Who will vote on light rail? Find out in July

C-Tran board will decide whether to include everyone or subdistrict

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Debate over light rail rages on, but it may be July before Clark County residents know just who can vote on it.

The C-Tran Board of Directors has given every indication that a sales tax increase to support a proposed light rail line into Vancouver as part of the Columbia River Crossing will go to voters in November.

But a draft timeline released Monday showed the size of a voting district -- whether it includes everyone in the transit agency’s service area or a smaller subdistrict such as Vancouver and its urban growth boundary -- isn’t set to be finalized until July.

The size of a voting district is among the touchiest topics related to what’s become one of the area’s most controversial subjects, and passionate discourse on both sides is likely to continue until a decision is made.

C-Tran spokesman Scott Patterson called the timing of the final decision an “unfortunate reality.”

The nine members of the C-Tran board -- made up of elected officials from within the agency’s service area -- requested information that won’t be available by the board’s next meeting on Feb. 14, he said.

So, the topic won’t come up again until the board’s meeting in March. The timeline, given to the Vancouver City Council, shows that board members will then have April and May to share information and get input from their local governing bodies.

July is the deadline for a public agency to reserve a spot on the Nov. 13 ballot.

“Given the logical timeline of sequencing and events,” the decision must be played out over the next six months, Patterson said.

He said there was one way the decision could be made sooner than July -- “if we start having conversations, and there’s a strong majority that’s clearly in one camp or the other.”

If approved, a planned 0.1 percent sales tax would pay for the operations and maintenance of an extension of Portland’s MAX rail line to Clark College, as well as bus rapid transit on Fourth Plain Boulevard.

The tax would raise $4 million to $5 million a year, of which $2.57 million is expected to cover light rail.

Also adding to the delay in a decision is that until November 2011, C-Tran was entirely focused on its 0.2 percent sales tax measure for basic bus service. That measure passed.

“Our focus had to be and was on that,” Patterson said. “Now we’re switching gears and going though the (light rail) district or subdistrict discussion.”

The idea of a subdistrict was raised last year by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who argued that with a line running through the city’s core and ending at Clark College, it may not make sense for Yacolt residents, who may not use the train often, to vote on the matter.

Data from last November’s 0.2 percent sales tax increase for basic bus services bears out that light rail may fare better in a subdistrict. The tax had its highest support in Vancouver city limits (56.8 percent), and failed in Yacolt and Battle Ground, ultimately passing with 53.9 percent of the vote.

However, others, including Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, have called for a vote among everyone served by C-Tran, which means most of Clark County. Herrera Beutler said she wants to hear how her constituents view the plans for the $3.5 billion project, and this vote is the only indication she’ll get.

Proponents of the districtwide plan have also said that outlying shoppers visit Vancouver to shop and would have to pay the sales tax, without having had a say on it. Additionally, C-Tran is an interconnected system and changes would impact the whole district, advocates of a districtwide vote said.

Though it may be months before the matter is settled once and for all, Patterson said he doesn’t think it will stifle discussion or hurt people’s ability to keep abreast of light rail developments.

“I don’t think the full district or subdistrict issue (will) make people more or less informed on the issue,” Patterson said. “It’s out there, it’s going to be on the front page.”

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