Broad vote on light rail gains C-Tran support

Board makes no formal decision on paying for project

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

Related story

Leavitt renews call to study light-rail funding without sales tax

A majority of C-Tran board members said Tuesday they favor a broad public vote in asking residents to help pay for light rail in Vancouver.

That outcome, however, is not a sure thing.

The nine-member board made no formal decision Tuesday. And the three members who stopped short of endorsing the plan -- the Vancouver City Council’s three voices at the table -- collectively hold veto power to spike any motion the rest of the group supports. Whether they’ll exercise that power remains to be seen.

Board members who support giving C-Tran’s entire service area a say on transit changes for Vancouver offered different reasons for doing so. Most said they’ve heard loud and clear from their constituents on a topic that holds implications for the Columbia River Crossing project. Commissioner Steve Stuart suggested it comes down to simply following the agency’s past pledges.

“We said we would,” Stuart said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Since last year, C-Tran leaders have repeatedly indicated that they’ll put a sales tax measure to voters in 2012 to help pay for new high-capacity transit systems in Vancouver. The revenue would cover operation and maintenance costs for a light rail extension to Clark College, planned as part of the CRC, and a proposed bus rapid transit line along the city’s Fourth Plain corridor.

For months, C-Tran board members have wrestled with who should vote on that sales tax increase -- the agency’s entire service district, or a smaller subdistrict, likely Vancouver and its urban growth boundary.

The board first tackled that question in earnest during a workshop meeting last December, then picked up the discussion again this week. Near the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, two state legislators joined a chorus of citizens urging the board to pull the trigger on a districtwide election.

“Just give them a vote,” said state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. State Sen. Don Benton also spoke in favor of the broader vote, calling suggestions of a subdistrict “gerrymandering.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt reiterated his call to explore other funding options for light rail, saying he’s heard from citizens who aren’t convinced raising the local sales tax for the second time in two years is the best choice. Leavitt also noted the vast majority of light rail users would hail from Vancouver, and putting the city’s transit future in the hands of Clark County’s other cities may not make sense.

Leavitt also stressed a point other elected officials have made, that any sales tax vote on light rail would not be a referendum on the entire CRC project. If the vote failed, it wouldn’t stop the project -- only force leaders to find another way to pay for light rail operations costs, he said.

“We could get to that business immediately,” Leavitt said.

Board members representing the area’s smaller cities indicated they’re already on board for a districtwide vote. Washougal City Councilor Connie Jo Freeman said both the Washougal and Camas councils want their residents to have a say. La Center Mayor Jim Irish echoed the same for La Center and Ridgefield. Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley said his city also wants to be included in a vote, but said Yacolt has indicated it would like to “opt out.” It’s unclear if the C-Tran board would exclude just one town from this year’s sales tax vote.

The board could decide how to proceed with a vote next month. Whatever the decision, it’s clear the agency’s past actions will weigh heavily on the outcome -- and the public’s response.

“I think we have made this pact,” Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said. “I’m standing by that pact for the districtwide vote.”

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