Light rail vote might be delayed

Public critics miffed as C-Tran considers spot on 2012 ballot

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Local voters may not get a chance to weigh in on light rail until November of 2012, according to a proposed timeline floated by C-Tran officials on Tuesday evening.

The C-Tran board of directors won’t make a final decision on the timing of the proposed ballot measure until its next meeting in April.

But the potential time frame floated Tuesday throws a new element of uncertainty into a bigger multibillion-dollar proposal to replace the Interstate 5 bridge and extend Portland’s light rail transit system to Vancouver.

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Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recently vowed that construction on the proposed Columbia River Crossing project will get under way in 2013.

Project planners expect they will have assurances that, if they build the light rail extension on the new I-5 bridge, there will be money to actually operate it.

That appears to be an increasingly iffy proposition.

Clark County’s transit agency is now raising the possibility of waiting until late in 2012 before asking voters to bump the sales tax to generate $2 million to $3 million per year to run light rail in Vancouver. C-Tran officials said that would provide enough time to conduct an expert review and finalize plans for a bus rapid transit line along Fourth Plain Boulevard that will connect to the light rail extension.

Such a late vote — a month after the beginning of the 2013 federal fiscal year — could affect the timeline for the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project, a gargantuan highway and transit project spanning five miles of I-5 in two states.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt attributed the delay to the board’s insistence on two ballot measures, one for bus service and one for light rail.

A split vote requires a more protracted process under state law.

“This board made a decision to separate the two issues and, in doing that, state law requires that we have to do this expert review panel, that we have to put together a finance plan,” Leavitt said. “And that takes a lot of time and effort. ... There is no way we could even legally go out to the voters this November.”

That didn’t go over well with local residents who testified during C-Tran’s regular monthly meeting.

Josephine Wentzel of notolls.com called on the board to honor its commitment to put the controversial issue of light rail before voters sooner rather than later.

“I think this is creating confusion,” she said. “It’s sending the wrong message.”

Pushing back the vote to 2012 will give people time to fully consider the question, said Don Wagner, co-director of the bistate crossing office in Vancouver. He noted that the states haven’t yet settled on a bridge design, a question transportation planners are trying to settle by next week.

“I’d much rather have the voters have more knowledge of the project versus something that’s in a hurry,” Wagner said. “I don’t think it jeopardizes us in any way.”

Vancouver resident Bill Turlay criticized the C-Tran board for its decision in 2008 to conditionally endorse a replacement bridge with light rail. Even though planners anticipate the Federal Transit Administration will provide $850 million to construct the line, Turlay said Vancouver does not have the population density to justify an expensive investment in high-capacity transit.

“That’s all taxpayer money we’re talking about here,” he said.

Five months ago, the board voted 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.

A majority of C-Tran’s board indicated during a retreat on Saturday that they prefer to delay the light rail/bus rapid transit measure while moving ahead with the ballot measure for buses on Nov. 8.

The board members made no decisions about the ballot measure question on Tuesday. They plan to make that decision during their next regularly scheduled meeting, to be held April 12 at the county’s Public Service Center.

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