TriMet tells Clackamas County it's too late to stop light rail

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TriMet is not going to consider stopping Portland-Milwaukie light rail outside of Clackamas County, said the agency's President Bruce Warner on Friday. Warner added that the line is going ahead as planned regardless of possible ballot measures.

The Clackamas County commissioners sent a letter to TriMet on Tuesday suggesting TriMet examine the possibility of stopping the light rail line at Tacoma Street in Portland, the stop before Milwaukie. Warner's response indicated that TriMet interpreted the letter as a step toward breaking off Clackamas County's involvement in the 7.3-mile Orange Line.

Warner expressed disappointment in the letter and questioned whether the county should legally place TriMet funding measures on a May special election ballot.

"At this point, no modifications as to scope are possible and there is no 'funding uncertainty' that would change the Project's 'key elements'. The Whole Project will be built as agreed to by all the regional partners, including the County," Warner said in the letter.

Some commissioners interpreted the letter as a threat.

"We're trying to ask them. That's all we did," new Chairman John Ludlow said. "We asked them to look at it as a possibility, and they come back with a threatening letter, really."

The exchange could indicate a change in relationship between TriMet and Clackamas County, where two light rail opponents won commission seats in the November election.

Voters might get their first chance to vote on Portland-Milwaukie light rail in May after the passage of Measure 3-401 in September, which requires countywide approval before officials can spend money to finance, design, construct or operate any rail lines in the county.

If light rail makes the ballot, voters would choose whether to approve the transfer of two small land parcels to TriMet, sign an agreement that allows TriMet to maintain and operate the line and fund road improvements. Residents living in the North Clackamas Parks and Recreation District would also advise whether to exchange part of the Trolley Trail for TriMet to construct.

All of the items are already promised in existing contracts, so the board might be forced to complete the transactions regardless of the vote's outcome.

Warner's letter, though, tries to dissuade the board from even holding the election, saying TriMet officials think the vote is not necessary.

"We are disappointed that you are considering submitting a matter to a vote that will have no practical effect on the County's duty to fulfill its contractual obligations for the Project," Warner said in the letter.

Ludlow said that Measure 3-401 requires the vote, and county attorneys advised the board to place at least some of the measures on the ballot. He plans to go forward with the vote.

"It's my belief the commission won't give any response," Ludlow said about the warning in the letter. "We will go forward with the vote, as required under 3-401 and we will go from there."

The commissioners said in previous meetings that they are not calling for a stop of construction work, nor will they seek a legal injunction in the near future. Yet, Warner said a delay in construction could cost TriMet $65,000 per day, which made Commissioner Paul Savas pause.

He approved sending the letter, but is concerned about the cost of litigation if the county and TriMet reach an impasse. He could be a deciding vote on future light rail decisions, since he always criticized the project, but worries about the cost to fight to stop it.

"What does the county do? Do we put things on the ballot?" Savas said. "It is a conundrum. We're stuck in a rock and a hard place."

Commissioner Jim Bernard, a stalwart light rail supporter, didn't see either the board's letter or TriMet's response because he is in Mexico. But, he reiterated that the county should honor its commitment to the project.

"I totally agree with them," Bernard said. "We have a contract. We expect them to follow their contract, they should expect us to follow ours."