In Our View: Ask the Voters

New bridge, light rail are crucial issues; let the people of Clark County have their say

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Here’s the clearly superior way to find out how the people of Clark County feel about a new Interstate 5 bridge with light rail: Ask them. Let them vote.

The government and other supporters of a new bridge and light rail need to hear what local residents are thinking. The people of Clark County aren’t the only ones who will be making these decisions, but they certainly matter. City, county and state leaders must find a way to put these issues on a countywide ballot as a nonbinding advisory vote.

Let’s listen, and we all should be open to dealing with what we hear.

There’s no telling what the outcome will be, because Clark County is a “swing county.” Twice in presidential elections the consensus of local voters favored George W. Bush, only to switch to Barack Obama in 2008. Another example at the federal level: Clark County voters helped send Democrat Brian Baird to Congress six times, choosing him over six different Republican opponents by increasing margins of victory. But when Baird retired, local voters preferred Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler in 2010.

So if you think you’ve got local voters figured out, you’re mistaken. All the more reason to ask them what they think about a new Interstate 5 bridge and light rail.

There’s no need to keep coming up with excuses why this cannot be done, or why the community should wait. We’ve heard all the excuses, and it all sounds like so much government gobbledygook. This is not about the Columbia River Crossing, it’s not about C-Tran and it’s not about Portland. It’s much simpler than that. This is about the voters of Clark County and how they feel about one of the most crucial issues they will ever face.

Are supporters of a new bridge and light rail afraid of rejection by voters? They shouldn’t be, because there’s no reliable way to predict the outcome. Many people on both sides of this issue claim they know how “the people” feel. But those folks are just grasping at flimsy shreds of evidence, somehow trying to legitimize their cause. For example, light-rail opponents often point to the election of Feb. 7, 1995, when voters rejected a light rail proposal by a 2-to-1 margin. But this argument is a nonstarter. That election was 16 years ago. Back then, your congresswoman today was in high school. Gas was about $1.50 a gallon. The county population was about 291,000; now it’s grown by 46 percent to 425,363. Yes, that vote in 1995 was 67.4 percent against light rail, but the turnout was 39 percent. This meant that only 26.4 percent of registered voters who could have opposed light rail actually bothered to do so. Is that a mandate?

We’re not much interested in what voters had to say 16 years ago. We’d rather hear what they have to say in 2011 and, judging from the growing intensity of the community dialogue, they would definitely like to be heard.

Bridge supporters point to a couple of more recent surveys in their favor. A Columbia River Crossing poll in 2006 showed 68 percent support for light rail. The city of Vancouver commissioned a survey the next year that showed similar support for light rail. If done properly, surveys are good indicators of what some people think, but on enormous projects with high stakes, a nonbinding advisory measure on a clearly worded ballot is a better choice.

There’s one thing both “sides” have in common, or at least they should: It is the abiding respect for and interest in how the community feels. Elected officials, stop beating around the bush, stop thinking of reasons why not, and start looking for ways to make this happen. Voters — for and against a new bridge — will thank you for asking them.