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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Notes from the transit summit

I was only able to attend the latter third of Tuesday's Idaho Transit Summit, so feel free to add info in the comments below if you caught the earlier sessions. But while I was there, I learned:

1) There is solid, bipartisan, statewide support for giving Idahoans the opportunity to vote on a local options tax for our transportation needs. Many speakers spoke in support of a compromise bill proposed for the 2008 Idaho Legislature, which would allow communities to seek approval for funding for both public transit and highway needs. "How do we get legislators to understand that people want the right to determine their own future?" Idaho Falls councilwoman Karen Cornwell asked to enthusiastic applause.

State Sen. John McGee (R-Nampa) and House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet (D-Ketchum) also expressed support for local option taxing authority, as did Coeur d'Alene city councilwoman Dixie Reid, businessman Chuck Winder, Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill, and Nampa Mayor Tom Dale. The only naysayer on hand seemed to be Rep. Scott Bedke of Oakley, who suggested that leaders of communities outside the Treasure Valley may be OK with watching the metro area struggle because urban transit woes might mean better odds for their own economic development efforts.

Idaho is currently one of only four states that does not have a dedicated funding mechanism for transit - and Bedke is one of the House Rev & Tax Committee members who refused to let the local option question go to the full House last session. "My area of the state has benefited from the old system," Bedke said.

2) Some Idaho communities are doing impressive things with the limited funding we have. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, the Kootenai Metropolitan Planning Organization, the State of Idaho, and Kootenai County all teamed to create Citylink, a free bus system that began two years ago and serves almost all of Kootenai County plus parts of Benewah County. In that time, ridership has grown from 44,000 to more than 250,000. "The more services we can provide, the higher our ridership is getting," said Reid.

3) Keynote speakers LaVarr Webb of Utah and Charlie Hales of Oregon told how transit benefits their states. Describing himself as a staunch lifelong Republican and allowing parallels between the conservative Utah and Idaho legislatures, Webb added that nothing in his philosophy rules out giving voters the power to decide whether to tax themselves, as Utah voters have done for public transit.

Hales, a former Portland city councilman, stressed the need to get business leaders on board for any proposal. "Donald Trump was right: Greed is good," he noted, adding that a robust transit system has been a boon to the Portland area's economy. Webb echoed this, saying that business and chamber support can give cover to an otherwise reluctant legislature. At this, Chuck Winder made note of the Idaho National Laboratory in Eastern Idaho - which provides private bus transportation for its employees - and wondered, "I still don't understand why Micron spends millions on parking lots when it could spend that on transporting its employees. But we have to have a better system before people will use it."

Hales pointed to the example of Tucson, where voters repeatedly turned down transit funding initiatives before finally approving a compromise proposal similar to the one contemplated here. Quoting Theodore Roosevelt, Hales said, "Above all, try something." He suggested that some cities have done well by funding transit projects with means other than added tax dollars, "to give people an opportunity to experience good transit" before asking them to pay more for it.

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