Voters soundly rejected a sales tax increase to help pay for light rail Tuesday, delivering a possible setback to the Columbia River Crossing.
C-Tran's Proposition 1 trailed by a significant margin, according to preliminary election results, with 43.7 percent of voters saying yes and 56.3 percent saying no — a difference of about 13,500 votes.
"Clearly, what the vote tells us is that voters said no to a sales tax increase," said C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson. "Now it's time for C-Tran and the board to take a close look at the results and weigh potential next steps."
The measure's failure only adds to the financial uncertainty of the $3.5 billion CRC, which has not secured crucial federal and state funding — even as project leaders push toward a 2014 start date for major construction. The controversial megaproject would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail into Vancouver, and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River.
C-Tran and CRC officials may have to act fast if they hope to keep that timeline intact. The federal grant the CRC is banking on for light rail construction requires local money to be in place before it is awarded.
The measure would have raised the sales tax rate by 0.1 percentage point within C-Tran's service district, raising roughly $5 million per year at first. The resulting revenue was to cover the operations cost of the light rail extension, plus help build a bus rapid transit line on Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor.
The fate of that bus project will also be discussed by C-Tran board members in the coming months, Patterson said. Whatever the outcome, bus rapid transit and light rail may not have to be tied to the same finance plan as they were in Proposition 1, he said.
"I don't think the two are necessarily connected at the hip," Patterson said.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, the local conversation around Proposition 1 characterized it in starkly different ways. C-Tran leaders and others had downplayed the impact of a potential failure, saying there are other funding options available for light rail.
But some opponents have framed Proposition 1 as their chance to have a say on light rail itself and, more broadly, the CRC project.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said earlier this year she'd oppose "any attempt to finance light rail into Clark County that does not win the approval of county voters." On Tuesday, celebrating her own re-election victory, Herrera Beutler said she will take time to figure out how to respond to the Proposition 1 result.
"I made this commitment, whether this passed or failed, that the voters in this district are my boss, and I strongly believe that," Herrera Beutler said. "What their final word is on this, those will be my marching orders."
On light rail, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said Tuesday's result only confirms that voters do not support raising sales tax to pay for light rail. Now it's up to local leaders to find another way to pay for the operations cost, he said — a relatively small portion of the overall CRC price tag.
"I think it's imperative to continue to move forward," said Leavitt, also a C-Tran board member.
At least one group, led by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and Identity Clark County, has spent recent weeks crafting a Plan B for light rail funding. Members plan to deliver the results of that work to C-Tran leaders today.
Both the chamber and Identity Clark County are backers of the CRC, but said they didn't support a sales tax hike to help pay for light rail. Leavitt, who took the same stance, said he hoped a new plan could be identified next year.
But any finance plan for light rail will have to get through the full C-Tran board to move forward. Perhaps changing the conversation is David Madore — a vocal CRC critic who appeared headed for victory in his bid for Clark County commissioner. All three county commissioners also hold seats on the nine-member C-Tran board.
Columbian staff writer Stevie Mathieu contributed to this story.