John Laird is The Columbian's editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1995, might not be memorable to you, but for light rail critics, it was the day Excalibur was pulled from the stone. And they have brandished their sword for 171/2 years since that fateful day when Clark County voters rejected light rail.
As the saber has acquired a bit of rust, it's instructive to review what has happened around here since 1995. Four years ago I wrote about those changes, and perhaps it's time for an update:
• In 1995, the local population was about 291,000. Now, it's 433,000-plus. Increases in bridge congestion and commute times might alter the light rail debate.
• In 1995, gas was about $1.50 a gallon. Today, my app says it's four bucks. That, too, might change how people think about light rail.
• In 1995, the regional light rail proposal was a $2.85 billion, 21-mile line from Clackamas to 99th Street in Hazel Dell. This year, the local plan is 2.6 miles from the Expo Center to Clark College.
• In 1995, no federal funding was specified on the ballot measure. Today, more than $1 billion is expected to come from the feds for the Columbia River Crossing.
• In 1995, there was no MAX Yellow Line. Today, the Yellow Line is near our front porch. Vancouver can connect to a massive, 52-mile light rail system with 85 stations and 41 million rides a year, offering service to downtown Portland, Hillsboro, Gresham, Clackamas Town Center and Portland International Airport.
• In 1995, there were 141,269 registered voters locally. Today, there are more than 234,400. Voter turnout back then was 39 percent. This year, it's expected to top 80 percent. If we hit 85.3 percent like we did in 2008, almost 200,000 people will vote on the light rail measure, compared with only about 55,000 back then.
• In 1995, the light rail vote was countywide, including many areas not served by C-Tran. This year, the vote will be in the C-Tran service district, which makes sense because that's where the sales tax would increase.
• Here's the biggest difference between this year's vote and 1995: The Nov. 6 issue is not about light rail at all. It's about a funding mechanism for light rail operation and maintenance. Big difference.
Granted, light rail critics boast that the Nov. 6 issue could kill the Demon Loot Rail Crime Train. They've got a right to misrepresent the ballot measure in such a way, but anyone who believes light rail is not coming to Vancouver is living in a dream world. We just need to figure out how to pay for maintenance and operation.
Personally, I rather like the idea of the Columbia River Crossing luring more than a billion of our tax dollars from the federal government back into our community. About time, many would say.
And as for the funding mechanism, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt aptly described the situation in a recent online comment: "The ballot question is one of financing. Do voters believe sales tax should be used to support the annual operations and maintenance costs? The ballot question is not about yes or no to the light rail. Much like a ballot measure for schools. Are you willing to support additional property tax to support schools? If the answer is no, schools still operate. If the answer is yes, schools still operate."
Why couldn't the Nov. 6 vote become a light rail killer? First, because we're not the only stakeholder in the CRC. Second, as Leavitt wrote, this question "was answered (after significant study of the pros/cons of the alternatives) by the citizens committees and the three local elected bodies on this side of the river (C-Tran, RTC, City of Vancouver) and the three elected/appointed bodies south of the river (Tri-Met, Metro, City of Portland) and endorsed by the Port of Vancouver, Port of Portland, Chamber of Commerce, Portland Business Alliance, Identity Clark County, numerous labor unions, etc., four years ago in 2008. The states of WA and OR and the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration and the White House have signaled approval."
None of that, however, will disrupt the reverie of the light rail critics. Dream on, friends, while the rust grows on Excalibur.