PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — A coalition of nine business organization asked the Metro Council on Wednesday to delay referring its planned $5 billion regional transportation funding measure to the Nov. 3 general election ballot.
Metro is scheduled to vote on the referral on Wednesday, July 16. But the coalition said the economy is now so bad because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses in the tri-county region cannot afford the new payroll tax intended to fund the transportation and transit projects and programs.
“We represent thousands of the region’s employers, organizations of all sizes and from every part of the region. We are deeply concerned that Metro has not paused to consider if now is the right time, the right mechanism and the right package given the significant economic downturn and major shifts in commuting behaviors,” reads the letter sent to the council on July 8.
The letter was signed by the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners & Managers Association of Oregon, the Clackamas County Business Alliance, the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce , the Portland Business Alliance, the Smart Growth Coalition, the Westside Economic Alliance, and the Working Waterfront Coalition.
“We urge you to consider whether current changes of the magnitude we are experiencing in our economy require all of us to pause on a new business tax proposal,” the letter continues.
The council is already considering a number of changes to measure in response to growing business unease over it. Among other things, the council is considering delaying the implementation of the tax until 2022 and phasing it in over a number of years.
At the same time, the council has dropped a $56 a year motor vehicle registration fee that was part of the proposal. The council is considering raising the tax from .6% to .675% to make up for the lost revenue, although it could be phased in over time.
The measure is intended to help funds the Southwest Corridor MAX project and make improvements in transportation corridors throughout the region. Although transit ridership and driving is down because of the pandemic, both Metro and TriMet say the measure — and the projects it will fund — are still needed. They believe the crisis eventually will pass, resulting in many people going out to work, shop and entertain themselves again.
And in the short term, Metro and TriMet say the construction projects and new programs will help the region get through the next few years by creating tens of thousands of new jobs when they are most needed.
Projects and programs in measure
Planning for the new MAX line began many years ago. It was always considered to be part of comprehensive transportation improvements between downtown Portland and the rapidly growing areas of Washington County that includes Tigard and Tualatin. Cities and counties along the route also realized that more affordable housing would be needed to minimize displacement caused by increasing property values, also known as gentrification.
But because the measure will be proposed by a regional government, there is also a need to give voters outside the corridor a reason to vote for it. That provided an opportunity to create a regional transportation improvement program to be funded by the measure. The council has indicated its support for around 150 projects in 16 transportation corridors in all three counties within Metro’s jurisdiction.
According to the draft plan, the largest investment would be $975 million to help finance the new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost of the project, currently estimated at $2.8 billion.
Other investments for projects and planning in the draft plan include: $520 million along Tualatin Valley Highway; $520 million along 82nd Avenue; $280 million along McLoughlin Boulevard; $270 million along Burnside Street; $220 million in the Central City; $200 million along Southwest 185th Avenue; $180 million in the Highway 212/Sunrise Corridor; $150 million in the Clackamas-to-Columbia/181st Corridor; $90 million along Southeast Powell Boulevard; $90 million along 162nd Avenue; $90 million along 122nd Avenue; $55 million for the Albina Vision project in the Rose Quarter area; $54 million along Highway 43; $12 million along Highway 217; and $3.5 million along Highway 99W.
Also likely to be approved are $250 million per year for transportation-related programs over the next 20 years.
If the measure is approved by voters at the Nov. 3 general election, Metro is likely to issue revenue bonds before the fee and tax become effective to begin work on some of the projects as soon as possible.
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