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April 30th, 2008 12:00 am NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories

Span Spin

Diagnosis for a new bridge alignment: OHSU benefits.

NORTH AND SOUTH: OHSU wants a light-rail bridge to run much closer to its South Waterfront operations.

Former Mayor Vera Katz will double down this week on a big bet she made years ago that OHSU’s dreams would power Portland’s future.

Katz—who is chairing a committee that includes representatives from TriMet, Metro and the City of Portland—is scheduled Thursday, May 1, to announce the preferred alignment for a new bridge over the Willamette River that would finally extend light rail from downtown to Milwaukie.

Such a light-rail extension has been planned for more than a decade. But after months of study, Katz’s committee—staffed by her former planning director, David Knowles, now a private consultant—has decided to recommend shifting it south, close to Oregon Health & Science University’s South Waterfront campus.

The 6.5-mile extension to Milwaukie inched closer to reality last year, when the Legislature committed $250 million in lottery-backed bonds to what TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says is a project price tag of $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion.

A battle among South Waterfront property owners during Katz’s tenure over where light rail would cross the Willamette ended in 2003 with a “locally preferred alternative” that crossed the river at Southwest Harrison Street near Riverplace. That line would run in a straight line across the Willamette to OMSI.

A lot has changed since then, however. The city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure in South Waterfront, including extending the Portland Streetcar and building the tram to OHSU, two projects that were initiated when Katz was mayor.

Now OHSU wants the light-rail bridge shifted to the south of its planned “Schnitzer Campus.” A stop there would serve its 1,000 employees in the current South Waterfront building and another 11,000 employees on Marquam Hill.

OHSU, which recorded 672,000 patients visits last year, is the city’s biggest generator of traffic, OHSU real estate director Mark Williams says.

“We’re trying to carry on the mission of providing health care and medical education to the public,” Williams says. “As part of that public mission, we want to get people out of cars and a different [light-rail] alignment will help us do that.”

As with any public project, two central questions are who pays and who benefits. Like the tram, such a shift in the light-rail extension will provide a big benefit to OHSU, the city’s largest employer. And like the tram, much of the added cost will probably be borne by adjacent businesses—and depending on the ultimate price tag and discipline to the project’s budget, possibly taxpayers.

Katz calls any comparison to the tram incorrect. “This bridge will benefit the whole region,” she says. “It will help OHSU as well, but it’s about time we stepped up to help the city’s largest employer.” Tom Miller, chief of staff to City Commissioner Sam Adams, who directs the Office of Transportation, says local businesses should pick up the incremental cost of extending the project to accommodate OHSU’s vision for South Waterfront.

One of those businesses, Zidell Marine, which builds barges just south of the Ross Island bridge, has argued for sticking close to the 2003 alignment.

Doing so, says company representative Bob Durgan, would maximize the amount of developable land in South Waterfront and be cheaper.

TriMet project manager Dave Unsworth says shifting the alignment south will add $34 million, but significantly boost ridership by linking to the tram and South Waterfront. He adds that the 2003 alignment would have created disastrous traffic and required costly elevation.

“The extra cost could end up being a wash, and we get more ridership and less traffic,” he says.

FACT: TriMet and Metro hope to persuade the feds to contribute $840 million to the project. With the state’s $250 million contribution, that leaves local government agencies to come up with $160 million to $410 million.

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