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Transportation networks under fire on many fronts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a “perfect storm” of decisions related to transportation. Three major developments — one national, one regional and one local — are likely to have a chilling and possibly deeply negative impact on transportation planning around the Portland metropolitan area, the Northwest and nationwide.

In chronological order, here’s what has transpired: On March 7, by failing to act, the Oregon Legislature effectively pulled the final plug on the Columbia River Crossing, which means a modern, efficient bridge in the Interstate 5 corridor between Washington and Oregon will not be built in the forseeable future. The bridge had been on life support ever since the Washington Legislature, in a stunningly obtuse move last year, failed to provide the necessary funding for the new bridge after years of planning and design work.

The CRC project is dead, and the Northwest is left with an obsolete, inefficient and unsafe bridge in arguably the single most important transportation corridor in the Northwest. And there is no framework in place now to do anything about it. It’s ridiculous.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere on March 10, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States that could have a serious impact on the nation’s network of trails created along former railroad rights of way. With an 8-1 decision, the court determined that government easements used to create railroad beds over public and private land expired once the railroads went out of business and the corridors were no longer being used for rail operations. Thus, the land in question must revert to its previous owners.

Nationwide, there are 21,768 miles of trails that were converted from old railroad rights of way. In Oregon, there are currently 19 rail-trails that cover 291 miles. Another eight former railroad corridors — totaling 170 miles — are in the process of being created. These trails may now be in jeopardy.

The court’s decision not only throws planning for new trails along unused rail corridors into doubt, it could also serve to destroy a wonderful network of existing trails — potentially including the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, a popular jewel of a trail in which the state has invested significantly to build and maintain. This 21-mile trail is used by thousands of hikers, bikers and horseback riders, and contributes to the economy of towns such as Vernonia and Banks as visitors come in to access the trail and buy fuel, food, coffee or other goods while in the area.

Recently, residents and officials of Tillamook County and Washington County have been considering creating a trail in the “Salmonberry Corridor” — a railroad right of way that could be used for a trail from Banks to the Oregon coast. This court decision from far away Washington, D.C., may not doom this particular project, but at the very least it will complicate it.

We disagree with the court’s ruling. A key premise of “rails to trails” includes the need to preserve transportation corridors, many of which have been in place for a century or more, in the event conditions change and a rail line needs to be renewed. If the land is handed to adjacent landowners, those corridors are likely to be lost. And in today’s litigious society, attempting to restore a right of way would be all but impossible.

Beyond that, these trails help to link neighboring communities. They provide social, recreational and economic benefits that cannot be directly measured. In short, this ruling rewards the few at the expense of the many.

Finally, on March 11, voters in the city of Tigard approved ballot measure 34-210, which calls for a public vote before certain mass transit projects can come into the city limits of Tigard.

This vote could throw regional transit planning into chaos, because Tigard is a key link in several possible linear routes radiating out from Portland. Under this measure, if a bare majority of Tigard voters don’t like the sound of a specific transit project, an entire transportation system could be pulled down. As a result, the rights of citizens in other communities are likely to be impacted.

For this reason, we believe this measure should be challenged in court. When a vote by those living within Tigard’s city limits directly affects citizens in other communities, that could make this measure legally suspect.

Taken as a whole, it has been a terrible month for transportation systems in Oregon. Uncertainty rules, with only one thing sure: This is not a good time to be a transportation planner.




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