“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.