C-Tran is the bus service for Clark County.

The C-Tran board wants to make it perfectly clear that a sales tax measure it hopes to bring to voters this November to support high capacity transit in Clark County will not be a referendum on light rail.

However, unless the board comes up with a back-up funding plan, a failed vote would deny C-Tran the $2 million to $3 million it needs to operate the Oregon light rail extension to Vancouver that is part of the $10 billion* Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project (CRC), as well as a $78 million bus rapid transit line on Fourth Plain Boulevard.

At its Dec. 9 retreat, the board debated the options of either putting to vote a 0.1 percent sales tax increase in its entire service district or limiting the vote to a smaller sub-district and increasing the tax rate to 0.2 percent. Both approaches have their risks, but the implications are particularly weighty for the CRC, which received a federal “decision of record” last month after six years and $136 million spent in planning.

If C-Tran can’t secure the funding needed to run light rail, the feds might take their money elsewhere.

“The final milestone for the Federal Transportation Administration to write that $850 million check for the project is being able to show that you have the funds to pay for the ‘O&M’,” C-Tran Director of Development and Public Affairs Scott Patterson told the board. “Those O&M funds would have to be committed to prior to the FTA signing that full funding grant agreement.”

Tax increases part of 2030 plan

The board is comprised of nine voting members, including the three Clark County Commissioners and six representatives of the cities and town within C-Tran’s service district.

Members at the December retreat included county commissioners Steve Stuart and Marc Boldt, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Vancouver City Council members Bart Hansen and Larry Smith, La Center Mayor Jim Irish (representing La Center and Ridgefield), Battle Ground City Council member Bill Ganley (representing Battle Ground and Yacolt), and Camus City Council member Linda Dietzman (representing Camas and Washougal). County Commissioner Tom Mielke was absent.

The 2012 sales tax measure before them would come only a year after voters passed C-Tran’s 0.2 percent sales tax measure, Proposition 1, to fund local bus routes and C-Van service. That passed by 54 percent district-wide, but failed in Battle Ground (49.5 percent) and Yacolt (47.6 percent).

Both Prop 1 and the HCT ballot measures are critical for the implementation of the first phase of C-Tran’s 2030 plan, which the board approved in 2010. The Light Rail Transit and Bus Rapid Transit lines will replace a number of local routes, allowing C-Tran to introduce two new bus routes serving east Vancouver and increase the frequency of its commuter service to the areas outside of Vancouver.

Is passage of Prop. 1 good for light rail?

But the board is uncertain whether support (or lack thereof) for buses would carry over to similar votes for light rail. And given that opponents still point to the defeat of a 1995 tax measure as evidence of light rail’s toxic standing in Clark County, the C-Tran board might have quite the public relations challenge on its hands.

“There’s a lot of individuals out there that see this particular vote as a vote on light rail. It’s a vote on funding, not on light rail,” said Larry Smith. “That is something that has to be spun out there because many folks have grabbed that and tried to work that and make that into a political decision. This is a financial decision.”

Commissioner Steve Stuart said it is important to see C-Tran as one complete transit system and put the vote to the entire district.

“There is a notion that a full district means failure,” Stuart said. “I think it is incredibly dangerous to guess the will of the voters. Give them the information.”

Bill Ganley added that it would be important to let people outside the Vancouver urban growth boundary understand the benefits they could get. Otherwise, they might prefer to be kept out of the vote and avoid paying the additional tax althogether.

“People look at 1995 from a historic, cultural perspective,” Ganley said. “I think what we need is to come back to Battle Ground and Yacolt to give some concrete examples (of benefits). What I’ve heard, (people think) this vote could kill light rail.”

Leavitt seemed to scoff at going district-wide if it meant letting people in Battle Ground or Yacolt get their hands on the vote as a way to stop the CRC.

“If that’s the pragmatic perspective of people out in Battle Ground or Yacolt and it’s irresponsible of us as elected officials that know better to make decisions based on a false presumption,” Leavitt said. “People say they want a vote out in Battle Ground and they’re wanting a vote because they think it’s an up or down [vote] on light rail. We know that’s not the case. Why would we afford that opportunity when we know it’s not the intent of a ballot measure?”

Expert Review Panel must weigh in

Complicating matters is that state law requires that the state convene a 5–10 member expert review panel to provide financial oversight of any high capacity transit measure. The panel will be appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, and the chairs of the state House and State Transportation committees.

Completion of the light rail portion of the Columbia River Crossing depends on C-Tran securing up to $3 million in local sales tax funding to operate it.

But in order for the expert review panel to have anything to do, the C-Tran board has to come up with a financing plan.

“If a stalemate on the question we just discussed continues, there is no vote,” said Stuart.

The next stage of decision making rests with the individual city or town councils who will advise their representative on the board how to vote. That has to happen soon for C-Tran to stay on schedule to have the measure ready by a July deadline.

Whether anyone will be able to conceive of a viable back-up plan in that same time frame is anyone’s guess. CRC construction is set to begin by the end of 2013. A failed November 2012 vote might allow time for another attempt in early 2013, but it will be tight.

Nonetheless, Leavitt, for one, is bound and determined not to jeopardize the CRC over a trifle.

“There is no way that we’re going to let this opportunity pass us by for the lack of a sales tax supported initiative for $2 to $3 million a year for O&M,” Leavitt said. “I mean we’d be sacrificing future generations. We’re going to have a back-up plan. There has to be a back up plan.”

* The well-documented cost to taxpayers, if the CRC stays on budget, is $10 billion. This was established by the Cortright Report (PDF) which used data from an independent review panel hired by the governors of Washington and Oregon. (View the panel’s final report.)

See our continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project.

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