Saturday, February 09, 2008
BY MICHAEL ANDERSEN, Columbian staff writer

An Indian reservation and a light-rail line to Clark College are inevitable, but a flat $2.50 toll on the new Interstate 5 bridge shouldn’t be, Commissioner Betty Sue Morris said in her final “state of the county” address Friday afternoon.

Rich people should pay more to cross the bridge than poor people, said the three-term commissioner, who plans to retire in December.

Morris called light rail “outdated” and expensive but said she now accepts that it’ll one day plug Vancouver into Portland’s regional MAX system.

And Morris called it “wishful thinking” to assume that local residents can keep an Indian reservation out of the county.

The annual event sold out the Red Lion Inn at the Quay near downtown Vancouver.

It was a policy-heavy lesson from the county’s wonk-in-chief, a onetime teacher who sprinkled her 42-minute talk with slide projections showing possible tax rates and population maps.

“This county has plenty of commuting low-wage earners, already squeezing every penny, who would be paying up to $5 a day to commute round-trip to Portland,” Morris said of the bridge tolls. “That’s $25 a week; $100 a month; $1,200 a year.”

Her solution: Charge poorer people less per trip. She said that’d be possible using the prepaid windshield cards that she expects the bridge to use for toll collection.

Call for buses, streetcars

As for mass transit on the bridge, Morris said local taxpayers will save money if a rail line goes no further than Clark College, just east of Interstate 5 near Fort Vancouver.

A different proposal, to run rail lines as far north as 39th Street, would require voters to approve a sales tax hike of 0.2 percent in the county’s urban areas, she said.

“If transit terminates at 39th, the proposed Clark County local match for construction is $115 million,” Morris said. “If it terminates at Clark College, the projected local match for construction is zero. It can be built entirely with state and federal resources.”

“Zero is a very good price,” Morris said.

Once tracks are built across the bridge, Morris said, the county could build a network of road lanes devoted to high-speed bus travel.

“Bus rapid transit is a lot less expensive to build, a little more expensive to operate, more nimble and flexible,” she said. “Combined with well-placed streetcar, bus rapid transit holds great promise.”

Tribes have ‘law on their side’

The Cowlitz Indian Tribe is just the latest tribe to seek a tribal casino in Clark County, Morris said, and it may not be the last.

Seven other unrecognized tribes are also active in the state, she said, some of them seeking federal recognition.

“If not the Cowlitz, one of them will find their way here,” said Morris.

Morris said the county has no choice but to strike tax-compensation deals with the Cowlitz and other tribes.

“There is substantial risk in not trying to protect the local treasury when working with a tribe,” Morris said. “They just seem to have the law on their side.”

The county commissioners would still rather see a tribal reservation developed as a business park than a casino, Morris said.

Advice from Kipling

Friday’s lunch was emotional for Morris, who delivered the speech a few feet from her 96-year-old mother, Muriel Fowler.

Morris, 66, choked up at the end of her address, offering advice to her possible successors by quoting Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you but make allowance for their doubting too, if you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch,” she said, her voice shaking, “You’ll be a great county commissioner.”

Clark-Vancouver Television will broadcast the full address on its Web site, , and on Comcast Channel 23 at 9 p.m. Sunday.

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