When in doubt, try a little democracy

Paul Jacob
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Posted: Apr 20, 2013 12:00 AM

Vancouver, Washington is in one way just like Washington, D.C. . . . or anywhere else: Issues of “who gets to decide” and “out-of-control government” enliven both burgs. I live near D.C. The people of Vancouver live just north of Portland, Oregon, across the mighty Columbia River. Their “twin” city serves as home to exactly 161,791 enumerated citizens, who apparently enjoy the “Portlandia” metropolitan area without paying the City of Rose’s income taxes — for, unlike Oregon, Washington State can boast of no such tax.

Vancouver is also home to a long battle over transportation — focusing on light rail, which North Oregon has, and South Washington has not.

When Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt mentioned the bridge project that would carry Portland’s light rail trains into Vancouver at the end of his State of the City speech earlier this year, he paused, saying, “And then . . . there’s the Columbia River Crossing. Are there seat belts in those chairs? You’re going to need to buckle up.”

“There is no more important opportunity for our city and our region than completion of the Columbia River Crossing,” the mayor added.

Leavitt also quoted New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who wrote in 2010, after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie decided to save a nickel by canceling a rail tunnel project under the Hudson River involving heavy federal dollars: “We are no longer the nation that used to amaze the world with its visionary projects. We have become, instead, a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.”

There are too many issues involving the bridge project, beyond its attachment to light rail, to address them all here. It is worth knowing, however, that Candidate Leavitt opposed any thought of a toll on crossing said bridge, while Mayor Leavitt can now support a toll and has mentioned the possibility and “potential” of tolls as high as $8.

Let’s stay more narrowly focused on light rail, to which the mayor noted, “Some would have you believe that light rail is not the least costly option for operational costs for mass transit.”

Yes, there are two types of people in this world. There are those who believe anyone living in a place without light rail is locked in a lesser branch of civilization. And those, conversely, who see light rail as a much more expensive and less effective source of transit than the available alternatives.

“Light rail over the Columbia River crossing will cost $321 million dollars per mile to build,” argues John Charles, a transportation expert with the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute. He points out that, “Anything light rail can do, busses can do better, cheaper and faster.”

But not sexier! Notice that Mr. Charles said nothing at all about how much bling buses throw off versus light rail. Therein could be the difference.

Still, the Cascade Policy Institute did go to the trouble of quantifying and qualifying the cost of light rail compared to expanding bus service. In a video about a separate boondoggle expansion of Portland light rail, they found that for the same cost to extend light rail to Milwaukee (Oregon, not Wisconsin), a bus-only transit system could include 36 luxury buses, service 24 hours a day, with on board seat-mounted video screens and Direct TV (with the NFL package), Wifi, free coffee and doughnuts, plus give every freshman in the Portland public schools a new Macbook Air computer and an iPad.

All for the next 150 years!

As Vancouver transportation activist Margaret Tweet puts it, “Precious little discussion is held on the true transportation needs of our region by the government agencies that propose costly solutions.”

Of course, people of good will can disagree about their transportation preferences. The question is simply: how best to decide? Whose decision is it?

Here is where, at least in our civics books, Johnny and Sally raise their hands and answer: “We’ll decide democratically. Everyone who lives in Vancouver should have a say. Let’s vote!”

The good mayor and the city council could have put the issue to the people they serve. Back in 1995, Clark County — which includes the city of Vancouver — held a vote on a measure to fund the extension of Portland’s light rail to Vancouver. It was defeated. Maybe all these years later, people had changed their minds. But city “leaders” chose not to really put that theory to the test.

Instead, a group of citizens led by Larry Patella filed an initiative petition to gain a vote on an ordinance forbidding the city from spending any money to facilitate the Columbia River Crossing project and bringing light rail to Vancouver. But their petition turned out to be 32 signatures short of qualifying. Ouch!

Then it was discovered that 606 people had signed the petition more than once. In most state and local jurisdictions, a person who mistakenly signs a petition more than once has one signature counted and the other(s) tossed out as invalid. Funny, state law in Washington likewise counts the first of duplicate signatures on statewide petitions, but doesn’t when it comes to local government petitions, tossing out all duplicated signatures, including the original.

So, seventy-five plaintiffs, including 44 folks who mistakenly signed the petition twice, sued to have their signatures count . . . just once. And just last week, a judge overturned the rule on duplicate signatures, meaning the initiative will qualify for the ballot.

Except, well, maybe not. Vancouver City Attorney Ted Gathe has issued a legal opinion saying the citizen-initiated ordinance is outside the power and scope of the initiative process, and there is a strong likelihood the city council will use the attorney’s opinion as an excuse to again block a vote of the people they serve [sic].

Who is to decide? Who is in charge?

That battle is waging across the globe and in Vancouver, Washington. And in a town near you.

Whose side are you on?     [further reading]