Opinion: New taxes required for $1.3 billion light rail extension to Vancouver


TriMet will not cover O&M costs of MAX in Washington state

John Ley
for Clark County Today

A TriMet official has admitted that new taxes will be required to pay for the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) costs of light rail being extended into Vancouver as part of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR). The official further expects the capital costs to build the three-mile light rail extension into Clark County will be between $1 billion and $1.3 billion. The new taxes will have to come from both sides of the Columbia River.

At the June 17 meeting of the Bi-state Bridge Committee of 16 Oregon and Washington legislators, TriMet’s JC Vannatta, executive director of Public Affairs, said TriMet would not cover O&M costs for the portion of light rail in Vancouver. “We don’t have detailed cost estimates or cost sharing plans yet,” he said. “This too will be a critical element of the project’s next phase.”

“Currently, as the project has probably told all of you that conceptual capital costs for the entire IBR program is $3.2 to $4.8 billion,” he said. “This includes about $1 billion to $1.3 billion associated with the transit elements.” 

Vannatta expects updated cost estimates to build the MAX extension should be available by early 2023. Yet the IBR team members are asking legislators and key “partners” around the region to approve their recommended alternative with light rail next month.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program team is recommending extending TriMet’s MAX light rail Yellow Line three miles from the Expo Center in north Portland to downtown Vancouver at Evergreen Street. They expect capital costs will be between $1 billion to $1.3 billion. TriMet will not cover operations and maintenance costs of the light rail in Vancouver. It is expected new taxes will be required. Graphic courtesy TriMet
The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program team is recommending extending TriMet’s MAX light rail Yellow Line three miles from the Expo Center in north Portland to downtown Vancouver at Evergreen Street. They expect capital costs will be between $1 billion to $1.3 billion. TriMet will not cover operations and maintenance costs of the light rail in Vancouver. It is expected new taxes will be required. Graphic courtesy TriMet

The option not being advanced for high capacity transit is C-TRAN’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). C-TRAN is presently building its second BRT line along Mill Plain. This 10-mile extension will cost about $50 million, less than 4 percent of a $1.3 billion three-mile light rail extension. C-TRAN has not asked for new taxes to cover O&M costs for any of its lines in the BRT system.

In the failed Columbia River Crossing, light rail construction accounted for $825 million of the $3.5 billion cost, according to forensic accountant Tiffany Couch.. A possible $450 million increase is over 50 percent more. None of the operating costs are covered by the federal government.

Economist Joe Cortright shared the following via email. “Neither C-TRAN nor TriMet is willing to commit any funds of their own to this project.  This is especially important because the USDOT (Federal Transit Administration) won’t fund the capital construction of a project that has no source of operating funds.

“TriMet’s board considered their endorsement of the project last Wednesday.  They voted to go ahead, provided somebody else pays for its entire costs.”

Operations and Maintenance costs sharing

During their Wednesday Council Time discussion, members of the Clark County Council discussed the IBR’s recommended proposal. They will hold additional discussion on a summary paper introduced by Chair Karen Bowerman next week, and hope to hold a hearing and vote on the matter at the July 19 regular council meeting. The paper was titled “Refocusing the I-5 Bridge Replacement.”

The issue of additional taxes came up and Councilor Temple Lentz assured her fellow councilors that the C-TRAN Board of Directors had been very explicit in opposing new taxes or having Clark County residents paying for Portland’s light rail. 

“I know that absolutely, the management of C-TRAN feels very differently, and is prepared to lead that charge defending Clark County taxpayers,” she said. Lentz recommended language that joins in the effort to oppose new taxes and “keeps us more relevant in the conversation” about the IBR.

Yet TriMet won’t pay for light rail into Vancouver. “You should know some key agreed upon assumptions among partners, include that TriMet will operate and maintain the light rail vehicles systems electrification track for the entire LRT extension, plus the stations and other improvements in Oregon,” Vannatta said. “TriMet will not be responsible for O&M costs resulting from the extension into Vancouver.”

This should come as a surprise that the “partners” have agreed upon certain assumptions about cost sharing. There was no mention of this agreement at the June C-TRAN Board of Directors meeting just three days prior.

TriMet’s JC Vannatta explains to the Bi-State Bridge Committee of 16 Oregon and Washington legislators that they will not cover the operations and maintenance costs of light rail in Vancouver. He indicates new revenues (taxes) will be needed to cover the O&M costs and both TriMet and C-TRAN will work to identify those new revenues for the MAX extension into Vancouver. Video courtesy Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

Five days after legislators met, the TriMet Board of Directors approved “a number of significant conditions that must be satisfactorily addressed prior to Program completion.”  Those conditions included the 2013 significant expansion of the TriMet Ruby Junction facility in Gresham, an upgrade to Portland’s Steel Bridge, and questions regarding the proposed Vancouver waterfront light rail station.

One news report at the time indicated the requested funds were five to six times previous light rail expansions. Acuity Forensics issued a 12-page white paper analysis of the Ruby Junction and Steel Bridge expenditures as part of the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC).

 “Forensic accountant Tiffany Couch has found $50.6 million is budgeted for TriMet’s Ruby Junction light-rail maintenance facility, 16 miles from the CRC site. The reason? So Ruby Junction can handle 19 additional light-rail cars for a new Vancouver line. Couch notes the Milwaukie MAX expansion will add 20 cars but only includes $8.1 million for Ruby Junction. Couch called the CRC money padded on for TriMet’s facility significant enough to be classified as an irregularity.”

The present proposal is using the exact same Purpose and Need statement as the CRC, which defines the problem to be solved. The only cost estimates provided are updated based on the failed CRC design, which included light rail. However the $3.5 billion CRC included a great deal of spending outside the five-mile bridge influence area. This included money for a new TriMet headquarters building and funds for a project in Hood River in addition to the Steel Bridge and Ruby Junction improvements.

Currently, C-TRAN passenger fares cover 5.9 percent of operating costs. Taxpayers are picking up the 94 percent balance through the sales tax. Pre pandemic, taxpayers were picking up 86 percent of operating costs at C-TRAN.

For TriMet, passenger fares only covered 5.5 percent of operating costs in 2021. Payroll and other taxes accounted for 52 percent of revenues, along with grants making up 41 percent of revenues. A year earlier, passenger fares covered 12.6 percent of operating costs.

On Thursday, Bowerman shared the following on social media. 

County Council Chair Karen Bowerman began a discussion among councilors at their Wednesday Council Time meeting regarding recommended changes for the Interstate Bridge Replacement program. She later reported on social media that TriMet will not cover light rail O&M costs for the part of MAX light rail coming into Clark County and that new revenues would be required. Graphic courtesy Karen Bowerman
County Council Chair Karen Bowerman began a discussion among councilors at their Wednesday Council Time meeting regarding recommended changes for the Interstate Bridge Replacement program. She later reported on social media that TriMet will not cover light rail O&M costs for the part of MAX light rail coming into Clark County and that new revenues would be required. Graphic courtesy Karen Bowerman

“The issue with light rail being featured in the Interstate Bridge Replacement project’s ‘Modified Locally Preferred Alternative’ is getting more interesting every day.  The latest is from a TriMet June 22 resolution authorizing approval of the modified locally preferred alternative of the IBRP and stating ‘TriMet will operate and maintain the vehicles, systems, electrification, and track of entire the LRT, and the station areas and other improvements located in Oregon. TriMet will not be responsible for any LRT operations and maintenance costs resulting from the extension into Vancouver.’  

“Really?  It has been said that light rail costs for Clark County will exceed $1 billion, and the state of Washington has already committed $1 Billion to the I-5 bridge replacement. Since TriMet is not responsible for any light rail O&M costs in Vancouver, who will pay for that? As chair of the Clark County Council, I will not support  our taxpayer funds being used to cover for TriMet light rail expenses that stop in Oregon!”


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Rhonda Gibson
Rhonda Gibson
1 month ago

I prefer c-trans buses to light rail into Vancouver. Let them extend the light rail to Jantzen beach area.
Also, I’m concerned the replacement bridge will never be made. What with the coast guard saying it needs to be elevated more than the IBR committee has planned. The cost of everything going up up and up and the way everyone can’t agree or move ahead with the bridge. Seems like politics in Washington D.C. lots of talk but nothing gets done
They’ve been trying to replace the I-5 bridge for how many decades now? Think about it. In the end it’ll just mean tolls forever.

Mike
Mike
1 month ago

You worthless blood sucking leeches. You have spent enough money doing multiple bridge studies. The millions upon millions of dollars you wasted could have built the bridge and paid for the choo-choo to come across it. Now you want to tax us. I am tired of the tax and spend democrats. There has to be some democrats that are tired of their money being wasted also!

Margaret
Margaret
1 month ago

Clark County residents rejected the 2012 ballot Proposition to raise sales taxes to extend Portland’s MAX light rail into Clark County. Every city in Clark County voted against the Proposition.
in 2013, Citizens advised the County Council through an advisory vote to oppose any Light Rail project in Clark County unless it is first supported by a majority of the voters in a county-wide advisory vote of the people. No such county-wide advisory vote has been held since then.
These mega transportation costs are known for under-estimating costs.
John Ley previously reported that “The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) team is telling people that transit currently serves 1.7 percent of Columbia River crossings.”

Today, the public transit service across the river is by CTRAN buses, at the expense of Clark County Tax payers. Yet TriMet wants over a quarter of the entire project cost for light rail to serve the 1.7% of river crossings on public transit, (About 3000 trips).

“Currently, as the project has probably told all of you that conceptual capital costs for the entire IBR program is … $4.8 billion,” he said. “This includes about … $1.3 billion associated with the transit elements.” 

Mike
Mike
1 month ago
  1. Maybe John Ley has the answer to my question? Is there a rapid transit system in this country that makes a yearly profit? IIRC, every system that I’ve read about runs at a loss every year.
  2. TriMet is already floating a figure for O&M costs… any one believe them? They, and their backers on the IBR will try to get it by any means necessary – they see Clark County taxpayers as a source that they can tap into.
John Ley
John Ley
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike

Mike –

The only mass transit system that is profitable that I’m aware of, is the airline industry.

Karen
Karen
1 month ago
Reply to  John Ley

And how many times has the airlines been bailed out with our tax dollars? Covid was the most recent.

John Ley
John Ley
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen

Karen —

Short answer — too many!

They were “regulated” until Jimmy Carter deregulated them. One of the few good things Carter did as President.

They were bailed out as an industry in the aftermath of 9-1-1.

They received bailout money from the federal government (along with most other businesses and Americans) during the pandemic lockdowns.

JimK
1 month ago

No local jurisdiction should support the bridge project until we know:

  1. Number of lanes
  2. Amount of congestion reduction
  3. Credible cost estimate and funding sources
  4. What else is included beside the bridge (rail, road work, thing in Portland)
  5. Can some elements be delayed to spread the cost over a number of years?

It seems to me that investing in police, jail, fixing homeless would be higher priorities than Trimet’s Toy Train.

Karen
Karen
1 month ago

Another great story on this money suck called IBR, formerly called CRC. How much has already been spent to figure out how much is going to be spent? The third bridge was projected to cost $800 million 10 years ago. It would be built and close to paid for by now. The third bridge would have killed the light rail conversation in its tracks (pun intended). Portland needs the light rail, Vancouver does not. Portland is hoping light rail from Vancouver will offset their loses because of extremely low ridership. The commuters to Portland are already taxed enough through Oregon state income tax. Now they want tolls and light rail taxes on our workers!
The articles address the cost of the bridge but not the logistics of using the light rail. Where are 2000 plus people going to park? The lot would need to be big enough to hold a bus station, taxi stand and cars. Washington State University Vancouver can’t park 2000 cars. So how many low-income homeowners in the area are going to have to be displaced for parking lots? Can the surrounding streets handle the influx of traffic? How much and how long for an environmental impact study to make these lots? Bathrooms, lighting, security, landscaping, drainage, EV charging spaces? Will it cost to park or is that in the cost of ridership? Maybe it will be cheaper to park my car there instead of the airport. Oops, that would require parking enforcement officers. How many jobs and at what pay to support these lots? Would they be city or state employees? What about health benefits, overtime, sick leave, vacation, holiday pay? The lots require yearly patching, restriping, drain clearing. We are talking 24/7, 365 days a year. 
The bridge cost, my fellow Washingtonians, is only the beginning. They are not saying this quiet part out loud.

John Ley
John Ley
1 month ago
Reply to  Karen

Karen —

Some excellent points. Let add/ “update” your transit ridership number.

You mention 2,000 light rail riders and ask, where would they park?

According to Greg Johnson and his IBR team, they project between 26,000 and 33,000 transit riders on the I-5 corridor alone, each weekday. Since the majority of cross river traffic is the SW WA commuter who works in Oregon, that means the majority would try to travel during the 3-hour window of 6-9 AM, returning from 4-7 PM.

That means 13,000 to 16,000 daily people going two ways (2 boardings). So if HALF are commuting to work, then you’re looking at needing parking for 6,500 to 8,000 potential vehicles, just for the rush hour commute. You’d also need additional parking capacity to handle those going for meetings, for medical treatment, for recreation, and more.

That is one heck of a HUGE series of parking structures along the I-5 corridor.

Margaret
Margaret
1 month ago
Reply to  John Ley

Thank you John Ley for providing recent public transit bus ridership info in a previous article. So far, none of the predictions made by the consultants in 2010 about huge increases in public transit ridership have materialized.

“C-TRAN offers the only transit service across the Columbia River, as there hasn’t been enough demand for TriMet to offer service as well. C-TRAN’s ridership to Portland peaked in 2016 and has been in decline ever since. 
Average weekday ridership on C-TRAN express routes to Portland:
2016 – 3,040
2017 – 2,874
2018 – 2,844
2019 – 2,892
2020 – 971
C-TRAN experienced a 61 percent drop in passenger boardings on the express bus system over the past two years…
Going from 3,000 C-TRAN cross river boardings to just under 1,000 boardings and then increasing to 26,000 or 33,000 boardings is significant, if that demand actually materializes.”
See full article https://www.clarkcountytoday.com/news/is-the-ibr-setting-up-another-transit-failure/

Georg
Georg
1 month ago

Looking forward and understanding total cost of ownership and flexibility I don’t see why we would use Light Rail. I would think it would be much smarter to understand that EV buses which are not bound to tracks (redirect routes as needed), much easier to swap in and out, and the move to autonomous will happen over the next 10-20 years.

Thoughts from others?

Margaret
Margaret
22 days ago
Reply to  Georg

Buses and vans that are not bound to tracks, and can share the road with other vehicles offer the greatest flexibility in route and vehicle size. C-Tran currently uses hybrid buses. In the Puget Sound area where the terrain includes more hills and freeway driving, and more passengers, a number of the 60′ long articulated buses have caught fire.

EV buses are subject to spontaneous combustion from lithium batteries. The most reliable and safest vehicles should be used.

Last edited 22 days ago by Margaret
JEANNINE SCHILLING
JEANNINE SCHILLING
1 month ago

Put Light Rail Next to the Train Tracks. (We Need a New Train Bridge Also). Another bridge like the I 205 at the I 5 Freeway, First build a 192nd Avenue bridge on the CRC.
World Cup is coming!!! yea!! need light rail, Vancouver to Seattle

Rebecca
Rebecca
22 days ago

Why is TriMet talking about extension when they will even say weather under 70degrees is reason for their late buses? I mean is TriMet on drugs ? Clearly your entire system is collapsing because you only know how to lie to us and yet you have the backbone to ask us for money? Wow!!!!!

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