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Clackamas County commissioners say highway would relieve congestion, open land to business development; TriMet board mulls regional transportation projects to be added to Southwest Corridor light-rail funding measure

Clackamas County commissioners want to see consideration of the second phase of the Sunrise Corridor expressway as part of any funding measure that goes to voters for regional transportation projects.

The commissioners, in a letter they approved Tuesday (Oct. 10), also said that such a measure probably should not be rushed to a regional vote in November 2018.

The letter went to Neil McFarlane, general manager of TriMet, and Tom Hughes, president of the Metro Council.

The TriMet board is taking the lead on determining regional projects to be added to a funding measure for the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail between Portland and Tualatin. Preliminary surveys suggest that voter approval hinges on combining money for light rail, estimated at $750 million in a measure, with other transportation projects that would add about $1 billion more.

Metro coordinates regional transportation planning.

A group of Clackamas County officials has endorsed about half a dozen smaller projects for their share, but members also asked for consideration of the second phase of the Sunrise Corridor expressway, which would run east from 122nd Avenue toward Damascus. Its price tag is estimated at $250 million, far above what Clackamas County's regional share of a funding measure would be.

Still, Commissioner Paul Savas said the project should be included as officials test public sentiment for specific projects in addition to the light-rail line.

"We want that one (Sunrise) in the mix to be considered in the process," Savas said after county commissioners discussed the matter and reviewed the history of Sunrise.

"It does not mean that Sunrise will be a winner, but if it is not in the mix, it will not be considered at all. If a project is not in now, it probably is a death knell — it isn't going to happen, whether it's 2018 or 2020. All this does is keep the project alive."

Two phases

The first phase of the Sunrise Corridor expressway — two lanes in each direction between the Milwaukie Expressway and 122nd Avenue SE — was completed in July 2016. Most of its $130 million price tag was paid by the Oregon Department of Transportation — $100 million of it from the 2009 Jobs and Transportation Act, which provided a total of $1 billion for state highways over several years — and Clackamas County right-of-way purchases.

The expressway runs through the Clackamas Industrial Area, and commissioners hope its extension will provide access to developable lands to the east.

The letter by the commissioners says in part:

"As you know, Sunrise Phase II is Clackamas County's top transportation priority, which would significantly address congestion while providing access to thousands of acres of employment lands.

"We urge you to consider including Sunrise Phase II in discussions with the greater public and key stakeholder committees so that we can better assess public support for the project."

Though he supported the letter, Board Chairman Jim Bernard said he doubted a regional funding measure would win a majority in Clackamas County if the only local project included was phase 2 of the Sunrise Corridor expressway.

But, he added, "people have said they will support more money if the money is spent in Clackamas County."

Savas said a more likely scenario would combine some of the smaller local projects with continued right-of-way purchases for the Sunrise Corridor project.

The entire Sunrise Corridor, including the unbuilt extension, received federal environmental clearance in 2011.

I-205 widening

In their letter, the commissioners also said that proposed widening of Interstate 205 and strengthening of the George Abernethy Bridge should be considered on a par with the Southwest Corridor light-rail line as a regional project, not solely as a Clackamas County project.

Officials have identified the six-mile stretch of I-205 between Stafford Road and the Abernethy Bridge as one of the Portland region's three major traffic bottlenecks. That stretch — and the bridge itself — consists of two instead of three travel lanes in each direction. Also, the Abernethy Bridge, built in 1970 to span the Willamette River and connect West Linn with Oregon City, requires strengthening against the effects of a severe earthquake.

"If this bond measure is truly regional in scope and seeking to address our congestion challenges, we feel that the I-205 project is a logical candidate for inclusion," the county letter says.

The estimated price tag for all that work is about $450 million, although bridge strengthening and widening could be separated from the I-205 widening.

Asked by Commissioner Ken Humberston why the work could be separated — Humberston said congestion would be relieved only when three travel lanes are available in each direction — ODOT official Rian Windsheimer said it might make it easier to qualify the bridge work for federal grants.

Although state lawmakers approved a multiyear, $5.3 billion plan for transportation projects earlier this year, the legislation directs ODOT only to come up with a design for I-205 work by Feb. 1. The plan funds design but not construction.

The letter by the commissioners does not specifically say that a funding measure for regional projects should be delayed from 2018 to 2020.

It says: "This process necessitates deeper regional conversations with more elected officials to help identify the objectives for the regional bond and set a common vision for the desired outcomes."

But Savas said that unlike Los Angeles and Seattle, where voters approved big transit funding measures in November 2016, he doubts Portland regional officials have laid out adequate groundwork for a funding measure to succeed in 2018.

"A number is us from Clackamas County expressed concerns about the compressed timeline, that it isn't realistic," he said. "I doubt we can emulate what other areas of the country did in that short a time frame. We are not that well prepared. We want to be successful. We don't want to have it fail."

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Adds clarification on Oregon Legislature's 2017 funding of I-205 work limited to design and Feb. 1 deadline for progress report.

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