Strictly business: About that 'socialist' light-rail line

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Economy Forecast

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Let's assume that Portland State University economist Tom Potiowsky was swinging for the fence when he took a swing at light-rail opponents at Thursday's Economic Forecast Breakfast, sponsored by The Columbian.

"You need to get over the notion that light rail is a socialist scheme to undermine family values," Potiowsky quipped to the more than 400 members of Clark County's business and political establishment at the event.

Dropping over from Portland to a different political culture on the north shore, Potiowsky was looking for a reaction. He got only mild applause. While many in this crowd would agree that light rail is not a "socialist scheme," there was no enthusiastic embrace of a project that has come to symbolize much more than a mode of transportation.

The low rumble of conflict over light rail, and over the larger Columbia River Crossing, is old news. But last fall's election of businessman David Madore, a staunch light-rail opponent, to the Board of Clark County Commissioners has pushed the debate to front of mind.

Madore and fellow Commissioner Tom Mielke recently cut off funding to the nonprofit Columbia River Economic Development Council, Clark County's leading job-recruitment organization, because of its endorsement of light rail. That action came against a backdrop of mixed messages about light rail from other business and political quarters.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, supports the bridge project without rail transit. Her views are important: Congress isn't keen on funding projects that lack the support of a local representatives, and Herrera Beutler sits on the House Appropriations Committee and its transportation subcommittee.

Key business groups, meanwhile, still act like the project is at least half bad. Both Identity Clark County and the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce favor light rail but opposed a C-Tran tax increase to pay for rail operations. The tax measure's defeat is seen by light-rail opponents as the final word on public opposition to rail.

The nuances of this debate get lost in translation on the Columbia's south shore and in Washington D.C., where light rail is seen as a linchpin for project funding. Some draw conclusions not far from Potiowsky's barb: Residents here would rather sit in traffic and kill a huge public works project than accept a "socialist" light-rail line.

The CRC project raises plenty of legitimate issues about growth, downtown redevelopment, and costs -- including the impact of tolls on Clark County families. Let's hope the community can have a real conversation about the project and find a way to improve Clark County's image as a good place for business, instead of tarnishing that image for years to come.