Voters might be asked to approve light rail head tax

C-Tran levy on local businesses would pay for maintenance and operation

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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A public vote on light rail may yet happen this November if the C-Tran Board of Directors can get behind the latest idea: A $1 per employee per month head tax on area businesses to help cover the operations and maintenance of a new line.

The proposal, made Monday by Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman, represents another bend in a long, twisted track circling a vote.

Light rail is included in plans for the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing, which includes a new Interstate 5 bridge. The project expects the federal government to contribute the $850 million needed to build the line.

A one-tenth of 1 cent sales tax had long been the presumed way to pay for $2.57

million in annual operations cost of a MAX line from Portland to Clark College. But that was until the Vancouver City Council's representatives on the C-Tran board threw their veto power-backed weight against that idea this spring.

The council asked that city and C-Tran staff to look at other ways of paying for light rail. Since then, options and questions have swirled: Would it be done through fare recovery? An expert panel said this month that wasn't a good idea. Now, the majority of the city council says it's behind finding out if combining a C-Tran service districtwide head tax and the estimated $1.48 million in operational savings by cutting bus service across the bridge will add up.

The proposal would require a districtwide public vote.

Staff will now work up figures for the June 12 C-Tran board meeting.

Burkman pitched the head tax during a workshop Monday, saying that the $5 million a one-tenth of 1 cent sales tax — the smallest amount an agency can legally ask for in a vote — would generate is far more than light rail needs (the remainder of the $5 million balance would go to pay bus lines that feed into the light rail system).

Burkman said he thought a head tax, applied to the whole C-Tran service district, could generate about $1 million a year.

"I think it's ludicrous to put $5 million on the ballot," when light rail operations and maintenance only needs half that amount, Burkman said. "On the whole, I believe this is the best way forward."

The plan isn't without potential hitches: An analysis of options presented to the C-Tran board in April said that a head tax is a "slow growing revenue source that is not likely to keep pace over time with increased (light rail) service levels and costs."

Also, C-Tran would have to approve a change to its 2030 policy plan to redirect the $1.48 million in savings that cutting 10,000 hours in annual bus service over the bridge to light rail, rather than feed that money to other bus service.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart said high transit-related business taxes in Portland have damaged business there.

“So we’re going to go to the voters and ask them if they think every employer should pay,” she said. “How is this better for business? That’s the tax they’ve done in Portland, and Portland has not done well.”

Mayor Tim Leavitt, who led the call to stall a sales tax vote this November, said he favors a head-tax vote. He challenged the ­

council’s two light rail ­skeptics, Stewart and Bill Turlay,

to back a vote as well. Stewart declined, but Turlay said: “I don’t care what (the tax) is, I’ll ­support any vote of the people.”

C-Tran will be working on a tight timeline: An expert review panel will finish its recommendations by the end of June, and it will weigh in on finance plans. C-Tran will then have to approve a ballot measure following that, making its July 8 meeting a deadline, unless the board calls a special meeting, said Scott Patterson, ­C-Tran public affairs director.

“It’s close, but it’s doable,” Patterson said.