C-Tran puts light-rail tax measure to voters

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It's official: Most Clark County residents will have their vote on light rail this fall.

The C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday finalized plans for a Nov. 6 sales tax ballot measure that would, in part, pay for the operation of a light rail extension into Vancouver, planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project. It would also help fund a proposed bus rapid transit line on the city's Fourth Plain corridor, which the board signaled support for earlier in the evening.

C-Tran will ask voters in its entire service district to raise the local sales tax rate by 0.1 percentage point. C-Tran’s service district includes the Vancouver Urban Growth Area in addition to the city limits of Camas, Washougal, Ridgefield, La Center, Battle Ground, and Yacolt.

If approved, it would be the second tax hike for C-Tran in as many years, after voters passed Proposition 1 in 2011. If rejected, it would put local leaders back to the drawing board in finding a way to cover the $2.3 million to $2.7 million annual cost to operate light rail in Clark County. Officials are banking on federal funds to actually build the system as part of the $3.5 billion CRC, which would also replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.

C-Tran has long promised a public vote as part of the CRC process. In finalizing the ballot measure Tuesday, a few board members indicated their desire to follow through on that pledge.

"It's time," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, one of nine voting C-Tran board members.

Bus rapid transit also found favor as the board approved a locally preferred alternative that would take the enhanced system from downtown to the Westfield Vancouver mall, with the option of extending it farther east down Fourth Plain in the future. The vote was unanimous, but the support was not -- Washougal City Councilor Connie Jo Freeman said she's still not sold on the plan, but has said she wants to see a vote happen. And C-Tran had to solidify a preliminary bus rapid transit concept before tying it to a ballot measure. Annual revenue from a 0.1 percentage-point sales tax bump -- about $4.5 million to $5.5 million -- would be split roughly half and half between light rail and bus rapid transit, according to C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm.

The vote is only the latest step in a years-long process surrounding the CRC and local transit plans. That included a brief detour earlier this year, when the city of Vancouver and C-Tran explored several non-sales tax funding models that could pay for light rail. It ultimately ended right back where it started. But board members have said the information they gathered is still valuable.

C-Tran also had to wait on final word from a state-mandated expert review panel looking at the agency's high-capacity transit plans. That came two weeks ago.

"Sometimes the process is ugly. Sometimes it's not fun," Vancouver City Councilor and C-Tran board chair Larry Smith said. "But it's a process, and you have to go through it."

Bus rapid transit plans still must gain approval from the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council before C-Tran can apply for federal funding on the $40 million to $55 million project. RTC could act as soon as next month, after deciding to delay action in June.

The political campaign surrounding this year's sales tax vote may not pick up until later this summer, but the board also picked some of the voices who will help shape the debate. Two committees of three members each will write official statements for and against the measure in the November voters pamphlet.

Writing in favor of the measure will be state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, former Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard and local resident Tim Kraft. Arguing against it will be state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, Clark County commissioner candidate David Madore and Vancouver City Councilor Bill Turlay.

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