Light rail: Central planners don’t care what suburbanites want

by Dave Lister

In response to the signature-gathering in Clackamas County to refer the county’s funding of the Milwaukie light-rail line to the voters, Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette, who represents part of that county, was quoted as saying, “We work hard to find out what communities want to be, and then help them become that.” That would elicit a laugh-out-loud from the petitioners in Clackamas, the Estacada voters who just squelched urban renewal and the voters in Damascus who just thwarted Metro by passing a measure requiring a popular vote on any comprehensive land-use plan. It would probably also elicit a chuckle from the Troutdale City Council, which appears to have reached an uneasy truce with the regional government over alleged non-compliance with Title 13 of Metro’s 2040 master plan. 

Title 13, also known as “nature in neighborhoods,” seeks to conserve, protect and restore a continuous ecologically viable streamside corridor system that is integrated with upland wildlife habitat and the surrounding urban landscape. The code itself encompasses 129 pages, covering everything from property setbacks from streambeds to vegetation requirements in public greenspaces. The Troutdale council has wrangled with Metro for four years over the details, insisting that the city’s current code already meets Title 13 goals, but a mid-February Metro Council vote to take enforcement action, which would have denied Troutdale funding from regional programs, brought the parties to the table.

“Title 13 came to us in 2008,” says Troutdale City Councilor Rich Allen. “We asked them what would happen if we didn’t comply. Their answer was that they never enforce it and never had enforced it. Metro presents their model ordinances as just guidelines, but then when you don’t follow them, you are told they are absolute.”

Noting that more and more communities are pushing back, Troutdale Councilor Glenn White says, “Our existing code protects more land than their Title 13 does, but I think they decided to slap the rogue city first. It’s just too bad they picked one of the greenest cities to attack.”

The pushback against Metro’s regional transportation and development vision has now jumped to the west side of the Willamette. Not waiting for funding to be approved or construction to start, as in the case of the Milwaukie light-rail line, citizens in Tigard, Tualatin, King City and Sherwood will be gathering signatures to thwart a light-rail expansion west on Oregon 99, still only in the conceptual stages with TriMet.

In response to that effort, Metro Councilor Carl Hosticka, who represents those communities, suggests in a March 24 opinion piece in The Oregonian’s Southwest Community weekly that the petition effort is undemocratic because “a handful of voters can veto a project affecting people throughout the region.” Probably without knowing it, Hosticka has perfectly illustrated the argument. The central-planning advocates believe their regional vision overrides the will of the bedroom communities in the suburbs. The suburbanites believe they have the right of self-determination. They don’t want the crime, congestion and density that they think will come with light rail. The central planners don’t care what the suburbanites want.

From Damascus to Tigard, from Milwaukie to Sherwood, citizens are pushing back against Metro’s vision for the region. As more and more of these initiatives make the ballot and are passed, the question is, what will Metro and other agencies do? The central planners aren’t going to go down without a fight.

A recent report by The Oregonian’s Emily Fuggetta, coupled with Troutdale’s experience, makes it pretty clear: The Oregon Department of Transportation has suspended the funding of a Transportation System Plan for the rebellious city of Damascus.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.