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Grants would benefit Portland train movements, auto exports

I-405 overcrossing also on list pending before state commission.

Train movements through Portland will be eased and auto exports from Portland will be boosted by millions in pending state grants earmarked for transportation projects other than highways.

The decision is up to the Oregon Transportation Commission, which on Thursday (July 21) heard advocates for those projects and another that would provide a new overcrossing at Interstate 405 for pedestrians and bicyclists on NW Flanders Street.

Together, the three Portland projects — two of which are rated in the top 10 — are requesting a total of $13.8 million.

The commission is scheduled to act Aug. 18-19, when it meets in Klamath Falls, on the list of 39 projects seeking shares of $49 million from lottery-backed bonds in the current round of Connect Oregon grants.

The largest request of $8.3 million is from Union Pacific and its subsidiaries, which plan track, signal and elevation improvements at the North Portland junction of UP and BNSF railroads. Daily movements, including those of Portland and Western Railroad and Amtrak trains, approach 100.

The junction has been recognized as a chokepoint for freight and passenger (Amtrak) trains for at least 25 years.

“The current track configuration — signals and curvature — requires trains to make substantial reductions in speed or even stop as they navigate this junction,” says Craig Levie, a former rail program manager for the Port of Portland who now works for Tangent Services.

“Freight and passenger train movements … are all affected by this junction. It creates significant congestion. The benefits of improving this junction have been documented in numerous studies.”

The project would be matched with $4.7 million from other sources.

Levie says the project would increase train speeds from 10 to 30 mph, reduce wait times by up to 21 minutes, and improve the reliability of freight and passenger trains. It also would reduce traffic delays on Columbia Boulevard.

UP public affairs director Mike Eliason says the project has been well reviewed by modal and regional panels that screened 75 qualifying proposals for Connect Oregon money.

“It’s been a thorn in our transportation connectivity for a long, long time,” says Donald Leap, governmental affairs director for the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates. “We recognize the need for it and now is the time to act.”

With support from the Oregon Department of Transportation, Amtrak operates twice-daily runs between Portland and Eugene. With support from its Washington state counterpart, Amtrak operates four daily round trips between Portland and Seattle — and it is scheduled to add two more runs in 2017.

Although the Oregon Transportation Commission heard no opposition, a member of the final review panel for Connect Oregon projects raised concerns about Union Pacific, which operated a train that derailed June 3 east of Hood River and spilled crude oil. But another panelist then said the Portland project should stand on its own merits.

While she raised no objection to UP’s request — the Portland and Western Railroad operates almost entirely through her Northwest Oregon district — Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, told the commission that it lays claim to almost 30 percent of the available money in this round of Connect Oregon grants.

The UP request ranks eighth on the list of 39.

Auto terminal

Topping the list, with no controversy, is a request for $2.6 million from the Port of Portland for an auto staging facility across from Terminal 6. The port will lease it to Auto Warehousing Co. (AWC), which will use it primarily to export vehicles to Asia. The projected match is $4.1 million.

The port has long been the leading West Coast importer of vehicles from Honda, Hyundai and Toyota. But under a project AWC started in 2010 and implemented in 2012, Ford Motor Co. began to ship vehicles to Asian markets.

“Their business is growing with these products and creating jobs,” says Dennis Matteo, chief financial officer of AWC, which is based in Tacoma, Wash., and runs many auto operations.

Ford ships vehicles from its North American assembly plants to Portland, where they are bound for markets in China, Korea and the Philippines. Matteo says about 50,000 are exported annually, but that figure is projected to double in the next few years.

“The port has become a significant gateway for exports to new and growing Asian markets,” says Melanie Wiegner, Western states regional manager for Ford based in Sacramento, Calif. “I believe this is in large part due to strategic transportation infrastructure decisions by you over the years.

“If this project is approved, it will support significantly greater volumes in the years to come.”

Assistant Director Maurice Henderson of the Portland Bureau of Transportation spoke for the city’s bid for $2.9 million — matched with $3 million from the city — for a new 24-foot-wide overcrossing of I-405 on NW Flanders Street. The bridge will enable pedestrians and bicyclists to move between Northwest Portland and downtown.

It’s ranked 21st on the list.

A cloudy future?

Projects in the three Portland area counties account for eight of the 39 on the list, which started with 75 qualifying proposals seeking $91.2 million.

The overall list is more than the $45 million that lawmakers made available for the current round of Connect Oregon projects in 2015. That’s because the Oregon Department of Transportation reported about $4.5 million more available from savings on previous projects or projects that did not go through.

ODOT keeps $500,000 for administration, so the total available for projects is $49 million.

Under Connect Oregon, project sponsors have 180 days from commission approval to sign contracts with ODOT — and they are reimbursed for their shares only after projects are completed.

Connect Oregon has distributed $370 million in proceeds from lottery-backed bonds to 186 projects since it started in 2005. The proceeds were matched by $535 million from other sources.

In each of its first three budget cycles, lawmakers made available $100 million for Connect Oregon projects. But that amount has shrunk in recent cycles to about $40 million.

Earlier during the hearing, Sen. Johnson told the commission that the current round of Connect Oregon projects could be the last if Oregon voters approve any of three ballot measures that would lay claim to guaranteed shares of Oregon Lottery proceeds.

Under the Oregon Constitution, 18 percent of lottery proceeds go into an education reserve fund, and 15 percent go to parks, watersheds and salmon habitat. A fluctuating share goes toward debt service on previously issued bonds.

Lawmakers have discretion over the rest, which must go to economic development and education.

Johnson said those measures on the Nov. 8 ballot are in addition to a looming $1 billion shortfall for the state’s 2017-19 budget cycle.

“Connect Oregon relies on available lottery funds,” said Johnson, who is Senate co-leader of the legislative budget subcommittee on transportation. “If all of those are subscribed through the ballot box, there will be no Connect Oregon projects … if we do not have the money to back it up. So I think this existential threat to Connect Oregon is something voters ought to be aware of.”

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