Voters deserve the light rail vote promised

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category icon Columns, Opinion

If anyone had any doubt why light rail to Vancouver is so controversial, look no further than what the city of Vancouver tried to do.

In November 2011, voters approved Proposition 1, which raised the sales tax rate in the Clark County region by 0.2 percent. C-Tran officials promised voters then that the new revenue would raise between $8 million and $9 million per year, and they would use this new money to preserve the existing bus system and prevent further service cuts.

Leading up to the vote, C-Tran officials produced a number of glossy informational pamphlets, websites and maps detailing what routes would be cut if voters failed to approve the tax increase and allow the agency to fall off a “financial cliff,” as they described it at the time. And to sweeten the deal, officials stripped out the controversial light rail portion from the ballot measure.

Many believe C-Tran officials did the right thing by pulling out the light rail issue from the bus ballot measure. With voters rejecting light rail in the past, officials rightly fear it could drag down any larger package if it were included. Many voters also feel they deserve the right to vote on light rail without it piggy-backing on other, more popular issues, such as preserving existing transit service.

There was a risk, however. What if the C-Tran board used that new revenue directly, or used it to free up existing revenue to unilaterally fund light rail operations without people’s approval and avoid a public vote altogether?

So C-Tran officials promised voters a second and separate ballot measure in 2012 to raise sales taxes again to fund light rail operations. They even introduced and approved an official resolution memorializing their promise.

Transit officials also framed the 2011 measure as being totally separate from the light rail issue. They emphasized that new revenue from the 2011 sales tax increase and bus service cuts were not on the table as options to fund light rail operations.

The 2011 sales tax measure ultimately passed and the sales tax rate was raised by 0.2 percent.

Fast forward to today.

Despite a majority of C-Tran board members who support a public vote on light rail, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and a majority of the city council decided to block such an action and began exploring ways to fund it with existing revenue; revenue that includes cutting bus service.

Reneging on promises

The C-Tran board told voters last year they were out of money and on the verge of cutting a large amount of bus service. They promised voters that the 2011 sales tax increase would preserve this service and avoid cuts. They also promised voters a second, separate vote on light rail.

Now, once officials have received the higher taxing authority, Leavitt, who is also a C-Tran board member, and the majority of the Vancouver City Council are trying to go back on their promises.

It is wrong that the city of Vancouver can force the C-Tran board, a separate governing body with its own taxing authority, to block a public vote on light rail; a public vote that was promised in part to gather support for the 2011 sales tax increase.

Worse, city officials want to explore whether light rail can be funded through existing revenues, including cutting bus service, again violating a promise made, in part, to ensure support for the 2011 sales tax increase.

This bait-and-switch tactic is precisely why the grass-roots movement against light rail in the Vancouver region continues to grow.

Voters deserve a public vote on funding light rail. Voters deserve what they were promised.

Michael Ennis is the director, of the Washington Policy Center’s Center for Transportation. For more information, visit www.washingtonpolicy.or.