Chamber of Commerce opposes a C-Tran tax hike

Business group does not state preferred way to fund light rail

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce has become the second group in as many days to announce it will not support a proposed sales tax hike to help operate light rail in Vancouver.

Chamber CEO Kelly Parker announced the move in a letter to member businesses Friday afternoon. On Thursday, local nonprofit Identity Clark County made a similar announcement distancing itself from Proposition 1, on the ballot this November.

C-Tran leaders proposed the sales tax measure to, in part, pay for operating a light rail extension into Vancouver planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

Like Identity Clark County, the chamber has been a supporter of the CRC itself. But members simply don't want to see the tax hike tied to this year's measure, according to Parker.

"We are convinced there is a better way to fund the operation and maintenance cost of light rail without raising sales tax," the letter read. "Tax increases should be a last resort, not a first choice."

C-Tran and city of Vancouver leaders explored several other possibilities this year to cover the estimated $2 million to $2.7 million annual cost to operate the system in Vancouver. Those included an employer tax, a car rental tax, vehicle license fees or a more direct contribution from either C-Tran or the city. Some leaders wanted to see light rail fares cover a larger share of the operating cost. That's now assumed to be about 40 percent, according to C-Tran.

Analysis showed none of those options could foot the bill by themselves; a combination of funding sources would be needed. But when the employer tax looked like a possible front-runner at one point, the chamber left no doubt it was cool to that idea as well.

This week's letter from Parker didn't specify which avenue the group would like to see pursued. The chamber wouldn't discuss the decision Friday. A more formal announcement is expected over the weekend.

If approved, this year's Proposition 1 would raise the local sales tax rate by 0.1 percentage point -- a penny on every $10 purchase -- to cover the light rail operations cost, plus some of the cost to build a proposed bus rapid transit system on Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor. The measure would generate some $4 million to $5 million per year.

The chamber arrived at its decision after surveying its 1,000 member businesses, according to Parker's letter. Of the 15 percent that responded, Parker wrote, almost six in 10 said they didn't support the sales tax increase. Some of those also said they oppose light rail itself, according to Parker.

Voters approved another sales tax increase last year, which C-Tran said it needed to support basic bus service. Local feedback and other factors led the chamber to oppose another bump this year, according to Parker.

"Our member businesses told us that they do not support an increasing sales tax … and your chamber agrees with this principle," Parker wrote.

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