The C-Tran Board of Directors on Tuesday authorized spending $6.7 million in local funds for a bus rapid transit system in Vancouver, clearing the way for the project to secure a crucial federal grant and begin construction as early as next year.
The commitment burns more than two-thirds of C-Tran’s uncommitted capital reserves, now estimated at slightly more than $9 million. But having local funds in place completes the finance plan for the $53 million BRT project.
The board approved the plan by a 6-3 vote, with Clark County commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke and Washougal City Councilor Connie Jo Freeman in the minority. The decision came after more than two hours of deliberation — following two hours of public comment.
All three Vancouver City Council members on the board voted with the majority in favor of the project. Councilor Jack Burkman said his city stands ready to make BRT a reality “as soon as possible.” The system could open in 2016.
The BRT system would deploy 60-foot articulated buses, raised boarding platforms and other features to move passengers more efficiently on C-Tran’s busiest corridor. The line would run between the Westfield Vancouver mall and downtown, replacing the existing No. 4 and No. 44 buses along that stretch.
C-Tran has said BRT would be less costly to operate each year than its existing service on the corridor, producing an annual savings of $878,000 that would be reinvested elsewhere in the system.
The project has continued to advance since 2011 despite less-than-unanimous support from the C-Tran board. More recently, downtown business and property owners have raised worries about BRT’s planned terminus station at Turtle Place plaza, part of the property that used to house the Seventh Street Transit Center and became a magnet for unsavory activity.
C-Tran has said the proposed station there would serve only BRT, and would be something entirely different from the old bus mall that closed in 2007. But many downtown voices echoed their earlier concerns Tuesday.
Among board members, the strongest opposition to the project came from Madore. He repeatedly questioned C-Tran’s projections showing an annual cost savings from BRT as compared to existing buses. Madore asked for better documentation of those numbers, to which C-Tran staff replied that the information had been provided to him “on multiple occasions over multiple months.”
Most of the BRT project’s $53 million price would be covered by grants, the largest of those a $38.3 million award through the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program.
C-Tran’s BRT proposal is already in the queue for that money. The board’s action Tuesday authorizes Executive Director Jeff Hamm to secure a final grant agreement, which the agency hopes will happen this fall.
No action on light rail contract
The board did not act Tuesday on a controversial light rail contract it approved last year, setting back the possible termination of that deal by at least a month.
C-Tran and TriMet inked the contract last fall, detailing how the two agencies would have operated light rail in Vancouver as part of the Columbia River Crossing project.
When the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement plan imploded this year, the project’s demise left the contract in limbo. The contract takes effect only if the CRC is actually funded and built, but it also has no expiration date. Some board members have shown interest in ending it for good.
The contract includes language allowing for termination by one party “as a result of a material breach of an obligation” by the other. It also could be terminated if both parties sign a written agreement. But TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane indicated Tuesday his agency has no intention of doing so.
In a letter to C-Tran board members, McFarlane noted several milestones the shuttered CRC would have to reach for the contract to come into play, but he appeared to hold out hope they may happen someday.
“For its part, TriMet views the agreement as valuable and important to retain in the event that those milestones are achieved and a viable project emerges from future bi-state discussions,” McFarlane wrote. “Given this view, TriMet will take no action to formally terminate the agreement.”