C-Tran at a crossroads over light rail

Board under pressure to make decisions on CRC

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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It boils down to yes or no.

Should C-Tran stay the course on the Columbia River Crossing, and find a way to pay the local cost of operating light rail in Vancouver?

C-Tran board members tackled that question during an afternoonlong workshop meeting Saturday. The group arrived at no clear consensus, but indicated a decision point may come as soon as next month.

Still, deciding whether to continue supporting the CRC is just the first, most basic question. The agency still faces a series of hurdles and a tight timeline if it hopes to line up the local money that would be needed to keep the $3.4 billion project on track.

In November, voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have covered the local cost to operate light rail, planned as part of the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement. More than five months later, C-Tran leaders are still searching for a path forward.

C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm laid out a wide range of options Saturday, from pursuing another vote to simply withdrawing support for the CRC entirely, or ceding authority to another entity, such as the city of Vancouver.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who supports the CRC, made it clear he's not interested in that option. Doing so would only "shirk" the transit agency's responsibility, he said.

"C-Tran should be the one to take up that obligation, and nobody else," Leavitt said.

C-Tran is one of the sponsoring agencies of the CRC. Its board approved the project's preferred alternative in 2008, and light rail remains in the agency's long-range plans. But even those basic positions seemed on the table during the meeting, with board members at one point openly asking what would happen to the CRC if C-Tran withdrew support.

The conversation later veered toward familiar territory, with board members making broad arguments for or against the entire CRC. Those against the project said there are still questions to be answered before C-Tran moves forward, among them funding uncertainties at the state and federal levels, whether the U.S. Coast Guard will issue a crucial permit, and other points raised by outside reports.

Time for questions

Clark County Commissioner David Madore, a critic of the CRC, has called for a "two-way" conversation with project officials. He reiterated that call Saturday. Then, as board members proposed taking a week to compile a list of questions for the CRC, Madore said that's not enough time.

Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith questioned Madore's motive in asking for additional steps and meetings, telling the commissioner, "I hope you're not running down the clock."

Madore said he's trying to get the answers needed for a thorough understanding of the issue.

"I am not trying to play some delay tactic or run out the clock," Madore said. "We need to have enough time to make informed decisions."

The board ultimately agreed to hold another meeting -- with CRC officials -- on April 30 to address some questions and invite more public comment. A decision on how to proceed on light-rail funding could land on the agenda at the board's regular May meeting.

CRC officials hope to apply by this fall for $850 million in federal money to build light rail. C-Tran must have a plan for local operations funding for that to happen.

Less clear is the CRC's backup plan if C-Tran doesn't come through with that money. In an email, CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney said the project wouldn't speculate on "what will or will not happen if C-Tran does not commit the funds."

"We will continue to move forward one step at a time, and we address the issues/challenges as they arrive," Putney said. "We have strong, local support … and have confidence that by working together we can keep the project moving forward."

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