C-Tran board: Light rail vote will happen this fall

Full service district will have a say; measure may not involve sales tax

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Survey finds support for a vote on light rail

More than two-thirds of the Clark County residents who responded to a survey mailed by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, say they favor a public vote on light rail as part of the Columbia River Crossing project, according to the congresswoman’s office.

About 68 percent of respondents reportedly said they would like to see a vote. Twenty-two percent said the project doesn’t need a vote, with the other 10 percent favoring no new Interstate 5 Bridge at all, or marking “other.”

Herrera Beutler mailed the survey this year with three main choices:

• “I agree that residents should have a vote on whether to pay for light rail as part of this project.”

• “We should move ahead on a new bridge without a public vote. We should be willing to pay what it takes to expand light rail into Clark County.”

• “We don’t need a new bridge at all.”

More than 1,800 people responded to the survey, according to Herrera Beutler’s office. The results are not scientific, and not complete. The congresswoman said responses are still arriving.

— Eric Florip

The C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday indicated it’s still on board for a public vote on light rail this fall, but backed away from what’s long been the presumed way to pay for operating it — a sales tax increase.

An 8-1 vote directed the agency to explore other options to cover the maintenance cost of a light rail extension into Vancouver. The resolution also called for a vote, put to C-Tran’s entire service district, on whatever that ends up being. The move appeared to seek a middle ground after board members reached a stalemate over whether to pull the trigger on a sales tax vote this year.

Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, who floated the compromise near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, said the bottom line is giving residents a say on light rail, as C-Tran has long said it would.

“The movement is to a vote in November 2012,” Stuart said. “That’s what we promised. That’s what this resolution is about.”

C-Tran leaders had said the sales tax measure would help pay for two new high-capacity transit systems in Vancouver: light rail, planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project, and a proposed bus rapid transit system on the city’s Fourth Plain corridor. Both systems are banking on federal funding to cover construction costs. At issue is how to cover the yearly operating costs.

The move follows the lead of the Vancouver City Council, which voted 4-3 Monday in favor of putting off a sales tax vote this year, preferring to first study other options for covering the $2.57 million annual cost to maintain light rail — options that don’t require a sales tax increase.

Mayor Tim Leavitt has said for weeks he’d like to explore those possibilities, and said he’s not the only one. Money could come from a fare-based model leaning heavily on riders, for example, or a city motor vehicle license tax, Leavitt has said.

Tuesday’s full C-Tran vote starts agency and city staff on the path toward vetting those options. Leavitt noted Tuesday that doesn’t take a sales tax off the table, only makes sure all other choices are exhausted first.

But the city and C-Tran officials will have to work fast if they hope to have another option ready to go for this November’s election. The C-Tran board faces a July deadline to get a measure on the ballot.

Tuesday’s meeting reached a brief, not unexpected, logjam before board members reached the compromise. Leavitt initially moved to delay a sales tax vote this year, but his motion was defeated by a 6-3 tally. Stuart followed with a motion to go ahead with a broad sales tax measure, which found support by the same 6-3 margin. But the three “nay” votes all came from the Vancouver City Council’s three members at the table, triggering an automatic veto and putting the board back to square one.

During the debate, some board members said there’s more at stake than a financing plan.

“If we do not have a vote on this measure this year, I firmly believe that our credibility will go downhill,” Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said.

Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley asked why the push for a new light rail funding model came now, instead of years ago. Ultimately, Ganley said, C-Tran needs to follow through on what’s it’s been telling the public during that time. “I think it’s time to take it to a vote,” he said. “I really do.”

The decision carries implications beyond just light rail. Bus rapid transit plans continue to take shape, still assuming a sales tax increase to cover operation costs. And a state-mandated expert review panel — basing its entire schedule on a November ballot measure — held its first meeting last week. C-Tran has set aside $500,000 to carry out that review process.

Panel administrator John White said Tuesday the group will go ahead with its work unless directed otherwise.

“As we speak today, the plan is still what the plan is,” White said.

C-Tran leaders have long said they’d put a ballot measure to voters to help pay for light rail. A 2011 C-Tran board action also stated that a high-capacity transit vote “must take place prior to C-Tran or any other designee of C-Tran signing an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with TriMet to operate light rail in Clark County.”

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