A pair of high-capacity transit plans for Clark County are based on mostly sound procedures and finances, a state-appointed review panel said in a report released Thursday. The findings mark a key step clearing the way for a November ballot measure to help pay for bus rapid transit and light rail in Vancouver.
C-Tran still has plenty of work to do before then. The panel offered several recommendations for a bus rapid transit proposal it said needed to be more cautious in its financial assumptions. Specifically, the group advised C-Tran to lower its expectations for federal funding, the amount of revenue generated by fares, and plan for the possibility of "economic upheaval."
C-Tran has begun making those changes already. Project leaders have recently said federal money may only pay for 70 percent of the $40 million to $55 million price tag, after initially putting the number at 80 percent. It has also lowered projections on fare revenues.
"We certainly had to ask that they take a more conservative approach," the panel's chair, Dennis Hinebaugh, said in an interview.
C-Tran hopes to start construction on the enhanced bus system, planned for Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor, as soon as next year. It expects to apply for federal funding in September.
The panel also looked at the proposed light rail extension to Clark College, planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project. Local leaders have spent recent months exploring ways to cover the annual cost to operate the system in Clark County, estimated at $2.3 million to $2.7 million.
C-Tran board members ultimately settled on a sales tax increase, which requires voter approval. State law requires the review panel process to vet high-capacity transit plans before they go to a vote. This week's report allows C-Tran board members to finalize a ballot measure — put to C-Tran's entire service district — during its July meeting.
Though C-Tran is hoping a single revenue source will maintain light rail, the panel noted in its report that a multi-faceted funding approach can provide more stability. If voters reject a sales tax hike in November, agency leaders may
have to reach back into their bag of funding options debated earlier this year.
Even as C-Tran prepares for a sales tax vote, some light rail questions remain unanswered. C-Tran and Portland's TriMet will operate the system jointly, but the two agencies have squabbled over the dividing line between their responsibilities. C-Tran believes it should maintain the light rail system only north of the Washington-Oregon state line. TriMet wants C-Tran to pick up the tab starting from its MAX system's current northern terminus at the Portland Expo Center. The result could affect how much Clark County ends up paying each year. It's also why C-Tran has used a cost range, not an exact amount.
That question may not be resolved before the November election, said C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson. But uncertainty isn't something voters want to see before they cast a ballot, Hinebaugh said.
"You don't want anything sneaking up on you," he said. "I think you want to have all of that figured out upfront."
Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith, C-Tran's board chair, praised the review panel for its fast-tracked work in recent months. This week's report "validates" the effort that's gone into bus rapid transit and light rail planning, and will only help local leaders as both proposals move forward, he said.
The five-member review panel included transportation professionals from across the country, first assembled this spring. The group held its first meeting in April.
Members made it clear from the start that they weren't charged with revisiting past political decisions, particularly related to the CRC. Hinebaugh, transit program director at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation, reiterated that point in this week's report.
"… our report does not address the merits or deficiencies of the larger CRC project," Hinebaugh wrote, "except for the operations and maintenance obligations resulting from extending light rail into Vancouver."