C-TRAN VOTE: How much rides on November bus service ballot measure?

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

The votes

BASIC BUS SERVICE

When: Nov. 8, 2011.

What: A sales tax measure to maintain funding for basic C-Tran bus service. Failure would mean cutting existing service by about 35 percent.

How much: An increase of 0.2 percent, or an extra 2 cents on every $10 purchase for consumers.

HIGH-CAPACITY TRANSIT

When: August or November 2012.

What: A second sales tax measure to fund operation and maintenance of light rail and bus rapid transit. Light rail is currently proposed as part of the Columbia River Crossing, a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver.

How much: An increase of 0.1 percent, or an extra 1 cent on every $10 purchase.

Source: C-Tran

Ballot measure timeline

2010: C-Tran board mulls a ballot measure for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase to pay for existing bus service, plus new high-capacity transit options.

April 2011: The board formally decides to split the proposed sales tax measure into two votes.

May, June: Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt exchange letters over who should vote in the second election for high-capacity transit.

July: The board appoints two committees to write supporting and opposing arguments for the first sales tax vote in November.

Nov. 8, 2011: Voters will decide on the first sales tax for existing bus service.

August or November 2012: Voters will decide on the second sales tax for operation of high-capacity transit, including light rail and bus rapid transit.

Source: C-Tran

How the sales tax breaks down

Vancouver residents pay a sales tax of 8.2 percent. That includes:

6.5 percent state sales tax.

1.7 percent in local sales taxes.

C-Tran’s share of the local sales tax is 0.5 percent. This November’s proposal would raise it to 0.7 percent.

By comparison, Seattle’s Metro Transit currently collects 0.9 percent of King County’s 9.5 percent total sales tax.

Sources: Washington Department of Revenue, C-Tran, Metro Transit

When C-Tran leaders decided to isolate a sales tax vote for basic bus service on this fall’s ballot, the intent was clear:

Let’s keep light rail out of the discussion. For now.

“There’s no connection between this November’s vote and light rail. Zero,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, also a C-Tran board member, said last week.

Instead, the board kicked the politically charged topic to 2012. That’s when voters could decide the fate of another sales tax increase to pay, in part, for operation of a proposed expansion of Portland’s light-rail system into downtown Vancouver.

C-Tran officials insist this November’s vote is about one thing, and one thing only: putting the transit agency’s core service on sound financial footing. They’ve said rejection of the 0.2 percent sales tax hike would result in major service cuts.

There may be more at stake than that. And light rail — currently planned as part of a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver — is very much a part of the conversation.

Here’s the crux: The feds, who will write the $850 million check to build light rail to Vancouver, require a healthy transit system to connect with those trains. If this November’s sales tax goes down, C-Tran could find itself talking about light rail while eliminating bus routes and making other cuts.

That could put the second vote, and light rail’s funding plan with it, in question.

“I would probably think that it’s something that the board needs to discuss,” said Scott Patterson, C-Tran’s public affairs director. If the first vote fails, “we’re going to need to ask that question again to the board.”

It’s too early to answer those questions just yet. The November vote may pass, making them moot. As observers continue to dissect the finances of the I-5 Columbia River Crossing project, C-Tran’s upcoming sales tax votes are planted firmly in the spotlight.

A ‘financial cliff’

C-Tran officials have called it the “financial cliff.”

The transit agency is currently spending its reserves to keep regular operations intact. But in 2013 it expects to run out of those funds without an increase in its sales tax receipts. That would mean major cutbacks, according to C-Tran, likely in the neighborhood of 35 percent of service.

The proposed list of cuts includes the elimination of 12 weekday bus routes, two Saturday routes, plus all Sunday, holiday and special event service. Shorter service hours are also proposed. The C-Van point-to-point service for disabled riders would see its reach curtailed, according to C-Tran.

There’s no Plan B if the tax fails, Stuart said.

“Those cuts will happen,” he said. “They have to.”

C-Tran now levies a sales tax of 0.5 percent in Clark County. The November proposal pushes that up an additional 0.2 percent. That means an extra two cents on every $10 purchase for consumers.

The tax increase would bring C-Tran an additional $8 million to $9 million in annual revenue, Patterson said. C-Tran uses about $6 million to $7 million in reserve funds each year to keep operations intact now. C-Tran’s total operating budget is $41.4 million this year.

The situation might sound familiar. Voters approved a local sales tax increase for C-Tran service in 2005, but that revenue was only intended to carry the agency for five years — with the help of reserves still being drained now. Those savings had been built before C-Tran saw its state matching funding eliminated in 2000.

More than three months before the Nov. 8 vote, arguments are beginning to take shape on both sides of the debate. Among the vocal opponents is Larry Patella, owner of Lorenzo’s coffee in Vancouver and frequent critic of local government.

Patella doesn’t hesitate to offer his take.

In a down economy, “the people can’t afford any more being taken out of their pocket,” he said.

The C-Tran board this month appointed Patella to a citizens’ committee that will write arguments against the tax hike for the November voters’ pamphlet. A separate committee will submit arguments in favor.

Local organizations are also beginning to weigh in. The sales tax proposal picked up endorsements last week from the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and economic development group Identity Clark County. (Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell is a board member of Identity Clark County.)

That’s round one.

The second proposal, planned for a vote in 2012, would raise the sales tax another 0.1 percent. That revenue, about $4 million to $5 million per year, would pay for operation of new high-capacity transit options to include light rail and bus rapid transit.

The local tax bump would only pay for maintaining high-capacity transit. Building either system would likely be paid in large part by federal funds.

For light rail, Columbia River Crossing planners are banking on a federal “New Starts” grant. An application for $850 million is pending with the Federal Transit Administration.

The scope of Clark County’s light rail vote isn’t clear yet. Local leaders have sparred over whether the vote should include C-Tran’s entire district, or a smaller subdistrict such as Vancouver’s urban growth boundary.

Regardless of how it looks, Stuart said the C-Tran board is committed to holding that vote in 2012, as promised — even if it’s a “tough conversation” in the wake of what’s shaping up to be a contentious sales tax campaign this fall.

“We won’t sign off on the light rail component until that vote has occurred,” Stuart said.

County’s role in CRC

In the process to secure New Starts funding for the Columbia River Crossing, plenty of hurdles remain. Patterson called the application “voluminous.”

The CRC mega-project, estimated to cost $2.63 billion to $3.76 billion, is still in the preliminary engineering phase. No matter how likely or unlikely federal funding looks, an award can’t become official until the end of the final design stage of the project.

One key part of the application’s merit is a local financial commitment. That puts plenty of pressure on both of C-Tran’s planned sales tax votes.

Should the November vote fail, the FTA likely wouldn’t look favorably on major cuts to basic C-Tran service, Patterson said.

But is it enough to derail federal light rail funding? Or set back the entire CRC project?

“At this point it’s just really too soon to tell,” said Anne Pressentin, a CRC spokeswoman. “Once we know the outcome of the vote, we’ll reassess it.”

C-Tran leaders have repeatedly stressed that no revenue from this year’s sales tax proposal will be used for light rail. C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm reiterated that point at a recent C-Tran board meeting when asked directly by an audience member.

Moreover, Federal Transit Administration rules prevent a transit agency from using cutbacks elsewhere to pay for light rail.

“You can’t diminish existing service for light rail,” Stuart said. “Period.”

It’s clear Clark County voters will play a big role in determining its fate. Even if C-Tran’s basic service sales tax passes this fall, the planned 2012 light rail vote is far from a sure victory. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler, in a report on the CRC’s finances made public earlier this month, called that vote “critical” in securing federal New Starts money to build it.

C-Tran sees the November election as an “up or down” vote on funding a core bus system, Patterson said. If it passes, the transit agency sits in a good financial place long term.

And if it doesn’t?

“Then it’s time to go back to the drawing board,” Patterson said.

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