C-Tran contract brings swift reaction

Critics call for rally at Tuesday meeting to show anger over TriMet pact

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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C-Tran agreement with TriMet

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When C-Tran leaders last month approved a contract with TriMet to operate light rail in Clark County, the reaction was swift.

If you go

• What: C-Tran Board of Directors.

• When: Board composition review committee at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 8, regular meeting at 5:30 p.m.

• Where: Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St., Vancouver.

Supporters immediately cheered the 5-4 vote that kept a key component of the Columbia River Crossing on track. Opponents watched in dismay as the board gave a green light to a hastily prepared agreement they say puts C-Tran and the community in jeopardy as the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement lurches forward.

The fallout didn't end the night of the Sept. 26 special meeting. Critics are calling for a rally — dubbed "Unite Against Tyranny" — outside of Tuesday's regular C-Tran board meeting at the Vancouver Community Library.

"Because it was such a rushed agreement that the board members had very little time to digest, and the fact that it was such a huge decision … it just flies in the face of transparent government," said state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, among those spearheading the rally.

The outcry has focused on several facets of the 40-page agreement that spells out how C-Tran and TriMet would operate a MAX Yellow Line extension from North Portland to Clark College. Among the most controversial is a clause that allows C-Tran's eminent domain authority to be used for acquiring land TriMet needs for the Washington part of the project.

Here's how the language reads: If TriMet is unable to acquire a property in Washington that's needed for light rail through negotiation, "C-Tran shall use its eminent domain powers to acquire the required property interests," according to the agreement. Some have questioned whether that leaves C-Tran at the mercy of another transit agency's bidding.

Any land that comes into play wouldn't come as a surprise, said C-Tran community outreach coordinator Katy Belokonny. Properties along the proposed light rail right of way have long been identified by the CRC, and owners have been notified, she said. Should the project happen, the majority of needed parcels would be negotiated and purchased — something TriMet is legally allowed to do, Belokonny said.

The C-Tran board would still play a role in determining which properties would or would not be subject to eminent domain based on public need, Belokonny said.

"It's not like a blanket eminent domain has already been given and it's just done," she said.

Much of the contract details how the annual cost to operate light rail would be covered by C-Tran and TriMet. C-Tran's out-of-pocket share, starting at about $2.3 million per year in 2019 after fare revenues, would be paid primarily by cutting bus trips across the Columbia River that light rail would replace.

TriMet's unfunded pension and medical benefit obligations will not be included in any mutual costs shared by the two agencies, according to the contract.

The agreement also states that a breach of contract by either party could result in a penalty of $5 million — money that would go toward the CRC project.

The leaders of the two agencies signed the contract on Sept. 27, the day after the C-Tran board meeting.

The deal was among a series of recent victories for the CRC, which continues to advance as a revised $2.7 billion project with Oregon in the lead. Washington lawmakers adjourned earlier this year without providing any money for the project; the Oregon Legislature hasn't yet indicated if it will reauthorize its own commitment.

While the light rail plan answered one of the key questions surrounding the project, it didn't resolve a pledge the C-Tran board made five years ago. When the agency approved the CRC alternative with light rail in 2008, it also adopted a resolution stating that "any means chosen" to finance the operation of high-capacity transit would go to voters for approval.

That remains C-Tran board policy today. But board members have given no indication that they plan to put the latest proposal on the ballot.

During last month's meeting, the board narrowly rejected a motion by Clark County Commissioner David Madore essentially reiterating that call for a public vote. Voters defeated an earlier finance plan in 2012. Madore is expected to float a new resolution related to high-capacity transit at tonight's meeting.

C-Tran attorney Tom Wolfendale wrote in a May memo that the policy calling for a vote in any circumstance is overbroad, and should be changed. But so far, that hasn't happened.

Pike said she recognizes today's rally may not change any minds on the C-Tran board. But the group is hoping to send a message, she said.

"It will certainly let them know that we're not happy," Pike said.