C-TRAN board again stalls on light rail


Even though the May 21 meeting was billed as a moment of truth on light rail, the C-TRAN board of directors again deferred action and instead called for more information.

By a vote of 7-0 with two abstentions, the board directed C-TRAN staff to work with officials of TriMet in Portland on the terms of an agreement for the operation of light rail over a planned Columbia River replacement bridge, and to develop a finance plan for light rail operations and maintenance that does not involve new taxes.

Clark County voters turned down a sales tax measure last year that would have provided about $2.5 million annually for the operation of light rail, and money for other purposes.   

Board members noted that the Washington State legislature, working in special session, has not agreed to fund its $450 million share of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, and that Gov. Inslee has vetoed funding for continued CRC study work.

To further complicate a decision on the matter, the state Attorney General is slated to issue an opinion by the end of June on whether the public can be asked to decide the fate of the light rail plan.

The C-TRAN board failed to decide the fate of light rail funding during two day-long retreats in February and April, and did not reach a decision May 14. A decision was expected May 21 on whether C-TRAN would seek a way to pay for the operation of light rail or remove itself from involvement in the matter.

Also at the May 21 meeting, the C-TRAN board turned down a motion by Clark County Commissioner David Madore to require a public vote on the light rail issue. Existing C-TRAN board policy already requires such a vote, although C-TRAN attorney Thomas Wolfendale issued an opinion May 8 that such a mandatory vote is an illegal delegation of the board’s “statutorily conferred powers.”

The vote-requirement motion failed 4-4 with Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt abstaining due to the possible appearance of a conflict of interest.

The board also turned down a Madore amendment that stated that the board’s request for more information did not imply support for light rail. That amendment was favored by a majority of the board (5-4) but failed due to the board’s block veto rule. That rule states that if all three Vancouver city council members, or all three county commissioners, oppose an action, then that action fails. In this case, Leavitt, and Vancouver Council Members Bart Hansen and Larry Smith all voted no.

Board members expressed confusion over the wording and meaning of various motions. C-TRAN executive director Jeff Hamm and attorney Wolfendale worked to clarify each motion, rewording as necessary.

One sticking point was whether C-TRAN staff was being directed to only gather information in discussions with TriMet, or whether they were negotiating terms of an agreement.

For example, Hamm noted that a question remains as to whether C-TRAN would be responsible for light rail operating costs from the Delta Park station in Portland and into Clark County, or from the state line. Board members seemed to prefer that staff bring a proposed solution to this issue for the board to consider.

Board members also discussed whether further study of light rail could cause the project to miss deadlines for federal funding. That matter was not clearly resolved, although Hamm pressed for a decision that night, noting that work specified by the board could take three months to complete.

Hamm said that the board could decide as late as August whether to put the issue before voters in November. Despite an October deadline for a funding application to the Federal Transit Administration, Rick Krochalis, FTA Regional Administrator, told the board that such application could be submitted subject to the results of a November election.

Board members also noted that a decision by the Coast Guard on bridge height is expected later in the year.

Public comments at two meetings

The C-TRAN board met both May 14 and 21 and took public comments on the new bridge and light rail issues. Over the two evenings, nearly 100 people spoke, some twice.

About 30 people who identified themselves as labor union leaders, union members or construction trades workers, some dressed in hard hats and working attire, supported construction of the new bridge, citing the number of jobs that would be created by the project.

Eighteen other people supported the project and light rail, while 46 spoke against it. The statements of a few people did not clearly support or oppose the CRC plan.

Some people said they like compromise, but didn’t like to be told “no light rail, no bridge.”

Some who spoke questioned whether C-TRAN should join into an agreement with TriMet when that agency faces financial difficulties.

Alan Lehto, director of planning and policy for TriMet, acknowledged during the May 14 meeting that TriMet faced a negative financial forecast, but said those problems would be solved and, in any event, Clark County taxpayers would not be asked to pay any TriMet unfunded liabilities. C-TRAN board member Larry Smith cited the need for a “firewall” to assure that TriMet debts would not fall to Clark County taxpayers.

Several people who spoke urged that a third bridge be constructed over the Columbia River instead of rebuilding the existing I-5 bridge. And several people expressed support for a public vote to decide the light rail matter.

Some who supported CRC with light rail stated that, if the project is not approved soon, it could be delayed 10 years.

More information is available by calling C-TRAN spokesman Scott Patterson, (360) 696-4494.

Marvin Case may be reached at (360) 687-4122 and at marvincase@msn.com.