Lawmakers from the 17th District will draft a letter to Clark County commissioners this week asking them to hold a November advisory vote on whether to build a new Columbia River Crossing.
But it’s not clear the county has the legal authority to do so.
“Our legal staff said it’s a gray area,” said County Commission Chairman Tom Mielke, who has long promoted an advisory vote on the bridge project. “We have to be directly affected or directly involved.”
The legal uncertainty is based on the fact that decisions on whether the Interstate 5 replacement bridge is built, whether tolls are charged and whether light rail is part of the project are not within control of the county board.
Mielke said he got the same answer last year when he asked C-Tran and the Southwest Regional Transportation Council about holding advisory votes. He said he spoke with Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, on Monday and asked him to provide a legal opinion from the attorney general’s office confirming that the county does have the power to schedule a nonbinding vote.
In an interview, Benton insisted “County commissioners have the authority to hold an advisory vote. There is a way to do it if they want it to be done.”
Benton, Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, agreed at a Saturday 17th District town hall to ask commissioners to schedule a vote on the bridge in November. But specifics of what the letter would say were left vague.
Discussion at Saturday’s meeting centered on whether drivers using the bridge should pay tolls to provide the local match for the $3.6 billion bridge project. All three lawmakers said they favored giving county voters a chance to weigh in on the tolling issue. Probst said that a vote should happen only once the details of the project are nailed down, including its scale, its cost, the number of short-term and long-term jobs it would create, and the amount of the toll.
A letter Benton circulated Monday goes further, asking for a vote on whether a replacement bridge over the Columbia River should be built at all and, if so, how it should be paid for and whether it should include light rail.
Benton has made no secret of his own view that the bridge won’t reduce congestion and is a questionable use of public money.
“I do not think it’s necessary to replace the I-5 bridge unless you enlarge the corridor at the same time,” he told the small audience at Saturday’s town hall.
Harris told The Columbian on Sunday that he thought the three lawmakers had agreed to a letter calling for a vote on light rail this year.
“We absolutely need to let the citizens of Clark County vote on light rail,” he said at Saturday’s town hall. “Let them have that vote.”
C-Tran officials said last week they might delay a vote until November 2012 on whether to bump up the transit agency’s sales tax rate to pay for operation and maintenance of a light rail line that would cross the Columbia River on the new bridge. They said they needed time for additional review of the bus rapid transit line that would connect to the light rail extension at Clark College.
Probst told The Columbian on Sunday that he had not addressed the timing of a vote on light rail at the Saturday town hall. The Columbian’s review of the CVTV video of the session confirmed it.
“If we do a vote on light rail, it should be an up-or-down vote,” he said Monday. “It’s unclear why we would have two votes on light rail. Why would we have an advisory vote first?”
Probst was noncommittal about whether he would sign the letter.
“We have not even met to talk about what should be in the letter,” he said. “I think we’ll be working together professionally to craft a letter that all three of us agree on.”
Before there is a vote, he said, “What I would expect would be that the public should get to see all the details of the project, including how much the bridge will cost, how many jobs it could create, and what the full package would be. Let the public see the exact bill and have a vote.”
Benton brushed off any notion that there had been misunderstandings on Saturday.
“I don’t think there’s any confusion at all,” he said. “The letter that Tim Probst agreed to sign and that Paul Harris agreed to sign was to strongly urge the county commission to put the issue” to a vote, he said.
He added, “There are various ways to parse that. The tolling issue, how it’s going to be paid for, and the light rail are both key elements of the project. They are both significant to every taxpayer in Clark County and every taxpayer should have a say. We’re talking about a major construction project that will cost taxpayers money for the rest of their lives and their children’s lives.”