Local View: Experts will scrutinize future of C-TRAN

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Given the historic level of debate about transit in our community, it’s reassuring when a group of independent experts puts our transit plans under a microscope and gives us its unbiased opinion. A technical review process to assure that planned transit systems, if constructed, will be cost-effective and serve the long-term needs of our community is about to commence.

The C-Tran 2030 public transit plan examined the community’s future need for bus service and alternatives for high capacity transit (HCT) in the areas where transit is most used. The alternatives included a bus rapid transit corridor along Fourth Plain Boulevard in Vancouver, and light rail service extending from the Expo Center in Portland to Clark College as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.

The community’s opinions about the new bridge and transit are, to say the least, diverse. But one point is not debatable: If the bus rapid transit and light rail systems are built, C-Tran will be responsible for paying for operations and maintenance. The revenues must come from somewhere, and the current thinking is to have a public vote about dedicating a percentage of the local sales tax (1/10 of 1 percent) to them.

In Washington state, asking the public to fund an HCT system triggers a state law (RCW 81.104) that requires the review of the plan by an independent Expert Review Panel. As the law requires, the appointment of members of this panel has been handled jointly by the governor’s office, the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees and the Secretary of Transportation. The panel members will be announced later this week.

Operate independently

The Expert Review Panel will include five nationally known transit experts from throughout the United States. Collectively, this group will conduct an independent technical review of the C-Tran high capacity transit plan from several different angles. They will ask critical questions about plan assumptions, and ultimately make recommendations to the C-Tran Board of Directors that will guide future decision- making and plan implementation.

These experts appointed by state officials will operate independently. As the law requires, the panel members will not be paid for their time, but will be reimbursed for their travel expenses. I have been contracted to be the panel administrator to handle process logistics and meeting facilitation as defined by the state law.

I will report directly to the chair of the Expert Review Panel. The panel chair and I are also tasked with keeping state officials informed about the progress of the technical review process. The current plan calls for completing this process by this summer.

Our expectations need to be clear: Although Vancouver light rail is part of the overall Columbia River Crossing project, this panel is not charged with re-evaluating or revisiting any aspects of the Columbia River Crossing. Instead, as state law requires, the panel is going to review the operational and maintenance elements of light rail that are contained in the C-Tran HCT plan.

The technical review process will be open and transparent. Panel meetings will be announced in advance and open to the public. The first meeting will likely be in early April.

An independently managed website that will be launched this week will contain the relevant information about the panel, including biographies of the members. As the panel’s work proceeds, the website will be updated with meeting notices, summaries of panel meetings, and panel recommendations.

The Expert Review Panel process is not expected to resolve differences of opinion about light rail or bridge construction. The panel members will, however, bring their considerable expertise to bear in shaping cost-effective and sustainable operations and maintenance plans.

John D. White is a Vice President with BergerABAM in Vancouver and the contracted panel administrator for the Expert Panel Review process.