The C-Tran Board of Directors narrowly advanced a proposed bus rapid transit line on Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor Tuesday, approving a $2.25 million contract to carry the enhanced bus system through project development and on track to meet a key deadline later this year.
But the 5-4 vote came only after a lengthy discussion that appeared to catch some board members off guard. At issue: whether bus rapid transit actually fits the definition of high-capacity transit under state law, and what that means for its financing options.
C-Tran officials have long described the project as a high-capacity transit effort. In November, the agency had a measure on the ballot that would have helped pay for bus rapid transit explicitly under RCW 81.104 -- the state's high-capacity transit law.
But Tuesday, C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson said the agency believes its bus rapid transit project doesn't fit that description because it doesn't operate "principally on exclusive rights of way" -- in other words, on a separate corridor removed from traffic. That means it isn't necessarily subject to the voter approval requirement that the state law spells out, Patterson said.
That revelation appeared to surprise some board members. Even after Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt moved to advance the project, several said they felt uneasy about moving forward while significant questions are still unanswered.
"Mayor Leavitt believes it's prudent to move forward. I believe it's prudent to stop dead in our tracks and figure this out," said Washougal City Councilor Connie Jo Freeman.
Bus rapid transit uses larger vehicles, raised boarding platforms, specialized signals and other features in an effort to move passengers more efficiently and reliably. C-Tran has proposed putting a line between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall, operating mainly in mixed traffic. The agency first floated the idea in 2011.
$2.25 million contract
Awarding the engineering and design contract to consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff -- the only firm that responded to C-Tran's earlier call for consultants -- would carry bus rapid transit through the project development phase. C-Tran hopes to apply for a Federal Transit Administration grant to help build the $49 million system, and faces a September deadline on that grant. Failure to award the contract this month could have set the project back by at least a year, C-Tran staff reported.
The project continues to move forward despite having no clear funding source to cover C-Tran's share of about $6 million. Last year, voters soundly rejected a sales tax increase that would have covered that share, in addition to the local operating cost of light rail planned as part of the Columbia River Crossing bridge replacement project. When the C-Tran board last discussed bus rapid transit in March, some members made it clear they weren't comfortable advancing the project without support from voters.
Patterson said board members still have the option of going back to voters for local financing if they choose, including under the high-capacity transit law. But that's not the only option, he said.
So how can C-Tran have it both ways? Part of the distinction has to do with whether bus rapid transit is linked to light rail as a "feeder" to high-capacity transit, he said.
Changing that message now gives a mixed signal to voters, said Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke.
"We sold it as a feeder," Mielke said of last year's ballot measure. "We sold light rail as connecting with the BRT."
Leavitt was joined by Vancouver City Council members Larry Smith and Bart Hansen, County Commissioner Steve Stuart and La Center Mayor Jim Irish in voting for the contract. Mielke, Freeman, County Commissioner David Madore and Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley voted no.
Meanwhile, the local funding question remains unresolved. Some bus rapid transit supporters have called for C-Tran to use its existing money to pay the local share of the project. C-Tran holds about $10 million in uncommitted capital reserves.
Fare increase approved
The C-Tran Board of Directors voted Tuesday to increase some bus fares, effective Sept. 1, for the sixth consecutive year.
• The cash price for a single C-Zone adult ride in Clark County will jump by a nickel to $1.70.
• Single C-Zone fares for honored (ages 65 and older or disabled) and youth (18 and younger) riders will increase from 80 cents to 85 cents.
• C-Van rides will jump from $1.65 to $1.70 in Clark County.
• Single All-Zone fares stay at $2.50, including trips to Portland.
• Express buses to downtown Portland will cost $3.60 per ride, up from $3.50; express day passes, $7.20.
• A monthly adult C-Zone passes rise from $58 to $60. The adult All-Zone monthly pass will remain at $100.
The move follows the agency’s recent strategy of consistent but gradual fare hikes to help cover costs with less sudden impact to riders. This round of increases will generate an additional $200,000 per year, according to C-Tran.