Tunnel Vision

Steve Novick says Portland can't afford sidewalks, but he wants $650,000 for new light rail.

City Commissioner Steve Novick has spent the past two months saying Portland can't find the money for basic transportation services such as streets and sidewalks.  

But Novick's city budget requests show he's also trying to funnel more than a half-million dollars to a new mass transit project that would mostly serve people living outside the city limits.  

No, it's not the Columbia River Crossing or Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail.  

Novick has requested $650,000 to study the possibility of building a new light-rail line through Southwest Portland to Tualatin, a project that could include drilling a second train tunnel through the West Hills.  

"This is an investment for 20 or 30 years from now," Novick says. "We expect to see a lot of people moving to Portland, and we don't want them just driving cars.” 

The request to help fund the Southwest Corridor study comes even as Novick is pleading poverty on behalf of the Portland Bureau of Transportation—and very publicly seeking new taxes and fees to fund the bureau.  

He launched his marketing effort in December with a letter to Santa Claus asking for $1.3 billion to fill a construction and maintenance backlog. Last month, he polled Portland voters about whether they'd be willing to pay more tax dollars for new sidewalks and street paving.  

There has long been conflict between City Hall's fixation on trains and other costly capital projects and more mundane chores such as addressing sidewalks and the city's 59 miles of unpaved roads.  

"Communities across the region are waiting for an endless list of neighborhood projects they never get and they never will because projects like the Southwest Corridor light-rail megaproject are at the head of the line," says Tualatin resident Steve Schopp, who wants a public vote on all light-rail projects.  

A city audit last February found spending on new construction—such as $55 million on the Milwaukie light-rail extension—has left the Portland Bureau of Transportation without enough money for basic road upkeep ("A Fork in the Road,” WW, Jan. 9, 2013). 

Novick says he's being responsible by keeping long-term plans to address westside congestion on track. 

"If we were being asked to make a commitment this year to pay $40 millionfor a Southwest Corridor high-capacity transit project," Novick says, "I would say we can't do that until we've figured out a way to pay for basic maintenance and safety features. Ultimately, though, we in Oregon and a lot of other places are going to need more high-capacity transit, or we’re going to fry the planet like a grilled cheese sandwich.” 

Novick's Jan. 28 budget request—obtained by WW through a public records request—would dedicate $650,000 in city funds to studying the environmental impacts of Southwest Corridor High Capacity Transit, a project led by Metro. 

The project would extend mass transit along Southwest Barbur Boulevard into Tigard and Tualatin—possibly via a new light-rail tunnel underneath Oregon Health & Science University. 

A Metro committee voted in October 2012 to narrow the options to bus rapid transit—an increase in bus service and lanes along Barbur—or light rail. (Construction costs could exceed $1.6 billion, according to Metro documents.)  

Portland's financial commitment could plunge the city into a bitter tussle with suburban light-rail foes.  

The Southwest Corridor project is already the target of a March ballot initiative in Tigard that would require any new light-rail construction within that city to be approved by Tigard voters.  

The anti-rail effort echoes populist uprisings against Milwaukie light rail in Clackamas County and the Columbia River Crossing in Vancouver, Wash. 

Novick and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales have been helping raise funds to fight the Tigard ballot initiative.  

"I've made some phone calls," Novick says. "Do I have a dog in the fight? I've got a poodle, a schnauzer and a Great Dane. We can't have a rational transportation system that’s not regional.” 

Art Crino, the Tigard resident who filed the ballot initiative, is unhappy to learn Portland is planning to spend money on studying light rail.

"It shows that the powers that be are against us," he says. "A lot of people have quit voting because they feel like it’s fixed.”