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June 3, 2023

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C-Tran survey suggests voter support for light rail

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A light rail train makes its way to the Delta Park/Vanport transit station.
A light rail train makes its way to the Delta Park/Vanport transit station. Photo Gallery

A new survey suggests Vancouver-area voters may be more willing to support light rail than previously assumed.

Results from the survey of 600 residents living in C-Tran’s service area in late March showed that 61 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat supported the transit agency’s 20-year development plan. The first phase of the plan, boosting the sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent, would provide money to operate a planned expansion of Portland’s light rail transit system to downtown Vancouver.

The plan would also 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.

C-Tran will host a public hearing on its proposed 20-year development plan at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the agency’s headquarters, 2425 N.E. 65th Ave.

Marc Boldt, the county commissioner who chairs C-Tran’s board of directors, said board members were surprised by the implicit support for light rail.

C-Tran will host a public hearing on its proposed 20-year development plan at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the agency's headquarters, 2425 N.E. 65th Ave.

“We believe the survey and how it was handled,” he said.

Light rail has been something of a third rail in Clark County politics, ever since voters in 1995 rejected a proposed six-mile extension from Portland to Northeast 99th Street by a 2-1 margin. This time, the federal government would pay to build the line to downtown Vancouver with a new Interstate 5 bridge. Local residents will be asked to pick up the operating cost —$2 million to $3 million annually — on the Washington side of the river, using sales tax receipts.

On Tuesday evening, C-Tran’s nine-member board of directors will host a public hearing on its 20-year development plan, which includes the light rail connection.

Board members won’t decide on the timing and structure of a ballot measure until later this year.

Partly due to a concern over voter backlash against light rail, some board members have expressed an interest in a separate ballot measure on high-capacity transit. The telephone survey, conducted by Seattle-based EMC Research from March 24 to April 1, suggests voters’ antipathy about light rail may be overblown.

“Tax increases are never a popular thing,” C-Tran spokesman Scott Patterson said. “To have 61 percent support, that’s certainly a good sign. It guarantees nothing, but it’s at least indicative that there are a lot of people in the community who support C-Tran.”

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.

If C-Tran’s board formally adopts its 20-year plan next month, it will ask voters for as much as a 0.3 percent sales tax increase in 2011.

The current sales tax in the Vancouver city limits is 8.2 percent.

But will the agency pull out light rail and bus rapid transit for a separate vote later?

Boldt indicated he thinks a separate vote is likely. Under state law, C-Tran could narrow the boundary for a sales tax measure affecting only Vancouver and its urban growth area in 2012. But excluding cities beyond Vancouver means C-Tran would have to double the rate — two-tenths of a percent — to generate enough money to underwrite light rail and bus rapid transit.

Boldt said the C-Tran board won’t make any decisions on ballot measures until this summer at the earliest.

That’s when planners with the bistate Columbia River Crossing expect to finish a final environmental impact statement for the overall crossing project, which includes four miles of freeway improvements; a replacement bridge across the river; and the light rail extension to Clark College.

C-Tran spent $20,000 on the telephone survey.

Patterson said C-Tran conducts a telephone survey every other year to gauge public satisfaction with the agency. It surveys riders on alternating years.

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