C-Tran to resume planning for CRC

First step: agreements to work with TriMet

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday authorized the transit agency to resume work on the Columbia River Crossing, putting one of the once-dead project's local sponsors back at the table.

C-Tran staff will quickly evaluate and draft agreements to work with TriMet on an Interstate 5 Bridge replacement. C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm said the agency also plans to draft a plan to pay for operating light rail in Vancouver -- one of the key financial questions still surrounding the project.

C-Tran hasn't worked on the CRC in earnest since July, when it received a stop-work order from project leaders. The notification came days after the Washington Legislature adjourned without committing any money to the project, and essentially severed ties on the project between the Washington State Department of Transportation and CRC partners including C-Tran.

The proposed I-5 Bridge replacement with light rail has re-emerged recently as a pared-down $2.75 billion effort with Oregon solely at the helm. Tuesday's vote essentially resumes work on the project "under a new setting and a new leadership," Hamm said.

The authorization was floated by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who sent the full resolution to C-Tran staff earlier Tuesday. It passed by a 6-3 vote, with Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke, and Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley voting no.

Remaining CRC officials — most of the project staff packed up and left the CRC offices after Washington pulled out — have said they're under a tight deadline to shore up a viable finance plan and apply for federal funding this fall. Oregon lawmakers could convene Sept. 30 to reconsider their own financial commitment to the CRC, among other issues.

It's too late for C-Tran to put any new light-rail financing plan on the ballot this fall. That's something the agency has long promised, though it's not legally required to do so in all circumstances, according to the state Attorney General's office.

Last year, voters rejected a proposed sales tax that would have covered the cost of operating light rail, previously estimated at about $2.5 million per year. Other funding options have been explored since, but no clear plan has emerged.

Madore said continuing to push forward on the CRC steps in front of voters. Without clear funding on the table and so many other questions surrounding the project, pressing on only sinks more resources into a wasteful effort, he said.

"What we're doing is (directing) staff to spend money pursuing an impossible project," said Madore, a vocal opponent of the CRC.

Ganley expressed frustration at a project that's been in the spotlight for the better part of a decade, was once declared dead and yet "keeps coming back." He indicated he'd rather see the board turn the page and turn its attention to other needs.

"We have more, bigger problems in the community," Ganley said.

Renewed work on the CRC by C-Tran doesn't guarantee the agency will ultimately sign off on whatever plan emerges. The board will gather again for a special meeting on Sept. 24 to discuss the findings C-Tran staff can prepare in two weeks.

"I see this purely as finding information," said Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith.

The C-Tran board also defeated two other CRC-related resolutions Tuesday. One would have withheld support for light rail until after a nonbinding vote on the ballot in Clark County this November. The other would have opposed "any project that involves another state unilaterally setting the toll rates for Clark County citizens." Both of those resolutions were offered by Madore.

Board composition review extended

Before Tuesday's regular meeting, the 10-member committee mulling a possible shake-up of the C-Tran board's membership delayed action until at least October, citing legal questions.

The committee has floated three proposals, two of which would give more representation to the smaller jurisdictions on the C-Tran board -- meaning the county or Vancouver would have to give up a seat.

At issue is what such an arrangement would do to the "bloc veto" rule written into C-Tran's bylaws. That's the authority allowing either Vancouver or the county to nix any action approved by the rest of the board.

Attorneys representing C-Tran, the county and Vancouver all reached different conclusions as to what effect a change to the board's makeup would have on the veto rule. C-Tran counsel Tom Wolfendale said he would meet with the other two attorneys, plus any other city's counsel that would like to participate, to seek a clearer conclusion. The matter could also be sorted out by a Clark County judge through legal action, if need be, he said.

The committee could decide to simply maintain the status quo -- an option favored by Vancouver, whose residents are the vast majority of the system's riders.

The C-Tran board now includes nine voting members: three from the Vancouver City Council, three Clark County commissioners, and three seats shared in pairs by Camas/Washougal, Battle Ground/Yacolt, and La Center/Ridgefield. The board also includes a nonvoting labor representative.

The committee will meet again Oct. 8.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.