C-Tran takes sales tax pitch to La Center

Service to rural areas faces cuts if voters defeat Proposition 1

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Just over two months before the November election, C-Tran on Tuesday kicked off a series of open house meetings on a measure that holds big implications for the transit agency’s bus and paratransit service.

Officials went to the outer reaches of C-Tran’s service area for Tuesday’s meeting in La Center. The city isn’t served by any fixed-route bus, only the dial-a-ride Connector service that links with the rest of the C-Tran system three times daily. That would drop to two if voters reject a proposed sales tax increase this fall.

“It’s very important to the citizens here,” said La Center Mayor Jim Irish, also a member of the C-Tran board. “This is their ride.”

Proposition 1 would bump C-Tran’s local sales tax rate by 0.2 percentage points, to 0.7 percent. That would translate to an extra 2 cents on every $10 purchase for consumers.

The tax hike would raise an additional $8 million to $9 million to keep existing bus service intact, along with the federally required C-Van service for disabled riders. C-Tran officials have said total service will be cut by 35 percent should the measure fail. Among the other proposed cutbacks: a dozen weekday bus routes, plus all Sunday and special event service.

Should that happen, the agency would have a tough time meeting the needs of all its passengers, said C-Tran spokesman Scott Patterson.

“It’s not going to be an easy balance to achieve,” Patterson said. “And there are going to be people who are left out at the end of the day.”

C-Tran is currently drawing down reserves at a rate of $6 million to $7 million each year. At that pace, the funds will dry up by 2013, Patterson said. Cutbacks would have to happen before that time.

The agency has about $43 million in the bank right now, Patterson said. But after the budget deficit and other capital commitments over the next two years, there’s not much left by the end of 2012, he said. The agency has tried to buy more time with fare increases and recent staff reductions, he said.

“We knew this day was coming,” Patterson said.

Opponents of Proposition 1 have said citizens can ill-afford a tax increase in a still-down economy. They’ve also questioned the efficiency of C-Tran’s existing operation, which has run a deficit since losing much of its state funding in 2000.

Pushing for the measure is Keep Clark County Moving, a political action committee formed earlier this year. Two of its strongest voices attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Vancouver resident Harry Kiick has epilepsy and travels with a service dog. Robert Chu, who lives in the east Vancouver area, is visually impaired and can’t drive on his own. Both said they rely on C-Tran’s fixed-route buses and C-Van service daily.

“I do everything,” said Kiick, listing volunteer and church activities, veterinary appointments and shopping trips among his uses. Chu described a similarly busy schedule that includes work and trips to the Washington State University Vancouver campus.

“None of that would be possible without C-Tran,” Chu said.

C-Tran plans eight more open house meetings across its service area between now and the end of September.

This fall’s vote is one of two sales tax measures C-Tran plans to put to voters. The other, likely in 2012, would fund the operation of future high-capacity transit options including light rail. Officials have stressed that Proposition 1 would not fund light rail or any aspect of the Columbia River Crossing project.

Voters will decide the fate of Proposition 1 on Nov. 8.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.