C-Tran board backs light rail vote

Entire service district will likely have say on sales-tax hike

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday called for a sales tax ballot measure to support light rail in Clark County, making a November vote all but a sure thing.

The board unanimously directed C-Tran to craft a measure, put to its entire service district, asking for a 0.1-percentage-point bump in the local sales tax rate. In addition to sustaining light rail, the resulting $4.5 million to $5.5 million in revenue would also go toward a bus rapid transit line proposed for Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor. The board's move mostly echoed an endorsement made by the Vancouver City Council the night before.

The board's statement makes its intention clear. But it doesn't officially put the measure on the November ballot — not yet, anyway. Before that happens, C-Tran must wait until a state-mandated expert review panel finishes its work evaluating the agency's high-capacity transit plans. The review panel is expected to release a final report by the end of this month, which means C-Tran will likely formalize the ballot measure in July.

A sales-tax hike would cover only the annual cost to operate light rail in Clark County, about $2.5 million, once the system is up and running. Officials are banking on federal money to actually build the light rail extension, planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

C-Tran leaders had long assumed a sales tax measure would foot the bill to operate light rail. But board members changed course earlier this year, when the city of Vancouver said it wanted to exhaust all other funding options first. Ultimately, the city determined no other plan could pencil out given the fast-tracked timeline to put something together. The council on Monday endorsed the sales tax option -- bringing the funding search back to square one.

Some councilors noted that doesn't invalidate the analysis of the past few months. Other funding options may still come into play if voters reject the sales tax hike this fall, said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt.

"Our public is more informed … about the alternatives to sales tax," he said.

Most people in Clark County pay a sales-tax rate of 8.4 percent.

Leavitt voted with his council for Tuesday's C-Tran resolution — following city policy — but made it clear he's not sold on the outcome. Given the other opportunities recently explored, there are other ways to "crack a $2.5 million nut," he said.

"I have yet to hear one legitimate reason to ask citizens to approve a sales tax," Leavitt said.

Now, it appears that long-awaited and long-promised vote is a reality.

Bus rapid transit gets approval

The board also gave a "preliminary" green light to bus rapid transit on Fourth Plain -- pending the outcome of the expert review panel's final report later this month. The recommendation would put the enhanced bus system mostly in mixed traffic along the corridor, stretching it between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall. That's the same alternative the Vancouver City Council endorsed last month.

C-Tran first floated bus rapid transit early last year as a way to move passengers more efficiently and reliably on Vancouver's busy Fourth Plain corridor. The system works by using larger vehicles, specialized signals, raised boarding platforms and other features to improve transit service.

The concept has generally found favor from the committees and policymakers shaping it so far. But last week, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council board opted not to act on a recommendation that would put bus rapid transit from downtown to the Westfield Vancouver mall. The group cited too much financial uncertainty on a project that could cost $40 million to $55 million to build. Some members said they wanted C-Tran to act first.

C-Tran hopes much of the capital cost will be covered by federal grants. The annual operation cost -- or savings -- will depend on how far the system goes.

C-Tran has said a bus rapid transit line to the mall could actually cost less to operate than existing bus service, saving the agency money. Future phases could extend as far east as Northeast 121st Avenue or Northeast 162nd Avenue, driving up the annual cost.

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