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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Transit funding bill will be printed

The Idaho House Revenue & Taxation Committee on Tuesday voted to print a bill that would allow local communities to ask voters for funds to greatly improve public transit.

This is an important first step toward helping the Treasure Valley get a 21st century transit system, attract economic development, improve our quality of life, and avoid federal penalties for air quality "non attainment." If the bill runs the remaining gauntlets, it would allow Ada and Canyon county (along with other localities in recognized transportation districts) to ask voters whether to adopt a local option sales tax of up to one-half cent. In the Treasure Valley, such funding would mean much more frequent bus service with longer hours; expanded routes to outlying communities; and funding to preserve rail corridor for possible future light rail. (Read more here.)

The bill will now move on to a regular hearing by the committee, although today's print hearing was quite extensive. Rep. Leon Smith (R-Twin Falls) moved that the bill be printed, noting, "I don't think anyone denies the need for public transportation in the Treasure Valley," and adding that the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation - including more than 40 area legislators, officials, and business leaders - did "a tremendous job" of setting out its case.

Rep. Ken A. Roberts (R-Donnelly) countered with a motion to return the proposed bill, suggesting that instead of a sales tax, proponents ought to pursue a head tax on Ada and Canyon county residents who would benefit most from better transit. "Let the people pay for it that cause the problem," he said. "Bring the bill that has it based on a head tax, and I'll help get it through."

In the end, Roberts' motion to return the proposed bill failed by two votes. Smith's motion to print was approved 11-6, with six Republicans (Treasure Valley reps Gary Collins, Mike Moyle, and Robert Schaefer plus Leon Smith, Dell Raybould, and R.J. Harwood) joining all five Democrats (George Sayler, Wendy Jaquet, Nicole LeFavour, Bill Killen, and James Ruchti) in assent.

The bill still faces daunting odds in its committee hearing - and even if the legislature approves the local option taxing authority, a sales tax would need a two-thirds supermajority to pass. It may still be a very long time before the Treasure Valley gets a decent transit system, but today's action was an important first step in that direction.


Bikeboy said...

I'm curious as to what Mr. Roberts' definition of "causing the problem" would be... who would pay the "head tax."

Are you "causing the problem" by virtue of living in Ada or Canyon Counties? What if you stay in your house 24/7, and never hit the streets?

Wouldn't it be safe to assume that the person who drives 20,000 miles per year is causing more "problem" than the one who drives 5000? Or already rides the bus? Or a bike? Or walks?

It could be argued that the person who commutes 25 miles from home to work, is causing twice the problem of the person who commutes 12 miles.

For absolute fairness, it might be reasonable to add a public-transportation surcharge to the gas tax. (Less so, to vehicle registration. Less so, general sales tax.) Theoretically the people who buy the most gas, use the roads the most and "cause the most problem."

The point? We could debate for the next 100 years about how to solve the problem, without doing ANYTHING! So lets start with SOMETHING, and then try to make it better as we have more time to discuss and debate.

Julie in Boise said...

Great points, bikeboy. Your arguments are sound.

The gas tax idea has tremendous merit: Make people pay more at the pump, and they'll rethink their driving habits.

However, given the sad state of current transit in Boise, many people have little choice but to drive to work, and the gas tax would probably prove regressive, hurting poor drivers the most.

I believe the transit coalition looked at about a dozen possible funding sources, including gas tax, vehicle registration tax, head tax, etc., and decided the sales tax would be the most fair. So now, as you say, the object is to get something done.

It's going to be a tough climb to pass a local option tax with a two-thirds supermajority, but that's the only shot we have right now - assuming we can get this through the legislature.

wolf21m said...

As a member of the coalition, I can say that a sales tax was not considered the most fair, it was considered most reasonable. This was also as we were assurred that grocery sales tax relief was likely (not the annual credit that they are now considering).
Gas tax is my favorite option. The downside is that Idaho's constitution says that gas tax cannot be used for public transit purposes. Thus, you would first have to amend the constitution (vote of house, senate, governor, and public), some at a super majority (house and senate I think). Then you would have to pass the legislation itself.

Julie in Boise said...

wolf21, thanks for the clarification.

The lack of grocery tax rollback and the possibility of another local option tax for a community college are certainly complicating factors.

But as daunting as the local option path appears, it seems marginally more doable than amending the constitution to allow a gas tax.

Idaho Dad said...

Of the millions of miles driven in the Treasure Valley, only a small percentage could be converted to mass transit. The large businesses like WGI, Blue Cross, Micron and HP should be taxed for their single occupant vehicle parking spaces. If we are going to give out tax credits to encourage "economic growth" it should come with responsibilities.
Many workers need their cars for their daily business so should we be taxing them for something that they have no practical use?
The idea of using gas taxes to penalize drivers as an incentive to ride the bus simple does not work. It just makes drivers mad when they sit at stop lights or in congestion burning expensive gas. We are a mobile society, get used to it.

Julie in Boise said...

Thanks for visiting and commenting, Idaho Dad. Two thoughts on your comment:

1) Perhaps, rather than (or in addition to) taxing the companies for single-occupant parking spaces, companies could offer tangible incentives for people who carpool, take transit, bike, or walk to work. One reason the Salt Lake City light rail is so successful is because some large employers got behind it.

2) You wrote: "Many workers need their cars for their daily business so should we be taxing them for something that they have no practical use? "

Somehow, some way, we need to help workers use their cars less during the day, too. Fifteen-minute bus intervals (as envisioned in Boise under the coalition scenario) would be a huge help, since workers could then take transit to and from many business appointments. Carpooling to meetings; concentrating meetings or sales calls in a walkable area on a given day; doing some meetings via phone, email, or teleconferencing; scheduling meetings on the way to or from the workplace so they don't require a separate trip ... again, it's a matter of being creative and maybe sacrificing just a little bit of "efficiency" in the name of cleaner air and less clogged roadways.

I am very encouraged that local businesses seem to be behind the idea of better transit. That is absolutely critical to progress.

Bikeboy said...

When I see a comment like, "We're a mobile society, get used to it," I tend to get discouraged (or angry).

It indicates somebody who is satisfied with the status quo, and/or the direction in which we are headed.

I'm an Idaho dad, too. As a Boise native, born when the State Capitol was the tallest building in town and maybe 25,000 population, I am NOT happy with the direction MY community is going in. We are clearly following the "Mobile Society Los Angeles Basin Model." (We're close to the point where I'll think, "Boise USED to be a nice place.")

I pretty much abandoned my car in 1985, so as not to be part of the problem. When I hear people complain about yellow-alert smog days, I'd love to say, "We're a mobile society, get used to it!" (Unfortunately, I breathe that same air.) When I hear people bellyaching about traffic gridlock, I try to bite my tongue instead of saying, "Get used to it!"

Okay... I'll get off the soapbox now.

wolf21m said...

"Idaho Dad", I agree that we are a mobile society and our whole discussion is about keeping us mobile. The way it works today is that gas tax will go up significantly so that we can expand roads. That is because the gas tax is primary funding source of road development. Transit is a way to decrease the demand for road widening. In fact, it is a much more efficient way to do it as well. Unfortunately the Idaho transportation department is constitutionally forbidden from looking at transit as a way to decrease traffic congestion. Remember, transit benefits those that use it AND those that don't by decreasing congestion. Thus, the people who travel for work do benefit. With that said, I do think businesses should offer more incentives or pay taxes themselves. St Lukes provides free bus service for all employees, if others stepped up in a similar fashion, we would have more funding with no taxes.

Julie in Boise said...

Some great comments here ... thank you all. It seems like the bottom line is that everyone would benefit from better transit, whether they use it or not, in less congested roads and cleaner air.

Those are great points to make to the legislators who will be taking up this issue next week.