Herrera Beutler calls for districtwide light rail vote

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler wrote a strongly worded letter to the C-Tran Board of Directors Wednesday saying she can’t help find federal funding for the Columbia River Crossing without a districtwide vote on a proposed sales tax increase to fund light rail.

The C-Tran Board of Directors agreed Tuesday night to postpone until after the November election a decision on whether to put a sales tax increase before a subdistrict — such as Vancouver and its urban growth boundary, for example — or to the entire C-Tran service area, which spans much of Clark County. The board did say it is committed to having a vote in August or November 2012.

But Herrera Beutler, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said she’d like to see a vote this November, or in a February 2012 special election.

“If the light rail vote goes down — which it may not, who knows — if it does, that is a signal that we have to redesign this and do what the people want,” she said by phone from Washington, D.C. “My whole focus is on if the people who are going to be asked to pay for the bridge agree with what we’re doing.”

The C-Tran vote is not a referendum approving or rejecting the CRC, a $3.6 billion megaproject that includes seven interchange improvements and a replacement Interstate 5 bridge. Rather, the vote is a one-tenth of 1 percent tax increase for operations and maintenance of a light rail line from Portland and to Clark College, along with funding for Bus Rapid Transit in downtown Vancouver.

But the freshman Republican representative from Camas feels the C-Tran vote will provide an “accurate gauge” of what Southwest Washington wants.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who is on the transit board and is in favor of the CRC, said there already has been a good barometer of support: That multiple local agencies in Oregon and Washington in 2008 signed off on a Locally Preferred Alternative of a replacement bridge with light rail.

“I’m at a loss at this point in understanding why the congresswoman appears to be saying she doesn’t respect the locally elected officials and their representation of the people who have put them in office, and have continued to do so over last three years since the (Locally Preferred Alternative) was voted on,” he said.

Herrera Beutler said that if local officials are positive there is support for the project, then they should hold a vote quickly, so funding is clearly in place.

“Let’s not be afraid of finding out what people want,” she said.

She said she’s had requests from numerous Clark County organizations to help mark the CRC as a Project of National and Regional Significance within the Surface Transportation Act — which would potentially funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the project.

“We have to determine what those who will pay for and use the bridge really want, as soon as possible,” Herrera Beutler said. “The success of this project is not possible without the local funding component. I’m growing increasingly concerned that the districtwide vote decision continues to be postponed.”

The light rail and bus rapid transit vote cannot be done this November, according to C-Tran staff: When the board decided in September 2010 to split the core bus service and light rail ballot measures, it required a more protracted process under state law — including an expert review, finance plan and analysis of alternatives estimated to cost $500,000. That process won’t be finished in time to put it on the ballot this year, according to agency staff.

It’s not clear that Herrera Beutler alone would have the clout to kill federal funding to the project, with the presence of several powerful CRC proponents in the federal government: Democratic Sen. Patty Murray serves as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, another deep pot of potential money for the project, while Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, serves with Herrera Beutler on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and is the ranking member of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee.

Herrera Beutler said she supports a bridge that “relieves congestion and moves freight efficiently,” but added that legitimate concerns about the bridge design and financing have been raised.

“The best way to settle those questions is through a transparent and open process followed by a vote of the people,” she wrote in the letter. “Policymakers at all levels of government are being asked to secure funding for the CRC project. Before we reach the ‘do or die’ point on this bridge, we need to know whether our citizens support the project.”

She declined to say if she is for or against light rail.

“That’s an interesting question,” Herrera Beutler replied. “I don’t want to get out in front and impose my feelings on the public. I’m not going to say, ‘I know better than you all what is needed here.’ ”

Herrera Beutler wrote a similar letter asking for a districtwide vote to the C-Tran board last month, after Vancouver’s three representatives from the city council threatened to use a bloc veto to stop the board from deciding on a district or subdistrict, saying more information was necessary.

She said she has not received a response to her May 11 letter.

The C-Tran board chairman, Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt, did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Without the districtwide vote, Herrera Beutler said it will be “really difficult for me to go to my colleagues and say the local piece is there.”

However, paying the cost for light rail maintenance and operations is expected to be between $2 million and $3 million a year — a sliver of the three-way split between local, state and federal sources on the $3.6 billion project. Most of the local contribution is expected to come from tolls; and the state Legislature has the power to increase tolls to pay for light rail operations and maintenance, should the C-Tran vote fail.

The CRC has asked for $850 million in federal money to pay for light rail construction. The rest of the funding is expected to come from state transportation funds and the federal government.

The project is at about 15 percent design completion, and planners are rushing to finish a Final Environmental Impact Statement to submit to the federal government by fall. A Record of Decision, allowing the states to move forward on construction, could happen as soon as the end of the year.

But, the congresswoman pointed out the state Departments of Transportation can’t build without money.

Getting money from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for the CRC requires Herrera Beutler to convince her colleagues in Congress to create and fund this account, spokesman Casey Bowman wrote in an email.

“It’s very hard to do that in this budgetary environment if the local part of the project isn’t moving forward,” he said.

Andrea Damewood:360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood.