Regional leaders tapped the brakes on the Southwest Corridor study Monday, saying they wanted answers to the project's core questions before they start a more thorough, and more expensive, environmental review.
The leaders, mostly elected officials sitting on the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee, were scheduled to decide what to send to the environmental review – formally called a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, often abbreviated to DEIS in project documents – on Monday.
But a late flurry of technical questions, plus testimony Monday from Southwest Portland residents hoping for more transit service to Hillsdale and Multnomah Village, prompted the committee to slow the process down.
The committee is now scheduled to decide in November whether to proceed to the Environmental Impact Statement process. That study will look at the costs, and societal and environmental impacts of several transit project options.
The Southwest Corridor is presently envisioned as a mass transit line linking downtown Portland to Tualatin and Tigard. Leaders have yet to decide whether they'd like to see the line use trains or rapid buses.
For the most part, leaders have a general idea of where a Southwest Corridor transit line should go. But they still are looking at whether to have it snake through Tualatin and Tigard or split somewhere, with one line ending in Tualatin and another in Tigard. Staff is still studying the potential benefits and impacts of tunnels through hills.
And there are still questions about whether to route transit along Barbur Boulevard or Interstate 5. A routing on Barbur could spur redevelopment, as the MAX Yellow Line did on North Interstate Avenue, but could curb capacity for vehicles and would have slower through-travel times. Routing along Interstate 5 would move transit passengers quicker, but transit lines along freeways in Portland haven't spurred much redevelopment.
"With the number of alternatives (project options) that we have on the table right now, I think the schedule that was included in the revised recommendation is way too assertive right now," said TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane, one of the steering committee's members.
Part of the issue is that any project option that's brought forth into the DEIS process has to be studied in great detail. Local leaders are hoping to get a firmer grip on what project options are feasible before sending them to the federal-level environmental study.
Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick singled out proposed tunnels under OHSU and Hillsdale as two elements that might need a fiscal, and political, reality check before an environmental study can begin. He was curious about the cost per household of a tunnel over a 30-year stretch.
"I'd like to get some sense of that, and some of the public reaction to that, before committing to spending a lot of resources studying that option," Novick said.
There was vocal support at Monday's meeting for a transit line in a tunnel.
"Hillsdale was made-to-order for the type of project you're talking about," said Rick Seifert, a Hillsdale resident. "We really are a transit center, so to link Hillsdale into your plans is essential. Please honor your own past planning by giving strong consideration to the route."
Floyd Smith, a board member of the Association of Oregon Rail Transit Advocates, was even more ambitious, saying a tunnel from PCC-Sylvania to downtown Portland should be studied.
"We believe that it needs to be studied, that it's proper, and will bring a storm of discontent if a long deep tunnel with stations at Hillsdale and the Barbur Transit Center, OHSU and PCC is not considered," he said.
Jim Howell reminded the committee that they're faced with a long-term decision.
"The decision you're making today is going to effect what happens over the next 50 or 60 years," he said. "The transit corridor is the equivalent of I-5 south. Let's face it – I-5 south is at its capacity at peak hours. You'd expect over the next 50 years, you're either going to have to widen that freeway to 4 to 6 lanes in each direction, or you're going to have to build a viable public transit corridor."
The committee's hesitation wasn't about a line on the map, or whether to bore a tunnel through Marquam Hill. Committee members seemed to want to know more about the basic questions surrounding the project, including traffic impacts to Barbur Boulevard, the role economic development should play in planning the project, and the region's land use objectives.
If those questions can be answered before proceeding to a full-bore federal environmental review, it could save the region money and effort in the long run.
ODOT Region 1 manager Jason Tell wanted to know more about what's reasonable to submit to the federal transit grant program before going forward to the federal environmental review.
"I feel like in order to make some decisions about tunnels, I feel like I've got to get a better handle on what's doable, what will be competitive," Tell said. "There's a lot of interest on transit, a lot of focus on transit, and a lot of other people interested in a lot of other things that don't have anything to do with high-capacity transit – a lot has to do with community vision."