LIGHT RAIL TAX

JEFF HAMM (center), executive director of C-TRAN, explained to C-TRAN board members July 10 that if voters turn down a proposed sales tax to operate light rail in Clark County, the board will then consider other options. At left is C-TRAN attorney Tom Wolfendale, and at right is board member Connie Freeman who said that voters might be by-passed in an alternate taxing plan.

Voters who live in the incorporated cities of Clark County, plus those within the Vancouver urban growth area, will decide in November whether to increase the sales tax to fund the operation and maintenance of light rail between Delta Park in Portland and Clark College in Vancouver.

The C-TRAN board of directors decided July 10 to seek voter approval to increase the sales tax by one-tenth of one percent for light rail operation. Light rail is slated to be part of the planned new I-5 bridge project over the Columbia River.

The C-TRAN board voted 8-0 to refer the sales tax to voters; board member Tom Mielke was not present at the meeting.

C-TRAN board chair Larry Smith stressed that the vote will decide the fate of a sales tax hike – not light rail itself.

“This is a ballot measure on how we fund light rail,” said Smith, “not a ballot measure on light rail.”

Voters in the current C-TRAN service district will decide the sales tax issue. The service district includes the cities of Vancouver, Battle Ground, La Center, Ridgefield, Yacolt, Camas and Washougal, plus the designated Vancouver urban growth area. Voters in those areas approved a two-tenths of one percent sales tax hike last fall to raise money for general C-TRAN bus operations.

If the new tax is approved, C-TRAN’s total sales tax share would rise to .8 of one percent, with collection of the new tax likely beginning in April 2013. With the added tax, C-TRAN’s revenues from sales taxes would total about $35 million in 2013.

If the new tax is not approved by voters, officials said the C-TRAN board would then consider other light rail funding options that might not involve a public vote.

C-TRAN board member (and county commissioner) Steve Stuart said the sales tax vote is the culmination of years of work.

“We’ve had 10 years worth of conversation on this topic,” said Stuart. “In 2008, we made a promise, that there would be a vote on the operation and maintenance of light rail.” In fact, he said, that promise was made four years ago this month.

“It’s time,” said Stuart, “to present the costs and benefits to our citizens and get this on the ballot.”

Stuart noted that over the past 10 years, various alternatives to light rail have been discussed, many public meetings and open houses held, and numerous comments received, all culminating in a large quantity of information, which he said he has retained in his office.

C-TRAN board members had tentatively decided on the sales tax plan during a June meeting, and made the plan official last week. As a result, the ballot measure resolution was passed with little discussion.   

Board member (and county commissioner) Marc Boldt said some additional details are needed to help voters make informed decisions. He stressed the need to gain clarity with officials of TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency that would actually operate light rail in Clark County. C-TRAN would pay TriMet for a share of operations and maintenance of light rail in the county.

C-TRAN executive director Jeff Hamm said certain matters remain undecided. He said C-TRAN will pay for electricity as light rail cars travel through Clark County, but wages would need to be divided between Oregon and Clark County. He said it has not been decided whether the dividing line for wages will be the state line (Columbia River) or whether C-TRAN would pay wages from the Expo Center (Delta Park) where light rail currently ends.

Hamm stressed that C-TRAN will not be obligated to pay existing TriMet debts. As an example, Hamm said TriMet has unfunded pensions. “Those would be excluded (from C-TRAN’s financial obligations),” said Hamm.

Hamm said more discussions are needed between C-TRAN and TriMet to clarify details. Items of dispute could result in “forced reconciliation,” said Hamm.

“We need to speed things up (in discussions with TriMet),” urged Boldt. “We want things to be clear (for voters).”

Board member Connie Freeman, who represents Camas and Washougal, asked what would happen if the sales tax measure fails to gain voter approval. She wondered if light rail would be dropped from the new bridge plans or if the entire new bridge project might be scrapped.

Hamm said that if the sales tax measure fails, “we will bring (the matter) back to the C-TRAN board for further consideration.”

Freeman expressed concern that if the sales tax measure fails, the C-TRAN board might find another funding source and that such alternate funding source would not be put before voters.

“This is not a vote on the Columbia River Crossing,” said Hamm. “It’s a vote on C-TRAN’s funding participation.”

Tax would also pay for bus improvements

About half of the new tax would be used to construct a “bus rapid transit” project in Vancouver.

Prompted by Stuart, C-TRAN attorney Tom Wolfendale said that a one-tenth of one percent sales tax is the smallest amount that can be levied. C-TRAN spokesman Scott Patterson said the one-tenth of one percent tax hike would raise between $4.5 million and $5 million a year or about twice the amount needed for the operation and maintenance of light rail. The rest of the new tax revenue, said Patterson, would be used to make improvements to bus service along Fourth Plain Blvd. in Vancouver, C-TRAN’s busiest route.

The so-called “bus rapid transit” plan for Fourth Plain would streamline bus service between downtown Vancouver/Clark College and Westfield Vancouver Mall.

Patterson said the Fourth Plain improvements would include raised platforms so that passengers would walk directly onto buses at the level of the bus floor. The plan also includes the use of longer, articulated buses that could hold over 100 passengers compared to the standard bus in use today, which seats about 40 people with standing room for 20 more.

The bus rapid transit system also includes “off board fare collection,” said Patterson. That means people would purchase tickets from machines on platforms and present those tickets when they board.

Under the current plan, Fourth Plain buses would continue to travel in mixed traffic and not their own lanes as was previously contemplated.

C-TRAN plans call for the purchase of 10, 60-foot articulated buses at $1 million each for the “bus rapid transit” project, along with right-of-way acquisition ($1.3 million), the construction of 23 stations ($500,000 each) and other construction work.

C-TRAN planning documents contemplate the possible future extension of the “bus rapid transit” project eastward to NE 162nd Avenue.

The current price tag for the Fourth Plain “bus rapid transit” project is between $40 and 50 million, depending on whether the raised platform stations are in the center of the road or on the sides. A federal grant, said Patterson, would pay 70-80 percent of the project cost, meaning C-TRAN would pay $8-10 million of the total.

The expense of light rail operation and maintenance would not begin until 2019, according to the C-TRAN finance plan. In the meantime, said Patterson, revenues would accumulate in order to demonstrate to federal officials that C-TRAN has sufficient funds for light rail operation and maintenance for at least 20 years.

Sales tax revenues represent about 64 percent of C-TRAN’s total operating budget, with ridership fares accounting for about 20 percent of the budget and grants covering the rest.

C-TRAN planning documents contemplate another two-tenths of one percent sale taxes increase in 2022, subject to public vote.

Patterson may be reached at (360) 906-7306.

Marvin Case is Publisher Emeritus of The Reflector Newspaper. He may be reached at (360) 687-4122 and at marvincase@msn.com.

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