According to Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, the only decision Clark County taxpayers will ever have on light rail is whether a sales tax is the right way to pay to run it. If they say no, he will find the money some other way.
Leavitt made this point clear during a Tuesday meeting at the Marshall House in Vancouver with a special citizens’ advisory group he has assembled to identify ways to fund the operation and maintenance of light rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) in Vancouver. Group members bring expertise in construction, city planning, transportation, accounting, and law.
The $850 million extension of light rail from the Expo Center in Portland to Clark College is part of the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project that received a federal record of decision last week. Operating Vancouver’s portion of light rail and BRT will cost transit agency C-Tran an estimated $2.5 to $3 million a year.
In 2010, the C-Tran board committed to putting a 0.1 percent sales tax increase measure on the November 2011 ballot to operate light rail, but later postponed it until 2012. Leavitt believes C-Tran needs to stay true to its word and give taxpayers a vote on the light rail sales tax, but he also wants a back-up plan should the tax hike fail.
“Given the fact that we are going to find a way to fund operations and maintenance of the light rail component of the CRC, there will be a Plan B of some sort,” Leavitt told the group.
Who should vote, the current service district or a smaller district?
The group first tackled the question of whether the sales tax vote should go before the entire C-Tran service district – which encompasses about 81 percent of Clark County’s population – or a smaller subdistrict inside the Vancouver Urban Growth Boundary. Using the whole district might mean some “no” votes from people living in cities like Battle Ground or La Center who likely won’t see a need for light rail.
“How reasonable would it be to ask people to tax themselves when they would get very limited benefit?” asked Vancouver CPA John Caton. “The result would probably be a more negative vote.”
The group felt the sales tax measure would stand a better chance in Vancouver alone, however a smaller tax base wouldn’t generate sufficient revenue. Since state law only allows C-Tran to increase sales tax by increments of 0.1 percent, C-Tran would have to ask for a 0.2 percent tax rate – which, as it turns out, would create more funds than needed.
C-Tran Director of Development and Public Affairs Scott Patterson, who attended as an audience member, said C-Tran would be allowed to use leftover revenue to offset the cost of local bus routes that feed high capacity transit.
However, Vancouver attorney MarCine Miles was uncomfortable talking about any excess funds.
“We need to be cognizant of the fact that there is criticism of C-Tran having vast amounts of money that they don’t use,” she said. “I just think it would be very difficult to explain to people that the state is making us do this…If there is excess money, it must have some specific use and purpose or, I think, you go to [one tenth of] one percent.”
Big Plan B could mean bigger taxing authority
Beyond the sales tax vote, the committee examined several alternative funding plans, each of which would involve taking light rail out of C-Tran’s control and giving it to some other entity – whether it be the City of Vancouver, the Washington Department of Transportation, or an entirely new bi-state agency – that would have more flexibility in obtaining tax revenue.
The group spent a fair amount of time discussing the idea of a new bi-state agency managing light rail and adding a surcharge for operation and maintenance onto the $1.3 billion worth of tolls already slated to help pay for the CRC Light Rail project.
Leavitt wondered if the Washington State Transportation Commission has the authority to allow tolls to pay to operate light rail.
Don Wagner, an executive with Washington Department of Transportation and a member of the audience, said the Washington State Legislature is the only body that can grant permission to toll a specific project.
“Nowhere in the state of Washington today do tolls pay for transit,” said Wagner. “I know that would be a discussion among the legislators. In the current setting, I would not want to bet my career on the legislature agreeing to that.”
The group acknowledged that any creation of a bi-state entity would require action by both Oregon and Washington legislatures – a tall order, indeed.
“I think that’s the biggest challenge,” said construction consultant Roy Heikkala. “The concept is pretty straightforward, but getting the political bodies to move and agree is going to take a while, if ever.”
Greg McGreevey, a management consultant, said that if it’s important enough to state and federal leaders to force light rail upon Clark County, they should help pay to operate it. That way, the sales tax could be asked to primarily fund bus rapid transit.
“Now you’re talking about still potentially going to voters for bus rapid transit, but it’s a decision then the community can make about how we want our own transit system to look,” he said. “It’s not going on and having a referendum on something that has already been pre-determined.”
Scramble for funding options
Other scenarios the group explored included the use of flexible federal Surface Transportation Program (STP) funds, increasing fares on light rail trains and C-Tran buses, and charging vehicle registration fees within a new transportation benefit district (TBD).
The group concluded without a formal decision and will meet again in January.
Attendees Mayor Leavitt Greg McGreevey John Caton Albert Angelo, III Roy Heikkala Joey Fuerstenberg David DiCesare Mike Bomar Annette Cleveland MarCine Miles Kris Greene Todd Boulanger Audience Paul Montague Don Wagner Patricia Jeanne Stewart Larry Smith Steve Herman Scott Thompson Staff Kerry Peck Scott Patterson
See our continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project.
Do you have information to share on the CRC? To respond anonymously call 260-816-1426. To allow your comments to be used on COUV.COM call 260-816-1429.