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Westside Economic Alliance gathering looks at ways to promote availability, affordability of housing when major transportation projects are considered.

TIMES PHOTO: PETER WONG - Doug Kelsey, right, general manager of TriMet, makes a point during a panel discussion of housing and transportation at a Westside Economic Alliance forum Oct. 3 at Embassy Suites in Tigard. Others from left: Carl Guardino of Silicon Valley Leadership Group, moderator; Molly Haynes, Kaiser Permanente, and Lynn Peterson, Metro Council president-elect. Housing availability and costs must be part of future regional transportation improvements, not an afterthought, according to panelists at recent a Westside Economic Alliance forum.

The Oct. 3 forum drew business, government and nonprofit leaders at a time when housing costs have been rising and availability is scarce — and the Portland region is considering projects such as the Southwest Corridor light-rail line and the Division Transit Project, which would be the region's first bus rapid transit route.

The daylong forum was at Embassy Suites in Tigard.

The opening panel set the tone for the forum, which sought to promote discussion of how housing and transportation can be better integrated, particularly as Washington County's population continues to grow. Current population is nearing 600,000, but is projected to increase by 200,000 to 300,000 over the next decades.

Doug Kelsey, the new general manager of TriMet, said the regional agency that runs buses and light rail isn't waiting to start its re-examination of what can be done now.

"We are going to be embarking on reviewing all of our transit assets to liberate what we do today," said Kelsey, who worked at the regional transportation authority in Vancouver, Canada, before he came to TriMet as chief operating officer.

Since TriMet's original Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail opened in 1986 between Portland and Gresham, segments have been added periodically: Blue Line to Hillsboro in 1998, Red Line to Portland International Airport in 2001, Yellow Line to Expo Center in 2004, Green Line to Clackamas Town Center in 2009, and Orange Line to Milwaukie in 2015.

Unanticipated effects

"It worked for the corridors that got the investment," said Lynn Peterson, a former Clackamas County commissioner who will become Metro Council president in January.

"But we have a lot more corridors in this region that have seen zero investment. We have disinvested in many of the communities around this region.

"Transit does not work unless the corridor is working and people actually live on that corridor."

Outgoing Metro President Tom Hughes, who opened the forum, said each new light-rail segment spurred housing and other transit-oriented development — but there was a negative effect.

"Once the (public) transportation was in place, the neighborhoods became more attractive, the property values went up, and rents went up," Hughes said.

"The people who were underserved in that neighborhood before had to move out to someplace else, where they were also underserved because the rents were cheap and there was no transportation."

"We are trying to look at breaking that (cycle)."

If Measure 26-199 wins voter approval Nov. 6, Hughes said, part of the $652.8 million bond would be spent on developing or preserving housing in the Southwest Corridor linking Portland, Tigard and Tualatin ahead of any light-rail construction. Regional officials are considering a bond measure to raise money for that project, and others yet to be determined, in the 2020 election. To win voter support, some of those projects are likely to be roads.

"It's not just money that solves everything," TriMet's Kelsey said. "I do not need a bus worth half a million dollars that sits in traffic next to a single car."

The Division Transit Project — now focused on Division Street between Portland and Gresham — also runs through developed areas that are home to many low- and moderate-income residents. TriMet and Metro have sponsored a series of meetings to seek out how transit can be improved.

Unheard voices

"The issues we are facing and the decisions that need to be made on investment are having the most effect on people not in this room," said Molly Haynes, director of community health for Kaiser Permanente. "We need to take that seriously and note who needs to be at the decision-making table and how do we bring those perspectives to the table."

Some have suggested redevelopment for mixed uses along such existing corridors as Tualatin Valley Highway, which links Beaverton, Aloha and Hillsboro. TriMet already has designated its Line 57 route for 24-hour service.

Housing, under a federal definition, is considered affordable if it costs no more than 30 percent of household income. With rising costs and shrinking availability in Portland and close-in suburbs, people are moving farther away — often outside the regional urban growth boundary — and commuting.

But Hughes and Peterson said there are real if hidden costs.

Hughes: "When you add the cost of getting to work from those places to the cost of housing, you begin to get to the point where it may not be affordable anymore."

Peterson: "It's not just about more people moving here. It's that we are forcing more people to spend more time on our highways and increasing their costs."

Getting to yes

Much of the subsequent discussion in smaller groups was about how to achieve housing and transportation goals without the promise of new sources of money. Federal aid is shrinking — although regional officials still hope to get a share for the proposed Southwest Corridor — but the Oregon Legislature did approve a multiyear, $5.3 billion plan for transportation improvements in 2017.

The panel moderator was Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which represents 400 employers, including many of the nation's leading technology firms.

Guardino, who spoke at a Westside Economic Alliance forum in November 2017, said Portland's housing and transportation challenges are similar — but on a smaller scale — to those facing other Western cities.

But he said the issues can be dealt with.

Under his leadership, a housing trust was created with public and private money to help pay for affordable housing. California also has a $4 billion statewide bond up on the Nov. 6 ballot.

California has approved a $54 billion multiyear transportation package — Guardino is helping lead efforts to defeat a ballot measure that would roll back a fuel-tax increase in the package — and voters in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area approved a $4.45 billion transit measure in June.

Public strategist Mariia Zimmerman said voters in other regions — Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle — have approved similarly large regional transit measures in recent years.

"We are not moving into times when we are going to find it easier to finance things or get to yes," said Zimmerman, who worked for U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer for six years.

Metro President-elect Peterson said it's up to the Portland region to shape its future.

"We're going to have to take care of ourselves and figure out what we are willing to do to make it happen," she said.

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