UPDATED: 5:58 p.m.
TriMet is scrambling for ideas on how to plug a $200 million hole in the budget for the new light rail extension from Portland to Milwaukie.
The funding shortfall stems from the decision of the Federal Transit Administration to fund 50 percent of the project cost, rather than the 60 percent that TriMet had sought.
The absence of additional funding means TriMet must figure out how to cut 14 percent of the project budget, from looking at reducing the number of train cars it will buy, to reducing the size of park-and-ride facilities. The largest part of the project, a new Willamette River bridge, is scheduled to begin construction next summer. A delay of the start to that phase by even a few months could set construction of the entire project back another year.
TriMet officials indicated that the decision had been made recently. But a letter dated July 22 from the administrator of the FTA, Peter Rogoff, to Sen. Jeff Merkley indicated the federal agency had never committed to spending more than 50 percent of the project cost. In the letter (link to PDF), disclosed Monday afternoon by PortlandAfoot, Rogoff stressed that his agency had indicated a year ago that it did not intend to fund more than 50 percent of the Milwaukie line’s cost.
As first reported in The Portland Tribune, the FTA’s 50 percent share of the cost of the 7.3-mile light-rail extension from Portland State University to North Clackamas County, would amount to approximately $738.5 million.
“Normally, the FTA funds 60 percent of our projects,” TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch. This is the sixth extension of Portland’s innovative light-rail transit system. The Milwaukie MAX is the first leg to breach the $1 billion mark. “The budget for the project was $1.4 billion,” Fetsch said. “Now it will be approximately $1.2 billion.”
The FTA stated that it did not want to start a precedent where its “Smart Starts” program funds more than 50 percent of projects costing more than $1 billion.
To make up for the lost funding, TriMet will consider cuts to station designs, reduction in the number of rail cars it purchases and even looking at opening the line in phases.
“Everything’s on the table,” Fetsch said.
TriMet will circle the wagons with its project partners in the coming days to explore if more money could be found. But cash-strapped government agencies around the region have been scaling back projects from the Oregon Sustainability Center to the Columbia River Crossing.
“There’s nothing available right now,” said Sally Ridenour, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. Ridenour said that there were currently no state grants available and that until the federal government passes its latest transportation bill, “things are kind of stalled.”
The largest single cost in the Milwaukie project is a new $135 million Willamette River bridge. To be built between the Marquam and Ross Island bridges, the crossing will be the first new bridge across the river in 35 years. The current design would accommodate mass transit, the extension of the Portland Streetcar, pedestrians and bicycles, but not cars.
If the new bridge were to accommodate cars, state funding might be available.
“It might be available through our Statewide Transportation Improvement Program,” said Ridenour. “It’s possible in the sense that it’s possible it might snow tomorrow, but it’s not likely.”
Budget delays at this point could cause serious revisions to the entire project’s timetable. The construction of the light-rail project is organized around first installing bridge piling in the Willamette River. Piling construction is scheduled to start next July with the line opening to passengers in 2015. Laws regulating the protection of fish allow only a short window each year during which pilings can be built. If next year’s “fish window” is missed, the project could be delayed for a year.