Light-rail funding studied

Expert review panel cautions C-Tran on overreliance on fares

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A state-appointed transit panel on Wednesday cautioned C-Tran leaders against banking too much on fares to pay for operating light rail in Vancouver.

The panel’s take comes as C-Tran looks for light rail funding options that don’t require a sales tax increase — the path C-Tran had long assumed until recently. It also comes just a day after C-Tran board members called for more study of fares as a possible solution.

The board asked what kind of numbers it would take for fares to cover most or all of the light-rail system’s annual operating cost. C-Tran has assumed a cost recovery rate of 40 percent through fares. But even that might be generous, according to the review panel.

“Forty percent is very optimistic to begin with,” said Mike Normand, an Arizona state transit director and one of five panel members. “To go beyond that, I think, is not realistic.”

The state-mandated expert review panel was formed earlier this year to look at C-Tran’s high-capacity transit plans as the agency moves toward a possible November ballot measure to help pay for them. The process centers around two proposals: a possible bus rapid transit line on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, and a light-rail extension to Clark College planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

The group wrapped up its second two-day visit to Vancouver this week. It’s expected to return for a third visit next month and submit a final report to C-Tran leaders by the end of June.

C-Tran and city of Vancouver leaders have spent recent weeks outlining a set of funding alternatives for Clark County’s share of light rail, at the request of C-Tran’s board. Besides sales tax, those options include a local employer tax, a car rental tax or a more direct contribution from either agency, among others. But individually, most of those options won’t generate enough to cover the $2.3 million to $2.7 million annual tab for light rail, according to C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm. They could, however, be combined into a multifaceted funding model.

That may be a path worth pursuing, said panel member Jeff Parker. Having multiple funding sources keeps a system from being too dependent on a single model, he said.

“Each one has limited impact,” said Parker, president of a Massachusetts-based transportation planning company. “If any one falls away, you still have a viable program.”

Parker floated a couple of other revenue sources the agency could consider: money generated by parking structures planned as part of the CRC, or selling advertising in the system. The parking structures also came up at this week’s C-Tran board meeting, but those options haven’t been thoroughly vetted so far.

As for fares, C-Tran will have to consider a number of factors in deciding how they fit into the ultimate funding puzzle. Higher charges tend to turn away riders. Clark County’s light-rail segment would connect with a well-established system in TriMet’s MAX service. And transit riders aren’t all exclusively one mode, Hamm said -- some will transfer from buses on the same trip, complicating cost recovery rates.

Overall, fare receipts account for close to 20 percent of the cost of operating C-Tran’s bus routes. For the agency’s express routes, the number is much higher -- about 66 percent.

Whatever the outcome, C-Tran must finalize a ballot measure by this summer if it hopes to put it to voters in November.

The expert review panel won’t make any decisions for C-Tran, only recommendations in its final report. And panel members made it clear Wednesday they’re not going to rewrite the controversial history of the CRC project. They’re charged with evaluating the process, Normand said, and he believes it has been appropriate.

“It’s really not our role to second-guess the political decisions that were made along the way,” Normand said.

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