narrowed down their list of recommended projects to be funded from this extremely competitive $21 million pot of money. The Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) is set to approve the list soon.
It’s no secret that TriMet is scrambling to pay for the Portland-Milwaukie project after the Federal Transit administration said they’d only cover 50% of the costs instead of the 60% TriMet expected (a difference of $115 million). Shortly after that announcement, TriMet looked for ways to cut project costs to fill the funding gap.
There are two issues with TriMet’s funding request that sources say are causing consternation in local transportation funding circles. The first is that, if the OTC grants this request, the $1.9 million yearly commitment would constitute nearly all of Portland’s share of state flexible funding for the next 10 years. This dedicated funding source is one of the very few where bicycle projects compete well.
Another issue that has raised eyebrows is the multi-year request and ability to bond against the funding commitment. ODOT’s own documentation on the Flexible Fund program specifically states that multi-year funding requests are not eligible. Here’s a snip an ODOT FAQ about flexible funds:
What if my project has more than one phase and will take more funds to complete the build out? Can I apply for a next phase in the future?
An applicant may apply for another phase of a project as a new proposal in subsequent funding cycles. There is however no program provision for commitment to long term phased projects for this first solicitation. Information from the first cycle will help inform the next cycle investment strategy.
One source I spoke to said that, “TriMet is just asking for a bailout” and that, “These scenarios set a bad precedent.”
The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) sits on ODOT’s Flexible Fund program committee. Advocacy manager Gerik Kransky says they support the Portland-Milwaukie light rail project and the bicycle facilities it comes with, but they are watching the funding scenario very carefully.
To bolster support for their request, TriMet has secured letters of support for this proposal from numerous regional leaders including the mayors of Portland, Oregon City, and Milwaukie, Clackamas County Chair Lynn Peterson, Oregon state legislators like Jules Bailey, Carolyn Tomei, Diane Rosenbaum, and several other politicians and business leaders.
The Flexible Funds Advisory Committee is set to meet on February 4th to discuss the project applications. The OTC will make decisions on which projects to fund on Feb. 16th. Learn more about the OTC here. Stay tuned, this is an evolving story and I expect to have more information — including insights from OTC Chair Gail Achterman and TriMet lobbyist Olivia Clark — soon.