C-Tran eyes its piggy bank for BRT

Agency's board has yet to review proposal to pledge its reserves toward building transit system

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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C-Tran expects to burn two-thirds of its uncommitted capital reserves to build a bus rapid transit system in Vancouver, according to documents recently submitted to the Federal Transit Administration.

The agency must come up with about $6 million out of its own pocket to pay for the $53 million project. With the finance plan submitted to FTA, C-Tran leaders have answered how they plan to do that.

They haven't, however, gotten the approval of the C-Tran Board of Directors — a required step before the planned system can receive federal money.

The C-Tran board endorsed the overall bus rapid transit concept in the form of a locally preferred alternative in 2012. The board has continued to advance the project this year, even as some board members have expressed reluctance or outright opposition amid lingering questions.

C-Tran project manager Chuck Green said the board will likely be asked to authorize the use of reserve funds for bus rapid transit next year. By then, the project will be farther along in design and will offer a clearer picture of what's required to carry it forward, he said.

"Eventually we want to get down to the detailed estimate that we're asking the board to commit to," Green said.

C-Tran's bus rapid transit system would use larger vehicles, specialized signals and other features in an effort to move passengers more efficiently and reliably. The proposed line would run along Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor between downtown and the Westfield Vancouver mall. Bus rapid transit would replace the existing No. 4 and No. 44 buses on that stretch, according to C-Tran. It could open as early as 2016.

As for operating cost, C-Tran says bus rapid transit would be cheaper to run than existing buses. But the plan also shows fewer service hours. That's because C-Tran believes the new system could serve just as many passengers or more with fewer 60-foot vehicles making better time, Green said.

"We're not cutting service," Green said. "We're making it more efficient so that we don't need as many hours."

C-Tran submitted its finance plan as part of its application for a federal grant through

the FTA's Small Starts program. The agency hopes that grant will pay for about $38.5 million of the $53 million price tag. After other grants and funds, C-Tran would be left to cover $6.4 million from its own coffers, according to the plan. C-Tran's uncommitted reserve account is estimated to be just over $9 million by next year.

C-Tran wouldn't borrow any money to build bus rapid transit. The agency operates debt-free.

The local share had been a question mark since last year, when voters rejected a proposed sales tax increase that would have helped pay for bus rapid transit and operate light rail as part of the Columbia River Crossing. With a light-rail contract signed in September, C-Tran appears to have come up with a plan to keep those projects on track despite voters' saying no the first time around.

The documents submitted to FTA suggest bus rapid transit could eventually connect to light rail if the CRC materializes. But bus rapid transit could still happen even if the beleaguered Interstate 5 Bridge replacement plan implodes, said C-Tran public affairs manager Jim Quintana.

"This was a separate standalone project that had its own merits," Quintana said. "It's still a very viable project and has stood for all this time."

Advisory measure

Despite the earlier rejection, C-Tran hasn't given any indication that it will put the latest transit finance plans back to voters. A pair of advisory measures on the ballot last week asked if Clark County commissioners should oppose light rail and bus rapid transit unless they're first approved by voters. Both overwhelmingly passed.

It's unclear what, if anything, C-Tran leaders will do in response to that result. Clark County Commissioner David Madore has introduced a resolution calling for the board to "discuss, consider and courteously regard" the vote before acting further on bus rapid transit. The C-Tran board is expected to consider that resolution during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith, a C-Tran board member, said he'd be open to using reserves to pay for bus rapid transit, but would have questions before agreeing to do so.

The C-Tran board will meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.