Who will be responsible for the finances and operations of a light rail extension into Vancouver?

If light rail is going to be a component of an Interstate Bridge replacement project, C-TRAN Chief Executive Officer Shawn Donaghy is clear that the agency he leads is not going to be responsible to operate it or be financially responsible for it.

C-TRAN Chief Executive Officer Shawn Donaghy responds to Clark County Today’s inquiry

If light rail is going to be a component of an Interstate Bridge replacement project, C-TRAN Chief Executive Officer Shawn Donaghy is clear that the agency he leads is not going to be responsible to operate it or be financially responsible for it.

C-TRAN CEO Shawn Donaghy
C-TRAN CEO Shawn Donaghy

On April 21, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR) team announced that light rail would be the locally preferred alternative as a transit option for the new bridge. The IBR team is proposing a light rail extension along I-5 to Evergreen Blvd. The belief is a light rail stop at Evergreen Blvd. near the Vancouver library is the best location to connect C-TRAN with TriMet.

Donaghy said at the time this project presents the best opportunity to connect C-TRAN with TriMet. He believes the “running I-5” scenario is best, rather than going on downtown Vancouver streets. However, what C-TRAN’s CEO didn’t say at that time was that the light rail element of the project needs to be managed and operated by TriMet, not C-TRAN, or even a combination of the two agencies.

“C-TRAN through our work on the IBR’s ESG (Executive Steering Group), some of the Bi-State Legislative meetings, and our Board meetings have noted that the agency does not believe it should cover the operating expenses for services that we do not operate,’’ Donaghy told Clark County Today in an email exchange. “C-TRAN’s current service modes include Fixed Route, Demand Response, Bus-Rapid-Transit, and Express Bus Service (with Bus-on-Shoulder).  C-TRAN has stated that any new transportation mode that may be introduced into the bridge influence area as a function of the IBR project, would need to be covered by the agency who operates that mode, or by an agency other than C-TRAN.  

“C-TRAN’s public funding should remain in Southwest Washington to help expand and support service for the citizens of Clark County,’’ he wrote in the email. “The Oregon Transportation Commission has advised us that they cannot share revenues with C-TRAN because we are an out-of-state agency – despite the fact that we transport many workers to the Portland Area who contribute significant local taxes there.’’

The question to Donaghy was prompted by comments Rep. Paul Harris made in an interview with Clark County Today after the IBR team’s April 21 announcement.

“I’m a ‘no’ on light rail,’’ said Harris, referring in general terms. However, he clarified that statement by saying “it’s a different realm than if we as Clark County, or C-TRAN, is responsible for that huge loss, whatever it is. We will see if they (TriMet) actually sign that document, but that is huge.’’

Donaghy indicated that there is no current contract, unsigned or otherwise, that stipulates TriMet will be responsible for the operation and finances of the light rail extension into Vancouver. But, he was very clear in his stance that C-TRAN will not be responsible for the light rail element of the project.

“As such, and to Representative Harris’ point, C-TRAN’s intention is that the agency would not pay for the capital, operational, or on-going expenses associated with LRT within the bridge influence area,’’ Donaghy said. “While C-TRAN does not have a contract in place waiting to be signed, we have had these very direct conversations with the IBR program – who we feel is responsible for managing the outcome of this request. This would also need to be approved by our Board of Directors which could occur as part of the agency’s adoption of the Locally Preferred Alternative later this spring or early summer.’’

Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson shares insight into the process going forward, now that the FHWA and FTA have responded to suggested changes to the projects Purpose and Need statement. Photo courtesy of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program
Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson

IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson told Clark County Today the details were still being finalized. However, his version of the discussions seemed surprisingly different compared to the statement by Donaghy.

“The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is working to update the conceptual finance plan for capital construction costs, with the goal to have it updated this fall,’’ Johnson stated in an email exchange. “Given the size of this project, we know that multiple sources of funding are needed including state, federal, and tolling sources.  

“The IBR program is currently developing a Transit Operations and Maintenance Finance Plan in close coordination with our transit partners that will help fund the transit investments,’’ said Donaghy, who was referring to C-TRAN and TriMet as the project’s transit partners. “We are collaborating with both of our transit partners related to operations and maintenance and are confident we will arrive at an outcome that works for all agencies. Once a decision is reached between the agencies, it will be documented in an agreement between ODOT, WSDOT, and the transit agencies.’’

Is light rail financially feasible?

Rep. Paul Harris
Rep. Paul Harris

As he stated earlier, Harris scoffs at the notion that a light rail extension can pay for itself.

“I don’t believe light rail will ever pay for itself,’’ said Harris, who believes that it is very revealing that TriMet officials, apparently, think it can be.

Harris illustrated his point with a hypothetical story about what TriMet officials are planning.

“I’m not stupid, but I am a business man,’’ he said. “I have a business guy come in and say ‘I’m going to put up a shop. I’ve set up 30 of them and all of them have lost money, but I think I’m going to break even on this one.’ That’s the dialogue I’ve heard. I believe that’s what they’re saying.’’

So, how do TriMet officials believe they will be able to keep from losing money on a light rail extension into Vancouver?

“They are going to charge me a toll on that I-5 area, no matter what, no matter if we do nothing at all. I’m going to have a toll when I enter Oregon before milepost 1 because they have no money,’’ said Harris, referring to the state of Oregon’s tolling plan. 

The amount of those tolls has not been revealed. However, Harris feels TriMet officials must believe the tolls will be high enough that the financial burden will force Southwest Washington commuters out of their cars and onto light rail.

“I do believe the vast majority of people still want to get in their car and go to work,’’ Harris said. “Do they (TriMet officials) want us in our cars? Absolutely not. It’s that simple … To me, that tells me there is going to be a high enough cost for driving on I-5 that it’s going to displace some people from their cars. I don’t believe that, but I think that’s what they believe. They think they’re going to divert enough people to make it at least a wash. This could become a very expensive trip.’’ 

Vancouver City Council Member Bart Hansen has repeatedly expressed concern regarding the tolling aspects of the IBR. He’s okay with tolls to pay for the bridge. Hansen worries the ODOT “congestion pricing” on top of bridge tolls will serve to create “roads for the rich.”

Agreement between agencies is ‘non-enforceable and void’

In the fall of 2013, during the failed Columbia River Cross (CRC) project, C-TRAN officials entered into an interlocal agreement with TriMet. That contract, heavily criticized by area citizens and elected officials, ceded eminent domain authority to TriMet. 

The contract included a $5 million penalty clause, which meant that if C-TRAN failed to live up to the terms of the deal, Southwest Washington taxpayers would be on the hook for the $5 million. The contract included language that said the contract was “absolute and irrevocable.” 

That contract was entered into prior to Donaghy’s arrival at C-TRAN. 

“In a Board Meeting shortly after my arrival, I was asked about the agreement between TriMet and C-TRAN during the original CRC project,’’ Donaghy told Clark County Today. “I have been clear that conditions of the project, and the intended outcomes have changed significantly since the first iteration of this project – and C-TRAN considers this agreement non-enforceable and void. 

“It is important to note that C-TRAN has been adamant that the program be very aware of potential displacement and footprint on any piece of the project, but especially with transit,’’ Donaghy said. “One of the reasons that we advocated for Evergreen (Blvd.) was to create a situation that connects the transit agencies together with a smaller footprint, and mitigating displacement to neighborhoods.’’


  1. K.J. Hinton

    Of course it can’t pay for itself. It was never intended to. EVERY ride will be prohibitively subsidized.

    And these people didn’t know that?

    This entire scam is so TriMet can suck even more money out of people living in Clark County.

    Much like the massive, ever-increasing tolls along with the extortionist tolls Oregon will charge on the other side.

    Again, the legislators whining about this now have no room to complain.

    My SPANIEL could have told them this was going to happen, but in their arrogance they were sure they WERE somebody and what they’d say on that figurehead board would actually make a difference.

    How is it that so many of us, not the least of which includes me, KNEW this was going to be the outcome before these idiots came out in support of this scam?

    And THESE people are responsible for making the laws we have to live by?

    God Help Us.

  2. Margaret

    The CCToday article below gives more details about the light rail contract scandal of 2013. The light rail contract was not presented to all the CTRAN board members to review prior to the CTRAN board meeting. Was the contract even in the meeting materials? One board member who was an alternate supposedly representing Camas and Washougal, who didn’t regularly attend the meetings was not fully up to date on the issues at hand. She asked for clarification on what the vote was going to authorize. She was NOT clearly informed that the vote was to authorize a contract with Trimet for light rail that very night. It appeared she did not even realize that she was voting for an irrevocable contract with TriMet based on her questions and the staff vague responses. In 2012, Every city in Clark County had voted Against the CTRAN ballot measure to extend light rail into Clark County, yet some of the CTRAN Board members, including Vancouver City Councilor Bart Hansen and former democrat Clark County Councilor Steve Stuart ignored that public vote, and voted as board members FOR the light rail contract anyway. Read the full article for details on TRIMET poorly managed finances and that horrible contract.
    Should Southwest Washington taxpayers be wary of financial ties to TriMet on the Interstate Bridge replacement project?“Today, TriMet appears to have nearly $2 billion in debt and unfunded pension and retiree benefit obligations according to their most recent financial statement

    In 2020, fringe benefit costs now exceed labor costs…

    In Dec. 2019, TriMet adopted an Amended Strategic Financial Plan that laid out the seriousness of TriMet’s financial position. In the words of TriMet’s own staffers: “Financial challenges threaten TriMet and the viability of transit.”…

    Questionable tactics regarding eminent domainA separate battle unfolded in the fall of 2013. C-TRAN staff signed a contract with TriMet that no Southwest Washington citizen, nor the C-TRAN board, saw prior to its signing.
    That contract ceded C-TRAN’s eminent domain authority to unelected staff at Portland’s TriMet…

    In the summer of 2014, the C-TRAN Board directed staff to ask TriMet to rescind the contract. Not surprisingly, the answer was “no.”

    That “absolute and irrevocable” contract with the $5 million penalty exists today. It gives TriMet the ability to take the private property of Clark County citizens. In the case of the replacement Interstate Bridge, if light rail is included in the project, TriMet will use C-TRAN’s eminent domain authority to take the property of downtown Vancouver businesses and citizens.” 

  3. Pete

    Not a single “light rail” project in the United States “pays for itself” from fare box revenues. Every one depends on subsidies by other taxes. (Example, BART gets revenues from property taxes (for bonded debt) and from extra sales taxes imposed on the counties served by BART.) I’m less familiar with TriMet’s specific funding methods, but I have no doubt that ALL residents in the service area are being taxed through property taxes supporting bonds and that other taxes are apportioned a share to TriMet. Nationwide, light rail systems receive considerably less than half their revenues through fare boxes — with the remainder coming from various other general taxes (that are paid by both those who use and those who never use the transit system).

    Portland has squandered its credit and taxes on a money-losing transit system. It has “justified” not upgrading and extending its highway system under the concept of “give transit a chance” even though only 3 or 4 regions in the country are actually well served by public transit options. (NY, Chicago and ??) Portland (and even more-so Clark County) simply does not have the population density to make public transit “work.” Even worse, the location of jobs (unlike a century ago when trolly cars were a viable option) are dispersed throughout the region. (A century ago, most jobs were located in city centers … but congestion and evolution of production methods caused city centers to be abandoned by many employers–with first production plants moving to the outskirts of cities (where large blocks of land could be efficiently developed for large single-story structures that are more efficient for assembly line operations (as compared to the multi-story structures in a city center). Likewise, employers needing “armies” of clerical staff discovered more potential employees and cheaper operating costs by moving such work to the suburbs (and eventually computerizing much routine clerical work).

    As far as I’m concerned, if the Interstate bridge is so unsafe then it should be shut down. No replacement is necessary. I haven’t visited Portland since the pandemic. I don’t miss it.


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