Strictly Business: Light-rail fight isn't over yet

Published:

 

The current fight over light rail isn't the first in Clark County. Rail transit came to a vote in 1995, when TriMet and regional forces on the Oregon side had greased the wheels for a new bridge and a bistate line that would, they said, extend as far north as the Clark County Fairgrounds.

That proposal was offered up as a salve to Interstate 5 Bridge congestion. Without rail, rush hour traffic was expected to increase by 41,000 more vehicles by the year 2000, according to a Voters' Pamphlet from that election.

The implied solution? "Light rail will carry 60,000 riders daily, reduce air pollution, free roadways for commerce, and create high paying jobs," the Voters' Pamphlet offered.

Clark County taxpayers didn't buy it, overwhelmingly rejecting a 0.3 percent sales tax and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle excise tax. TriMet still built a line deep into North Portland, assuming that Clark County would eventually jump on board. But Oregon's pro-transit forces didn't just wait around for Clark County to act, writes Andrea Damewood, a former Columbian reporter, in the current issue of Willamette Week. As an enticement, they linked light rail to a new scheme to build a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge.

No one needs to be told today the error of that political calculus. While congestion remains a dismal part of life for the county's Oregon-bound commuters, traffic counts are no higher than they were in 2001. And much of today's opposition to light rail seems to be about light rail itself, not just about taxes to pay for it.

The county's business leaders have been caught up in the acrimony. Clark County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke eliminated the county's $200,000 contribution to the Columbia River Economic Development Council because that nonprofit business recruitment organization supports light rail. Other business groups have faced fierce criticism for their backing of light rail.

It's a far cry from 1995, when businesses mostly stood on the sidelines. The topic of light rail's impact on businesses wasn't talked about much, say some who were involved in that campaign. Some people couldn't imagine they'd ever want to take a train to Portland, and were skeptical about the kind of Portlanders who might come here. Naturally enough, many just didn't see enough benefit to cause them to vote for higher taxes.

Marc Veneroso, a now-retired bridge engineer, chaired the ballot measure's local support committee. The talk in those days of was an extensive light-rail system, and the Voters' Pamphlet discusses a future extension to Washington State University Vancouver. But Veneroso was skeptical about whether it would even get to the fairgrounds.

"We all knew that was not going to happen. Not then. Probably not never," he said. Now he's convinced that Vancouver doesn't have the population densities to make light rail cost effective and says massive Park 'N Rides would suck the life out of downtown. Instead, he now favors dedicated busways and thinks a retrofit of the existing bridge makes more sense financially than building a new one.

Pat Jollota, a longtime citizen activist, was on the C-Tran board in 1995. Jollota wishes that measure had passed and supports the current bridge-rail proposal. "Historically, Clark County has stumbled on transportation," says Jollota, a local historian. "We didn't get the train until the 20th century."

That century came and went without light rail. We'll see what happens in this century.

Gordon Oliver: 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver, http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com