MILWAUKIE – When it comes to the city's multimillion-dollar question, details remain elusive.
The City Council approved in 2008 a $5 million commitment to the Portland-Milwaukie light rail project. The city has until summer 2012 to make good on its promise, but city officials are stumped about the contribution's lingering question: How?
"We don't yet know," said Council President Greg Chaimov. "But if we don't put up that money, TriMet will have the opportunity to take away aspects of the line that make the city's neighborhoods better."
Although the $5 million is a fraction of the project's $1.5 billion cost, the contribution is important to community leaders who have toiled for more than a decade to meet Milwaukie neighborhoods' demands regarding the project.
TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch said the $5 million will support community "mitigation and enhancements." That translates to maintaining the city's quiet zones, ensuring additional sound mitigation and seeing that the Milwaukie station is aesthetically a good fit for the city.
Jim Bernard, who was mayor of Milwaukie when the city committed the $5 million and is now a Clackamas County commissioner, said the county might extend a lifeline.
"The county might consider loaning the city some money," he said. "We believe light rail is very, very important and a project that needs to get done. We'd be willing to listen to Milwaukie and discuss any figure amount."
Clackamas County has already made a $25 million commitment to the light rail project.
Bernard said the county loan would help create an urban renewal district in Milwaukie, something he vigorously supported as mayor.
In 2009, a private Portland-based consulting firm, Tashman Johnson LLC, conducted a urban renewal feasibility study in Milwaukie. It concluded that light rail is essential to creating an urban renewal district but cautioned that the light rail project should not be financed by urban renewal dollars.
Milwaukie Mayor Jeremy Ferguson, who is employed by TriMet, said the city is considering a TriMet loan with a 20-year repayment plan.
"I did ask TriMet not to ask us for more than $5 million," Ferguson said. "Everybody is on the maximum end of financing."
He said "it's still too early to say" who will assist the city and in what capacity.
Chaimov said there may be non-monetary ways the city can contribute to the project: for instance, providing TriMet with land to stage its construction equipment at no cost or giving TriMet a space for its field office. It's unclear how much Milwaukie would be able to shave from its commitment with such moves.
Until Milwaukie gives its regional partners a signal, the $5 million question looms large.
"We haven't heard from the city officially," Fetsch said. "So right now it's just too soon to know."
-- Bobby Allyn