Citing several unanswered questions about the Columbia River Crossing project, the C-Tran board decided Tuesday evening to put off a decision about whether it should reaffirm its commitment to the controversial project.
Instead, the board will wait until the Washington Legislature approves or rejects state funding for the project, and until the state's attorney general gives an opinion on what state law requires for C-Tran's possible light rail financing options.
In the meantime, C-Tran's staff was given the go-ahead to draft a hypothetical light rail contract between C-Tran and TriMet, and to draft a new plan for paying for Vancouver light rail operation that excludes new taxes.
C-Tran would not be allowed to enter negotiations with TriMet until C-Tran board members approve such a move, according to the motion. Delaying the board's decision on the CRC while also keeping staff at work on elements of the project is not expected to derail the $3.4 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project, C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm told the board Tuesday evening.
"It is not a poison pill" for the project, assured County Commissioner Steve Stuart, who proposed the motion.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt added that it doesn't make sense for C-Tran to stick its neck out to support or oppose the project if state lawmakers haven't even made up their minds. A C-Tran decision by August is expected.
Stuart's motion was met with resistance by CRC critic and Clark County Commissioner David Madore, who unsuccessfully tried to pass his own motion, causing a sometimes heated back-and-forth with other board members and C-Tran's legal counsel.
Madore's resolution stated C-Tran could not support federal or state funding for the CRC unless voters approve a funding plan for maintenance and operation of light rail in Vancouver. He then appeared to pass out a contract between TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency, and the engineering firm that employs Leavitt, accusing the mayor of having a conflict of interest. He said Leavitt should abstain from voting on his motion.
That prompted Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen to ask if anyone on the C-Tran board had received campaign contributions from Madore, as long as the board was discussing conflicts of interest.
Madore asked the legal counsel to address the conflict of interest, but the attorney said he could not make a decision on the spot without investigating the issue.
Leavitt, a CRC supporter, said there is no conflict of interest in his voting on the motion because he does not work directly with TriMet contracts. In fact, he had never seen that contract until Madore circulated it Tuesday evening, Leavitt said. But to avoid any further arguing, Leavitt said he would abstain from the vote anyway.
"Clearly, there's no secret to the intentions that the commissioner has to bring this up, again, tonight as yet another red herring to throw out there to try to thwart any progress on the CRC," Leavitt said. "This is the first time I've seen the contract with the agency. … I don't work on the project. I don't work for TriMet. I have not done any work for TriMet."
Stuart said Madore's behavior "reeks of political gamesmanship."
Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith also expressed his frustrations with Madore's motion: "Mr. Madore, you've done everything you possibly can to delay this project." He added that Madore criticizes the CRC for providing inaccurate information, but when it comes to information, "you are sometimes just as guilty as the CRC."
When pressed on what he meant, Smith said, "No, I'm finished."
More than 80 members of the public attended the board meeting, and nearly 50 of them participated in an hourlong comment period at the start of the meeting. An informal count had 19 opposed to the CRC and light rail, while 27 said it was time to move forward and build a new bridge.
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. 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 not to put something on the ballot, it would have to reverse a pledge it made five years ago.
C-Tran is one of several agency partners for the CRC project. C-Tran leaders approved the CRC's preferred alternative, with light rail, in 2008. At that time, 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.
Additionally, Washington state lawmakers are wrapped up in a special legislative session, in which they are considering whether to pass a transportation package that would raise taxes to pay for several of the state's transportation needs, including $450 million for the CRC.
Columbian staff writer Eric Florip contributed to this report.
View the C-Tran board of directors meeting on CVTV's website.