Anti-LRT petitions being circulated in SW Corridor cities

The Portland Tribune is reporting that groups in four cities which may be affected by the Southwest Corridor project–Tigard, King City, Tualatin, and Sherwood, have filed initiative petitions with respective city governments. (This was previously mentioned in the open thread; now petitions have been filed). The petitions, if able to collect sufficient numbers of signatures by the respective deadlines, would place a measure on the ballot to require public votes to approve future city funding of light rail projects. Petitioners are hoping to place the measures on the September ballot.

The petitions are based on a similar petition which was recently circulated in Milwaukie. They don’t attempt to ban light-rail outright (something which was tried in Damascus, but narrowly defeated) or prohibit funding for it altogether, they merely require a public vote for any municipal funding for such be approved.

My reaction?

Good.
The right time to speak up

No, I don’t say this because I’m skeptical about the Southwest Corridor project–which at this point, is still in the planning phases. (Technically, no mode or alignment has been chosen for the corridor–though I would be surprised if light rail weren’t the ultimate decision). Nor do I particularly care for the motives of the petition supporters, which include a few folks who hold positions that I would characterize as anti-transit. I say “good” because I’m a firm believer in democracy–if the good citizens of the affected cities don’t wish to pay for light rail, that’s they’re right.

But more importantly, I say good because–unlike the Clackamas County efforts–these petitions are being circulated at the right time: when the project is still in the planning phases, and no commitments have been made. The Clackamas County and Milwaukie petitions, not circulated until the ink was dry on the intergovernmental agreements (and the project had actually started construction), are a bit late in the game. (There’s a reasonable chance that the petitions, even if they pass, may not have the desired effects: I could easily see legal council for Milwaukie and Clackamas County ruling that they only affect future projects, not Milwaukie MAX as designed, as use of legislative power to abrogate public contracts is impermissible under the Contracts Clause).

If one or more of the aforementioned cities doesn’t want a MAX line, or other type of transit infrastructure, it is good to know it now, so that plans can be made to accommodate these civic desires. That said, it would be nice to see a similar standard be applied to freeway construction.

30 Comments

30 Responses to Anti-LRT petitions being circulated in SW Corridor cities

  1. Alexander Craghead
    March 26, 2012 at 10:02 am Link

    Good? Democracy?

    Transportation engineering should not be decided at the ballot box. There is a reason we don’t run ODOT, for example, at every election ballot. From the founding of this country it has been recognized that the general public will not know enoughh about specific projects and policies to make an educated decision,

    So what is next? A requirement that every project over a certain dollar amount must be voted on? Do this, and you cede ground to those who think that government is best when it is hobbled and incapable of function.

    It’s time to move past the Sizemore/Eyeman era, or be relegated to becoming a land where the NIMBY and Build Nothing tail wags the dog of our entire state. On principle, this is wrong, unjustified, and destructive.

  2. EngineerScotty
    March 26, 2012 at 10:25 am Link

    Transportation engineering should not be decided at the ballot box.

    There are a pair of dueling amorphisms on the subject of the military: One is that “was is too important to be left to politicians”, the other is that “war is too important to be left to the generals”.

    Which is right?

    Both.

    The politics of war–who we go to war with, and what the permitted contours of hostilities are–are political decisions which ought to be left to civilian control. The implementation of warfare–tactics, strategy, and logistics, to say nothing of the actual fighting, killing, and dying–are professional matters which ought to be overseen by professional military personnel. Bad Things happen both when political leaders abdicate political decision-making to the Pentagon, or when they get excessively involved with military operations.

    A similar principle applies here: Engineering issues (the “how”) should be decided professionally. Political issues (the “what”) should be decided democratically. Certainly, the public (nor their representatives) ought not be micromanaging every last detail of the design of something, but the massive amounts of freeway construction that we today suffer under is, in many ways, the result of leaving the decisions as to what to build to people (highway engineers, in particular) unqualified to answer that question.

    Right now, the SW Corridor is still very much in the “what” stage. Technical professionals are participating in the discussions, but they are (and ought not be) leading the discussion.

    And of course, the public process by which decisions are presently made concerning the SW Corridor and other projects, is already political: there’s a tremendous amount of community outreach and attempts to solicit feedback from interested residents, and Metro, JPACT, and the various municipal governments who will jointly decide what gets built are all political bodies. It’s not as though the engineers and planners in TriMet’s capital projects division (and the various private engineering firms that TriMet does business with) have been given a blank check to design and build a light rail system to Sherwood.

    Is a political restriction on a certain technology (“thou shalt not build light rail”) an intrusion onto the turf of implementation? Perhaps, but if you replace “light rail” with “freeways” or “busways” or whatever else, in this question, you ought to come up with the same answer.

  3. EngineerScotty
    March 26, 2012 at 11:09 am Link

    Minor typo above. Last sentence of third-from-bottom paragraph should conclude:

    …but they aren’t (and ought not be) leading the discussion.

  4. Chris I
    March 26, 2012 at 11:28 am Link

    Scotty,

    One of the issues I can think of with your idea: the balance between NIMBYism and the tyranny of the masses. How do we vote on projects? By region, by city, by neighborhood? If the voting area is too small, NIMBYism can be a problem, if it is too big, voters are disconnected, and won’t care about the project.

  5. EngineerScotty
    March 26, 2012 at 11:52 am Link

    One of the issues I can think of with your idea: the balance between NIMBYism and the tyranny of the masses. How do we vote on projects? By region, by city, by neighborhood? If the voting area is too small, NIMBYism can be a problem, if it is too big, voters are disconnected, and won’t care about the project.

    Good question.

    Right now, the only legally permissible voting boundaries for the sort of actions being proposed by the petitioners are municipal governments (counties and cities). There is no legal way, using the ballot box, for individual neighborhoods to “opt out” of public works projects. (On the other hand, when urban renewal or LIDs are utilized, this gives local neigbhors more of a voice).

    Jurisdiction-seeking is naturally a problem: Should voters in Sandy or Molalla be involved in decisions on light-rail? If their tax dollars are paying for it, perhaps.

    My long-term concern with over-use of the ballot box to block public works projects is that it may lead to a breakdown of the political consensus needed to maintain the overall system (including both roads and highways as well as transit). Right now, there has been a longstanding “gentlemen’s agreement” among the various municipalities in the Portland metro area to cooperate on funding issues–pooling local resources to build one project here, another project there, and cooperating in order to get grants from Uncle Sam. I probably should do a separate article on this, but there’s some evidence that this agreement is starting to fray: Many suburban communities are expressing more and more the sentiment that Portland is getting all the goodies, and that Portland-focused infrastructure is being built. Clackamas County, in particular, has backed up this sentiment with several votes, many of which are seen as a public repudiation of regional planning.

    Given the challenges posed by global warming and peak oil, I think a shift away from SOVs is necessary, and I think that the urbanized portions of Clackamas County are acting in an unwise fashion. But given that the county is the least urban of the three in the tri-county area (and many of its residents LIKE it that way) a transition away from auto-centric infrastructure to something more sustainable may be most painful for them.

    One advantage that highway construction has over transit is much of the funds to build it is laundered through ODOT. County and city governments aren’t asked to directly chip in from their general funds to build highways–these things have their own dedicated funding streams. Major transit projects, on the other hand, need to cobble together ad hoc funding packages, and contributions from municipal governments or dedicated revenue bonds (requiring voter approval) are frequently a necessary part of it. It’s easy for anti-transit opponents to get legislation passed in conservative cities to block transit funding; but there really isn’t an equivalent avenue to block highway funding: Portland residents simply can’t throw a wrench into the CRC works, for exmaple, by voting to block city funding for the project.

  6. zefwagner
    March 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm Link

    Chris I brings up a great point. To what extent should we act as a region, rather than a collection of cities? My problem with these petitions is that they promote the idea that individual cities should have a right to opt out of important regional projects. Imagine if Hillsboro and Portland wanted light rail back in the 90′s, but Beaverton voted against it. Should that have scuttled the whole project? Our sense of regionalism seems to be very delicate, and needs to be protected against provincialism. The Metro committees, for all their faults, exist to make sure that major transportation and land use decisions are made on a regional level. I could see some value in letting the voters in the whole region have a referendum on certain projects, but I don’t cheer this kind of local initiative process.

  7. EngineerScotty
    March 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm Link


    Chris I brings up a great point. To what extent should we act as a region, rather than a collection of cities? My problem with these petitions is that they promote the idea that individual cities should have a right to opt out of important regional projects. Imagine if Hillsboro and Portland wanted light rail back in the 90′s, but Beaverton voted against it. Should that have scuttled the whole project? Our sense of regionalism seems to be very delicate, and needs to be protected against provincialism. The Metro committees, for all their faults, exist to make sure that major transportation and land use decisions are made on a regional level. I could see some value in letting the voters in the whole region have a referendum on certain projects, but I don’t cheer this kind of local initiative process.

    See prior comments about ODOT above:

    Which leads to an interesting question: Should Metro itself have greater taxing power throughout its jurisdiction, sufficient to fund major capital projects without having to go to individual jurisdictions for their approval (but simultaneously reliving cities and counties of the need to fund Metro from their general funds)? Right now Metro has limited taxing power, and disperses money that comes from local governments onto regional projects; those opposed to LRT are attempting to gum up those works by using the power of the initiative to deny that funding. This could open up a rather interesting and troublesome can of worms, particular if Portlanders were to vote, for example, to refuse to permit Portland tax dollars to help pay for things like the Sunrise Corridor or the I5/99W Connector.

  8. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 3:58 pm Link

    “”"From the founding of this country it has been recognized that the general public will not know enoughh about specific projects and policies to make an educated decision”"”

    OMG-LONG LIVE THE KING!

    He is all wise and knows best for his serfs.

    (did I mention that 1,000,000 Irish home owners have refused to pay their property taxes? What would happen here if the citizens started doing thing like that?)

  9. Chris
    March 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm Link

    I’m just trying to figure out at which point do voters stop micromanaging government projects. At that point we might as well not elect representatives and just have everything go through the ballot box… :-(

  10. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm Link

    “I’m just trying to figure out at which point do voters stop micromanaging government projects. At that point we might as well not elect representatives and just have everything go through the ballot box.”

    ~~~> I’m for that!

  11. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 4:26 pm Link

    How can you defend government decision makers after taking a good look at how the Trimet board of directors is composed!

    The entire board is made up of business people and ex government officials.

    People are getting pretty sick and tired having these ‘elite’ telling us what is good for us.

    I’m firmly on the conservative side of that argument.

  12. Tony Choad
    March 26, 2012 at 4:27 pm Link

    Hey AL M: How would you feel about voters getting a say on Trimet employee health benefits and pension plan?

    That knife can cut both ways. I’d love a chance to vote to drastically cut back on Trimet union perks….

  13. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 4:46 pm Link

    “Hey AL M: How would you feel about voters getting a say on Trimet employee health benefits and pension plan?”

    ~~~>sounds fair enough to me.

  14. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm Link

    Believe it or not, I think there is WAY TO MUCH WASTE AT TRIMET…

    That includes union and non union employees.

    I do believe that health care is a RIGHT not a ‘benefit’ and that the problem is not us or Trimet, its a national problem and one of the major disgraces of our government and people for allowing this for *profit* health care system to be attached to the life blood of the American people.

    It is the top cause of bankruptcy for Americans, and who knows how many people die because they don’t have any insurance.

    We call ourselves a ‘civilized’ society? Nothing could be further from the truth.

    We live in a dog eat dog society, I got mine, you get yours.

    Really not much different from cave men really when you get right down to it.

  15. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 5:30 pm Link

    Here is a somewhat civilized society:

    bbn.ee – Tallinn to have free public transport from 2013

  16. EngineerScotty
    March 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm Link

    You don’t have to go to Lithuania to find free public transit, merely down to Corvallis. (As an aside–how does ATU757 view First Student–the private bus company to which Corvallis Transit System outsources its operations–as an employer? Would they be better to drive for than TriMet?)

  17. AL M
    March 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm Link

    Scott I will not be driving any buses, ANYWHERE, real real soon.

  18. Alexander Craghead
    March 26, 2012 at 10:20 pm Link

    Sory, but transportation mode is not a political decision. Mode is about what is efficient, cost effective, engineerable, possible, maintainable, within an operating budget, etcetera. I adamently oppose any direct elections on mode choice.

    If we throw every public project by mode to the voters, then we end up with politically designed transportation instead of functionally designed transportation.

    The very arguments being made by the promoters of these ballot measures shows the fallacy of public votes on mode choice. Tropes about crime rail, or *cough* demographic change that light rail will bring are primary examples. We really want to expose more decision points, such as mode choice and its critical consequences, to this highly politicized process? I think not.

    Others have already eloquently pointed out the problems with political Baklanization that this brings as well, when it is more critical than ever that we stay connected as a region. I add my own concern with this. The last thing we need is to descend into a further divided region, where we fight more and more with each other as progress and jobs pass us by.

    And as for Al, sorry, read what I wrote again, and go brush up on your constitutional history. I didn’t and don’t adovcate for absolute power. I do advocate for the representative system that has served us for over 200 years. It wasnt designed on a whim, and the problems we are having now are not in any way new.

  19. Alexander Craghead
    March 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm Link

    And no, I don’t come up with the same answer as you, Scotty, if I replace “light rail” with “bus way” or “freeway.” I oppose the CRC, I think it’s a total screw up, but I don’t think we should vote on it.

  20. al m
    March 26, 2012 at 11:03 pm Link

    Served “us” well for over 200 years.

    Who EXACTLY is “us”?

    Black people might disagree with you.

    I think native American’s might disagree with you too!

    And I bet a whole heap a bunch of white people might disagree with that Alex (you don’t mind if I call you Alex do you?)

  21. Anandakos
    March 26, 2012 at 11:32 pm Link

    It’s time to let Clackamas County go. They’re irritated that they don’t get much Tri-Met service and most of the residents don’t work in downtown Portland anyway. They’re going to drive.

    It would be better just to sever the agreement and let bygones be bygones. If they want to take a train to Beaverton, let them pay for WES. I doubt they’ll bother.

  22. Jason McHuff
    March 27, 2012 at 1:28 am Link

    As an aside–how does ATU757 view First Student–the private bus company to which Corvallis Transit System outsources its operations–as an employer?

    From what I hear, not very good. I’m pretty sure there’s been labor issues there, as well as up here with LIFT.

    As for the opposition, I feel like the baby is going to get thrown out with the bathwater. That it may be hard to do an alternative, successful non-rail plan.

    The real problem is that our transportation planning/funding system is messed up. The decision of what to build can be based more on what the Federal government is willing to fund and what people find attractive than on what makes sense from a financial and technical standpoint. If we had a better marketplace and more local control, there could possibly be a rational discussion, and an outcome that may or may not be rail-based

    Also, it would be worthwhile to know who is behind these. Is the general citizenry really largely worried?

  23. Curt
    March 27, 2012 at 7:10 am Link

    Scotty, I liked your last comment about requesting the freeway expansion projects be subjected to the same question.

    It stands to reason that a massive expenditure of money on roads should be held to the same standard. Most people polled, this is an off the cuff assumption, would likely vote in favor of a road project simply for the fact that we have all grown up in the era of road building and therefore have concluded road building will continue.

    However, those of us who study alternatives to the automobile, know that public transit (including buses, trains, streetcars, bikes, etc) all contribute to the overall well being of a region; even non-users.

    Either we vote on ALL projects, or no projects.

  24. Tom
    March 27, 2012 at 4:48 pm Link

    Could a citizen initiative in Portland derail the CRC? Is one or more of the following possible, and what would the effect be?

    Could citizens enact zoning/land use/environmental rules that make the project infeasible?

    Could a citizen initiative enact airport flight path safety and/or river transportation protections that effective make a bridge impossible and force the project to a tunnel?

    Could a citizen initiative prohibit the city from doing anything beyond the bare minimum required by law to help the project?

    Could a citizen initiative require 100% compliance with all existing city ordinances, regulations, etc. without any variances? (My observation is that most to all large projects need variances, exceptions, and favorable interpretations.)

    Would these items be enough to derail a project that is already on thin ice?

    And I be we could find a small amount city money being spent on coordination and similar.

  25. EngineerScotty
    March 27, 2012 at 5:48 pm Link

    It’s generally doubtful that municipal regulations can block state/federal projects, particularly apart from the question of necessary municipal approval.

    I made note of a Damascus attempt to try and ban light rail. While it failed at the ballot box (and LRT to Damascus is a long ways off, if ever); it’s unlikely that the city of Damascus has the legal authority to outright ban rail transit in the city, particularly if that system is operated by a state-chartered transit authority such as TriMet. IANAL, so standard disclaimers apply, but inferior levels of government (and here I mean lower in the power structure, not of lower quality) generally don’t get to block the actions of superior levels of government with regulations. Same principle applies as Uncle Sam not having to pay local property taxes on buildings it owns.

  26. jimbobpdx
    March 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm Link

    Wow, was I ever shocked to see such a muddle-headed idea being endorsed by a former MPAC member, Streetcar board member, Planning Commissioner, etc. etc.

    Disclaimer – I have not read the petition, but the linked Tribune article quotes a petition promoter saying light rail needs to be approved by the voters – not just the funding.

    Going back a few years, this approach would have ensured that the Banfield Light Rail Project stopped at 82nd, given the opposition in mid-County and Gresham (that being back in the day, before Gresham annexed west and Portland east, meeting at 162nd).

    Could the Westside project have made it past Sylvan into unincorporated Washington County and Beaverton? Maybe, maybe not.

    Maywood Park went to the mat to try and stop the Airport extension. You could probably have counted Maywood voters in favor on your toes and fingers.

    Just for fun, let’s imagine that Tigard approves LRT, King City & Tualatin nix it, and Sherwood approves. Do you route LRT to the south side of 99? End the rail & switch to buses when you come to the Tualatin city limits?

    And why would we limit this cockamamie notion to transit? How about road projects? Schools and libraries? Park facilities? Sherwood could direct THPRD that only tennis courts could be built in that town; Tigard could vote to have only swimming pools.

    I’m hoping that this idea was put forward to generate controversy and page views for this blog. Troubling, yes, but not so troubling as the idea that a seemingly savvy transportation guy would endorse such mischief and nut-jobbery.

  27. Chris Smith
    March 27, 2012 at 8:13 pm Link

    Wow, was I ever shocked to see such a muddle-headed idea being endorsed by a former MPAC member, Streetcar board member, Planning Commissioner, etc. etc.

    That resume sounds a lot like me, so I’ll assume I’m the intended target.

    I did not write this post and have not weighed in on the comment thread so far, so I don’t think I’ve endorsed anything here?

    For the record, I’m a fan of representative government. Elect people and give them the ability to make choices, vote them out of office if you don’t like the choices.

    But I agree with Scotty’s perspective that if people don’t want LRT in the Southwest Corridor, now is indeed the time to weigh in. There will be an extensive public input process and lots of opportunities for elected in the corridor to express opinions (most if not all of the Mayors involved are on the steering committee). If you’re going to complain, do it now, not after a Locally Preferred Alternative is selected.

  28. EngineerScotty
    March 27, 2012 at 8:26 pm Link

    A minor point of clarification:

    I don’t endorse the proposed initiatives–my focus is of timing. However, the citizens of the affected communities do have the right to weigh in in this manner as a matter of law; better they do so now than at the 11th hour.

    In particular, I’m suspicious of the desire to put this on the September ballot, when the general election is two months afterwards. It smells like the petitioners want the sort of electorate that comes to the polls when President Obama isn’t on the ballot, rather than the electorate that shows up when he is Forum shopping is a grand tradition in politics.

    As noted above, it’s doubtful that any city could prevent light rail construction–Maywood Park tried, as noted above–cities simply don’t have that level of authority. As a practical matter, if a LRT line closely follows OR99W to Sherwood, then Tualatin and King City don’t matter much. A 99W line wouldn’t likely stop in Tualatin (nicking the city limits in the northwest corner), and if it follows the highway, wouldn’t pass through King City itself (the highway is not with King City’s boundaries), although a Durham Road stop would be likely. The key cities to pay attention to are Tigard and Sherwood, and the latter community probably would benefit more from better bus service (making the 12 frequent all the way out, or direct connections to Tualatin or Beaverton) at this point than a rail line to the outer ‘burbs.

  29. jimbobpdx
    March 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm Link

    Oops – a v. red face at this end. Apologies to Chris Smith – & a mea culpa to go.

    Next time, a closer read will be in order. (climbs down from high horse, slinks away . . .)

  30. Aaron G
    March 28, 2012 at 10:39 am Link

    Would it really be the worst thing in the world if suburbs I will rarely if ever travel to don’t get a multibillion-dollar transit treatment? I think a lot of people would be just as happy to move on to Powell. If they don’t want it, why spend money on them?

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