Leavitt suggests city pay annual light rail costs

By Eric Florip and Stephanie Rice

Published:

Updated: August 21, 2013, 8:11 PM

 

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said Wednesday he will schedule a city council workshop to discuss paying annual maintenance and operations costs for light rail, estimated to add up to millions over the long-term.

Calling the C-Tran Board of Directors a “dysfunctional” group — of which he and two other members of the city council belong — Leavitt said the city needs to step up and pay for light rail, planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing project that would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.

“We as the urban center, we’re on a different trajectory than the rest of the county,” Leavitt said. “We have a vision of how we are going to handle growth, create jobs and create opportunities to live, work and play.

“Unfortunately, the C-Tran board is dysfunctional and seems to have lost sight of the difference between urban and rural public transit,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt’s plans for a workshop were first reported in Willamette Week and came as a surprise to other members of the council, as a workshop on light rail has not been put on their calendars.

The Willamette Week article is headlined, “City of Vancouver Officials Want to Pay for Running the Columbia River Crossing’s Light Rail.”

That was news to Councilor Jack Burkman.

“The mayor is speaking for himself and not for council,” Burkman said. “We have not talked about this.”

The Willamette Week article said the workshop is scheduled for Sept. 9. Councilors typically have workshops before Monday meetings, and Sept. 9 is one of three Mondays the council meets in September. The council also meets Sept. 16 and the 23.

Burkman said he’s not prepared to support a workshop on Sept. 9.

“I’ve got to hear what’s going on, because I’m in the dark,” Burkman said. “I would have preferred that we would have talked about (having a workshop) Monday night (during council communications). We all know what the issue is,” he said.

Workshops are informational only, and the council doesn’t take a formal vote or accept public testimony.

Burkman said his calendar lists all of the workshops scheduled for the month of September.

Councilor Bart Hansen, who serves on the C-Tran Board of Directors with Leavitt and Councilor Larry Smith, was also caught off guard.

“We haven’t talked about this,” Hansen said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve supported light rail all along, but this is news to me.”

Smith, along with Councilors Jeanne Harris, Jeanne Stewart and Bill Turlay, all said Wednesday they were unaware the council was going to be discussing light rail.

Turlay, Leavitt’s challenger in November, said he remains adamantly opposed to light rail and doesn’t see how the city could take on the annual cost, especially considering the city doesn’t know how to pay for current infrastructure needs.

Stewart, who also opposes light rail, said she has heard Leavitt mention the possibility the city could form a transportation benefit district and pay light rail’s annual costs, but the likelihood always seemed tenuous.

Stewart said the council doesn’t have enough time to adequately prepare for a workshop.

Leavitt said Wednesday that he and City Manager Eric Holmes discussed having a workshop on Sept. 9, but nothing was firm.

Barbara Ayers, the city’s spokeswoman, said a workshop on funding light rail has not been scheduled, but anticipates one will be scheduled before the Sept. 30 deadline set by Oregon lawmakers.

Locally, revenue sources could include a surcharge on rider tickets and a fee for Park & Ride lots. Other options floated in the past included a business “head tax,” based on the number of employees, or reallocating savings from C-Tran no longer having to send some buses over the Interstate 5 Bridge to Portland if light rail makes the trip.

Voters rejected tax

CRC officials have said local operations funding for light rail must be lined up if the project has any hope of securing a federal grant to pay for its construction. Meeting the project’s earlier stated deadlines would require coming up with a local funding source by this fall.

That responsibility had always fallen to C-Tran. But after the Washington Legislature adjourned in June without authorizing any money for the $3.4 billion CRC, the project office began shutting down. C-Tran, among other project partners, received stop-work orders in July. The transit agency hasn’t picked up the issue since. Yet the CRC remains in limbo as supporters attempt to resuscitate the project with Oregon at the helm.

C-Tran leaders have said that allowing another entity to take on the operations funding of light rail — in this case, the city of Vancouver — would require C-Tran to cede authority over the issue first. That hasn’t happened.

Last year, voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase that would have covered the $2.5 million net annual operating cost for light rail in Vancouver. C-Tran board members spent hours in public meetings this year talking about how to proceed, if at all, but never reached a consensus. CRC backers floated other funding options, but the question was never resolved.

During an April workshop meeting on the subject, Leavitt said he wasn’t interested in having the city take on the local funding of light rail as part of the CRC. Doing so would “shirk” C-Tran’s responsibility on the matter, he said.

“C-Tran should be the one to take up that obligation, and nobody else,” Leavitt said at the time.

The subject of light rail funding, and C-Tran’s involvement in it, could land on the agenda of the board’s Sept. 10 meeting, said C-Tran community outreach coordinator Katy Belokonny. Staff likely won’t request action that night, she said, but a CRC staff member could be there to provide an update on the status of the project.