Voters on board with C-Tran

Sales tax hike to protect basic bus services leads on early returns

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

A sales tax measure to continue current C-Tran bus service enjoyed a comfortable lead Tuesday night, according to early election results.

Prop. 1 led by a margin of about 54 percent to 46 percent. With more than 60,000 votes counted as of Tuesday night, the measure was passing by slightly more than 5,000 votes.

As many as 23,000 votes remained uncounted Tuesday night. But for Proposition 1 to lose its lead, the remaining tally would have to swing hard in the other direction.

“We’re extremely positive,” said Tim Schauer, who chaired the political action committee that championed the measure. “Clark County has a history of close votes, so we’re going to be cautiously optimistic.”

Prop. 1 would bump C-Tran’s local sales tax rate by 0.2 percentage point, from 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent. The increase would raise an estimated $8 million to $9 million per year, which agency leaders say is necessary to stave off major cuts to basic bus service.

C-Tran operates at an annual deficit, and has seen financial turmoil since it abruptly lost much of its state funding in 2000. Voters approved the agency’s last sales tax increase in 2005.

Assuming Tuesday’s result holds up, C-Tran’s existing bus and paratransit service will remain whole, said Public Affairs Director Scott Patterson. The agency is “humbled” by voters’ support, even in shaky economic conditions, he said.

“We know that asking citizens to pay more in the form of a tax increase is not an easy thing to do,” Patterson said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”

C-Tran now turns its attention to high-capacity transit initiatives that could bring bus rapid transit and light rail to Clark County. A planned ballot measure next year will likely ask voters to bump the sales tax again — by 0.1 percentage point — to pay for the operation of those systems.

But first came Prop. 1.

For months, almost all of the organized campaigning around the measure came from Keep Clark County Moving — the political action committee chaired by Schauer and formed to push for the measure early this year. Supporters kicked off their campaign in August with a rally at the Clark County Fair.

In recent weeks, two other PACs — Save Our City and NoTolls.com — stepped up their efforts in opposition to Prop. 1. Those groups had spent a combined $12,000 against the measure by the end of October. But that paled in comparison to the nearly $85,000 that Keep Clark County Moving pumped into the campaign to that point.

Opponents argued that C-Tran should rethink its priorities and fiscal management before coming to voters with a tax increase. Supporters said the measure was necessary to fund services crucial to the community.

The debate kicked up anew last week, when forensic accountant Tiffany Couch released her own analysis of C-Tran’s finances. In it, Couch argued that the agency could last much longer without service cuts — and without a tax increase — than C-Tran had said. C-Tran leaders vehemently disputed Couch’s take.

Vancouver resident Debbie Peterson, who helped campaign against Prop. 1, called it unfortunate that residents who live outside C-Tran’s taxing district but shop in it will pay the higher sales tax despite not having a chance to vote for it. The money that C-Tran will collect from the measure is money that will be pulled out of the local economy, she said.

“This is the beginning of a bad trend,” Peterson said. She called the measure unnecessary for basic bus service based on C-Tran’s reserve funds and planned spending elsewhere.

Volunteers for the Prop. 1 campaign worked to the very end, Schauer said, even making phone calls Tuesday morning. Supporters mostly stuck to their game plan from start to finish, he said.

“We think an educated vote is a yes vote,” Schauer said.

Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt, C-Tran’s board chairman, spent part of Tuesday evening at an Election Night gathering at Clark College. He admitted he wasn’t sure the measure would pass.

“I’m happy,” Boldt said. “I’m a little surprised, yeah.”

As for next year’s high-capacity transit vote, the board needs to be clear how it presents its budget in light of questions that emerged this year. A board retreat in December will decide many of those next steps, he said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; www.twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.

C-Tran 2011 election results map

Voting map key:

(Results of Proposition 1 vote on a C-Tran sales tax rate increase by precinct.)

Dark green: Strongly in favor, more than 60% voted YES

Light green: In favor, 50-60% voted YES

Light yellow: Against, 50-60% voted NO

Dark yellow: Strongly against, more than 60% voted NO