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News / Clark County News

Leaders trade bridge barbs

Vancouver mayor, congresswoman swap mail on rail vote

By Andrea Damewood
Published: July 5, 2011, 12:00am
2 Photos
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt Photo Gallery

Who said correspondence is dead?

Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt have been swapping a series of letters over a planned vote on a sales tax increase for light rail and bus rapid transit.

Herrera Beutler sent the C-Tran Board of Commissioners two letters since May — with increasingly strong wording — asking that the board put a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax vote for light rail before the transit system’s entire service area, and that they do it soon.

Otherwise, she said, she may not be able to lobby for the $1.2 billion in federal funding needed for the Columbia River Crossing, a $3.6 billion five-mile megaproject that includes a replacement bridge of Interstate 5, seven interchange improvements and the extension of Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver.

“In order to get matching (federal) funds, we need to have a local match, and in order to get that local match, we need to have a local say,” Herrera Beutler said in a phone interview Friday. “We need to have that vote, as broad as possible, get that out of the way and get this show on the road.”

Leavitt, who is on the transit board but is not its chairman, wrote her back in a three-page letter on Wednesday.

He thanked the congresswoman for her support for a new bridge. But he added that he found her position “disappointing and perplexing,” and said few projects around the country are as “important and nationally significant as the CRC.”

“Re-calibrate your position and join the large bipartisan effort to protect the future of economic vitality of SW Washington and our entire country,” Leavitt wrote. “Leadership from you is necessary.”

Herrera Beutler fired back a one-page letter Thursday, asking the mayor point-blank if he supports a districtwide vote and if he’ll commit to having that vote in early 2012.

“I think it’s important, if my message isn’t being received, to be as clear as I possibly can,” she said. “This is an important project. It isn’t about personalities, isn’t personal, it’s about the best way we’re going to serve our region’s interest. It’s not rocket science.”

Leavitt has not yet responded to the most recent letter, and was unavailable for comment Friday.

The two are at odds over the timing and potential range of a sales tax increase vote that would pay for operations and maintenance of light rail, along with the construction and operations of a bus rapid transit system on Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Herrera Beutler also is calling on the board to allow the entire C-Tran district to vote on the light rail sales tax; Leavitt has proposed a sub-district vote, but also hasn’t said that’s his firm choice.

The three Clark County commissioners, who also serve on the transit board, have already said they prefer a districtwide vote, meaning residents in Yacolt would have a say on paying for service in downtown Vancouver. But in a May meeting, the Vancouver City Council’s three board members threatened to use their veto power to stop that decision from being made yet, saying more information is necessary.

The C-Tran board has agreed to wait until after this November’s election — which includes a critical sales tax measure to sustain the transit district’s current bus system — before focusing on the light rail tax.

The vote isn’t likely to be possible until early next year, even if the congresswoman would like it sooner: State law requires a protracted process on the light rail and bus rapid transit proposition, including an expert review, finance plan and analysis of alternatives estimated to cost $500,000. That process won’t be finished in time to put it on the ballot this year, according to agency staff.

Herrera Beutler said if that’s the case she’d like to see the vote as soon as February 2012.

Enter another letter: C-Tran Board Chairman and Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said he’s writing an official board response to Herrera Beutler to send next week.

“Our letter says our No. 1 priority is a vote this November for saving the services for our buses and C-Van, and the reason we’re not going to have a vote on light rail and (bus rapid transit) is because we don’t have enough information,” he said.

Boldt said he understands the congresswoman’s desire to see a districtwide vote, and soon. He said a February vote is a stretch, but the board may be able to consider a March or April vote.

“Like a lot of other people, she wants to know that there is just going to be a vote,” Boldt said.

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Though the C-Tran vote is not a referendum to approve or reject the CRC, Herrera Beutler has repeatedly said the sales tax vote would be a signal from the people about their approval of the project.

“We are a representative democracy, and I do not believe every issue should be brought to a public vote,” she wrote in her June 30 letter to Leavitt. “However, when considering a major project that will involve both taxes and user fees, it is important to receive the consent of those taxpayers and users.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.