Throw Voters From the Train

A Clark County measure to fund light rail has become a referendum on the CRC.

The Columbia River Crossing is already in big trouble. 

The proposed Interstate 5 spans between Oregon and Washington have a flawed design, the backers lack firm plans to cover the $3.5 billion cost, and it's not clear the project will relieve freeway congestion as promised.

And if that weren't enough, the project's supporters have created an opportunity for yet another roadblock that could set the CRC back years: They've asked Clark County voters to approve an increase in local sales tax to pay for operating a light-rail line that would run from Portland to downtown Vancouver.

The money at stake, about $2.5 million, is paltry compared to the project's price tag. If voters say no, Clark County transit officials could probably scrape together the cash some other way.

But the sales-tax vote has emerged as a referendum on whether Clark County residents even want light rail—something they've rejected in the past, and that they're now being told is a required part of the CRC.

The Nov. 6 vote on the sales-tax increase of 0.1 percent will "most likely" go down, says Paul Montague, president of Identity Clark County, an economic development group that supports the CRC but opposes the tax measure. 

Montague's group has joined other local supporters of the project, including the chamber of commerce and The Columbian newspaper, in telling voters to say no, because they don't like the idea of using the sales tax to pay for light rail.

The local congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), says many residents don't see this measure as a narrow proposal to pay for a train.

Instead, she says, if the measure goes down, "I have my marching orders."

"This is the best shot Clark County has to have their say on the project," Herrera Beutler, a freshman who's already expressed skepticism about the project, tells WW. "This is going to be them saying, 'Yes, we approve of the CRC and what you've put together,' or 'No, we don't approve.'"

The states of Oregon and Washington have for years tried to come up with a solution to congestion on and around the existing bridge, the first half of which was built in 1917 to handle buggy traffic (a second span alongside it opened in 1958) and remains the only drawbridge on I-5.

The CRC has powerful supporters, including the Obama administration, the two states' governors, business and union leaders, and local governments that have already given the project their OK.

Herrera Beutler sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but she may not be able to stop federal funding. Congress has already set aside grants CRC officials hope to win, and they have bigger allies in D.C., including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations panel that oversees transportation.

But a Republican congresswoman lobbying against $850 million in federal handouts for her district—while serving in a GOP-controlled House—will do the project no favors.

The CRC has been hampered by a bridge design that was scrapped in early 2011, only to have its replacement design rejected by the Coast Guard, which says it's too low for commercial river navigation. 

What's more, some lawmakers are beginning to balk at approving their states' $450 million share without answers as to how the CRC will be paid for. Tolling is not projected to pay its full share, and the federal government allotment of highway money has been spotty at best nationwide.

Then there's the issue of a lack of enthusiasm from those who call Clark County home.

Voters there rejected plans to extend Portland light rail to Vancouver in 1995—and the current bridge proposal is a repackaging in response. 

CRC planners want to convince the Federal Transit Administration to give the project $850 million for the light-rail line. 

Officials from the local public transit agency, C-Tran, have already acknowledged there aren't enough people living along the line's proposed path to provide its estimated ridership of 13,700 weekday trips.

To help show the feds that local residents will use it, the CRC's plans call for $176 million to build three parking garages containing a total of 2,890 spaces in downtown Vancouver. 

That's more than $60,000 a space—all to get people to drive from their homes in Vancouver's suburbs to downtown, park there and board the trains.

The FTA will not approve any light-rail plan that doesn't appear to have enough riders to justify the costs, says Amy Bernstein, the FTA's communications director. 

"A park-and-ride would probably be part of a larger package to attract federal funding," she adds.

C-Tran's proposed sales-tax hike would take Clark County's local sales tax from 8.4 percent to 8.5 percent to operate and maintain the light-rail line. (Voters approved a larger 0.2 percent sales-tax increase last year for C-Tran to help preserve basic bus service.)

After months of wrangling, and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt calling for studies to pay for light rail without a sales tax, the C-Tran board agreed this summer to ask voters for the money.

The decision to propose a sales-tax increase came in response to years of promises from local officials that voters would get a say in the new light-rail line. 

CRC supporters are already bracing for the measure's defeat in November—and are looking for ways to work around it.

"Just because a sales-tax measure goes down doesn't mean we kill the project. It just means we find other ways to fund it," Montague says.

Steve Stuart, the lone Democrat on the three-member Clark County Board of Commissioners, also serves on the C-Tran board and voted to refer the sales-tax increase. 

He isn't convinced it will fail. If it does, Stuart says, "we will deal with that contingency."

Officials say they could just increase local vehicle fees, impose a local employee tax, and shift money from bus lines that would be replaced by light rail.

Those solutions may add up, but they are likely to exasperate residents who thought they had just shut down light rail.

"If project sponsors think this is going to go down by a big margin, boy, I encourage them to get back to the drawing board," Herrera Beutler says. "They do need to respect the voters."

Pressure is building on CRC officials to show progress in paying for the project. Planning alone for the project has topped $159 million, but not a single dollar has been approved to build it.

CRC officials told Oregon lawmakers two weeks ago they had to approve the state's $450 million share of the project quickly. Documents given lawmakers say the "Legislature needs to act in early 2013 to meet FTA eligibility."

Except that's not true—there is no deadline for FTA grant applications. Bernstein, the FTA spokeswoman, tells WW that projects are accepted in a rolling fashion as they line up all the necessary requirements to qualify—like local funding.

CRC spokeswoman Anne Pressentin says the states do have to show a commitment of $450 million each to apply for the FTA money, as well as show the Coast Guard has dropped its objections about bridge height. Waiting until after 2013, she says, allows other projects across the country to move ahead in line for the money and puts the CRC's light-rail financing at risk.

"We have an opportunity now to obtain the federal transit funding," Pressentin says. "Without action, there could be additional costs associated with schedule delay."

A big portion of the project would be financed with bonds. But legislators in both states are also being pushed to approve funding without a full investment grade analysis—that's a study that shows potential bond buyers that the CRC's tolls would cover its debts. A 2011 Oregon treasurer's report found the project didn't pencil out.

Herrera Beutler questions a full-speed-ahead approach to the project at a time crucial components of the CRC appear to be faltering.

"We need to deal in the facts," she says. "When we're talking about a major project, it's so crucial that the public gets all the facts up front. They're not stupid.” 

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