Advisory votes get mixed reviews

Nonbinding measures on ballot sample public opinion but carry no clout

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter




Advisory vote No. 1: Directs Clark County commissioners to oppose any light-rail project unless first approved by county-wide vote.

Advisory vote No. 2: Directs commissioners to oppose any bus rapid transit project unless first approved by county-wide vote.

Advisory vote No. 3: Directs commissioners to support toll-free east county bridge across Columbia River.

Advisory vote No. 4: Directs commissioners to support toll-free Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.

Advisory vote No. 5: Directs commissioners to support toll-free west county bridge across Columbia River.

A set of advisory votes next month will allow Clark County residents to weigh in directly on light rail, bus rapid transit and three proposed bridges across the Columbia River.

The nonbinding measures will give voters up-or-down decisions on three bridge alignments: a replacement Interstate 5 bridge, a new bridge to the west of the freeway, and a new bridge to the east at Southeast 192nd Avenue. All three are described as "toll-free" proposals in the voters' pamphlet.

The measures don't ask voters to favor one idea over another. Each is a separate measure, so a resident could vote in favor of all three, against all three, or any combination he or she chooses.

On light rail and bus rapid transit, two measures will ask if Clark County commissioners should oppose any such project that does not first gain approval through a county-wide vote. One measure will ask the question for light rail, the other for bus rapid transit.

The five transportation-related measures are among six nonbind

ing votes that Clark County commissioners put on the ballot. The sixth relates to the sale and use of fireworks.

Ballots for the Nov. 5 election will be mailed Oct. 16.

On the transportation measures, commissioners could use the election results to guide their votes on the C-Tran board of directors, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council and other committees.

"For so long, we've been told we can't vote, it's not our jurisdiction. We have some healing to do in our community," County Commissioner David Madore said during an August meeting. "We can move ahead. We can build something. Let the people speak."

Critics have questioned the value of putting nonbinding questions on the ballot at taxpayers' expense. The six advisory votes cost the county a combined $107,000.

"They don't settle anything. They don't do anything. And they cost us a bundle," said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who helped write the voters' pamphlet argument against the light rail measure.

The bridge proposals come with varying levels of detail. Supporters of the East County Bridge, including Madore, have compiled detailed plans and designs developed by bridge architect Kevin Peterson. The proposal, which would extend an "urban connector" bridge across the Columbia from 192nd Avenue toward Gresham, Ore., could cost roughly $800 million to $1.2 billion, according to the materials.

Other advocates have pushed for various iterations of a west county bridge for years. Supporters argue that building a new crossing west of I-5 would relieve traffic congestion and cost "a fraction of the CRC," referring to the Columbia River Crossing, now an Oregon-led $2.7 billion effort to replace the existing I-5 Bridge.

Backers of the I-5 bridge replacement on this year's ballot insist that their proposal is not the CRC but could capitalize on existing plans for a new bridge that costs less than $900 million. They've highlighted the need to replace the aging lift span they say is unsafe and outdated.

None of the three bridge proposals on the ballot is currently funded or being pursued by state or federal authorities. Moeller said he believes the advisory votes will amount to little more than "political fodder" in the future.

Light rail and bus rapid transit have long been in the forefront of transportation discussions in Clark County. The former has been a central focus in the controversy surrounding the CRC, which would extend Portland's Yellow Line train to Clark College. And C-Tran has separately pursued a bus rapid transit system, which uses larger vehicles and other features in an effort to move passengers more efficiently. C-Tran's proposal, estimated to cost $50 million, would operate primarily along Vancouver's Fourth Plain corridor.

Next month won't be the first time voters have been asked to weigh in on those proposals. In 2012, voters in C-Tran's service district rejected a sales tax measure that would have helped pay for both high-capacity transit systems.

Opponents of the two systems have long called for a direct public vote. The advisory measures are a step toward giving people a say, said state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, who helped author an argument in favor of the light rail measure.

"That's really what the vote is about," Pike said.