Clark County Today Editor Ken Vance shares his thoughts on his frustrations with the millions of taxpayer dollars funding C-TRAN
VANCOUVER — It’s funny how sometimes things that may go unnoticed to us 99 times out of 100 suddenly catch our eyes. I’m not suggesting it’s “ha ha’’ funny, more so funny as in ironic. Or, in this case, it’s not really so funny at all.
I pulled off NE Fourth Plain Blvd. near NE Andresen Rd. during the noon hour one day last week. I grabbed a sandwich from the drive thru and pulled into one of the parking spaces in the Arby’s lot facing NE Fourth Plain Blvd. Directly in front of me was a C-TRAN bus stop platform along The Vine, the agency’s $53 million Bus Rapid Transit system.
I was sitting there in my car for no more than 10 minutes. During that time, two of C-TRAN’s brilliant, 60-foot articulated buses stopped at the platform. Each time, between one and three passengers got off the bus and no new passengers boarded the buses. I took notice that each bus was virtually empty as it pulled away from the platform.
As I pulled away from the restaurant, I headed east on NE Fourth Plain Blvd. Before I got a mile down the road, I saw another of the 60-foot articulated buses coming from the opposite direction. I had ample time to view through the windows of that bus as it passed me and it was also virtually empty.
A few miles down the road, still on NE Fourth Plain in Orchards, I came to a stop at a light. Ironically, a C-TRAN C-VAN was in the lane next to me. I had plenty of time and opportunity to appreciate this sprinter van, seemingly as brilliant and as new as the 60-foot articulated buses I had just watched motor up and down The Vine. And, you might have guessed it by now, but the C-VAN was completely empty.
I don’t use public transportation. To my knowledge, I’ve never stepped foot onto any C-TRAN vehicle. And, I can honestly say I don’t know anybody who does. I will share that when C-TRAN was named the 2019 national mid-sized Transit System of the Year by the American Public Transportation Association, the press release stated that C-TRAN “tallied about 6.2 million total trips in 2018.’’
I find that number astonishing in a county of about 450,000 residents, but OK, it’s a big, impressive number even though all I see with my own eyes are astronomically expensive buses that zip up and down The Vine with a whole lot of passengers disguised as empty seats. And, it’s virtually all being operated at taxpayer’s expense. So, we’ve got an award-winning public transit agency here in Clark County that drains us of a disproportionate amount of our tax dollars to provide incredibly comfortable transportation options to a select few of our residents.
I’m not going to do a deep dive here on C-TRAN finances to support my claim because I don’t want to bore you to death, or worse yet, infuriate you with the financial waste that is taking place. But, I do offer a couple of brief highlights to illustrate my point.
• In March 2015, C-TRAN’s Board of Directors voted to approve a contract that would allow C-TRAN to purchase 10 of the 60-foot articulated buses at a price tag of $11.2 million. In November 2017, C-TRAN announced plans to purchase two more of the buses to be used on Route 164 in east Vancouver at a cost not to exceed $2.5 million.
• C-TRAN’s 2019–2020 Operating Revenue budget can be found on its website (https://www.c-tran.com/images/Reports/2019-2020_Adopted_Biennial_Budget_2018-12-11_Adopted.pdf). The agency’s baseline revenue is $149,196,900. Of that, 81 percent ($120,507,000) comes from sales tax and another 9 percent comes from grants ($13,466,000). Only 9 percent comes from passenger fares ($13,468,000).
• In October of 2014, I did a deep dive into how the tax dollars paid by residents of the city of Battle Ground were dispersed, thanks in large part to the work of Bonnie Gilberti, the communications manager for the city of Battle Ground. One small part of that story was a breakdown of how sales tax revenue was allocated. At that time, residents in the city of Battle Ground paid an 8.4 percent sales tax, generating $8.40 on a purchase of $100. Of that $8.40, just 85 cents stayed in the city of Battle Ground and 70 cents went to C-TRAN. I found that to be a staggering revelation, again for a public agency that reaches such a small segment of the population.
Oh, but some folks will point out to me that most of the $53 million cost of The Vine came from federal grants? And, much of the $50 million needed for the planned Mill Plain version of The Vine will also come from federal grants (C-TRAN officials estimate $22 million will come from local funds). The bottom line for me is a ridiculous amount of taxpayers’ money is being spent on a public agency that impacts the lives of a very small percentage of Clark County residents and it angers me that we can, seemingly, do nothing about it. Someone with a much higher pay grade than me has decided we need to push public transportation and try to get the rest of us to give up our cars, whether we want to or not. Well, it’s not working.
The Vine on NE Fourth Plain is up and running. Plans are moving forward on the second version of The Vine (this one on Mill Plain) and a bi-state coalition has already met twice to discuss an I-5 Bridge replacement project that the governors of Washington and Oregon insist have a public transportation element, preferably light rail.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but this makes absolutely no sense to me. I guess I need to stop paying attention to what is going on around me. My lunch is easier to digest when I do.