Legislature has clout to OK tolls for light rail

It could do so even if voters defeat proposed C-Tran hike

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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C-Tran’s board of directors will meet Saturday to talk about whether the board is still on track to place a ballot measure before voters in November.

That measure would boost the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent to operate an extension of Portland’s light-rail transit system across a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

There’s just one thing: It may not matter.

The state Legislature could, in the face of a ballot measure defeat, simply authorize bridge tolls to be used for operating and maintaining the new light rail line.

While that may not be popular in Southwest Washington, it’s permissible under existing state law.

“Toll revenue can be used, pretty much, for anything on the toll facility it was collected on. That’s current law,” said Hayley Gamble, a fiscal analyst for the Senate Transportation Committee. “But the toll facility has to be defined in law, and that’s the limiting factor here.”

The Legislature would have to authorize tolling on the Columbia River Crossing.

Gamble said that legislation will define the specific area to be tolled, whether that’s the bridge itself or a wider area on both sides of the river. Lawmakers could authorize tolling to operate light rail, or they could choose to specifically exclude it.

“Until the facility is defined, I would not be comfortable saying whether (light rail) would be covered or not,” Gamble said.

In any case, that legislation has yet to materialize, and it might not before the anticipated C-Tran vote in November.

Now expected to cost $3.6 billion, the overall Columbia River Crossing project would replace the existing twin three-lane drawbridges with a 10-lane river crossing, extend light rail to Clark College and improve five miles of freeway and interchanges on I-5 in Oregon and Washington.

CRC project planners anticipate a three-way cost split between the two states, the federal government and local revenue generated by tolls.

They anticipate the Federal Transit Administration will provide $850 million to construct the light rail line.

But they will need $2 million to $3 million per year to operate it.

That’s where local voters were supposed to come in, assuming they agree to boost the sales tax. In September, C-Tran’s board decided to split up a long-anticipated ballot measure so that basic bus service would be separated from the political lightning rod that is light rail.

“It’s going to the voters,” Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart said at the time. “There will be a clear vote on light rail.”

The C-Tran board decided to submit two ballot measures to voters in C- Tran’s service district: One will ask voters to bump the sales tax by two-tenths of 1 percent to preserve existing bus service, add some new routes and shore up C-Van service for riders with disabilities. The other measure will ask for an additional one-tenth of 1 percent to operate light rail in downtown Vancouver and build a new bus-rapid transit line in dedicated lanes along Fourth Plain Boulevard.

On Saturday, the board is planning to revisit the discussion from 8 a.m. to noon at the Fisher’s Landing Transit Center.

Rick Wickman, a lobbyist representing Identity Clark County, testified last month regarding a bill that proposed to limit tolling to highway projects only. Because the CRC’s highway and transit improvements are intertwined as a single project, he said, tolling should be allowed to maintain and operate the facility as a whole.

The bill subsequently died in committee.

On Wednesday, Wickman said he was referring only to the maintenance of the structure — not the direct cost of operating the trains. The Vancouver-based nonprofit organization has generally supported the CRC project. As to the merit of tapping toll revenue to operate light rail, Wickman said Identity Clark County has no position. Columbian publisher Scott Campbell serves on the organization’s board of directors.

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