C-Tran takes note as Oregon voters reject vehicle fee hike

Strategy of asking people countywide to support Sellwood project fails

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The result of Tuesday’s vote in Clackamas County, Ore., wasn’t good news for proponents of replacing the aging Sellwood Bridge — and the outcome is also something that C-Tran and Columbia River Crossing officials are keeping in mind.

In a countywide vote, Clackamas voters rejected a $5 annual vehicle registration fee 63 percent to 37 percent, blowing a $22 million hole in the project’s $290 million budget.

While the Sellwood project doesn’t include transit, the vote could be fodder in discussions of C-Tran’s 2012 sales tax vote on light rail and bus rapid transit — such as whether to make the vote districtwide or part of a smaller subdistrict.

“(Tuesday’s vote) certainly appeared to be an issue where a lot of the people in Clackamas County looked at this as a project that benefitted not very many people, and primarily in Portland,” said Scott Patterson, public information officer and public affairs director for C-Tran. “When you go out for a countywide vote for what looks like more of a local arterial bridge, there’s not as much direct connection with it” for more rural voters.

Earlier this month, C-Tran Board of Directors delayed making a decision on who would vote on a 0.1 percent sales tax.

Proponents of forming a subdistrict on the light rail vote argue that voters in Yacolt may be less likely to support paying for light rail into downtown Vancouver, perhaps like what just happened in Clackamas. Those in favor of a districtwide vote say that the C-Tran system is interconnected, and light rail will affect everyone, not just Vancouver and other urban residents.

“That is the topic of discussion that will continue amongst board members,” Patterson said.

CRC Director Nancy Boyd said Wednesday she thought the Sellwood vote was a sign of the economic times.

“It’s difficult for people to tax themselves right now — they’re being judicious on what they support,” Boyd said.

However, the $3.6 billion I-5 bridge project is set to be financed largely through non-voted measures: federal and state money, along with local tolling.

Still, some still view the light rail operations tax as a referendum on the entire CRC project.

John Jenkins, an anti-CRC critic who ran unsuccessfully for Vancouver City Council last year posted to his Facebook page not long after Tuesday’s results in Clackamas were announced: “You have to think in Sellwood turned down the bridge tax what does that tell you! Maybe we are tired of these tax and build projects. Ding ding CRC, Light Rail Vancouver. C-Tran... take note.”

Should the C-Tran vote fail, Boyd said there are other options to come up with the $1 million a year it needs to operate a light rail line.

Still, she said the Clackamas vote was a sign “we need to do a much better job explaining what this means to people,” like jobs during and after construction and setting the stage for regional growth.

Patterson said the Clackamas vote doesn’t change his feelings about C-Tran’s chances on either its bus operations sales tax measure on this fall’s ballot, no the high capacity transit vote next year.

He pointed to a districtwide poll last March, conducted when the transit agency was still considering a combined 0.3 percent sales tax for bus and high capacity transit. Sixty one percent of 600 respondents strongly or somewhat supported the transit agency’s 20-year development plan. Those votes have since been separated, perhaps meaning the outcome of another poll could be different today.

Since 2010, four out of six transit sales tax initiatives in Washington have passed, he added.

“It’s something to look at, it’s informative,” he said. “I don’t feel any different about our chances at the ballot box based on it.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, andrea.damewood@columbian.com Twitter: col_cityhall.