In Our View: Leavitt Wise to Look Ahead

Despite clumsy unveiling, Vancouver mayor's light-rail idea worth discussing

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Given that the game of politics can be, well, gamey … we'll give Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt high marks for being proactive but low marks for diplomacy.

Leavitt created a bit of a firestorm this week by deciding, apparently unilaterally, that the city could maybe, possibly, perhaps pay for the operation and maintenance of a light rail system in Clark County. That's if light rail lands in Clark County, which on the scale of ifs right now lands somewhere between maybe, possibly, and perhaps.

In other words, let's not get ahead of ourselves in condemning the mayor for being a dunderhead, as some of his critics have been quick to do.

The story:

Leavitt — who, it's fair to mention, ran for mayor on a platform of opposing tolls on a new Interstate 5 bridge, before changing his stance once in office — has scheduled a city council workshop to discuss paying the annual costs on a light-rail system. Those costs are tentatively expected to run about $2.5 million a year.

The countywide C-Tran Board of Directors has been tasked with devising plans for operating the system and Leavitt, a member of the board that also includes two other members of the city council, has been dismayed by what he sees as a lack of progress. Hence, his idea that the city should pick up the ball and run with it.

Mind you, this is merely a workshop, and it's merely a discussion. In our mind, discussion is never a bad thing.

Ah, but then there's that pesky diplomacy thing, an area in which Leavitt made some missteps:

• Revelations of the expected workshop, which Leavitt indicated would be Sept. 9, were unveiled by Willamette Week, and they came as a surprise to fellow council members. Councilor Jack Burkman told The Columbian: "The mayor is speaking for himself and not for council. We have not talked about this." Considering that any discussion involving light rail is guaranteed to raise plenty of hackles among certain segments of the public, we urge the mayor to keep fellow council members in the loop.

• Leavitt characterized the C-Tran Board of Directors as "dysfunctional," a tactic that probably doesn't appear anywhere in the Diplomat Handbook.

For his part, Leavitt responded to a storm of criticism with a comment on Columbian.com, writing in part: "For those who may remember, a number of options for funding the O&M without raising any taxes was recommended by a citizens advisory group over two years ago. So, the discussion will be about those options and whether or not the City of Vancouver should lead the way, since it appears that CTRAN Board isn't willing to move forward."

That, believe it or not, is reasonable. And it's a far cry from saying definitively that Vancouver taxpayers are going to pick up the cost for operation and maintenance of light rail, which is how some critics have characterized the story.

Lest we forget, plans for light rail and a new bridge and the reconstruction of I-5 interchanges are currently residing wherever it is that public-works projects go to await burial. Yes, there are efforts afoot to revive the project, but for now it is nothing more than a memory. In addition, for the city of Vancouver to decide on how to pay operating and maintenance costs, the C-Tran board would have to cede authority over the issue. That hasn't happened.

In other words, the mayor is simply looking ahead, planning for a possible eventuality. That's a wise move, even if it has been a bit messy.