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Light-rail skeptic files petition to require county vote


But regionwide support might overrule a negative county vote

Photo Credit: TIMES FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tim Esau went door-to-door in Tigard last year to put an anti-transit petition on the ballot in Tigard. Now, hes set his sights on all of Washington County.The man who brought about sweeping changes in the way the city of Tigard handles light rail is at it again, this time hoping to change the way the entire county thinks about the issue.

Tim Esau says plans to build a high-capacity transit line from Portland to Tigard and Tualatin affect all of Washington County, and county residents need to decide for themselves whether or not the project should continue.

Esau submitted an initiative petition to Washington County on Dec. 3, requiring a countywide vote on any new rail or transit project.

Under Esau’s petition, the county’s Board of Commissioners wouldn’t be able to finance new public transit projects — chiefly a new MAX line or a Eugene-style rapid bus service currently being considered as part of the Southwest Corridor Plan — without voter approval.

“I really want to make sure that we all agree to this, and not just 100 guys with a vision that can get their pockets lined,” Esau said. Otherwise, “we will still be stuck with a traffic solution that doesn’t solve our needs in Washington County.”

Not everyone likes Esau’s idea. Elise Shearer, a Tigard resident and opponent of Esau’s measure, said she isn’t comfortable giving residents across the county a say on the Southwest Corridor Plan.

“That’s not fair to Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, who are affected by it,” Shearer said. “Forest Grove and Hillsboro don’t have a say in this planning. I’d worry about outside communities voting on our communities’ transportation projects, since they don’t have the transportation needs or the congestion that our community does.”

Funding confusion

The petition requires county commissioners to spell out exactly how much the projects would cost and forbids the county from diverting funds marked for road maintenance and construction to public rail transit projects without a public vote.

“I’m a little confused about that,” said Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers, who also chairs the Washington County Coordinating Committee, which deals with transportation planning and funding.

Money from the county’s Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program (MSTIP), which is funded by property taxes, has gone toward some transit projects, but MSTIP would never provide enough money to fund the Southwest Corridor Plan, Rogers said.

And road funds generated by the gas tax or vehicle fees are constitutionally protected by the state and cannot be used for light rail.

“It’s illegal to spend it on transit,” Rogers said.

Esau’s proposal seems to acknowledge this with a provision that forbids the county from lobbying or influencing public officials to change how it funds road maintenance and construction projects.

Although no funding options have yet been sought for the Tigard transit plan, Esau said he expects it to be paid for through already existing street fees and other services.

But Rogers said federal funding and regional bonding are usually the main money sources for light rail. And regional bonds require a regional vote from everyone within the Tri-Met service district.

So county residents within that district could vote against light rail if they don’t want it, although their votes would be mixed in with those from Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

In addition, while any “local match” county funds would need approval from all Washington County voters, a light-rail project could still move forward if people in the entire Tri-Met district voted to pay for it, said Andrew Singelakis, director of Washington County’s Department of Land Use and Transportation.

“A regional vote I believe would be the ‘governing’ vote but I am not sure,” Rogers said. “These are legal issues and matters we have not had to deal with before.”

County voters need a say

The petition is similar to a ballot measure Esau put before Tigard voters in March, which calls for a public vote before the city can approve plans for either a MAX light rail line or rapid bus line.

Since Esau’s ballot measure passed earlier this year, Tualatin voters approved a similar measure and Metro has had to rethink its plans for the line.

“We’ve got a serious need for transportation improvements, both in infrastructure and operationally,” Esau said. “Those won’t be served with a $6 billion rail project when you have real people trying to get from one part of the county to the other.”

Esau’s fight in Tigard earlier this year was largely centered on local residents taking a stand in local affairs. Proponents of Esau’s measure cried foul at outside influencers, such as the city of Portland, deciding how to run a rail system through Tigard.

But Esau’s current petition would require all Washington County voters to weigh in on transit projects, no matter where they are being built, across the county.

“When county funds are involved, it affects all of us,” Esau said.

Signature-gathering could be quick

Many have claimed that the ballot measures in Tigard, Tualatin and King City were thinly veiled attempts to kill the Southwest Corridor Plan outright, but Esau said it’s all about voter choice.

“I want to make sure voters get a say,” Esau said. “This will set guidelines at the county level.”

Esau and other opponents of the Southwest Corridor Plan have called it a boondoggle, saying the project is too expensive, and that the corridor would be better served by additional bus service and infrastructure.

Esau said that a high-capacity transit system isn’t a bad idea for the area, as long as it’s well thought out.

“If it’s compelling, I’ll vote for it,” he said. “Make the case for me. Don’t just saddle me with a huge burden.”

Esau will have two years to collect the 15,270 signatures he needs to get on the county-wide ballot, but doesn’t think he’ll need that much time.

“I know of about 10,000 already who are willing to sign it from the ones who signed before in King City, Tigard and Tualatin,” he said. “I don’t see this as a super-huge challenge. If anything, our collection methods will be easier, I am very confident we can get the signatures we need for the measure.”

Elise Shearer, who supports light rail, said that no matter what voters ultimately decide, the planning needs to continue.

“Tigard will be absorbing another 20,000 people by 2040, we have to plan for the cars and transit,” Shearer said. “People have to do something about the traffic in our area.”

Southwest Corridor Plan steering committee members hope to make a decision next spring about which mode to move forward with — light rail or rapid-bus service. Esau said he’d like his initiative to be voted on before that happens.

Washington County Elections officials are expected to issue a title for the initiative petition by the end of this week, when he can begin collecting signatures.