Vancouver council supports single ballot measure for buses, light rail

City may block C-tran effort to hold separate votes

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver and Clark County elected leaders appear ready to engage in a high-stakes game over the future of public transit.

Vancouver city councilors on Monday indicated — with one notable exception — that they believe voters next year should be asked to approve a single ballot measure that preserves and expands existing C-Tran bus service while also providing money to operate light rail.

The city’s position contrasts with Clark County commissioners, who want a separate vote on funds to operate an extension of Portland’s light rail transit system across a new Interstate 5 bridge into downtown Vancouver.

With C-Tran’s nine-member board of directors due to consider the ballot question today, it now appears likely that the city will block the board from going forward. Five C-Tran board members — all three county commissioners as well as Battle Ground city councilor Bill Ganley and La Center Mayor Jim Irish — last month signaled their support for two separate ballot measures.

But Vancouver’s three representatives can vote together under C-Tran’s bylaws and veto any board decision.

County commissioners also enjoy this bloc veto power.

Mayor Tim Leavitt and councilor Jeanne Harris both argued Monday that it’s in the city’s interest to support a single ballot measure that supports C-Tran’s overall mission to move people — whether that’s on buses, paratransit vans or light rail.

“I see transit in our community as more than just buses,” Leavitt said.

Five of the other six city councilors agreed.

Yet, by linking light rail to a broader measure necessary to preserve existing bus service, C-Tran may risk a backlash against basic bus service by voters who are disinclined to support light rail in downtown Vancouver.

Conversely, without money to operate light rail in Vancouver, federal transit authorities won’t build it. And state and federal officials have made it clear that, without light rail, the proposed $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project is unlikely to move forward at all. So, under this scenario, Clark County voters could exercise veto power over a multibillion-dollar highway and transit project spanning two states.

County commissioner Steve Stuart, ordinarily a political ally of Leavitt, said that’s a risk he’s willing to take.

“If this doesn’t pass, then the states have the wrong project,” Stuart said in an interview Monday. “Then, the community isn’t ready to pay for the project they’re proposing.”

C-Tran CEO Jeff Hamm told city councilors on Monday that there are risks on all sides of the ballot question.

“The CRC project and light rail could be a lightning rod,” he acknowledged.

That’s what worries city councilor Jeanne Stewart.

Without boosting the sales tax rate, C-Tran officials have said the agency will be faced with a budget reduction of as much as 39 percent by 2012 and another 10 to 15 percent the following year. Stewart, who serves with Leavitt and Harris on the C-Tran board, said she concurs with county commissioners who want two ballot measures — one for bus service and one for high-capacity transit.

“Forty percent reduced service is a profound risk,” Stewart said.

Leavitt, however, made it clear that he expects Stewart to represent the will of the majority of the city council.

“Ms. Stewart, you’re representing us,” councilor Pat Campbell said. “And if you can’t represent us, I don’t think you should be on the C-Tran board as our representative.”

“I will never subjugate what I believe to anyone else’s judgment as a representative of the citizens,” Stewart fired back.

In the midst of this heated discussion, Leavitt called on councilor Larry Smith to attend today’s C-Tran board meeting. If county commissioners press the issue, he said, Smith will be called to replace Stewart on the C-Tran board. Smith then would form a bloc with Leavitt and Harris to block C-Tran from taking any action related to the ballot question.

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.