Leaders on the Southwest Corridor Plan steering committee – representing seven cities, Washington County, Metro, TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation – voted 10-2 Monday to advance light rail instead of bus rapid transit between Portland, Tigard and Bridgeport Village in Tualatin.
Meeting at Tigard City Hall, the committee also unanimously voted to stop studying a light rail tunnel to Portland Community College's Sylvania campus. Instead, Metro and TriMet will continue exploring other options to connect people to PCC's largest campus, which has a hilltop location too steep for light rail to access.
Map of possible routes
See a map of the potential light rail alignments still under consideration between downtown Portland and Bridgeport Village. The remaining alingments will undergo more detailed environmental impact study before a final route is chosen.
Despite the overwhelming votes, several committee members said light rail wasn't a foregone conclusion, one reason the decision has taken so long.
"This was a very serious contest," said TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane.
Bus rapid transit would be cheaper to build. But ridership projections indicated it would hit full capacity during rush hour within a decade of opening, virtually eliminating any possibility of additional ridership growth or further extensions. Staff analysis also showed bus rapid transit, also called BRT, would be less reliable and cost more per rider to operate than light rail in the corridor, and could clog the downtown Portland transit mall.
"It became very clear to me that trying to serve this corridor with BRT would be an uphill battle," McFarlane said.
Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen, co-chair of the steering committee and a former mayor of Tigard, said he'd originally preferred bus rapid transit. But he said the numbers just didn't add up as he'd hoped.
"The bottom line is that BRT would not provide the level of service that we're going to need in the corridor in the coming decades," he said.
Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers agreed. Bus rapid transit would need to operate in mixed traffic at least some of the time, leading to what he said would be unacceptable delays for riders and autos as well.
"I came fully prepared today to vote for light rail, not because it's the most wonderful but because it's the most viable," Rogers said, adding that he hoped that the overall price tag of light rail would come down as the line enters more detailed environmental impact review and design.
Sherwood Mayor Krisanna Clark was one of two committee members to vote against advancing light rail instead of bus rapid transit, along with King City Councilor Al Reu. Without a PCC tunnel, light rail to Bridgeport Village is estimated to cost around $1.8 billion, as opposed to $1 billion for bus rapid transit.
"The line is not going to get to Sherwood," Clark said. She added that her community has slim transit service, though she acknowledged TriMet has plans to add more via its Southwest Service Enhancement Plan. A new bus line for the busy Tualatin-Sherwood Road employment area is expected to start service June 6.
But Clark said it wasn't enough for her to vote yes to light rail, primarily because of the cost.
"What I am hearing in the city of Sherwood is that for the dollars invested, this service isn't expanding enough," Clark said.
Concerns about cost and congestion were common themes in the meeting during an hour of public testimony, much of it focused on the light rail decision.
Among those testifying was Clackamas County Chair John Ludlow, who led campaigns to block the Orange Line MAX and to require public votes on any future light rail lines in his county. A potential Southwest Corridor MAX line wouldn't run through Clackamas County, but some related roadway, bicycle and pedestrian projects could be in Lake Oswego and other parts of the county.
Ludlow discussed the latest results of an annual poll of Clackamas County residents. Usually, the poll finds that public safety is their top concern.
"This year, they said congestion is number one," Ludlow said. "What are we doing to alleviate that congestion?" He asserted that mass transit wouldn't be enough to solve the problem and that investment in roads should be leaders' priority.
Ludlow's comments were echoed by several others, including Cascade Policy Institute president John Charles, who disputed figures that light rail costs less to operate, and Oregon gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley.
Alley said the emergence of self-driving vehicles would render light rail obsolete very soon.
"This isn't 50 years or 100 years, this is two years or three years," Alley said. "We're going through a sea change. What you're proposing is like investing in a compact disc factory after Apple has introduced the iPod."
Dirksen said he agreed that multiple solutions must be pursued to fight traffic in a growing region.
"We are talking about high capacity transit today," Dirksen said. "But no one is saying that this is the (only) solution for our transportation issues. There are many things we need to do other than transit as well."
He said Metro is working with ODOT to identify several chokepoints to prioritize in the near-term, such as Interstate 5 in Portland's Rose Quarter and the Abernethy Bridge on Interstate 205 in Clackamas County.
Planners to seek PCC alternatives
Compared to the light rail decision, the PCC tunnel decision saw relatively little discussion Monday.
PCC Director Denise Frisbee and PCC Sylvania campus president Lisa Avery both urged leaders to continue working with them on better transit connections to the campus if a light rail tunnel is taken off the table.
"We understand the challenge of the light rail tunnel and the challenge it presents to the cost of the overall project and the impacts on our…neighbors," Frisbee said. "It was disappointing to lose the really clear option we think our campus and our students deserve."
"We implore the steering committee to please dig deep and continue to work with PCC as staff has to help find alternatives," Avery added. "If a light rail to campus direct is not an option, we want to make sure that find a way for staff and students to be able to access the campus effectively, efficiently and sustainably."
But both Frisbee and Avery said they appreciated continuing work by Metro, TriMet, Portland and PCC to find other alternatives.
Frisbee said PCC realizes it needs to grow its campus programming and draw more people to the campus, as well as develop a new master plan for the campus.
The cost of a PCC tunnel could have prevented light rail from reaching Bridgeport Village or even downtown Tigard, a deal-breaker for some committee members.
"I'm going to express my regrets that we can't meet this premier destination as one of the spots that light rail would serve directly," said Metro Councilor Bob Stacey before the vote. "But I would regret even more losing the opportunity to serve Tigard and Tualatin."
Next up: Environmental impact study
The votes were the last two major decisions before the project begins a federally-required detailed study of environmental, economic and other impacts. Several light rail route alternatives and a number of related road, bicycle and pedestrian projects in the corridor will go through that study, known as a Draft Environmental Impact Statement.
At its next meeting on June 13 in Beaverton, the steering committee will consider a draft list of alternatives and projects to include. The public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the list, impacts to study and methods for the study this summer.
The soonest light rail planners expect light rail could open in the corridor is 2025.
Learn more about the Southwest Corridor Plan