C-Tran will tackle vote on sales tax

Extent of any measure is still under heated debate

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

Public meeting

Who: C-Tran Board of Directors.

When: 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 20.

Where: Fisher’s Landing Transit Center, 3510 S.E. 164th Ave., Vancouver.

On the agenda: Proposed sales tax measure for high-capacity transit, including discussion of who should vote.

The issue first emerged almost a year ago. Most of the arguments have been heard already.

On Tuesday, the C-Tran Board of Directors will tackle the question in earnest: Who should vote on this year’s planned sales tax measure?

The proposed tax hike would pay for operating light rail and bus rapid transit systems in Vancouver. But for months, C-Tran leaders have waffled over whether the vote should go to the agency’s entire district -- that is, everywhere C-Tran operates -- or a smaller subdistrict -- likely the city of Vancouver or its urban growth boundary.

Tuesday’s work session may bring the board closer to consensus. But don’t expect a definitive decision just yet. Plenty of complicating factors have elected officials treading carefully.

The financial price

Until C-Tran decides who will vote on the measure, voters won’t know how much they’ll be asked to agree to pay.

A full district-wide vote would mean asking to raise the local sales tax rate by 0.1 of a percentage point. A subdistrict vote would likely mean 0.2 of a percentage point.

The measure would have to cover the $2.57 million annual price tag to operate light rail in Vancouver, plus a to-be-determined operating cost for bus rapid transit on the city’s Fourth Plain corridor. That’s why a smaller base requires asking those voters to pay more to cover the cost.

Any sales tax measure would pay only for annual upkeep -- not the actual cost to build the new systems. Light rail is planned as part of the more than $3 billion Columbia River Crossing project. C-Tran started pursuing BRT in early 2011. Both are banking heavily on federal funding to get built.

This year’s measure comes on the heels of another sales tax increase, which voters approved just last year in Proposition 1. That raised the local sales tax rate by 0.2 of a percentage point, which C-Tran said was needed to maintain basic bus service. The new tax rate takes effect April 1.

Other options

Another sales tax increase for light rail and BRT isn’t the only funding option that’s been tossed around in the past few months. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and City Councilor Larry Smith, both C-Tran board members, have indicated they’d like to at least explore other ideas. Those may include a fare-based model leaning on riders to cover maintenance costs, for example, or a vehicle license tax. C-Tran or the city of Vancouver could take on the burden through their general funds. But none of those ideas has been vetted thoroughly, nor is close to a sure thing.

Leavitt has said members of a recently formed advisory committee want to consider those options before pursuing a second sales tax hike in as many years.

Smith, C-Tran’s board chair, said this week that a November vote might be “premature.” If there’s a way to fund light rail and BRT operations without raising the local sales tax, he said, “I think we’re doing folks a favor.”

A promise?

Not everyone sees it that way. Many CRC opponents see a vote this year as their chance to have a direct say on the project itself. They’d see anything else as a broken promise -- since last year, C-Tran leaders have stated their intention to hold a vote in 2012. Even U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has put pressure on the agency to hold a vote as soon as possible.

Smith and others say it’s inaccurate to portray this year’s measure as a CRC referendum. Local leaders picked light rail as a preferred option in 2008. Federal officials gave the CRC a final go-ahead last December.

“This isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the bridge project,” said Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen, the city’s third member on the C-Tran board. “This is a vote on whether or not to increase the sales tax.”

County push for action

Clark County commissioners, who hold three of the C-Tran board’s nine votes, have indicated they’d favor a district-wide vote. Commissioner Steve Stuart argued during a December workshop that C-Tran is an interconnected system, and all of its users should weigh in on its future. Last month, Stuart said he feels it’s time for the board to make up its mind and end the uncertainty sooner than later.

Commissioner Tom Mielke has also pushed for a full vote, even suggesting a non-binding “advisory vote” to give residents a say if nothing else.

Small cities’ voice

So where do Clark County’s small cities -- sharing three seats on the board -- fit in?

Last month, La Center Mayor Jim Irish suggested it doesn’t really matter what they think. Irish correctly noted that the county commissioners and Vancouver councilors both hold bloc veto power. That means the three commissioners, for example, could unite and smack down any proposal the rest of the board floated. So could Vancouver’s three councilors. The small cities don’t hold the same power.

Battle Ground City Council member Bill Ganley represents his own city and Yacolt on the board -- the only two municipalities that said no to Proposition 1 last year. Ganley admitted light rail and BRT might also be a tough sell for those places.

Ganley hopes to take the district/subdistrict conversation to his constituents in early April, after this week’s meeting. C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm recently visited the La Center and Ridgefield councils on the same topic. Connie Jo Freeman, representing Washougal and Camas, stated her desire to talk to those cities before a decision is made.

Tight timeline

Whatever the outcome, C-Tran faces a tight timeline to get a ballot measure to voters this November. A state-mandated expert review panel, just announced this month, will have to evaluate the financing plans for operating light rail and BRT, then get its findings back to C-Tran by this summer to meet its deadline. The C-Tran board has until July to officially pull the trigger on a November ballot measure.

C-Tran may decide what to do -- and who should vote -- as soon as April.

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