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TriMet wants 10 year ODOT funding commitment for Milwaukie light rail

Posted by on January 26th, 2011 at 3:58 pm

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.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

27 Comments
  • Allan January 26, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    This would take a ton of money away from bike/ped projects. Can’t the state just earmark them the cash? they do that sort of thing all the time for highway projects (CRC, newburg/dundee bypass)

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  • Nick January 26, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    If this really is a potential MAX-vs-bikes situation, I think it’s incredibly unfair. Light rail gets a rather insane amount of funding already. Bike infrastructure projects, on the other hand, seem to be far more modest, even though they’re far cheaper anyway. Have some decency, Trimet!

    And I say this as someone who rides transit more than he bikes…

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  • Gerik January 26, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Quick note Jonathan, the Flex Funds Advisory Committee will most likely meet on Feb. 4th to discuss the project applications.

    The OTC will meet to make decisions on Feb. 16th. http://www.oregon.gov/ODOT/COMM/otc_main.shtml#Meetings___Agendas_and_Minutes

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  • Car-Free Gal January 26, 2011 at 4:58 pm

    The projects that ODOT’s evaluation committee recommended to the OTC for funding with the $21m in flex funds included plenty of bike projects. If for some reason the OTC should choose to give TriMet all or much of its requested light-rail funding UP FRONT, rather than over ten years, that would kill a lot of excellent bike projects that had been carefully evaluated and then recommended to be funded. And the bike community should make clear it would not accept such an unbalanced scenario.

    The OTC stated at its Jan 19 meeting that with federal funding uncertainties, there’s no guarantee the flex funds will be around in years to come. Perhaps the bike community should display some of the enthusiasm and assertiveness around its (recommended) flex fund projects hat TriMet is displaying around its flex fund project.

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  • BicycleDave January 26, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    Not exactly bikes vs. Max since this project will build a Transit/ped/bike only bridge across the Willamette.

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    • matt picio January 27, 2011 at 11:48 am

      That bridge would be nice, but we already have 4 bridges that we can cross on, and a lot of other bike projects that could be impacted by this. This is happening because Tri-Met didn’t plan ahead. We’re only partway through what looks to be a decadal recession. Federal, state and local governments are looking for places to cut funding, and this situation is likely to be worse in the next 5 years, not better. The traditional funding sources for bike projects are all subject to reductions, and large projects like CRC and Milwaukie LR (and the Sellwood bridge) are grabbing whatever funds they can to fill the shortfalls that are resulting because the relevant public agencies assumed a growth economy.

      I suspect this problem will get worse before it gets better.

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      • q`Tzal January 27, 2011 at 2:15 pm

        There is one concern I’ve had about our light rail system and that would be the Steel Bridge.
        Without a backup it is a single point failure that would take down the entire light rail system. Sure, there are buses but not enough drivers to displace the load from the MAX system.
        One of the great things about the MAX vs buses is speed, the other is that esoteric elitist image that some have about having to ride on a bus vs being getting to ride on a train. In the case of a major reduction (best case scenario) or a complete elimination of MAX service (worst case scenario) we can expect to see a majority of MAX riders simply going back to SOVs because buses are inconvenient, slow, smelly and stigmatized.
        To insure that Portland does not have a complete collapse in public transit ridership in the event the Steel Bridge suffers some sort of catastrophic failure (it is old) or intentional damage we need a back up bridge for light rail at the very least.

        The whole Milwaukie line can wait but the bridge is necessary.

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  • cyclist January 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    BicycleDave: That’s a point that seems to be lost here. The bridge provides non-auto traffic with a great connection to the Southwest Waterfront district and especially OMSI via the tram. This benefits people on foot, bike, streetcar, and MAX. It would be a real shame to lose this project.

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    • Andrew Seger January 26, 2011 at 10:33 pm

      Er less than half the 1.4 billion they’re gonna spend would pay for all the 2030 bike master plan. All of it. Do we really need another bridge over the Willamette? Or would people prefer more and better bike facilities. Like a sullivan’s gulch trail, fer instance. And the first things to go were the bike friendly stuff, like the rhine street bridge.

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  • jim January 26, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Where are all those anti CRC people now? They were so upset about a bridge to relieve the congested I-5 and spending all that money… Now they should be mad as haters about spending money on light rail. Where are the protest meetings?

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    • cold worker January 26, 2011 at 9:18 pm

      do you know the differences between a car-centric project and a light rail project? ok! good! let’s move along then.

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    • Jonathan Gordon January 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm

      If you think the anti-CRC movement is *just* about a measly 4,300 million dollars (more like 10,000 million dollars, really) you haven’t been paying attention. It’s also very much about induced demand and how that will contribute to sprawl and climate change.

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  • Greg January 26, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    I like the idea of Milwaukee light rail, however this funding request seems odd. Trimet has 99% of $1.5B, and they can’t find any other way to get $15M? Can’t they just raise rates another nickel?
    What happens if the project goes over budget? Where would the money come from then?

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  • naess January 26, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    why can’t they just cut the bridge part out of the equation and save half the projected costs? why does EVERY new MAX line HAVE to go downtown?

    a bridge could still be built for peds/bikes.

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    • A.K. January 27, 2011 at 8:33 am

      This is something I’ve wondered as well! It would be nice to have a dedicated North/South line that didn’t go through downtown first, adding on another 20 minutes to the trip.

      While most of the transit systems I have taken in various locations around the world have had “central hubs” where you could catch 8 or 9 subway lines from one station, there were also lines that would skirt around the central core for people who didn’t need to go there.

      I’m sure Trimet would love to do both, but since it’s so expensive to build anything, they chose to go the way they are going.

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  • Diane Goodwin January 26, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Two quick notes: the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project has nearly $40 million in bike and ped investments included in the project. This includes the two 14-foot paths on the bridge among other investments.Along with this project, the cities of Portland, Milwaukie and Clackamas County are working on additional bike/ped investments to build on the new infrastructure, such as completing the SE Clinton Blvd. connection to the new bridge. It’s going to be awesome! Finally, TriMet will sell bonds in FY13 for its contribution to the project and does not use fare box revenue for this purpose. For more information, visit trimet.org/pm. Thanks!

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  • Paul Manson January 26, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    50% of Trimet’s revenue comes from the regional payroll tax. This revenue is down from a recent 2008 peak of $215M by about $6M. Theoretically, over the ten year period this revenue should return and could help offset the need for the RFF – but it is likely not something to gamble and bond against.

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  • Peter January 26, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Jonathon-
    Could you include a link to the projects that were funded and those that were cut?

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  • RJ January 27, 2011 at 8:02 am

    This document includes a list of the projects that just missed the cut. (“Attachment D: Additional Priority Projects.”) You can see that there are a lot of worthy Region 1 projects that got muscled out by MLR. Not saying it’s wrong, but let’s all just be clear on who the winners and losers are when we allocate the money this way.

    ftp://ftp.odot.state.or.us/outgoing/OTC/01_January/Agenda%20K%20-%20Flex%20Funds.pdf

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  • DK January 27, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Tying up flexible moneys for a 10yr period is a pretty disingenuous way to go about the funding, when it’s considered that everyone else is trying to get a piece of this pie as well.

    They’ve almost 99% of the funding and 10 years to come up with the remaining 1+%.

    ….Seems like they should just start the project to me. Finish the infrastructure and hold off on buying the rail cars or something? Give some time and more money will materialize to finish up.

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  • Rico January 27, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    How about charging to park at the Park and Ride lots? A dollar a day would probably bring in $1.5 million/year. Make it $5 at the Sunset transit center though. That’s where all those cheapskates from Hilsboro and beyond drive to the last place to park for free to avoid downtown prices yet still contribute plenty to congestion and pollution.

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    • cyclist January 27, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      That sounds like a great way to get people to drive all the way downtown. $5 + $2.00 for MAX in each direction would almost equal the cost of parking downtown (and probably exceeds it in some lots).

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    • naess January 27, 2011 at 7:35 pm

      how about bumping up parking fares downtown to $3/hour? that would bring in even more funding and help clear congestion in the downtown core.

      oh, and to make it equal they should eliminate the cheasy “sunday morning” free period all together.

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      • dude January 28, 2011 at 7:34 am

        So you only want rich people to go downtown? Not so many ethnic People? Why should the burden of all this fall on us?

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        • naess January 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm

          (well, i can only hope this response makes it past the censurs)

          but really? not everything is about race/class. *rolls eyes*

          raising the cost of parking in the downtown core would lead to more people using the max lines, including the new one being discussed here since yet again they feel they MUST route it through down town. this would also lead to a higher usage of the free park and rides spread out around the fringe of the city, many of wich tend to sit empty most of the time. at least the new ones on the green line seem to be that way anytime i ride past them.

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  • Rico January 28, 2011 at 11:36 am

    OK, maybe $5 day at Sunset Transit center is too high, but something greater than zero. The “free” parking structure costs about $30-$50/month to build and maintain per spot.
    (http://www.oregonlive.com/washingtoncounty/index.ssf/2008/10/trimet_wants_you_to_ride_not_park.html)

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  • Lenny Anderson
    Lenny Anderson January 29, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    The Willamette River bridge is a huge piece of the cost of MLR, and it will have the best bicycle/pedestrian route across the River. A good use of ODOT flexible funds.

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