The law does not necessarily require C-Tran to get voter approval when financing light rail or bus rapid transit, according to a formal opinion issued Monday by the state Attorney General.
The opinion could have helped Columbia River Crossing project supporters, who were trying to assess what C-Tran's options were for covering light-rail maintenance and operating costs in Vancouver. However, the Legislature did not commit state money for the project this year, and the CRC offices are shutting down.
In the opinion issued Monday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that state law requires high-capacity transportation agencies such as C-Tran to seek voter approval only if their financing plan meets specific criteria.
Raising sales-and-use taxes to pay for light rail would trigger a public vote, for example. Using existing funds to pay those costs would not.
The situation would be different for C-Tran -- and a public vote in all instances would be required -- if the transportation agency was defined as a "joint" high-capacity transportation district, Ferguson said.
Instead, C-Tran is considered an independent high-capacity transportation district. Ferguson said he does not consider C-Tran a joint district because Clark County and its neighboring counties aren't populated enough to meet the law's definition of a joint district.
"Specifically, King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties were intended to follow a (joint) process in the development of their regional high-capacity transportation system," Ferguson wrote. "This distinction between central Puget Sound and the rest of the state persists today."
C-Tran spokesman Jim Quintana said the ruling confirms what C-Tran's council thought all along. He also said the opinion gives C-Tran more options when it comes to paying for a proposed bus rapid transit system on Fourth Plain Boulevard in Vancouver.
In November, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 0.1 percentage point sales tax increase to pay for the maintenance and operation of light rail in Vancouver, and the BRT system on Fourth Plain. C-Tran is brainstorming new ideas to cover those BRT costs.
"We're still at the drawing board," Quintana said.
And, if extending Portland's light-rail system into Vancouver is ever considered again in the future, Ferguson's opinion "takes away one of the perceived barriers" to making that a reality, Quintana said.
The plan for the $3.4 billion CRC project was to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, extend light rail into Vancouver and update freeway interchanges near the bridge. Governors from Oregon and Washington said over the weekend that they are pulling the plug on the project because it failed to get its necessary funding.
State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, made the request for Ferguson's formal opinion in February, before the CRC's fate was known. Moeller said Tuesday that he agreed with the opinion, but he expressed disappointment that it was issued after Washington's 2013 legislative session ended on Saturday.
"Unfortunately, the opinion arrived in my office Monday … about six months after I requested the opinion," Moeller said in a statement. "Although it was late arriving, I think that their conclusion lines up with what I believe is the correct side in this matter."