Light rail vote may be delayed

Bus rapid transit half of measure may not be ready this year

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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The Columbia River Crossing project proposes to replace the existing twin three-lane drawbridges with 10 lanes over the river, improve five miles of Interstate 5 on both sides and extend Portland’s light-rail transit system into downtown Vancouver.

Go to columbian.com/i5bridge to see a project timeline, previous stories and other links.

Clark County voters may not get a chance to weigh in on light rail this year, after all.

That’s if they get to vote on it at all.

A majority of C-Tran’s nine-member board of directors, meeting Saturday at the Fishers Landing Transit Center, suggested that November may be too soon for voters to decide on light rail and a new bus rapid transit line.

Instead, the board indicated it wants to push forward with a ballot measure to preserve existing bus service only.

“Let the citizens decide on light rail. However, don’t hold my bus service and C-Van hostage,” La Center Mayor Jim Irish said.

The board took no action during the informal retreat, but it did provide an indication of their latest thinking.

On Sept. 14, the board voted 7-2 to put forward two ballot measures in 2011.

One would ask voters to bump the sales tax by two-tenths of 1 percentage point to preserve existing bus service, add some new routes and shore up C-Van service for riders with disabilities. The other would ask for another one-tenth of 1 percentage point increase to operate an extension of Portland’s light-rail transit system on a new Interstate 5 bridge and build a new bus rapid transit line in dedicated lanes along Fourth Plain Boulevard.

However, C-Tran officials say they may not have enough time to finalize plans for the bus rapid transit line before November.

In light of that uncertainty — and the threat of draconian cuts in basic bus service by the fall of 2012 without a sales tax increase — board members indicated they prefer to delay the light rail/bus rapid transit measure while moving ahead with the ballot measure for buses on Nov. 8.

“I feel optimistic that there’s going to be good momentum behind supporting the core bus system in Clark County,” Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said.

County Commissioner Tom Mielke, an avowed critic of light rail and the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project, was the only member of the C-Tran board to definitively declare his interest in putting both measures before voters this year no matter what.

“I think we need to stay the course and get ’er done,” Mielke said.

Mielke appears to hold the minority view, although Vancouver city councilor Larry Smith indicated he, too, prefers a light rail vote sooner rather than later.

“We owe that to the public because we said we’d let them vote on it,” Smith said. Later, he added, “I want it to go out in November. I don’t think the timing is going to get any better on that.”

Leavitt suggests subdistrict

No one was optimistic about the prospects of a countywide vote on light rail.

C-Tran officials had initially envisioned a single vote with both light rail and basic bus service, thinking it would provide something for everyone around the county. Leavitt tried to exercise the city’s ability to impose a bloc veto when county commissioners suggested splitting off the light rail ballot measure in September.

However, Vancouver city councilor Jeanne Stewart broke from Leavitt and fellow city councilor Jeanne Harris and voted with the other six board members.

Now, Leavitt said, it may make sense for C-Tran to form a subdistrict for light rail.

State law permits the formation of a high-capacity transit subdistrict as early as 2012. Such a district could boost the sales tax in a smaller area — perhaps Vancouver and its urban growth boundary — where voters may be more supportive of high-capacity transit in Vancouver.

In that case, people living outside Vancouver would never vote on light rail.

“I can understand why an individual living in Yacolt may not feel as supportive in paying for bus rapid transit and light rail in Vancouver,” Leavitt said in an interview after Saturday’s meeting. “A subdistrict, to me, is a very viable option.”

Bridge questions

Delaying the light rail vote would complicate plans for the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project, a highway and transit project spanning five miles of I-5 on both sides of the river. Planners anticipate tapping $850 million from the Federal Transit Administration to build the light rail extension, but they will need $2 million to $3 million a year to operate it.

That’s where local voters were supposed to come in.

However, C-Tran executive director Jeff Hamm said he believes federal officials will allow planners to move ahead to final design even if the funding remains in question.

The state Legislature could authorize using bridge tolls to pay for the operation of light rail. That may not be popular in Southwest Washington — and it would presumably drive up the long-term cost of interest on toll-backed revenue bonds — but it is permissible under existing state law.

The C-Tran board is due to meet Tuesday, but won’t make a final decision on a ballot measure this year until its regular monthly meeting in April.

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