Transit review panel kicks off fast-tracked process

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The state-appointed panel charged with examining bus rapid transit and light-rail plans for Vancouver this week kicked off what could be a fast-tracked review process.

But judging by the long list of information requests during the group’s first formal meeting Thursday morning, there’s plenty of work to do before its July 1 deadline. And there’s plenty for panel members to learn before they make their recommendations to local leaders.

“This is an educational experience both ways,” said Dennis Hinebaugh, the ­panel’s chairman.

Thursday’s meeting offered a sort of crash course on local transportation policy. C-Tran, the city of Vancouver and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council all brought presentations detailing their past, present and future planning efforts. All touched on the systems the panel was assembled to look at: a proposed BRT line along Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, and a light-rail extension into downtown planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.

C-Tran plans to ask voters to help pay for the operation of those high-capacity transit systems through a sales tax increase this November. The expert review panel, announced last month, is part of a state-mandated process to make that happen.

“It’s a puzzle, and they’re all individual pieces,” Hinebaugh said. “I think we’re all here to see if they all fit together.”

The group’s five members bring a wide range of backgrounds from different parts of the country. Hinebaugh is the transit program director for the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. Other members hail from Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts and Seattle.

Panel members took a daylong tour of Vancouver’s proposed project corridors Wednesday. Thursday, members indicated they may divide some review responsibilities according to their areas of expertise to work more efficiently. The group hopes to deliver a report to C-Tran leaders by July 1 — a time-crunched task by most accounts.

Helping lead the process is John White, vice president of Vancouver-based consulting firm BergerABAM. C-Tran awarded the firm a $330,000 contract in January, hiring it as panel administrator.

White indicated Thursday that panel members may use teleconferences and other electronic means to communicate with each other between now and their next in-person meeting in May. Those interactions will be public and likely posted on the group’s website, www.highcapacityerp.com. Thursday’s meeting was open to the public, though no public comment was taken.

Only one other public transit agency tackled the expert review panel process under the Washington law that requires it. That was Sound Transit, whose panel met for more than two years examining proposed high-capacity transit expansion in the Puget Sound area.

The panel working with C-Tran may not necessarily follow Sound Transit’s example, White said. It’s unclear what form the group’s final report and recommendations will take, he said, though the process will likely focus largely on the financing plans for both of Vancouver’s proposed projects.

For now, panel members appeared focused on learning as much as they can about the region’s transit arteries. And that’s expected, White said.

“You guys are basically sponges right now,” White said.

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