C-Tran board grills top CRC officials

Its role in project unclear, agency seeks answers on points of dispute

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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As it evaluates its role in the Columbia River Crossing project, the C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday walked through a series of disputed questions in a meeting with top project officials.

Board members questioned CRC directors Nancy Boyd and Kris Strickler on the process behind the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, how leaders arrived at the preferred alternative including light rail, and where the controversial $3.4 billion megaproject stands now.

The special meeting came as C-Tran prepares to answer a question of its own: how -- or if -- it will pay the local operations cost for light rail in Vancouver. That decision could be made as soon as next week.

CRC leaders have said C-Tran must find a way this year to cover the annual operations cost of light rail if the project hopes to stay on track. Rick Krochalis, a regional administrator with the Federal Transit Administration, reiterated that Tuesday, and said C-Tran must have a plan in place by October before his agency will consider handing out an $850 million grant to build the system.

But Krochalis said the FTA is ready to put up money if that happens.

"We want to invest in this bridge," Krochalis said. "We're ready to do that. We're ready to make that step."

The first local plan, a proposed sales tax increase, was rejected by voters last year. The C-Tran board still hasn't decided its next steps in the wake of that failure. Two weekend workshop meetings earlier this year failed to generate clear consensus.

One key dispute is whether any Plan B will go to voters. The state Attorney General's Office is expected to weigh in next month as to what state law requires for C-Tran's possible light rail financing options. But if the agency were to not put something on the ballot, it would have to reverse a pledge it made five years ago.

When C-Tran leaders approved the CRC's preferred alternative in 2008, the resolution included this clause: "Any means chosen to finance operations of the (high-capacity transit) component of the CRC project shall be submitted to impacted C-Tran voters for approval." That remains adopted C-Tran policy today.

"It really has to do with keeping to the commitment that was made to the citizens of this community," said Clark County Commissioner David Madore, a CRC opponent. Madore submitted 82 of the 93 questions put to CRC officials in advance of the meeting, and asked many of the ones raised Tuesday.

Board members also revisited that alternative itself, adopted by five other local agencies the same year. Some questioned whether that's still the best path forward. But CRC officials noted that C-Tran can't unilaterally change the CRC's preferred alternative with light rail. And Boyd defended what she characterized as a robust process to get there by 2008.

"The process to identify the LPA was not easy, it was not cheap, and it was not quick," Boyd said. "There were a lot of different things that were considered."

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said he's heard an "ideological and visceral opposition to light rail" from some project critics. Moving away from it would mean pursuing more costly and less efficient alternatives, he said.

Boyd also said Tuesday that the CRC is still planning to build all components of the project -- including freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River -- despite a revised project summary given to the FTA late last year. In it, CRC lowered its overall cost to $2.8 billion and said several interchanges, including some in Washington, would be "deferred." Boyd said that reflects an emphasis on first building all the project components required to get light rail into Vancouver. The project is still seeking funding from both states to get the rest built as well, she said.

Tuesday's meeting also included two and a half hours of public comment on the project, tipping slightly against it in the end. The C-Tran board will meet again next week.