C-Tran seeks direction on light rail

Directors can't agree how to proceed after meeting

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When it comes to light rail, the C-Tran Board of Directors can agree on this much:

"We're nowhere near on the same page," said County Commissioner David Madore.

That became clear Saturday during a day-long workshop meeting, in which board members aired a wide range of views on the subject as it relates to the Columbia River Crossing. But after seven hours of discussion, the group appeared no closer to consensus on how C-Tran should proceed on the controversial project.

Board members did praise facilitator Richard Howells, a private consultant, and what they characterized as a valuable conversation. Some said they found common ground where they hadn't before. But the board ultimately decided to put together another workshop later this spring to tackle the subject again.

Saturday's meeting focused on three main topics. Board members covered the agency's 20-year plan, adopted in 2010. They talked about bus rapid transit, a $49 million enhanced bus system proposed for Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor. And they discussed light rail, which would extend into Vancouver as part of the $3.5 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project.

The clearest consensus emerged on how agency leaders should link -- or not link -- light rail and bus rapid transit, known as BRT. Board members said the two projects are separate issues, and should be treated as such. That's something BRT supporters have pushed for, arguing a perceived connection to light rail only hurts its chances of success. BRT should be allowed to succeed on its own merits, supporters say.

In November, C-Tran floated a sales tax measure that included both BRT and light rail as beneficiaries. Voters rejected it. The result left both projects without a clear path forward on local funding.

The C-Tran board will likely revisit BRT at its next regular meeting in March. But light rail will have to wait, extending a conversation that's considerably more complex -- and potentially has a lot more riding on it.

C-Tran must come up with a plan for local operations funding for light rail funding before the Federal Transit Administration will consider handing over $850 million to build it. And C-Tran's share is only one of several crucial pieces. Washington and Oregon state funding, plus a bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, must also be in place.

CRC planners still hope to apply for that federal grant as early as this fall, meaning C-Tran and others will have to act soon for that time line to happen.

"We can continue a pace in moving these projects forward right now without drop-dead decisions for a while," C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm said. "But that's going to come to a head later on this year."

While board members discussed light rail Saturday, the conversation at times shifted toward fundamental questions about the project itself, including its overall financing, other components of the CRC, what constitutes a "match" needed for federal money, a preferred alternative and other policies adopted years ago, and whether those should be revisited.

Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley, the C-Tran board chair, said he feels "rushed" by the process. Madore said the conversation shows local leaders need to "push the pause button" on the project and make sure they understand it. He called for another vote to gauge public opinion, and said the agency should wait until after the November election to consider its next steps.

County Commissioner Steve Stuart said the problem isn't being rushed, citing years of public process and thousands of discussions and comments. The problem, he said, is that "there has not been clear communication of that information."

Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith agreed. C-Tran can't continue kicking the can down the road, he said.

Before Saturday's workshop, Howells, the facilitator, said he individually interviewed each of the board's nine voting members. Howells said he found a group that is "divided," "political" and "gridlocked." People seemed to have their minds made up on major issues, he said. Part of Saturday's goal was to find consensus where possible, Howells said.

Howells ended the gathering by asking everyone at the table for final words. Hamm offered thanks, and this:

"I see the direction a little bit, kind of in a fog," Hamm said. "But it hasn't parted enough that I can see where we're going."

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