Unknowns may defeat tax proposal

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The proposed sales tax increase earmarked to pay for the operation and maintenance of light rail may fall short at the ballot box Nov. 6, in part because too many details are unknown or unclear.

And with it will go funding for a plan to improve bus service along Fourth Plain Blvd. in Vancouver.

It’s even likely that some voters who favor a light rail connection to Portland may be hesitant to approve the new tax because of the uncertainty over important details.

Even though the following summary of “unknowns” may sound like opposition to the proposal, this writer doesn’t intend to take a position one way or the other on either light rail or the light rail tax. And being a rural resident, this writer won’t be able to vote on the measure. But it is difficult to see how voters will approve the measure given the number and importance of the unknown details.

Here are some of the unknowns:

-- It is presently unknown whether Clark County taxpayers would be responsible to pay for the operation of light rail from the Expo Center in Portland to its terminus at Clark College, or from the state line at the Columbia River to Clark College. C-TRAN officials say they are in negotiations with TriMet over this and other issues but it is not yet resolved. So at this time voters do not know if they are to pay “only”  $2 million a year for light rail operations north of the river, or perhaps $3 million a year for operations from the Expo Center. Even an Expert Review Panel, appointed by the governor, recommended that this issue be resolved prior to a tax vote.

-- C-TRAN officials say they don’t intend to pay any of TriMet’s existing debt, but how are voters to know that for sure if an agreement between the two transit agencies remains in negotiations? Why was such an agreement, that could iron out some of these unknowns, not settled before an election was scheduled? News accounts put TriMet’s debt at $900 million and growing. Laudably, C-TRAN is not now and never has been encumbered with debt.

-- The light rail fare between Clark College and downtown Portland is unknown or unannounced. TriMet riders pay $2.50 each trip, but officials defer questions about what the fare will be in Clark County, or whether the overall light rail system will have multiple fares. Some $180 million has been spent so far on the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) study, and mounds of data compiled, yet certain important details such as fares remain unresolved. Even the methodology for setting fares has yet to be worked out.

-- The total cost of each ride on the new light rail extension is apparently not known, as is the taxpayer’s share. Fares pay for about 24 percent of the cost of C-TRAN’s bus service. Officials say light rail is more efficient so fares could make up a greater share of the total cost, perhaps 40 percent, with taxes paying the rest. Officials say they know how much is needed in taxes to operate light rail, and they have ridership estimates, so why haven’t they told voters the total cost of each ride and the amount of that cost to be borne by taxpayers?

-- Despite multiple requests to both C-TRAN and CRC, this writer has been unable to obtain full data on the calculation of the $2 million amount that Clark County taxpayers are to pay for. C-TRAN officials need to examine this calculation to make sure they are not paying any TriMet debt and to make sure that the new tax only pays for operations north of the state line. CRC officials have provided this writer with a summary calculation of the cost to operate light rail over the 2.9 miles from the Expo Center to Clark College, but at the time of this writing, the source and explanation of the numbers on the document remain under request.

-- On the one hand, C-TRAN officials say they will need $2.5 million to operate the planned “bus rapid transit” system on Fourth Plain, but on the other they say the new system will be less costly to operate than the existing service. That’s confusing, to say the least.

-- The proposed tax would raise $4.6-5 million annually depending on the economy. After accounting for fare income, officials say $2 million is needed annually for light rail operations. Given that the new Fourth Plain service will save $1 million a year, what happens to the remaining $3.6 million each year? Officials say that money will be needed to convince federal officials that C-TRAN is capable for paying for light rail operations. They also say the money will be used to make other service improvements elsewhere in the system. Voters will need to evaluate that plan.

-- Collection of the new tax, if approved, is to start in April 2013 which is at least 6 years, and probably more, before light rail is to be up and running. That’s a $27-30 million nest egg. Some of that would be used for the local share of the construction of the Fourth Plain system, estimated at $11-16 million. That still leaves $11-19 million unaccounted for. It’s likely, of course, that light rail will not be finished on schedule, so this bucket of money will only grow. Why not delay collection of the new tax until it is truly needed?

-- Officials say that federal funding for light rail construction ($850 million) appears likely but is not a sure thing. If light rail funding is delayed by federal budget constraints or other reasons, or doesn’t happen at all, this new tax will still be in place and collected.

A cynical person might think that planners don’t want too many details known before a vote on this new tax. That argument doesn’t hold up because voters are far more likely to approve new taxes if they know exactly how they will be spent. Uncertainty was one of the main reasons a light rail tax vote failed in the 1990s.

In fact, the unknown and unclear details listed above are exactly the kinds of things that should be provided to voters before an election.

If the proposed new tax is defeated, what will officials do? Will they build light rail anyway and find some other, non-voted way to pay for its operation? Would such action further erode whatever confidence the public has in government in general? This writer believes that such action would bolster the arguments of those who believe bureaucrats think they know better than the public what government should do.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler called for a light rail vote long ago, suggesting that voters should be consulted on this important issue. And she said if voters turn down the new tax, officials should not simply find another way to pay for it. And Clark County commissioner Steve Stuart has said on more than one occasion that if voters reject the tax, planners “have the wrong project.” More recently, however, Stuart has been less committal on what actions should follow a tax vote failure.

It’s too late for officials to settle all these details before voters cast ballots on the measure. Voters might approve the tax anyway, and all this will become moot. But the cause of good, open, representative government has not been advanced by the way this matter was handled.

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