Charged issue: C-Tran tax hike on November ballot

Voters' opinion of MAX service could determine fate of tax

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 

Proposition No. 1: Ballot measure wording

Resolution BR-12-009 and RCW 81.104 authorize a proposition to increase the sales and use tax by 0.1 percent, or one penny on a $10 purchase, to fund the C-Tran share of the maintenance and operations costs only of the Columbia River Crossing Project light rail extension between Expo Center and Clark Park & Ride and the local capital share and operations and maintenance costs of the Fourth Plain Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit project.

Should this proposition be:

❑ APPROVED ❑ REJECTED

photoThe Delta Park/Vanport Transit Center, shown, Thursday, September 6, 2012, is served by both C-Tran and TriMet. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoThe Delta Park/Vanport Transit Center, shown, Thursday, September 6, 2012, is served by both C-Tran and TriMet. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoCommuters exit the MAX train at the Delta Park/Vanport Transit Center and head for a C-Tran bus Sept. 6.
photoThe Delta Park/Vanport Transit Center, shown, Thursday, September 6, 2012, is served by both C-Tran and TriMet. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

For local ballot measures vying for attention during a presidential election year, it can be tough to get noticed. Some get lost in the din of national campaigns and crowded ballots.

C-Tran leaders don't expect to have that problem this year.

The reason? Two words: light rail.

"People have pretty strong feelings on high-capacity transit -- especially light rail," said C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson. "This has been talked about for a number of years now."

For the second straight year, C-Tran will ask voters for a sales tax increase this fall. For the second straight year, it's on the November ballot as Proposition 1.

The 2012 version carries a direct connection to a proposed light rail extension from Portland to Vancouver -- planned as part of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project -- and the maelstrom of controversy that comes with it. The measure would raise the local sales tax by 0.1 percentage point to help cover the annual operation cost of that system. But what implications Proposition 1 holds beyond that depends on whom you ask.

C-Tran and some supporters of the measure characterize it as a simple funding question, nothing more. Others view it as their long-awaited chance to have a direct say on light rail itself, a stance recently buoyed by a member of Congress. CRC officials are watching the outcome, but say they're moving forward on the planned Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.

This much is clear: Light rail plans need some kind of local financial commitment before the feds will write the $850 million check to build the line. A report from the Oregon treasurer last year called this vote "critical" to making that happen. But the measure may face an uphill battle -- while CRC opponents are likely to be unified against Proposition 1, CRC backers haven't all jumped on board in favor of it. Some have already publicly distanced themselves from it.

A barometer on light rail?

If approved, the roughly $5 million generated annually by Proposition 1 would go two places: covering the local maintenance and operations cost of light rail, and helping build a proposed bus rapid transit system on Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor. Both projects are identified in C-Tran's 20-year development plan, which the agency's board of directors approved in 2010.

On light rail, C-Tran leaders have long said they'd put whatever finance plan emerged to a public vote. It wasn't until July that the sales tax vote became official, after months of uncertainty and pressure from many observers.

One of the most prominent voices calling for a vote, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, offered congratulations on the night C-Tran board members solidified that plan. And earlier this month, the Republican congresswoman made it clear she sees more at stake than a singular finance plan. She indicated her position on the CRC project hinges on what voters say.

"This is going to be the purest opportunity to voice their opinion about light rail," Herrera Beutler said in a recent interview. "It's a big deal to me. This is where I'm going to get my marching orders."

As for the notion that a Proposition 1 rejection simply means finding another way to pay for light rail? Again, Herrera Beutler said she doesn't see it that way.

"I think that's bogus," Herrera Beutler said. "I can't emphasize enough how wrong that is."

The congresswoman said local leaders need to listen carefully to voters, and "I don't think we should be afraid of what they're going to say" -- even if that means finding a new path forward on the CRC. The project has been retooled and redesigned before, Herrera Beutler said, and could again if need be. In a later released statement last week, she said she'll oppose "any attempt to finance light rail into Clark County that does not win the approval of county voters."

Much of the federal grant money eyed for the CRC project requires a high-capacity transit component. Light rail is one -- but not the only one -- of the eligible transit modes, though it would be difficult and expensive to change course this late in the game.

Other funding options

It's been four years since local leaders adopted the CRC's locally preferred alternative, which solidified light rail as part of the project blueprint. That decision has been made, supporters say, and now is the time to figure out how to pay for it. That's where Proposition 1 comes in, said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who helped write the voters pamphlet argument in favor of the measure.

"It's not a question of light rail," said Moeller. "It's a question of funding of the maintenance and operation of it."

Moeller said it's wrong to think a sales tax with only a few million dollars tied to it would be enough to torpedo a multibillion-dollar project such as the CRC.

C-Tran only has the authority to float a C-Tran-specific measure, Patterson said. That's why Proposition 1 only affects a relatively small piece of the larger plan, he said, noting the measure is "not a referendum" on the CRC.

"In reality, we're very limited in the scope of what this is," Patterson said. "It's just a specific funding option for a specific project."

Sales tax wasn't the only option considered to fund the cost of operating the trains and maintaining the tracks. Earlier this year, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt led a push to explore other alternatives that could sustain light rail. Those included a local employer tax, vehicle license fees, a car rental tax or a more direct contribution from the budget of either C-Tran or the city of Vancouver.

None of those choices would have raised enough to cover light rail operations costs by itself. Some combination of them would have been needed. But that multifaceted model can actually be a more stable solution, according to a state-appointed review panel that looked at C-Tran's high-capacity transit plans this spring.

Ultimately, the 11th-hour effort ended up back where it started. C-Tran board members decided to pursue a sales tax increase. But the process was enough to convince some -- even CRC supporters -- that's not the best way forward.

Identity Clark County and the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, two high-profile backers of the CRC, have both announced they won't support this year's Proposition 1. Both maintained their support for light rail itself, but insisted there's a better way than sales tax to pay for it.

The introduction of light rail would mean the elimination of bus service to Delta Park, according to C-Tran, but not express routes that travel to downtown Portland. Identity Clark County President Paul Montague pointed to the expected cost savings from that move as a possibility to help pay for light rail each year.

"There are alternative funding solutions out there," Montague said.

Financial questions

Even as voters prepare to cast ballots on light rail financing, a few key financial questions remain unanswered.

Perhaps most crucial: the actual cost to operate the system in Vancouver. That number remains a range -- $2 million to $2.7 million annually, according to C-Tran -- and not an exact amount. That's because of a still-unresolved dispute over where TriMet's responsibility to pick up the tab ends and where C-Tran's begins.

TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency, wants C-Tran to cover light rail operations costs starting from Hayden Island, where its Portland MAX service would end. C-Tran believes it should pay only starting at the Washington-Oregon state line. C-Tran hopes to resolve the issue before the November election, but that's not a guarantee, said Executive Director Jeff Hamm.

Early cost estimates also assume 40 percent of the operations will be covered by fare revenues -- a figure that may be optimistic, according to the review panel. If that projection doesn't pencil out, sales tax dollars would need to make up the difference. The numbers will add up to as much as a $4.4 million total cost to operate light rail in 2019, according to C-Tran. That's the system's planned opening year.

Should the extension go through as planned, C-Tran would essentially hire TriMet train operators to run the system on C-Tran-owned infrastructure, Patterson said. But that doesn't mean C-Tran would end up on the hook for TriMet's ongoing financial troubles, according to Hamm. A "tentative agreement" now in place states that C-Tran's obligations would not include unfunded pension liabilities or unfunded benefits owed to TriMet employees, Hamm said.

Light rail wouldn't be the first time such a contract agreement existed between the two agencies. TriMet used to send buses into Clark County, Patterson said.

"We've had a long history of TriMet providing some level of service into Vancouver," he said.

BRT overshadowed

Somewhat overshadowed in the light rail talk is bus rapid transit, the other beneficiary of Proposition 1. If approved, the measure would give C-Tran local funding to help build the enhanced bus system primarily along Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor.

Project planners don't expect to need any additional money to operate bus rapid transit once it's running. Extending from downtown to the Westfield Vancouver mall, the system is expected to cost less to run than the No. 4 and No. 44 buses it will replace. The enhanced system uses larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms, specialized signals and other features in an effort to move passengers more efficiently and reliably. C-Tran expects its version to cost up to $55 million to build, and planners are banking on federal grants to cover much of that.

C-Tran has pushed to solidify as many details about the project as possible before it asks voters to help pay for it, Hamm said. The result is a concept that's more refined than many others at the same stage, he said.

"I think we feel pretty good about what we're asking for," Hamm said.

Herrera Beutler said she would have preferred a more "pure" vote to gauge people's feelings on light rail. But Moeller said he feels adding bus rapid transit to the mix actually boosts the cause of high-capacity transit in Clark County -- a cause he believes the county will support as an investment opportunity.

"I think it's part of the whole system," Moeller said. "I do believe it helps the measure rather than hurt it."

Past votes

It's been 17 years since Clark County last voted on a specific light rail proposal, but many longtime residents remember the outcome well. Voters resoundingly rejected a plan that would have extended a light rail line to Hazel Dell, with more than two-thirds saying no.

The 1995 measure came with a much higher cost than this year's Proposition 1. Approval back then would have meant an additional 0.3 percent sales tax, plus a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax on top of it. (The state motor vehicle excise tax was later repealed.)

C-Tran has seen mixed results on the ballot since then. After losing much of its state funding in 2000, the agency asked voters for a sales tax increase to preserve its budget in 2004. They said no. C-Tran then reduced its taxing district and service boundary, and a scaled-back tax increase passed in 2005.

In 2011, voters again gave C-Tran a sales tax increase, which the agency said it needed to preserve basic bus service. That bus funding was isolated from the high-capacity transit proposal that's now Proposition 1.

This year's measure is the smallest of the bunch at 0.1 percentage point, which would bring C-Tran's local rate to 0.8 percent. (Most Clark County residents now pay a total sales tax of 8.4 percent.) That doesn't make it easy to swallow, said Vancouver City Councilor Bill Turlay.

"Over a period of time, that adds up," said Turlay, who opposes the measure and light rail.

C-Tran leaders took encouragement from last year's success in a still-struggling economy, though it's tough to say if that will carry over this time around. An active campaign has yet to materialize either for or against the measure. C-Tran plans to hold a series of informational open house meetings on the topic next month, Patterson said.

If Proposition 1 goes down, C-Tran's next steps will be up to its board, Patterson said. The other light rail funding options discussed this year, and a possible subdistrict vote, may play into the discussion. Whatever the outcome -- and whatever its implications for the CRC -- policymakers shouldn't be afraid to rethink their approach, Herrera Beutler said.

"This is such an expensive and important project to our region," Herrera Beutler said. "We need to get it right."

The Federal Transit Administration has indicated that local leaders have some breathing room to find a Plan B should Proposition 1 fail. Administrator Peter Rogoff wrote in an April letter that C-Tran could obtain local light rail funding as late as October 2013 without affecting the FTA's full funding grant agreement. In an email, CRC spokeswoman Anne Pressentin said project leaders will work with their partners to find other funding if voters say no to Proposition 1.

Hamm noted the current C-Tran board has shown it's committed to pursuing bus rapid transit and light rail in Clark County. This year's ballot measure is only one step toward making that happen, he said, and not the last.

"Policymakers wrestle with how to fund these things, and I think this sales tax is the first move in the wrestling match," Hamm said.

Does C-Tran have enough voters in its corner this year?

"We'll see," Hamm said.

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