One of Oregon’s most dangerous, crash-prone and regionally important urban highways would see record investments in the next decade if voters approve Metro’s proposed payroll tax on employers to fund billions of dollars in transportation projects.
Tualatin Valley Highway, the state highway also known as Oregon 8, would see $700 million for hundreds of streetlights, miles of sidewalks, transit projects including bus shelters, dozens of transit-priority traffic signals to give buses a head start and two dozen or more new pedestrian crossings under Metro’s $7 billion transportation package.
Only the proposed light rail extension to Bridgeport Village, which would receive $975 million in revenue generated by the proposed tax, would receive more funding. Planners estimate another $100 million could be leveraged from the federal or state government to invest in TV Highway, which carves through or skirts the downtowns of Beaverton, Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove.
The highway makes portions of the downtowns or main streets of those cities dangerous for people walking, biking or trying to cross the street to get to a bus stop. For locals, including those who have pushed for years to see safety improvements on the critical regional thoroughfare, the potential level of coming investment is unthinkable.
Steve Callaway, Hillsboro’s mayor who sat on Metro’s transportation task force that helped shape the measure, said the highway’s issues are obvious and have been discussed for well over a decade.
“Where’s somebody supposed to walk? Where are they supposed to cross? There’s poor lighting,” he said.
“This will be huge, not just for Hillsboro,” he said.
The nearly 20-mile stretch of state highway becomes Southwest Canyon Road in downtown Beaverton and terminates at U.S. 26
Kevin Teater, executive director of the Beaverton Downtown Association, said the roughly 250 businesses in that city’s downtown core would benefit long-term from significant safety improvements. He said downtown Beaverton faces inherent challenges due to the two dangerous state highways that run right through downtown. “Unless we really do something about TV highway and Beaverton Hillsdale Highway, there’s an upper limit of what we can do,” he said.
According to state transportation figures, TV Highway has some of the highest crash rates of any road in the state. Of Portland-area highways and freeways, only 82nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard saw more crashes per million miles traveled, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. In 2018, the most recent year with figures available, six people died on the highway and some 647 were injured. Four of those killed were pedestrians.
Callaway, a retired elementary principal who has lived in Washington County for more than two decades, said no one questions the need to invest heavily there. “We’ve seen accidents and tragedies and I think when those start happening it automatically comes on people’s radars.”
Other longtime locals say there’s also a bit of a “we’ll believe it when we see it” phenomenon at play.
Mariana Valenzuela, a Forest Grove City Council member and staffer at Centro Cultural de Washington County in Cornelius, said TV Highway is “not a safe place” and she doesn’t have to look far to see the evidence.
Centro Cultural is right across the highway from a Virginia Garcia Medical Center clinic, and there’s no crosswalk to help people safely get to either of the two institutions, both of which serve Latino populations who are more likely to be transit dependent. “They are at the mercy of drivers,” she said, many of whom don’t stop.
Valenzuela said people who walk or ride transit on the highway have said it’s dangerous for years. “When you don’t have a lot of political influence, in a way, sometimes people don’t listen.”
Now, it appears people are listening.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, another Centro Cultural staffer, was elected to the Metro Council in 2018 and has frequently drawn attention to the dangers on TV highway, including in January when a woman was struck and killed crossing the road trying to get to her bus stop.
Metro and the grassroots coalition of transportation advocates, affordable housing groups, communities of color and labor unions backing the package have touted its massive investment in areas long neglected by local and state government.
“This isn’t a matter of political will,” said Jess Thompson, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Walks, saying that politicians and the public sector know what it takes to make the highway safer. “They know what to do. They want to do it. (But) they don’t have the money to do it.”
The Metro regional government’s long electoral winning streak the past two years – passing a $652.8 million affordable housing measure, $475 million parks and nature bond and multiple taxes to fund homeless services – is in doubt for the first time, however. Many voters will see multiple money measures on the Nov. 3 ballot, including school, library, parks and preschool asks in Multnomah County and a children’s safety levy and two school district tax plans in Clackamas County.
The fate of Metro’s proposal in Washington County will be key. The light rail line it would fund would serve Washington County as would the $700 million for TV Highway.
But business groups are fighting the measure, including some of the state’s largest employers, among them Intel, which has multiple campuses in Washington County including its oldest facility, which sits right on TV Highway in Aloha.
Those opponents have criticized Metro for pursuing a payroll tax of up to 0.75% during the pandemic. During an Oregonian Editorial Board endorsement interview last week, opponents said they lobbied Metro to pare down the project list, ditch the light rail line and focus on equity projects like the TV Highway safety improvements and projects along 82nd Avenue. As written, the measure will also improve safety and transit service along many miles of McLoughlin Boulevard and Burnside Street.
“If you’re going to spend $7 billion on equity, I don’t think this would be the list,” said Kevin Looper, a political consultant leading the opposition campaign. Metro leaders refused to take up business groups’ offer to remove the light rail line and come forward with a smaller project, he said.
Looper, in effect, called the measure a smoke screen for equity. “The intent here is a permanent tax,” he said of the payroll proposal.
ABOUT THE ROAD
For more than 150 years, as white settlers came to Oregon and expanded into Washington County, precursors to what is now Oregon 8 helped carry people from Portland to what is now suburban Washington County. Portions of TV Highway or Canyon Road started as a dirt road in the 1850s, and sections of a concrete road between Hillsboro and Beaverton were built in the 1920s.
According to Washington County documents, the highway was widened to four lanes in the mid-1950s. TriMet said its Line 57 has existed since 1974 and other bus service ran along the busy road before that.
As the area population boomed in the mid-1990s and onwards, what was once a rural farm road transformed into a critical urban connector with one of the most-used bus lines in the metro area.
Much of the highway is bordered to the south by railroad tracks. Hillsboro’s long-eyed South Hillsboro community, which could house upwards of 20,000 new residents, is finally underway nearby. According to Metro, 181,630 people live within a quarter mile of the road, a figure that would represent the second largest city in the state.
Those residents are more likely to be people of color than the rest of the metro area. According to Metro, 85% of the corridor has census tracts that are more diverse than in rest of the Portland region, in some cases, doubly so.
Nearly 72,000 of those who live along the highway are people of color, nearly two-thirds of whom identify as Hispanic or Latinos.
TriMet’s Line 57 runs for 17 miles along it, the second longest bus route in the Metro area behind Line 20, which traverses some 20 miles of Burnside Street.
Before the pandemic scuttled some service, Line 57 was also one of just two 24-hour transit lines, a recent improvement that Valenzuela said was well received in Washington County.
Line 57 is currently one of TriMet’s top five busiest lines and historically has ranked among the 10 busiest.
According to preliminary estimates, TriMet believes the line could see upwards of 10,300 riders per day on Line 57 should voters approve the Metro package and bring more frequent and higher capacity buses to the route, compared to 6,840 riders today.
NOT EVERYONE LOVES IT
Rick Van Beveren knows all about the safety concerns on TV Highway. But the former TriMet board member, current Hillsboro City Council member and decades-long owner of the Hillsboro institution Reedsville Café and Catering is still torn about what to do with the Metro package.
His business, which sits on the corner of TV Highway and Southeast Cornelius Pass Road, has seen its share of damage due to bad drivers and the dangerous road conditions.
Two drivers crashed their cars into his building in recent years, and Van Beveren said he’s seen plenty of fender benders.
Van Beveren acknowledges that the road needs attention, but he also would like to see more lanes added to the road to “reduce congestion” along the highway. He doesn’t believe the package will improve people’s commute times.
Van Beveren has had to lay off staff due to the pandemic, but he still employs more than enough people to have to pay the proposed payroll tax. Metro would exempt all public employers and companies or nonprofits with fewer than 25 workers and start collecting the tax in 2022.
“As a business owner I am inclined to vote it down,” Van Beveren said. “As a city councilor I am inclined to support it. I am undecided,” he said.
He backs the light rail project and the transit improvements on TV Highway, but he has concerns about the funding mechanism and last-minute plan to exempt the public sector.
“There’s a lot of opposition to it,” he said.
One of those opponents sits just two miles west on TV Highway.
Jayne Bond, CEO of Permapost Products, said she doesn’t see anything in the measure to benefit her business, which specializes in pressure treated and fabricated wood products.
Despite having fewer than 25 employees, she signed onto an opposition statement that appears in the Multnomah County Voter’s Pamphlet. She expects suppliers to pass on costs to her business, which has been on the highway since 1961.
She wants to see more roads widened to ease congestion. “When they widened Cornelius Pass Road,” she said, “that helped.”
©2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
Visit The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) at www.oregonian.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.