Herrera Beutler may try to block CRC light rail

She’ll try to change project if local voters say ‘no’ to funding

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler wants one thing to be clear: As goes the C-Tran vote on light rail, so goes she.

If local voters say they don’t want to pay for light rail operations and maintenance, the Camas Republican said she’ll do her best to make sure the Columbia River Crossing is redrawn without it.

And if the vote fails and the C-Tran Board of Directors still tries to fund light rail operations and maintenance using alternate methods, she said she’ll do her best to stop them.

“If any entity attempts to circumvent this vote of the people, I’m going to use every ounce of effort I have to block that,” Herrera Beutler said Friday, a day after she unsuccessfully tried to force a vote on light rail into a federal bill.

However, should the vote fail, and Herrera Beutler succeeds in blocking light rail from the CRC, there would be serious time and financial delays to the project.

Planning for the current iteration has already taken well over a decade, at a cost of more than $140 million. Going back to the drawing board, which Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio has said would happen, would cost millions more and likely enrage the Portland side of the river, where light rail has been a selling point.

Bridge referendum?

The C-Tran sales tax only focuses on one small portion of the $3.5 billion megaproject, but Herrera Beutler said she views it as a referendum on the entire plan for a new Interstate 5 bridge, light rail and highway improvements in Portland and Vancouver.

That’s because this is the only aspect of the controversial project that gives local voters an up-or-down say on the matter, she said.

“The problem is people have not been asked, I think, as carefully as possible about what they think of the way this project is put together,” said Herrera Beutler, who is up for re-election this year.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said that’s not the case.

“Decisions (about the CRC) didn’t come lightly,” he said in an email. “For nearly two decades, our community -- citizens and neighbors, private business, freight representatives, our local Ports, and political leadership -- have talked, studied, restudied, designed and redesigned the project.”

C-Tran has promised a November vote on a sales tax increase that would cover the $2.57 million annual operations and maintenance costs of the CRC’s planned extension of light rail from Portland to Clark College. The size of the voting pool -- either C-Tran’s entire service district or a smaller subdistrict of voters -- remains up for debate.

But even as its board prepares for a vote, it’s also looking at a Plan B should it fail. Leavitt has formed an advisory committee that will explore other options besides a sales tax increase.

He said last month that money could come from a fare-based model leaning heavily on riders, for example, or a city motor vehicle license tax. Or, the city of Vancouver or C-Tran could decide to take on the burden from general funds.

The freshman Congresswoman said she won’t stand for that.

“That’s an injustice to the people we serve,” she said. “Just because local elected officials and bureaucrats can do that, doesn’t mean they should.”

Flash point

Herrera Beutler said she answers to the voters of Southwest Washington -- not Oregon. So if her constituents reject light rail, so does she.

However, the CRC -- which has six agencies in Portland and Clark County that must sign off on the project -- answers to many masters. Each agency approved the CRC’s plans in 2008.

And in Portland, Mayor Sam Adams has been infamously quoted as saying “no light rail, no bridge.”

Rejecting light rail would likely restart a lengthy and contentious process of creating a compromise between highway-hungry Clark County and pro-transit Multnomah County.

The way the CRC is designed and given federal approval for construction would also likely have to be revisited.

Herrera Beutler said she doesn’t think it would take 10 years to come up with new plans. Plus, getting a bridge people support may be worth the wait and extra cost, she said.

“If people in Clark County don’t want this, I don’t see how waiting is equal to getting a product we don’t want,” Herrera Beutler said.

Leavitt said the project is fortunate to have completed its environmental studies and received federal approval. He said without the CRC, Southwest Washington’s quality of life and thousands of jobs are at risk.

“Our community reasonably expects us to move forward without further delay, unnecessary additional expense, and with as much federal funding of this project as possible,” he wrote. “That is and what has been our focus here at the local level. Rather than threatening to withhold federal funding -- thus increasing the cost of this project to us locally -- and ignoring the years of effort and hundreds of millions spent, we remain hopeful and look to our Congresswoman to re-calibrate her efforts in a productive way toward INCREASING the federal monies for this vital interstate highway project.”

Herrera Beutler said Friday that she’s pushing for a five-year House transportation bill so that adequate funding would be available.

On Thursday, however, she voted against an amendment in that bill that would create a category for Projects of National and Regional Significance -- a pot from which the CRC is banking on drawing $400 million in federal highway funds. The amendment failed 25 to 27.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4522; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.