Proposition 1 measure ties CRC project to sales tax vote

Voters will decide financing option for light rail, rapid transit

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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ABOUT Proposition 1 (C-Tran)

What: A proposed sales tax increase of 0.1 percentage point.

Why: Extra revenue would cover the operations cost of a light rail extension into Vancouver, and help build a bus rapid transit line on the Fourth Plain corridor.

Who votes: C-Tran’s taxing district, which includes Vancouver’s urban growth boundary along with Camas, Washougal, Battle Ground, Ridgefield, La Center and Yacolt.

C-Tran’s Proposition 1 offers an opportunity many voters have waited years for: the chance to cast a ballot that’s connected to the Columbia River Crossing.

The connection is light rail, one of the beneficiaries of the proposed sales tax increase. The politically charged issue has drawn plenty of interest — and a recent poll suggested nine out of 10 voters may have already made up their minds.

“This has been talked about for a number of years now,” C-Tran Public affairs director Scott Patterson said last month, “so I think people know at least a little bit about it.”

If approved, Prop. 1 would raise C-Tran’s local sales tax rate by 0.1 percentage point. The resulting revenue would help pay for a pair of high-capacity transit initiatives: construction of a proposed bus rapid transit line on Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor, and operation of the light rail extension planned as part of the $3.5 billion CRC project.

The measure would collect an estimated $4.6 million per year at first, according to C-Tran. About half of that would go toward the net cost of operating light rail in Vancouver, expected to be $2.3 million to $2.7 million annually. The rest would help build the bus rapid transit line, estimated to cost $40 million to $55 million. Once it’s running, C-Tran leaders have said, bus rapid transit will likely cost less to operate and maintain than the No. 4 and No. 44 routes it would replace.

C-Tran leaders finalized the sales tax measure only in July, after exploring several other funding options. Campaigning was slow to take off, though activity has picked up in recent weeks.

Anti-Proposition 1 signs have emerged in windows and along roadsides, many in downtown Vancouver. A cluster of signs — including such phrases as “Not again? C-TRAN wants another tax increase” and “C-TRAN light rail = Higher sales tax” — are being deployed.

The signs cite Prop1no.com, a political action committee recently founded by Vancouver resident Mark Dodd. As of Friday, the group’s financial activity was not yet listed by the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The debate hasn’t always focused on light rail. At least one small group of Proposition 1 supporters has rallied around bus rapid transit, the lesser-known system that would benefit from the measure.

Bus rapid transit works by using larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms, specialized signals and other features to move passengers more quickly and efficiently along a given route. Vancouver’s proposed line would stretch between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall, mostly along Fourth Plain. That’s currently C-Tran’s busiest corridor.

It’s unclear what will happen if Proposition 1 fails. The measure may face an uphill climb — while CRC critics are likely to oppose it, CRC supporters haven’t all jumped on board.

At least two prominent CRC backers, Identity Clark County and the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, have said they believe a sales tax hike shouldn’t be used to maintain light rail.

After a failed vote in 2004, voters approved sales tax increases for C-Tran in 2005 and 2011. In 1995, Clark County rejected a previous light rail measure by a wide margin.

A poll released last week found that 48 percent of voters favor Proposition 1, 42 percent were against and 10 percent undecided. But, the same survey also found that two-thirds of respondents are against raising taxes to pay for a new light rail extension from Portland to Vancouver. The poll was commissioned by the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank, and conduced by Moore Information.

Some opponents have characterized this year’s Proposition 1 as their vote on the CRC itself, a chance to have a direct say on the controversial project. That position was boosted by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, who said last month she’ll oppose “any attempt to finance light rail into Clark County that does not win the approval of county voters.”

C-Tran leaders and others have said the vote is a specific finance question, nothing more. If Proposition 1 goes down, the C-Tran board will discuss whether to pursue other funding options for light rail and bus rapid transit, according to Patterson.

Ballots for the Nov. 6 election will be mailed this week.

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