C-Tran board approves light rail financing plan

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: September 26, 2013, 10:14 PM

 
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The C-Tran Board of Directors on Thursday approved a hastily prepared plan to operate light rail in Vancouver as part of the Columbia River Crossing.

The 5-4 vote allows C-Tran to move forward on a set of draft agreements with TriMet under the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement. That includes a plan to pay C-Tran’s annual share of financing a light rail extension to Clark College.

The vote came over strong objections by Clark County Commissioner David Madore and other CRC opponents on the board and in the audience. It also came after some confusion, as actual copies of the resolution — summarizing a proposal made public earlier this week — were passed out minutes before the vote was taken.

“I hardly know what to say. This is about the most stupid thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Madore said. “Big decisions of this magnitude, this is not the way you make them.”

When the final vote was tallied, CRC supporters in the room cheered.

Voting in favor of the plan were Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Vancouver City Council members Bart Hansen and Larry Smith, Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow and County Commissioner Steve Stuart. Madore joined County Commissioner Tom Mielke, Washougal City Councilor Connie Jo Freeman and Battle Ground City Councilor Bill Ganley in voting no.

The board also rejected a separate resolution introduced by Madore that called for “any means chosen” to finance light rail operations to go to voters for approval -- following a policy set by the C-Tran board five years ago.

C-Tran staff had prepared a plan that would cover C-Tran’s yearly share to operate light rail — initially estimated at $2.3 million, after fare revenues, in 2019. The agency would do so primarily by cutting bus trips across the Columbia River that the new system would replace. It would also use sales tax revenue from CRC-related construction. But the plan includes a gap of at least $400,000 each year, currently listed as an undetermined “third party” funding source.

C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm said Thursday that gap would be covered jointly by C-Tran and TriMet if no other funding source materializes before light rail opens in 2019.

The board’s action appears to answer at least one key question surrounding the CRC as supporters mount an effort to salvage it.

Washington has largely pulled out of the project financially, after lawmakers in Olympia adjourned without authorizing any money for the CRC earlier this year. The project has since re-emerged as a pared-down CRC that would still include the same I-5 bridge, tolls and light rail to Clark College, but remove any freeway work north of state Highway 14 in Washington. The revised project would cost an estimated $2.7 billion.

Plenty of questions remain. Earlier Thursday, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler said the project hasn’t yet cleared all the needed hurdles to be considered financially viable in a letter to state leaders.

Wheeler laid out a series of steps the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement must take before it can float — among them an agreement that gives Oregon sole control of establishing and collecting tolls on I-5, an agreement authorizing Oregon to build elements of the project in Washington, and a plan to pay for operating light rail in Vancouver. The project also still needs a crucial bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, plus federal grants and loans the CRC has long sought, Wheeler noted.

C-Tran answered one of those questions Thursday.

Wheeler still characterized the CRC as an important project. But his long-awaited assessment falls well short of the green light project supporters were looking for.

“It is premature to conclude that the project can work, financially,” Wheeler wrote. “The answer will ultimately depend on required negotiations and agreements that are not completed.”

CRC leaders have said they must have financial details in place before formally applying for an $850 million grant this fall. But in a letter to C-Tran board members this week, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said project supporters have overstated the urgency of acting now by claiming the CRC could lose its chance at federal money.

Herrera Beutler said her office has been told by the Federal Transit Administration that no such deadline exists, and that the FTA considers the project “on hold.”

Still, key decision points on the project are approaching. The Coast Guard is expected to make its call on the bridge permit by Monday. The Oregon Legislature will convene for a special session the same day, though it’s unclear whether the CRC will land on the agenda.

Oregon had earlier authorized $450 million for the CRC. The money was contingent on Washington doing the same by Sept. 30, among other conditions. But letting that deadline lapse doesn’t necessarily mean Oregon’s money goes away for good, Treasury policy director Mike Selvaggio said Thursday. Lawmakers in Salem could still come back and reauthorize their financial commitment at a later date, he said.