City council yanks Stewart from transportation board

Councilor refused to vote with majority on bus rapid transit

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Stewart attended Tuesday's Southwest Regional Transportation Council meeting, but not at her usual spot among the board of directors: city councilors pulled her from the board Monday night after she said she wouldn't support bus rapid transit.

Stewart told the city council she could not vote for plans for a high-capacity bus line on Fourth Plain Boulevard until she had more clear information about finances. That move violates a council policy that dictates board representatives vote with the majority of the council, not with their own views.

Stewart said she would first propose that the regional transportation board delay approval, but her fellow council members said that she would have to vote in favor of a locally preferred alternative for bus rapid transit from downtown to Westfield Vancouver mall -- at a cost of up to $55 million -- not forestall it.

But ultimately, the regional transportation board did what Stewart had wanted to do, and voted Tuesday afternoon to delay its support for the controversial project. As the flow-through agency for the millions in federal dollars needed to construct the line, the regional transportation board must approve bus rapid transit plans.

A majority of the city council said last month that they liked the plan, with Stewart and Councilor Bill Turlay falling into a two-person minority. So on Monday, Stewart and Turlay were again on the losing side of a 4-2 vote to remove Stewart from her seat at the regional transportation board meeting.

Stewart said Tuesday that she felt the city council's policy is "extreme, just to stifle a minority voice.

"Right now, I don't believe we have responsible, viable information about how we're going to pay for our share of the capital costs," she said, noting that federal money might only cover 70 percent of the line's construction.

It's not the first time Stewart's minority take on an issue has run her sideways with a majority of the council: The council kicked her off the C-Tran Board of Directors in January 2011, after she ignored its decision to keep a sales tax vote for light rail and bus rapid transit on the same ticket as one to preserve and expand regular bus service.

Stewart provided the swing vote to instead break the two measures up. The bus preservation sales tax went to a solo vote last November and passed; the fate of a light rail and/or bus rapid transit vote remains unclear.

Councilor Jeanne Harris said Monday she shares some of Stewart's worries about financing, but said the locally preferred alternative has to be in place before more firm numbers can be found.

"It's a weird dilemma to be in: How can I approve something if I don't know how much it's going to cost, but how can I know how much something's going to cost before I approve it? It's a chicken and egg thing." Harris said, adding the brakes could be applied to the project later. "I feel like at any time I can say, 'No, I don't want to go any further.'"

Councilor Larry Smith replaced Stewart on Tuesday, joining Councilor Jack Burkman as the two Vancouver representatives on the regional board. Stewart was not permanently removed from her duties on the regional transportation board.

Smith, who serves as mayor pro tem, presided over Monday's city council meeting, as Mayor Tim Leavitt is traveling out of the country. He said he was a "little perturbed" that Stewart couldn't carry out the policy to vote with the majority.

"She should take the majority vote back (to the regional transportation board)", Smith said. "Nothing limits you from expressing your minority viewpoint."

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