Unresolved variables in the Columbia River Crossing -- plus the incongruity of raising taxes during an economic crisis -- lead The Columbian to oppose Proposition 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot. The measure, which goes before voters in the C-Tran service district, calls for a sales tax increase of one-tenth of a percentage point (1 cent on a $10 purchase) in the district, with the resultant $4 million to $5 million in annual revenue used for operation and maintenance of light rail in Vancouver and some costs of a bus rapid transit system on the Fourth Plain corridor.Some folks may vote against this measure and still be in favor of light rail, but many people will vote against it because it's their only opportunity to voice opposition to light rail. Still, Prop. 1 simply asks voters: Do you want to increase the sales tax for these purposes?
The Columbian's long-standing support of the Columbia River Crossing and extending light rail through downtown Vancouver and to Clark College remains unchanged. We believe expanding transportation alternatives is right. But increasing the sales tax is the wrong idea. (A pro-con presentation of this issue is presented on the facing page.)
Too often, local residents have seen public entities beg for tax increases to fund projects that ultimately are funded some other way. One example is the Port of Vancouver's 2007 levy that would have more than doubled the port portion of property taxes in the port district to fund $78 million in improvements. Voters overwhelmingly (71 percent) rejected that proposal (it was endorsed by The Columbian), essentially telling the port to find other ways to get it done. To the port's credit, that's exactly what happened. Five years later, more than $250 million in improvements, mostly rail-related, are under way.
C-Tran should follow the port's example, and find other ways. Many have been mentioned. No one idea by itself would meet the need, but two possibilities rise to the top of our preferences: revenue from efficiencies generated within the C-Tran budget, and perhaps minor fare increases that would shift more of the burden to users of light rail.
How that would pencil out, we aren't sure. Neither are the experts. A state-appointed Expert Review Panel reported in July that "there remain unresolved key operational variables between C-Tran and TriMet. … (such as) whether C-Tran will be responsible for light rail (O&M) from the current Expo Center station or from the state line."
The panel also noted, "Final bridge design is not complete and changes in design could also influence operational considerations" for light rail into Vancouver. In other words, that $4 million to $5 million annually is a wildly fluctuating target.
Interestingly, although local contributions are typically used for extending MAX light rail lines, a tax increase has not been used for such a purpose since 1990. That's when 74 percent of voters approved a property tax increase to help pay for the MAX line to Hillsboro. But in these 22 years, no local taxes have been increased to help pay for any of TriMet's new light rail lines. And we don't think local taxes should be increased for that reason now.
Some Vancouver city councilors voiced opposition this year to at least the concept embodied in Prop. 1. Possible alternatives to increasing the sales tax included a local employer tax, a car rental tax, vehicle license fees, grants and budget adjustments. But, like the Expert Review Panel, we're worried about unresolved CRC uncertainties, and we're too troubled by the lingering recession to consider a tax increase for this purpose.
We recommend a "Rejected" vote on Prop. 1.