C-TRAN strategy is bad government


Some members of the board of directors of C-TRAN are trying to find a way to implement a light rail sales tax that does not involve asking all residents of its service area to vote on the matter. In fact, officials are considering options to raise money for the operation of light rail that would not involve a public vote at all.

As disheartening as it is to say this, some board members appear to want the new tax and the light rail project to take place regardless of the wishes of the public.

Vancouver mayor Tim Leavitt, who is a member of the C-TRAN board, suggested that a vote on the  new tax occur only in the city of Vancouver because it would increase the chances of passage and would  “directly correlate the benefits of the project to the folks being asked to pay.”

That is simply not true and Leavitt knows better than that. Virtually all county residents, not just residents of Vancouver, would pay the tax because they shop in Vancouver and at Westfield Shoppingtown Vancouver (Vancouver Mall).

Leavitt seems to prefer one of several options to a sales tax hike such as an auto license fee increase, employer fees, a portion of the planned auto and truck bridge tolls, and perhaps higher light rail fares.

Here’s the background.

In 2005, the C-TRAN board decided to reduce its service area and taxing district from countywide to the five incorporated cities plus the Vancouver urban growth area. Board members knew full well that stores are located primarily in urban areas, so they would not lose much sales tax revenue by making this change. What they did, however, was exclude about 64,000 people from the C-TRAN service area, of whom more than 47,000 are of voting age. They did this on the theory that those living in urban areas are more likely to vote “yes” on C-TRAN tax measures.

The change in C-TRAN boundaries was done without a public vote.

So for the last six years, thousands of county residents have paid C-TRAN taxes when they shop but have no voice in establishing the tax or the tax rate.

That was the case again last November when urban voters approved another .02 percent sales tax for C-TRAN, while those who don’t live in cities or the Vancouver UGA weren’t allowed to vote. It is the classic and onerous “taxation without representation” that was opposed when this nation was born.

Now the C-TRAN board is considering the creation of a taxing sub-district which could be just the city of Vancouver. They know residents from throughout the county shop in Vancouver and the Vancouver Mall. 

Leavitt seems to ignore this reality when supporting a shrunken sub-district voting area. He might be right that only Vancouver residents would use light rail, but he is way off base in arguing that only Vancouver residents shop in Vancouver and pay the tax. He knows that is not true.

A C-TRAN spokesman said the agency’s share of the cost to operate and maintain light rail in Clark County is estimated at  $2.5 million annually. He said that, nationally, “fare box recovery” for light rail is about 50 percent of total operating costs. That means that each time a passenger pays $2.40 for a light rail ticket, taxpayers are paying about the same amount to cover the cost of the ride. These figures do not include the cost of construction. Each light rail ride in Portland, for example, costs taxpayers much more than that if the cost of construction is included.

There is nothing wrong with these costs and taxpayer subsidy--if the taxpayers voice their approval. But some C-TRAN board members want to minimize that “taxpayer approval”step.

In general, county residents support C-TRAN’s current bus system and its 25 percent fare box recovery. At present, each time a passenger drops $1.60 into a C-TRAN bus fare box, taxpayers pay almost $5 more for that passenger to take that ride. The public approved that system. Voters countywide approved the creation of C-TRAN in 1980 knowing that fares would need to be heavily subsidized by taxes. That’s just how public transit works.

It appears that some board members want to get the light rail tax in place any way they can, regardless of what the public might think, as if they “know better” than the public what is good for them. It’s galling, to say the least.

Were the board supportive of good representative democracy, they would ask voters countywide to decide this important issue, knowing that virtually all residents will pay this tax whether or not they use the light rail service. And they should precede with such a countywide vote with a full disclosure of the finances. Voters should be told the full cost of each one-way ride from Vancouver to downtown Portland, including both construction and operating costs. And they should be told the amount of taxpayer subsidy each time a rider makes that trip. Then the voting public would decide the issue, not a few politicians who think they know best.

A few years ago, Jeff Hamm, who heads C-TRAN, was emphatic that, even after the construction of light rail, the agency would continue to operate express buses from Vancouver to downtown Portland. That pledge was affirmed earlier this month by another C-TRAN spokesman. Part of the real tragedy of this entire adventure is that this promise will likely be broken. If light rail is constructed, the pressure will be intense on C-TRAN to discontinue express bus service to Portland and force riders onto light rail. That means ending the express bus service and leaving the traveling public no option other than light rail. Given a choice, why would riders spend more money and at least twice as much time to reach Portland on light rail as on a bus? Most people would not make that choice. Buses would continue to be popular—until they are forced to stop running.

Mayor Leavitt said the intention today is to continue express bus service, but that the C-TRAN board would decide whether such service would continue in the future. If bus use declines greatly when light rail is available, he said, the future of express bus service would be evaluated.

To his credit, Clark County commissioner Steve Stuart, who also serves on the C-TRAN board, has urged a district-wide vote. That means residents of incorporated cities and the Vancouver UGA would cast ballots. He has stopped short of suggesting a full countywide vote.

The issue should be decided on its merits. Those who would pay the tax should be consulted. Full, complete and accurate information should be provided in advance of a vote. Anything less smacks of authoritarian government. People are beginning to fear that “their” government will do what it wants regardless of public opinion.

C-TRAN board members are human beings. Each must have a conscience. Each must live with the consequences of this decision. Who among them would be happy to disenfranchise voting taxpayers? And as taxpaying citizens, who among them would like to be treated this way by some other unit of government?

By definition, the public governs itself in a democracy, even in our republic form of government. But it’s a pretty indirect governing process. Once representatives are elected, they can pretty much run amuck and hope voters forget before the next election.

The city of Vancouver has about 128,000 residents of voting age. If half of those cast ballots on this issue—a very optimistic estimate--and if 50 percent plus 1 favor the new tax, then about 32,000 people would encumber all 427,000 county residents with the new tax. It’s just not right.

U.S. Rep. Jaimie Herrera Beutler has repeatedly called for a public vote on a tax to operate light rail, in part to test public sentiment on the project. Leavitt describes her statements as “unfortunate” and “stirring the pot.”

“Those who want a service area-wide vote are playing Russian roulette,” Leavitt said last week.

Leavitt is a very likeable person. This writer enjoys talking to him and exchanging ideas with him. Area residents will remember, however, that he ran for mayor on a platform of “no tolls” on the planned new I-5 bridge, and then quickly changed his mind once in office. One must wonder, therefore, what his real intention is regarding paying for light rail. He seems very reluctant to put the matter before voters.

It’s not too late for the C-TRAN board to do the right thing—ask all county voters this important tax question, not just residents of Vancouver or the current C-TRAN service district. If voters turn it down, the project should be redesigned until voters find it to be acceptable. C-TRAN should not search for a way to finance light rail and avoid voter approval altogether—unless light rail riders pay the full cost of the system.