September 14, 2012  9:45 AM

Transportation panel says focus investments on 'jobs, jobs, jobs'

With an unexpected $37 million to spend on transportation for three years, a Metro committee said the region should use the money to help boost the sputtering local economy.

"Everything today is about jobs, jobs, jobs," said Washington County Commissioner Roy Rogers.

Rogers and other members of the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation weighed options for how to invest the funds at a meeting on Thursday. The money is part of a program known locally as regional flexible funding, a relatively small pool of transportation money the federal government sends to metropolitan planning organizations across the nation, including Metro.

Some of the money is already designated to help pay for recent MAX light rail extensions. Some of it is expected to fund regionwide programs that finance high-tech road improvements, transit oriented housing developments and public education tools that help people bike, walk and use public transit.

But the flexible funds can be spent on nearly anything transportation related, so they attract a lot of attention. Two years ago, the regional leaders on the committee were deeply divided over how to prioritize part of the program for capital improvements. In a split vote, they approved spending 75 percent on active transportation – biking, pedestrian and public transit access – and 25 percent on green economy and freight projects.

The $37 million comes from additional money allocated by Congress to the federal program and a decision to allocate the funding over three years instead of two, as was previously the pattern.

The overall three-year program is forecast to have $146.6 million available from 2015 to 2018. In addition to the $37 million, the proposal assumes $26.1 million for active transportation and $8.7 million for green economy freight, along the same 75-25 percent split as approved in 2010. 

Many seemed reluctant to go back and have the tough 75-25 percent conversation over again. Metro staff suggested three options for how to spend the $37 million: Option 1, invest using the same 75-25 percent split the region did in 2010; Option 2, split the money by different percentages; Option 3, invest in those two categories and some new project categories. 

Portland Mayor Sam Adams couldn't attend the meeting, but sent a letter saying the city prefers Option 1. The letter said he wanted to give the program more time for the region to judge the impact of the projects funded using the 75-25 split. 

Rogers said he'd like to reverse the 75-25 split, giving the larger share to freight.

Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington said the council is open to a variety of options. Harrington said she thought there would be interest in adding money to the active transportation and green economy/freight categories, since many worthy local projects were not approved in recent years for lack of funds.

Overall, Option 3 carried the day on Thursday.

"We need to focus our transportation resources on investments that are going to create significant jobs benefits and economic opportunity benefits," Clackamas County Commissioner Ann Lininger said. "This money could be a lynchpin that takes these projects from the drawing board to implementation."

The private sector has invested energy into the Community Investment Initiative, Lininger said, so that effort should have a role in helping make sure the flexible funds projects help with economic development.

Option 3 also won support from Rogers and Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel.

Based on Thursday's discussion, Metro staff said they would develop a proposal for JPACT to discuss in October. Staff said the proposal would attempt to address economic opportunity, take a system wide approach, leverage private sector investments and consider corridor safety. Staff said they also would consider the criteria in a federal program known as TIGER, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. 

The committee is expected to vote to finalize the program in November and local agencies are expected to submit project applications to Metro by Feb. 15. 

Learn more about Regional flexible funding

Learn more about the projects approved in December 2011 for the last flexible fund cycle

Learn about Metro's role as the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Portland area

See also:

Metro Council applauds collaboration, equity in allocation of transportation projects (Dec. 19, 2011)
Equity concern on Portland Bike Sharing program overshadows flexible funding decision (Dec. 8, 2011)

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