Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Aug. 11, 2020

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Voters may hold bridge trump card


Local sales tax hike needed to operate light rail extension

Campaign rhetoric might have led Vancouver voters to believe last week’s mayoral election was a referendum on tolling a new Columbia River Crossing.

Yet, despite mayor-elect Tim Leavitt’s battle for a toll-free Interstate 5 Bridge, the city of Vancouver has no power to strip tolls from a new crossing — short of devising a more palatable alternative for local funding or killing the project altogether. And Leavitt has made it clear he wants a new bridge.

When it comes to a new freeway bridge, though, voters may have one last trump card.

A local sales tax increase will be needed to operate and maintain an extension of Portland’s light rail line across the new bridge to Clark College, at a cost of about $2 million per year. C-Tran, Clark County’s transit agency, expects to put a sales tax increase before voters in 2011.

But it’s still far from certain whether that means local voters will have veto power over a project expected to cost between $3.1 billion and $4.2 billion.

Jim Irish, the La Center mayor who chairs C-Tran’s board of directors, considered the ability of voters on one side of the river to derail one of the biggest public works projects in the region’s history.

“I’ll be honest and truthful with you,” Irish said. “I don’t know.”

In contrast to the last time Clark County voters considered the question of light rail — rejecting a 6-mile extension from Portland to 99th Street by a 2-1 margin in 1995 — C-Tran directors are poised to hedge their bets this time around.

First of all, the federal government is likely to pay the $750 million estimated cost of building the line. Secondly, as congestion has worsened, voters may be more willing to accept light rail today than they were 14 years ago. Finally, C-Tran is hoping to entice light rail skeptics by embedding it within a 0.3 percentage-point sales tax increase that will include a potpourri of countywide transit improvements unrelated to light rail.

Broadening the measure makes sense, said Scott Patterson, the agency’s spokesman.

“Why would citizens who live in Battle Ground or east Vancouver or Salmon Creek want to increase their sales tax just for light rail that comes into downtown Vancouver?” he said.

So, under the first phase of a 20-year transit development plan, C-Tran plans to use a successful sales tax measure to refashion Fourth Plain Boulevard with a bus rapid transit line; boost C-Van service for disabled riders; and expand commuter and local bus routes throughout the county. Only about one-sixth of that increase — 0.05 of a percentage point — would generate the money needed to operate light rail.

Given voters’ history, Irish acknowledged C-Tran’s campaign for the new measure will be unlikely to emphasize light rail.

“Our focus is going to be on the other 2½-tenths (of 1 percentage point) and why we need that,” he said.

Leavitt, a Vancouver city councilman who represents C-Tran on the Columbia River Crossing’s 10-member Project Sponsors Council, said he believes the C-Tran plan is well thought-out. Leavitt, who has pushed to revitalize the Fourth Plain corridor, said the bus rapid transit line represents a “huge opportunity” to boost transit service while encouraging private investment in a neglected area.

He acknowledged the risk of burdening the measure with light rail.

“You definitely run a risk of deflating other high-capacity transit in the community if folks decide on one particular aspect when they vote,” Leavitt said. “But there’s only so many ways you can slice the pie.”

Light rail referendum?

C-Tran currently collects a 0.5 percent sales tax from its service area: Clark County’s incorporated cities, along with Orchards, Hazel Dell and other unincorporated areas inside Vancouver’s urban growth area. Voters agreed to boost the rate by 0.2 of a percentage point in 2005, the first rate increase since the agency’s formation in 1980.

Leavitt acknowledged that it’s possible the new sales tax measure could evolve into a referendum on light rail — and, by extension, the Columbia River Crossing as a whole.

State and federal officials have made it clear they won’t pay for a new I-5 Bridge without light rail.

“Could it kill the project if voters say they don’t want a sales tax increase?” Leavitt said. “It would then be up to the political leadership to say we’re going to have to come up with an alternative. It’s going to have to come out of somebody’s budget, or maybe we ask the voters a second time.”

Planners envision a new 12-lane bridge between Vancouver and Hayden Island, five miles of interchange improvements and the light rail extension to Clark College. The new bridge would replace twin drawbridges, constructed in 1917 and 1958, that have six lanes between them. Construction is supposed to get under way as soon as 2012, although both states are continuing to hash out fundamental questions over the size and scope of the project.

Mandy Putney, spokeswoman for the bistate crossing project, was unprepared to say whether local voters could kill a $4 billion project by voting no on a tax hike that would generate a tiny fraction of that amount to operate light rail on this side of the river.

“CRC will continue to work with C-Tran regardless of what the vote outcome is,” Putney said. “We’ll work to coordinate with them on the next steps.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.