The Idaho Legislature will open its 2008 session this week. Transportation is widely seen as one of the top issues, but many lawmakers seem fixated more on widening roads and building new highways than on any meaningful reform to the Treasure Valley's mediocre public transit system. Today's Idaho Statesman includes several articles that highlight the difficulty transit advocates will face in getting the legislature to act on long-overdue improvements.
Some area lawmakers have seen the light. In an op-ed in today's Statesman, Rep. Darrell Bolz (R-Caldwell) wrote, "Tied to the improvement of I-84 has to be better public transportation." But Bolz doesn't sit on the House Rev & Tax Committee, which was responsible for trashing last year's local-option bill to fund public transit. Rep. Gary Collins (R-Nampa), co-chair of that panel, told the Statesman he's still not sold on local option, even though the legislation proposed for 2008 now includes the ability for local governments to ask voters to approve a local-option sales tax not just for transit, but for highways, too. Even John McGee (R-Nampa), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and a supporter of better transit, told the newspaper he hasn't seen "many people warming up to the idea."
But the biggest hurdle may be overcoming a sentiment voiced by Rep. Max Black, one of the few remaining Boise Republicans, who told the newspaper that "We just plain don't have the population base to prevent (mass transit) from being a subsidy." The fact is, mass transit is heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars all across the United States - but then so are our military, police and fire protection, schools, libraries, and ... oh yes ... roads.
We're caught in the same Catch-22 we were last session. Lawmakers complain about empty buses, but they are unwilling to let voters decide on a small tax increase that would vastly improve bus service and help transit become a more workable option for Treasure Valley residents. They also conveniently ignore the very popular intercounty services that are helping to show that there's a market for people who want to ditch their cars and take the bus - or better yet, light rail - to their far-flung jobs.
Update 1/08/08 - John Miller of the Associated Press is reporting that "tax-hawk Republicans suggested they would only allow the (local option taxation) measure past the House Revenue and Taxation Committee if it was first put to a statewide vote next November as a constitutional amendment. That raises the stakes considerably, since the measure would require two-thirds House and Senate approval to get on the ballot."
I'll stick with what I wrote yesterday: Transit supporters need to make the case that quality transit fits in the same box with other subsidized amenities that most urban areas take for granted. Even tax-averse Republicans admit that we need to use tax dollars for police, fire, and roads. Why not transit - especially when transit would help alleviate so many other pressing issues, including air quality and congested roads.
The other point that must remain clear: Quality public transit is a key factor that companies consider when deciding whether to relocate a business. If lawmakers are serious about keeping Idaho competitive for business, they will pass the local-option bill for transportation needs, and they will do it this session.