Can we afford Milwaukie light rail?
Republican gubernatorial candidate [rim shot] Allen Alley really hit a nerve the other day when he suggested that the Portland region should put aside, at least for now, the plan to build a $1.4 billion,* seven-mile light rail line from downtown Portland to the sleepy suburb of Milwaukie. (It works out to around $38,000 per foot of light rail track.) Alley suggested that any state and local money available to pay for a Max extension down that way should instead be spent on an immediate replacement of the rotting Sellwood Bridge. He also posted some telling photos of parts of the Sellwood span literally being held together with shrink wrap.
Alley's proposal makes too much sense to be accepted by the region's "planning" bobbleheads. Metro clone Rex "Founder" Burkholder screeched to a halt on his beloved bicycle and spoke in his robot-like planner voice: "But we would lose the federal subsidy. Thanks to Earl the Pearl, the feds are paying half the cost of building the line. And that money can't be used for the Sellwood Bridge."
Ah, the Colors of Money™ -- a Portland specialty. True in this case, as far as it goes. But even with the feds kicking in a hefty percentage of the construction cost, the local share of the liars' budget pencils out to something like $700 million. Where is that kind of jack going to come from in this economy, and why isn't that money available for a new Sellwood Bridge?
$250 million of it is going to come from state lottery money, which can be used for darn near anything, as best I can tell. That leaves another $450 million of Oregon greenbacks. $30 million of that is apparently supposed to come from the City of Portland -- out of increased parking charges on city streets; a citywide "system development charge"; and tax money from the SoWhat "urban renewal" district, through which less than a mile of the new Max line would run. That district is, of course, broke, due to the colossal failure of its real estate dreams, and many promised features of that high-priced ghost town will never be built. But hey, somehow it's got eight figures for light rail passing through. Leave it to Mayor Creepy -- he's got envelopes full of cash for friends in need.
There would supposedly also be new "urban renewal" shenanigans enacted down in Milwaukie and Clackamas County, to divert many years of future property taxes to the construction maw. Surely it would be a minimum of $30 million in front-end borrowing for Milwaukie, and another $30 million for the county.
Could that money be used for a new Sellwood Bridge? Heck, if it's o.k. to spend it on a new no-cars bridge from OMSI to Schnitzerland between the Marquam and Ross Island Bridges way the heck up in Portland -- the bridge being biggest expense in the light-rail pipedream -- it should be o.k. to spend it for a more traditional span a lot closer to Milwaukie.
Another $39 million is supposed to come from borrowing by Tri-Met, which is already careening into insolvency, particularly under the heavy weight of operating its doomed WES commuter rail line. And the Tri-Met part of the equation's got even the transit groupies up in arms. You know you're looking at a bad deal when Streetcar Smith, citizen face card for every mode of transportation other than the automobile, opposes it:
TriMet will issue bonds for about $39M for the Milwaukie project. That translates to about $3.2M/year for the next 20 years that will not be available for operations.I'm still not getting where all the rest of the money's supposed to come from, but even with what the proponents are showing at this stage, it's pretty clear that a lot of folks around this way who are about to be hit up to pay for the thing really don't want to buy more light rail right now.
While I support the overall project, I'm adamantly opposed to this particular funding component. It's just over 2% of the overall budget. Surely we're smart enough as a region to avoid this.
There's still time to pull the plug on Milwaukie Max. But of course, that would disappoint the contractors who have long since divvied up their shares of the pork over scotch and cigars at the Arlington Club. Already Tri-Met's talking about making this a largely no-bid deal -- the same way it strong-armed the Airport Max contracts. The aroma of the Goldschmidt crew hangs heavy in the air. The West Hills boys could care less about some little old lady or teenager in Milwaukie who needs a ride to Portland. As always, it's all about the Benjamins, baby.
If Alley's mothball idea gains any real traction, I'm sure Earl the Pearl will offer up another $100 million or so from the federal printing presses. But even at $500 million in state and local dollars to build it, and all the local money it will take to run it (for which the feds provide no help), can we afford to go by rail yet again? Maybe we ought to just buy a dozen new buses and put them on the 31 line.
* - Preliminary liars' budget figure.