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County wants more voice in TriMet, ODOT

“We want to be heard” was the frequent refrain voiced by Clackamas County residents about two bills making their way through the Legislature.

State legislators last week held hearings on proposals to allow local governments within TriMet’s boundaries to appoint members to an expanded board of directors and create area committees on transportation for the parts of the state lacking an organized voice on state-funded transportation issues.

The legislation is targeting Clackamas County’s challenges as a regional and state player in political issues: The county’s only representative on TriMet’s board is Lake Oswego resident Craig Prosser, a retired Tigard city manager appointed to the board by the governor. Clackamas County has 287 miles of state highway and 129,000 people lacking representation in an area committee on transportation, 93.5 percent of the area in the third-largest county in the state.

One proposal by state Rep. Chris Gorsek (D-Troutdale) is House Bill 3316, which would expand TriMet’s seven-member board to 11 people and let local governments select most of the board members. Gov. John Kitzhaber opposes the measure that would remove his own authority to select TriMet’s board members.

Despite protests also coming from heads of TriMet and the Oregon Department of Transportation, both bills are making progress through committees. At an April 15 hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development, legislators approved refinements of TriMet reforms and sent the bill to the Rules Committee. On that same day, committee members seemed to favor additional provisions to allow small portions of Washington County and East Multnomah County to join Hood River County in developing their own ACTs on a flexible timeframe, bringing the total number of unrepresented people to 170,000.

When Metro annexes parts of rural Clackamas County into the urban growth boundary, the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation would then represent those areas. The bill would require ODOT to meet with county commissioners by late October 2014 and take other “steps taken toward the formation” of an area committee on transportation for Clackamas County.

Speaking ‘loud and clear’

House Bill 2945 sponsor Bill Kennemer (R-Canby/Beavercreek) represents a large part of rural Clackamas County where constituents have pressed him for representation in state-controlled agencies. The cities of Sandy, Molalla and Canby support Kennemer’s bill, as well as the Board of County Commissioners and all state legislators who represent portions of Clackamas County.

“It’s time for us to bring public process, representation and fairness to the folks in this area,” Kennemer said. “I ask that you please help find the orphans of these four counties find an ACT.”

One of the co-sponsors of Kennemer’s bill, state Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River) joked, “We can get our ACT together.”

Both bills could have widespread significance for how Clackamas County is perceived as a regional player. Both bills also have the support of lawmakers who live in Portland.

State Rep. Shemia Fagan (D-Southeast Portland/Clackamas) gave Kennemer credit for spearheading HB 2945 and promised to support it.

“People in Clackamas County have spoken loud and clear,” Fagan said. “They want to have local control, and this bill takes the power away from Metro and puts it back in the hands of Clackamas residents.”

Sen. Chip Shields (D-North/Northeast Portland) spoke in favor of the TriMet reforms, but his speech sounded similar to many of those delivered by Clackamas County ACT proponents.

“The more democracy the better, and the public interest is best served when it’s closer to the people,” Shields said.

Agency opposition

ODOT Director Matt Garrett took issue with the idea that legislators would step in when the agency already has “a very strong partnership with the communities of Clackamas County.

“I embrace and strongly subscribe to the intent and that type of outcome here, but unfortunately I disagree with the approach,” Garrett said. “I have concerns that the legislative language creates a potential here in its structure to pit rural perspectives with urban perspectives — I think that’s a recipe for conflict rather than consensus.”

He asked legislators to put off their decisions so that ODOT could create a committee to consider composition of possible metro-area committees on transportation. In response to legislators’ concerns, Garrett argued that the counter proposal wasn’t a “delay tactic” but a “comprehensive conversation” among all the areas within the five-county area.

County Chairman John Ludlow protested ODOT’s suggestion to create one “mega-ACT” for the Portland region.

“This would create a single ACT for 1.7 million people, almost 44 percent of the state’s population, when 11 ACTs exist to serve the remaining population of the state,” Ludlow said. “We do not believe that the rural interests would be well-served in an ACT at this time and would likely be dominated by the needs of the urban areas, much like it is now.”

TriMet concerns

“Wilsonville, Sandy, Molalla (and) others have done pretty good models of small, cross-suburban transit, and TriMet is not getting that done,” said Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn).

Kitzhaber said the TriMet board reform bill is not likely to pass this session.

“I think there are problems with TriMet, and I intend to aggressively pursue them,” the governor said. “I think that it’s an organization that’s very challenged. I don’t think that just changing the way the board is appointed will change very much.”

At the April 15 committee hearing, TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane told the panel that the agency’s board was tackling a host of challenges and trying to improve transit service with shrinking resources.

“These have been difficult times and we are doing our best to serve our customers and get our fiscal house in order,” McFarlane told the committee, “And our board is suited to the task. Changing the appointment of the board doesn’t create more revenue or reduce costs by itself that allows us grow more service.”

He noted that TriMet is looking into “innovative” models, including in partnership with the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce, to create more concentrated service areas in the suburbs.

Reporter Steve Law contributed to this news story.