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Oregon county seeks to use road taxes for park trail

By Laura Gunderson
The Oregonian (Portland)

BEAVERTON -- For years, a voter-approved road program has poured millions of dollars into projects too large for cities to afford by themselves.

Washington County's Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program originally was sold to voters in 1986 as a way to fix congestion and safety problems, easing traffic in the fast-growing county. Voters showed their approval by renewing the tax in 1989 and 1995.

A couple of county commissioners want to broaden the program, saying transportation today means more than driving.

Commissioners Dick Schouten and Roy Rogers say $500,000 should be shaved from an upcoming $65 million round of projects and be used instead to build a trail across Mount Williams, a 30-acre parcel they hope will be a new Beaverton park. If the entire board of commissioners approves the plan later this month, it would be the first time money from the program would be used for anything other than a road project.

"I can see how a walking path could enhance a school's neighborhood project or how a bus turnout could keep from impeding traffic. Those are great projects that improve transportation," Rogers said. "To say you should only do street projects is rather shortsighted on how to move traffic."

It's a debate county leaders plan to have during the next year as they mull a more flexible transportation improvement program. In recent months, county planners suggested changing the new program's name, so as not to limit money to roads.

"Even when we had that discussion, we were still talking clearly about keeping it in the transportation realm," said County Commissioner Andy Duyck, adding that he sees room to expand the program to pay for larger rural road improvements, bus turnouts and possibly parking garages.

"But it has to be able to pass the straight-face test as a transportation project: something that will get cars off the road."

He and other opponents of using the money for the path say they're not anti-trail and support such projects when built in conjunction with a road.

"We made a commitment to use this money for transportation, and this is completely recreation," Duyck said. "If we go this direction, it opens a Pandora's box of where this money could be used."

Commissioners probably will discuss the proposal at their Jan. 13 board retreat. They plan to vote on the final list of major streets projects later this month.

In the past, voters approved a specific list of projects with each tax levy. The county has nearly completed the 1996 projects, but after a change in the tax rules in 1997, it continues to collect $20 million a year. That money goes to the general fund but is designated for road work.

With an expected $65 million left at the end of four years, county officials decided they could manage another short list of projects. They assigned the Washington County Coordinating Committee, a group of city and county leaders and planning officials, the task of choosing. The group narrowed a long list to 11 projects, keeping in mind available money, safety concerns and equity throughout the county.

Committee members said they figured the $25 million assigned to the Beaverton-to-Wilsonville commuter-rail line counted as improvements to cities within its route. But Schouten, who represents Beaverton and Aloha, said he thought his district deserved more.

Creating a park Schouten said he and county planners could not find a road project that could be completed with $500,000, which would be taken from a $1.4 million proposal to design and build an alignment of the Southwest 175th Avenue and Roy Rogers Road intersection west of Beaverton. That project would be designed, but construction would wait until the next major streets round, which county officials plan to put before voters in a couple of years.

Instead, Schouten began lobbying to use the $500,000 to buy a ribbon of land across Mount Williams.

The county, Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation and Beaverton have worked with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to buy the property near Southwest 158th Avenue and Davis Road from owner Margaret Dernbach, 88.

Trust for Public Land officials recently extended their option to buy the property through May 2004. They must pay half of the $5.4 million asking price by that date and the remainder by May 2005.

So far, the nonprofit's efforts to buy the land have raised $600,000 from the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District, $250,000 from Washington County and another $500,000 in grant money. Beaverton officials have committed $1 million for the park, where they plan to bury a water storage reservoir.

"With the MSTIP (major streets program), we have talked about a mixture of different uses -- automobile, bikes and pedestrians," Schouten said. "Certainly, spending less than 1 percent for a regional trail system is quite appropriate."

Trails to mass transit Schouten argues the trail would help link a series of trails, including Beaverton's Powerline Trail and the Tualatin Hills Nature Park, to transportation routes such as the MAX station near Merlo Road, the Murray Boulevard/Scholls Ferry Road area and several bus lines.

"Young adults who are intrepid or really competent bike riders don't mind riding along major arterials," Schouten said. "But others, older people or not-so-confident riders, don't like the noise and fumes. This kind of trail could be used by folks who would rather not be in a bike lane along Murray Road or 185th Avenue."

Schouten says the plan fits with transportation program goals to benefit residents of more than one city.

The coordinating committee, made up of county and city leaders, tentatively agreed to the trail and probably will pass the idea along to commissioners with a request for guidelines on handling similar requests in the future.

Commissioners usually accept and approve the committee's recommendations.

This recommendation differs, however, because in the past, the committee reviewed project proposals that residents had helped compile and voters passed.

"No one has asked for this before," said Kathy Busse, assistant director of the county's Department of Land Use & Transportation. "There is the question that if we'd had this discussion earlier, would there have been more proposals like this?"