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News / Clark County News

C-Tran releases draft light rail financing plan

Hastily developed proposal will be topic of Thursday meeting

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter
Published: September 23, 2013, 5:00pm

? Who: C-Tran Board of Directors.

? What: Special meeting on Columbia River Crossing.

? When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

? Where: Columbia Room, Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

? On TV: The meeting is scheduled to be broadcast on CVTV, Comcast channel 21.

C-Tran unveiled a draft plan Tuesday to pay its share of operating light rail in Vancouver primarily by eliminating the local bus trips across the Columbia River that the new system would replace.

The agency would also use commercial lease revenues, undetermined “third-party” dollars and sales tax revenue generated by construction of Columbia River Crossing project. Light rail is planned as part of the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.

Local light-rail financing is one of the key unanswered questions still surrounding the CRC as supporters mount a last-ditch effort to salvage it. But the plan released today must get through the C-Tran Board of Directors, which has shown some reservations about the CRC even as it continues to support it.

? Who: C-Tran Board of Directors.

? What: Special meeting on Columbia River Crossing.

? When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

? Where: Columbia Room, Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

? On TV: The meeting is scheduled to be broadcast on CVTV, Comcast channel 21.

Clark County Commissioner and C-Tran board member Steve Stuart, for one, said Tuesday about this latest proposal: “There are too many unanswered questions.”

The board will hold a special meeting on the subject Thursday evening.

The light-rail extension to Clark College is expected to cost $5.7 million per year to operate when it opens in 2019. After fare revenues and TriMet contributions, C-Tran’s share would come to about $2.3 million annually, according to documents sent to C-Tran board members.

Eliminating bus runs across the Columbia River would save about $1.44 million, according to a memo from C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm. The third-party contributions are listed at $400,000; increases to CRC sales tax receipts are forecast at $390,000; and lease revenues at about $75,000.

Those numbers aren’t static — by 2030, the total annual cost to operate light rail reaches an estimated $12.8 million, with C-Tran’s share at $3.8 million, according to the memo. Revenue sources are projected to grow as well.

Cutting bus service across the river doesn’t mean eliminating those routes entirely. They’d likely be “truncated” and cut off in downtown Vancouver before they cross into Portland, said C-Tran public affairs manager Jim Quintana. Routes that cross the river on I-5 now include the Nos. 4, 44 and 47 buses.

Such a change could also affect the No. 105 Express route, which runs all day between Vancouver and Portland, Quintana said. Other express routes that primarily serve Clark County commuters heading south in the morning and back home in the evening would remain fully intact, he said.

Long-range plans had always assumed bus routes would change once light rail came into Vancouver, Quintana said. But instead of investing savings elsewhere in the system, the new plan would direct that money to light rail itself, he said.

As for a “third party” helping pay for light rail, that appears to be a hole in the finance plan at this point. Partners could include a developer, another jurisdiction or some other outside source, but nothing has been identified yet, Quintana said. Should the project move forward, C-Tran would have several years to nail something down, he said.

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“There’s time,” Quintana said. “There’s time to figure that out.”

The materials sent to board members also include proposed terms for agreements between C-Tran and TriMet, plus other agreements that would be needed for the CRC to proceed.

C-Tran staff have scrambled to put together the draft plan in the past two weeks, after the agency’s board voted this month to resume work on the CRC. C-Tran, a local project sponsor, hadn’t worked on the CRC in earnest since July, when a stop-work order came days after the Washington Legislature adjourned without authorizing any money for the project.

The project has since re-emerged as a pared-down, $2.7 billion effort with Oregon in the lead. The revised CRC would still include tolls on the I-5 bridge, regardless of how light-rail operations money shakes out.

C-Tran has long been expected to come up with a plan to pay for running light rail in Vancouver. Last year, voters rejected a proposed sales tax hike that would have covered that cost.

It’s too late to put the latest plan on the November ballot. CRC leaders have said they need to have light-rail financing in place before a federal grant application is submitted this fall. But doing so now without a vote would go against a pledge the C-Tran board made five years ago.

When C-Tran approved the CRC’s “preferred alternative,” including light rail, in 2008, the board also adopted this policy: “Any means chosen to finance operations of the (high-capacity transit) component of the CRC project shall be submitted to impacted C-Tran voters for approval.” That remains board policy today.

The special board meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.

Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter