Light Rail Bridge to Nowhere: Clark County Voters Are Saying No to MAX Tax

A defeat would be a setback for the Columbia River Crossing Project

Clark County voters are leaning against a sales tax for light rail tonight. And while a defeat may not derail the Columbia River Crossing, it would represent the start of a long, new fight.

Many in the county framed the vote—a 0.1 percent sales tax increase—as a referendum on the entire $3.5 billion CRC project, and results this evening show the measure failing by 56 percent to 44 percent.

The measure would raise about $2.5 million a year to pay for C-Tran's operation and maintenance of a TriMet MAX extension from North Portland to downtown Vancouver.

The local congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), told WW that she takes the sales tax proposition as the area's only opportunity to have its say on the entire CRC project, which also includes interchange improvements, a new Interstate 5 bridge, and a bike and pedestrian bridge.

Portland economist and CRC skeptic Joe Cortright points out that Clark County voters passed a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to preserve basic bus service last year. The defeat of the light rail tax is because "people didn't like CRC/tolling/light rail—not because of the economy or a general anti-tax or anti-transit sentiment in Clark County."

The Federal Transit Administration, which holds the purse strings on $850 million needed for the project, requires local funding to be lined up before it will pay its share. Herrera Beutler, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, says her marching orders on the project come from this vote. And the representative for Southwest Washington fighting government handouts won't do the CRC any favors.

CRC proponents, including Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, however, have vowed $2.5 million in costs won't stall the megaproject. He and a "blue-ribbon committee" started searching earlier this year for alternatives, including increasing transit fares, putting up city money, and rerouting savings from bus lines that would be cut when light rail replaces them.

One thing is for sure: Those solutions will take time. And time, at CRC headquarters in Vancouver, runs more than $1 million a month.

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