Leavitt not sold on light rail vote

Mayor says there are funding sources other than sales tax hike

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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photoTim Leavitt

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Despite voting in favor of a resolution that promised a vote on light rail in 2012, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said Wednesday he’s not sold on holding a vote this year or perhaps ever.

Leavitt said that in working with a citizen’s advisory group, there are plenty of ways other than a sales tax hike to pay the $2.57 million annual price tag of operating and maintaining the light rail line to Clark College that’s expected with the construction of the Columbia River Crossing.

He said that he is increasingly hearing from people saying they prefer other methods than a sales tax increase.

“I’m hearing: “Why the hell would you be asking for a tax increase if there are methods to cover operations and maintenance that don’t require a tax increase?’” Leavitt said.

Resolutions promising a vote came before both the Oregon and Washington legislatures, but both blew deadlines to have funding in place for the construction of the $3.5 billion project during this year’s legislative sessions.

“I want to hear some justification on whether we should be asking people to raise their sales tax right now,” rather than later when state money is secured, Leavitt said.

However, it’s unclear whether the Vancouver mayor has the sway on the nine-member C-Tran Board of Directors, which includes three Vancouver city council members, the three Clark County commissioners, and three representatives from smaller cities in C-Tran’s service area.

The county commissioners who hold the power of the bloc veto have made their stance in favor of a November ballot measure clear. Commissioner Marc Boldt did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday night. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has also made her strong wishes for a sales tax vote to happen as soon as possible.

Leavitt said that the justification for a vote on light rail is the people’s chance to have a direct say on the whole controversial project is “disingenuous.”

“It’s not to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ about the project, it’s a way to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on whether or not to raise sales tax,” he said.

The CRC is set to apply for $1.2 billion in Federal Transit Agency money for light rail next year. Leavitt pointed out that the FTA doesn’t mandate a vote or a show of local support. The agency doesn’t care how the operations and maintenance of the line are covered just that they are, he said.

Either way, the move would likely alienate those who are viewing a November vote as their shot to give the controversial megaproject a thumb’s up or down.

“It’s going to piss some people off who are already opposed to the project,” Leavitt said. “But they’re already pissed off.”

Other financing options besides a tax run the gamut, Leavitt said. Money could come from a fare-based model leaning heavily on riders, for example, or a city motor vehicle license tax, he said. The city or C-Tran itself could decide to take on the burden from general funds, he added.

Leavitt stressed that any such option would need further vetting, and is far from a sure thing. But participants in his recently formed advisory committee have indicated they’d like to at least explore other options besides a second sales tax increase in as many years.

In the meantime, the expert review panel that will review details of C-Tran’s high capacity transit plans which also include bus rapid transit on Fourth Plain Boulevard will announce its members and time schedule on Tuesday, said John White, vice president of Vancouver’s BergerABAM, the company heading the panel.

State law requires such a review panel before a vote could be held. The panel has a deadline of June 30.

White said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if more time to review plans would be beneficial. But he did say the group would meet its deadline.

“We have a plan of work laid out,” White said. “Our panel is aware (of the deadline) and we’re fully expected to be completed by June 30.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.