TriMet GM stays positive as reality of SW Corridor project loss settles in

(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

This morning TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey had the unenviable task of hosting the final meeting of the SW Corridor Light Rail Project Steering Committee. The project was set to receive $975 million from the Metro funding measure that failed at the ballot box on November 3rd. Without the money, there’s no path forward for the project and officials say it will be put to bed until further notice.

The steering committee is made up of elected officials from around the region. It includes: the mayors of Durham and Tigard; a councilor from Metro Tualatin and Portland; ODOT’s regional rep, and a Washington County Commissioner. Their mood was much less solemn than volunteers from the Community Advisory Committee who we reported on last week. Electeds are by nature more desensitized to disappointments and they’re also experts at putting a positive spin on bad news.

Kelsey (who ironically came to TriMet in 2015 from British Columbia’s TransLink after he was let go following a resounding “no” vote on an unpopular transit funding measure) told the seven members of the committee that without the Metro measure funding, “There’s just no plausible way for us to move forward.” “On the TriMet side of things… we’ll move to a wind-down period for the foreseeable future.”

Then Kelsey uttered a word I’d never heard used in this context before, but that would be used several times in this meeting: “re-phoenixing”, a reference to the mythological ancient Greek bird that rises back to life out of burnt ashes. “There will be a re-phoenixing at some point down the road, because the demand still exists.” Kelsey said. He and several other committee members blamed the timing of the measure and economic conditions surrounding the pandemic as the major culprits for its loss.

No one in the meeting had anything bad to say about the project itself.

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Attendees of this morning’s final steering committee meeting.

Kelsey’s remarks sounded like a post-game speech from a kind-hearted football coach trying to lift his team’s spirits after they lost to an underdog in front of a big home crowd. “There’s no question,” Kelsey continued, “The Southwest Corridor is a great project. It was one of the biggest contributors to reducing greenhouse gas in this region could actually have undertaken on its own. So I don’t want us to lose sight of the good that comes out of the challenge of having a setback. The only thing that’s been lost here is time. And so we will have a chance to re-emerge sometime down the road.”

Kelsey then likened the project to the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing — another multi-billion dollar mega-project years in the making that failed to win popular support and ultimately died when Washington legislators refused to fund it. CRC backers have changed the name of the project and kicked off a new planning process earlier this month. “Like the CRC project up to the north,” Kelsey said of the SW Corridor, “It is now re-phoenixing itself… This will have that time as well.”

Consultants and agency staff made $175 million planning the CRC. At this morning’s meeting, Kelsey said the public, “Should all be really proud of what their taxpayer dollars have done.”

We had about three days of feeling a little sorry for ourselves and are back to figuring out what’s next.”
— Tyler Frisbee, Metro federal affairs policy manager

TriMet still plans to complete the project’s Federal Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) so that it’s as shovel-ready as possible for any funding opportunities that might arise. With hopes of a big infrastructure program from the Biden administration, Kelsey said he’s already contacted LA Metro CEO Phil Washington who’s been named as a member of Biden’s transportation policy advisory team.

Metro’s Federal Affairs Policy Manager Tyler Frisbee spent three years crafting the funding measure. At this morning’s meeting she called the loss a mere “bump in the road.” “We had about three days of feeling a little sorry for ourselves and are back to figuring out what’s next.”

SW Corridor Project Director Leah Robbins said much of the work from the design and planning teams can still be put to use. “Things related to the stormwater challenges in the corridor and things that are related to safer ways to bike and walk,” are still relevant she said.

Other officials also looked to put a positive spin on the news.

Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers said the loss is just a “very minor setback in the big scope of things.” “I’m not disheartened by this part of the process,” Rogers said. “Because you can take two or three steps forward, than four or five steps back — and you can achieve things by doing that.”

Durham Mayor Gerry Schirado and City of Tualatin Councilor Robert Kellogg both blamed the timing of the vote and the pandemic for the measure’s loss. “It could not have been more catastrophic,” Schirado said. And Kellogg said he remains hopeful. “Once it is built, I very much look forward to the many comments wondering why the line was not built earlier.”

Kelsey smiled widely upon hearing that comment. In his mind the goal of the project — its “north star” — remains unchanged: “We are committed to going to Bridgeport [a big shopping mall in Tigard]. We must be resolute in that from a regional perspective.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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1 year ago

So they intend to do absolutely zero discussion on why the measure failed. I’m disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. The planners need to sit down and discuss why the people of the metro area shot down the measure and what needs to change to get buy-in from the community, rather than just blaming everything on covid.

 
 
1 year ago

I agree

Keith
Keith
1 year ago

I suspect this lack of introspection extends to the project staff and consultants, but perhaps for different reasons. Many have been working very hard and with totally well-intended dedication to this project. It began with a vision of high aspirations, but over the past 7+ years or so, necessary cost-cutting, long-standing institutional bias toward vehicular travel (v. people movement), and other issues ate away at SW Corridor making it vaguely recognizable from the original vision. In my opinion, it slowly changed from a potential winner and game changer to a shell of what it was at the start. It’s only human to continue to support and believe in something you’ve worked on with full commitment – especially for this long. Hopefully, with a little more time the steering committee and project staff will take a more objective look at the project, realize it hit more than a “bump in the road” (even the metaphors are about cars :)), and take a more constructive path forward than simply “re-phoenixing.”

Marianne
Marianne
1 year ago
Reply to  Keith

No one questioned the funding mechanism? The Metro bond measure seemed to be a blank check. Metro asked voters to fund good projects through an ill-timed payroll tax and then trust Metro to use your payroll funds wisely for the foreseeable future. Like Portland’s arts tax. The Metro bond measure may have had more support with a sunset clause. And with some funding for station access projects rather than park and ride lots.

Hello, Kitty
Hello, Kitty
1 year ago
Reply to  Marianne

I think the funding mechanism would have been acceptable for the right project.

If the project had focused on climate change first, I think voters would have been more willing to tax corporations who they see (rightly or wrongly) as having benefitted by contributing to the problem.

But instead this project was just a muddle that even Metro couldn’t claim addressed our most fundamental transportation issue.

Steve Scarich
Steve Scarich
1 year ago

Gee, white men cannot self-reflect? Please, more unfounded generalizations, please. Your biases are becoming comical.

Jacque Moro
Jacque Moro
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Scarich

Yes Jonathan, white men are the root of all evil.

MaddHatter
MaddHatter
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Scarich

That was an uncalled-for generalization, but nonetheless it’s clear these particular people aren’t going to self-reflect over what happened here.

Megan
Megan
1 year ago

It’s weird to find myself defending white men (I’m not one) but, nothing about melanin content or genitalia etc. prevents good work from being done. In theory, these dudes could be good stewards of a rich legacy (they’re not, but… they COULD be). I’m uncomfortable with focusing on any unchangeable physical aspect of a person as inherently “bad”. We have a lot of white men in Portland (including you, based on your profile pic!) and I’d like them all to feel fully welcomed to do good work for this community, also. In fact – we need them to!

From a systemic perspective, I’d diagnose the core of the problem differently. It’s not about humility and self-reflection (though, gosh, those would be nice to see… sigh), it’s about lack of feedback. As far as I can tell this entire board toiled away in a yes-chamber for years, crafting a ballot measure that got more and more bloated and expensive and complex as it went along, and when it was at last unveiled for the opinion of the actual public it… went down in flames. Taking the hopes of a lot of community activist groups with it.

And the worst part of it is, thanks to the lack of feedback, we can’t even say with any confidence WHY it went down. Was it just the timing, with COVID-19 harrowing the land and making people finance-conscious? Was it due to the weakness/unpopularity of the projects involved–and if so, was it the light rail, the community projects, or the road projects? Or all of them? Was it the funding mechanism? Was the community against taxing Nike etc, or was it the amount, or was it concerns over the general economy in a recession? Or was it the utterly crass way in which OHSU and other local bureaucracies wrote themselves out of the tax at the last minute, making it clear who would be solely the beneficiary and not the contributor to this endless stream of money? And on that note – was it the fact that it was an endless stream of money, to be spent on only the vaguest outline of specific projects, presenting next to no details no matter where I looked? WAS it actually because the whole thing actually exacerbated global warming, per Joe Courtright?

And because it’s so difficult to say for sure – I could make a case, with data, for any of the possibilities above – these “leaders” have more than enough leeway to tell themselves “Just a bad year! Nothing wrong with the projects! We’ll put the same thing on the ballot again in 2022 and get this show on the road again :)” Which… uh… we’ll see. And uh, are we still paying their salaries while we wait around for that? Asking for a friend…

I’m not quite sure how to fix this on a systemic level – I don’t understand the existing structures well enough yet. But I will note that Portland proper voted to tax themselves directly (!!) for universal preschool in this exact same election. I believe the limited range of the vote, as well as the extremely specific and comprehensible nature of the benefit (I have a toddler, it is VERY clear to me how I and my community could benefit from this!), contributed to its passage.

Here’s a thought: A measure focused only on the light rail line, without hangers-on, and a taxing district that covers only the area within 5 miles of an existing light rail line or the planned extension. Extensive information is available on the government website leading up to the vote explaining EXACT plans of construction, as well as how we plan to compete for as many federal grants as possible for expensive parts like tunnels. Local large businesses should be wooed to participate, ideally by having the damn line go right to their front door (no more parking lot/traffic!). Same with educational/governmental institutions. Same with the populace – it should be precisely demonstrated how they will access the new line, and the locations it serves, and therefore directly benefit. Once all of those hurdles are met… to the ballot box it goes!

Holding ourselves (cough, Metro, cough) to standards like these – in which there are innumerable points of specific feedback from multiple networks – seems more likely to lead to better projects, and thereby things worth paying for. There’s my 2 cents for ya.

roberta
1 year ago
Reply to  Megan

In order to address this loss as a ‘systemic error’ is to totally gut the Metro Transport Committees and replace with competent POC. Stop importing incompetent patriarchal administrators. Bernie should be cited for using the word “re-phoenixing”. I’m actually from the Navajo region and born in Phoenix. This guy should be banned from TriMet for co-opting Navajo language to describe a HORRIBLE Metro 2020 Transport package. You can’t re-phoenix a bad tax package. It doesn’t work like that. LELELELELELE

Jake
Jake
1 year ago

1) Reduce car lanes to 2 instead of 4 north of Barbur Transit Center.
2) Replace every park and ride with Mixed Use Development.
3) Coordinate with City to upzone along each station.
4) Maybe the project doesn’t need to go all the way to Bridgeport. Instead why don’t they fix the Tigard segment to better integrate with the downtown.

This would not only reduce the cost of the project but also make it much more appetizing to voters. I dont really understand how Kelsey sees this as a “perfect project.”

Michael Andersen
1 year ago
Reply to  Jake

I certainly agree with you that all of those would improve the project but wow do I disagree with the conclusion that these changes would make it more appetizing to voters.

David Hampsten
1 year ago

Offer to build a subway with somewhat realistic budgets, even if it’s in the billions. Voters will go for it, they are kinda stupid that way. Don’t offer something reasonable and relatively efficient.

JR
JR
1 year ago
Reply to  Jake

I agree with Michael, those are certainly aspirational and righteous goals, but not gonna work on the ballot, even in Portland metro.

maccoinnich
1 year ago

“re-phoenixing” strikes me as a little redundundant.

JR
JR
1 year ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

Not unless it’s died and come back before?

David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  JR

Many times since Barbur was built in the 30s, in all kinds of scenarios, but it was rarely put to voters – most versions lived and died in committees.

Chris
Chris
1 year ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

David Hampsten: Have there been multiple plans to build MAX on Barbur or are you referencing the fact that Barbur was orignally the right of way for Southern Pacific’s Red Electric line?

David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris

There have been various trolley and express bus proposals for Barbur over the decades – it’s an obvious corridor.

Per the SP line, I had no idea. I’m very aware of the Red Electric, but I thought its line from the Willamette River followed a completely different path before it hooked up with Bertha, only briefly crossing Barbur.

Sigma
Sigma
1 year ago
Reply to  JR

The so-called “South North corridor” failed on the ballot in the late 90s, which would have connected Vancouver to somewhere south, but I think it was Milwaukie.

qqq
qqq
1 year ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

It is horrible. I wonder if he preplanned it.

Jason
Jason
1 year ago
Reply to  qqq

*Re-preplanned it.

zuckerdog
zuckerdog
1 year ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

sort of like the walking dead

Jason
Jason
1 year ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

With leadership like that, it’s no wonder they have so many issues.

Jason
Jason
1 year ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

Rebirths, all the way down.

Jon
Jon
1 year ago

Once again I’ll say the exempting public employers while sticking it to private employers while private employers are cutting and furloughing employees makes no sense. I work for a company that makes physical products in the area. We don’t just farm out all the making of the product to SE Asia. We have a lot of good paying jobs but we are in a globally competitive market. If it costs more to employ people here our competitors in lower cost areas in the US and abroad can sell their products for less than we can. At some point it becomes too expensive to produce goods here. I often think that the leaders in places like Trimet don’t understand economics. Taxing consumers (gasoline) and items that cannot easily outsourced from the region or country is much better than making it more expensive to have have and hire staff locally (payroll taxes).

Hippodamus
Hippodamus
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon

One of the major issues with gas tax (and to be clear, I’d go for $1 gas tax), is that the Oregon constitution limits what it can be spent on. The short version, is that it can be spent in the right of way for roads. I’m not 100% sure that a dedicated light rail right of way wouldn’t qualify, but I’m inclined to say no because things like bike paths can’t be funded with gas taxes. The last thing we need is a light rail line stuck in traffic because we couldn’t fund it properly. It’s really an issue with needing to change the law, but best of luck on that one.

David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  Hippodamus

In Oregon, the money can be used for any transportation infrastructure in the public right-of-way. It cannot be used, for example, for housing or police (unlike the other 49 states). It can be used for light rail track, buses and other vehicles, but not for transit operations. It can be used for sidewalks and bike paths, but only if they are in the public right-of-way. The money can’t be used in private right-of-way like BNSF or UP track lines, even if Amtrak operates on them. It also can’t be used along the Springwater, Red Electric, and several other defunct former railroad rights-of-way, but it can for some odd reason be used on outer Burnside, another former railroad line.

Rain Waters
Rain Waters
1 year ago

Apparently the days of endless agenda driven mega projects has gone the way of good old rock and roll. If theres no money theres no mega project. Clue one, theres no money. A look outside of our utopian fantasy cave reveals thousands of cars lined up for miles for a frozen foul in Dallas, that formerly booming profit machine now locked up in some dusty basement for its own good.

How much more stubborn stupid crap can this country bear ? People who play along are stubborn and stupid. Yes, with that giant LIE were allowing to gut our country.

Good luck with those projects.

CA
CA
1 year ago

“No one in the meeting had anything bad to say about the project itself.”

Oh?

Too expensive
Doesn’t move enough people
Not enough supportive land use
Not enough density, now or in the foreseeable future
No effect on GHG
Not enough community support
Too slow
Eliminates too many bus lines
Doesn’t directly connect to OHSU or PCC
Would remove too many homes and businesses
Too much project risk (financial, construction)
Questionable qualifications for federal money
Would create unsafe traffic conditions
Doesn’t reduce car traffic
Weak pedestrian and bicycle connections/infrastructure
Too many park and rides (all free parking)
Not equitable
Supports and encourages urban sprawl
And maybe the worst one of all: the SW Corridor project sunk the transportation ballot measure!

Introducing…your 2020 Transportation Leaders!

qqq
qqq
1 year ago

If TriMet wants any re-phoenixing to happen, it better get its ash in gear.

Or voters will do some re-nixing.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  qqq

Re-Fee-Nix (bring back fareless square!)

RipCityBasWorks
RipCityBasWorks
1 year ago

How about trying to improve the project instead of just being defiant in defeat? Cutting Barbur down to 2 lanes would save hundreds of millions and encourage transit oriented development. Use some of the saved money for more gated crossings and faster peak speeds. Terminating the line at Tigard TC and adding a branch directly to PCC would serve more people than going to Tualatin just for the hell of it. Re-market the project as Portland to Tigard in 20 minutes. Cut back some of the park and rides in favor of affordable housing.

I voted yes on 28-218, but the project was never close to “perfect” like Kelsey seems to think. There is a lot that could be improved and it may even SAVE taxpayer money.

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago

There will be a re-phoenixing at some point down the road, because the demand still exists.” Kelsey said.

And this is why public transit will always fail in the metro. The demand doesn’t exist Doug. That’s why the voters, including the voters in SW that were the primary beneficiaries of the project, voted the project down. These people are so out of touch with the people who actually use public transit in this city that instead of hearing the message, they are already plotting to repackage their unpopular project. A complete and total inability for self-reflection and learning.

It was just the project that was broken, Metro obviously is as well. Just reading the comments… I know they need a brave face but the fact that they are just refusing to believe the project isn’t good is just…

I guess this is why we get low-value projects rather BRT or bus service expansions. These fools are so high on themselves that they aren’t even living in the same reality as us.

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago

Once they abandoned the idea of a deep-bore tunnel that could provide direct service to OHSU/VA, Hillsdale, and Multnomah Village, BRT should have been selected. Barbur has 4-lanes, and it doesn’t really need it. Paint the curb-lane red and add off-board payment and longer platforms. Maybe $100 million.

They could even include connected ODOT advisory signs that would allow vehicles in the BRT lanes when major incidents occur on I-5. This would resolve concerns about Barbur not functioning as an emergency backup route, which I believe was the main issue for ODOT.

Jonathan K
Jonathan K
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris I

^This. Barbur never made sense for light rail. Do it right or go home. But the SW corridor should never have been top priority. Here’s to hoping for a better package next time, which should include (in order of importance):
– The MAX downtown tunnel
– Powell light rail line.
– The bus improvements from the Get moving package.
– Extensions of existing lines to Mt. Hood community college, Intel, and Vancouver.
– Tigard to Beaverton light rail (5 miles), w/ two lines, one going downtown (diverted Red line), and one going west to Intel. Turn the RedTail golf course into a major TOD w/ affordable housing. Travel time from Tigard to Intel or downtown would be about 30 min.
-Deep bore tunnel from downtown to OHSU (I know…)

Estimated cost? About $12-15 billion. For reference, Seattle passed a $50 billion package. And this would actually be transformational, unlike the Get moving package.

GlennF
GlennF
1 year ago

We just need a bypass ( auto and multi-use path )for the entire tri-county/metro area…

David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  GlennF

US 97 through Bend.

GlennF
GlennF
1 year ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

Yes Please..It is terrible down there also..

rick
rick
1 year ago
Reply to  GlennF

More freeways create more gridlock. Note Houston and the cost of living due to auto-dependency.

ChadwickF
ChadwickF
1 year ago

Ha ha!
That is some choice gobbledygook.
Here’s hoping they learned something and don’t keep “Re-Sisyphusing.”

Javier Sodo
Javier Sodo
1 year ago

Interesting that Metro did not even seem interested in seeing why they failed. Not surprising given the blank checks the populace has given them in past years. They are not responsive to taxpayers.
A bit refreshing the Metro area actually said no to a tax.
I’m sure Portland proper will continue to support any tax any time.
Looks at the recent poorly measures that have passed.
1. Metro Homeless Tax (poorly planned, zero accountability)
2. Clean Energy Fund (giant slush fund for nonprofits of all stripes)
3. Huge library building bond ($387 million)—large library buildings are already quaint anachronisms (think book stacks and microfiche).
4. ~ $350 million Metro housing bond only creating maximum of 3900 units.

MaddHatter
MaddHatter
1 year ago

“It was one of the biggest contributors to reducing greenhouse gas in this region could actually have undertaken on its own.” — Doug Kelsey

Is he talking about the same project and ballot measure I am? It sure doesn’t sound like it.

“… Once it is built…” — Robert Kellogg

Kelsey’s summary and Kellogg’s quote sound not unlike the Rose Quarter project. “The public rejected this, but don’t worry we’ll shove it down their throats anyway; we just need more time.”

Kittens
Kittens
1 year ago

Kelsey’s shockingly arrogant and Panglossian tone are slowly ruining the agency. There’s no hard questions. No introspection. Just a steady patois of how great everyone is doing. And SO much back-patting amongst the managerial class.

Meanwhile losing riders and operators at an unsustainable rate. You can’t begin to understand how truly debilitating having low frontline morale is in a organization this huge yet everyday is a new war against its own workers while the happy talk to the media continues.

Matt D
Matt D
1 year ago

“The only thing that’s been lost here is time”? Meaning these folks will continue to push for this terrible project until the people have no choice but to give in.

Matt Engstrand
Matt Engstrand
1 year ago

Committed to going to Bridgeport? This is one of the reasons I was opposed to this. Building a light rail for high end shoppers will not solve the region’s biggest traffic and greenhouse gas problems. These planners need to look at the traffic on 99 between SW Portland and Sherwood, or even out to Newberg. Light rail on this stretch would serve more working class commuters than a train to an overpriced shopping mall.