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Connector Project – the future for a long time

16 October 2009 1,109 views No Comment

As Metro tries to achieve regional consensus on how the Portland area should grow, Clackamas and Washington County officials are fighting over a long-studied transportation project.

At issue is the Interstate 5-to-Highway 99W Connector Project. In February a steering committee of state, county and local officials recommended a series of road projects to improve east-west traffic access between Wilsonville, Tualatin and Sherwood. But on Oct. 8, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners told a Metro advisory committee that it opposed the project.

Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp says the opposition is largely based on fears that the improved connections would increase congestion on the portion of I-5 running through his city – jamming freeway interchanges with motorists traveling to Portland or the Oregon Coast. He says no in-depth studies of the potential traffic increases have yet been conducted.

“No significant analysis has ever been done on whether the freeway can accommodate the additional traffic,” Knapp says.

But Washington County officials and business leaders decry the opposition as breaking a two decades-old promise. At one point, state transportation plans called for building a freeway similar to Interstate 205 through Washington County to west Portland. That project, called the Westside Bypass, was shelved in the early 1980s after public opposition to large new freeway projects also doomed the Mount Hood Freeway.

Jonathan Schlueter, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, says that when the bypass was killed, state officials promised a smaller project would be built in Washington County to improve access between I-5 and Highway 99W.

“This has been in the works for more than 20 years,” says Schlueter, whose organization represents many Washington County businesses.

During the years, the concept has evolved from a single new large road to a series of smaller projects and improvements. The plan approved by the steering committee calls for a new southern arterial and improvements on two existing roads between I-5 and 99W. Two members voted against the recommendations: Knapp and Clackamas County Commissioner Charlotte Lehan (a former Wilsonville mayor).

Those recommendations were forwarded to Metro, the regional government in charge of transportation planning in most of the tri-county area. They then were referred to the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation, a panel of elected officials from throughout the region that is currently deciding which projects to include in the updated Regional Transportation Plan. The committee is scheduled to finish its recommendations on Dec. 10 and present them to the elected Metro Council one week later. The council will approve the regional transportation plan next year.

The I-5/99W proposal before the committee calls for spending around $90 million in coming years on various portions of the project, including right of way acquisitions. But at the group’s Oct. 8 meeting, Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger announced that her board objected to including the funds in the plan at this time.

Although other joint policy committee members have yet to make a final decision, Schlueter fears the objections could delay or even kill the westside project – breaking the earlier promises made to Washington County.

“What does this say about regional cooperation?” Schlueter asks, noting that Washington County officials are supporting projects that primarily benefit Clackamas County, including the proposed MAX line from downtown Portland to Milwaukie.

Metro Councilor Carl Hosticka, who served on the steering committee, says he is trying to arrange a meeting between Clackamas and Washington county officials to work out their differences.

“We have some rough spots, but hopefully we can work them out,” Hosticka says.

Would Washington County officials retaliate by withdrawing their support from projects in Clackamas County? Schlueter doesn’t think so. “I think they’re bigger than that.”

By Jim Redden

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