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Self-Taxing

Tax for transit returns with a twist.

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There are few words that raise the ire of Idahoans like "taxes," "roads" and "transit." Put them together, and you've created one of the most contentious issues in Treasure Valley.

While supporters of a comprehensive transit system cite traffic congestion and the area's growing air-quality issues as just cause, opponents argue the need does not warrant the cost.

A proposed local option sales tax specifically to fund transit was introduced in the state Legislature, but never made it out of committee hearings. But a valley-wide coalition is writing a new version of that legislation that it hopes will offer the naysayers something they can support.

So what's the tantalizing tidbit supporters hope will be enough to tempt even the most fiscally conservative lawmaker? Money for road improvement projects.

This time around, the bill proposes that funds raised through the local option tax could be used for both transit and roads, a move designed to gain more broad-based support.

"There is a lot of support for the acknowledgement that our valley is ready for transportation at a new level," said Kelli Fairless, executive director of Valley Regional Transit, one of the coalition's leading groups.

"We have a transportation problem and our system needs infrastructure," she said. "The struggle that we have is that we need and want all sorts of things, but when it comes to paying for it, they want someone else to take care of it."

According to Fairless, the new bill asks the Legislature to allow communities across the state to create regional transportation authorities that would develop and implement transportation plans. These groups would then be able to go to voters with specific plans for both transit and roadway improvements.

The projects would be funded with an increase in the local sales tax (no more than 1 percent). It would be up to voters to decide if they approve of the projects, the amount of money going to each and the amount of the increase.

In the Treasure Valley, this transportation authority approach would mean that Valley Regional Transit and Compass would merge into a single organization.

By allowing funding to also go to road improvements, coalition supporters hope to help bridge the gap between the needs of rural communities and urban centers.

"For rural leaders, transit is not an issue," said Michael Zuzel, spokesman for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, "But there is a transportation funding issue across the state."

Fairless said there will be a $1.7 billion deficit for transportation projects between now and 2030—$1.1 billion to meet transit needs and the rest for roads. Even if those funds were found, she said 43 percent of roads in the Treasure Valley would still be congested. Currently, the Valley Transit Authority operates with a budget of just more than $7 million. Fairless said the organization would need roughly $12 million per year to provide bus service for the valley's population, and $38 million if a rail system is added.

"We have to find a mechanism for dealing with transportation issues," Fairless said.

As the population has become increasingly urbanized, the balance of money has shifted, but not the way it is allocated, she said.

"Urban [areas] are the revenue generators for the state, but we have to share the dollars," she said. "It works more in the advantage of rural areas.

"We're going to have to grant authority to local jurisdictions to fix their own problems. Every state that has shifted from rural to urban has gone through this."

House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Moyle (R-Star) said it all comes down to a simple fact: "The rural guys don't want to pay for the urban guys," he said. Moyle was a strong critic against the local option tax last year, saying that the bill "had a lot of things wrong with it."

While he said he's not sold on the idea of mass transit, the inclusion of money for roads goes a long way.

"If it's just for buses, it's not going anywhere," he said.

Moyle said he hasn't heard much support for a transit system from his constituents. "Gas prices are not high enough for people to give up their cars," he said. "Right now, I don't see it."

Moyle said he will wait to see what is brought to the Legislature this year, but admits the roads funding is a positive step. "When you add roads to the mix, it helps sell the cause," he said. "It helps get them where they need to be."

Sen. John McGee (R-Caldwell) sees more of a need for transit but worries about funding. "People are beginning to realize that as our roads get more and more congested, that we need to have a multi-pronged strategy," he said. "We have to build more roads, but we also have to have a public transit system."

As a member of the Treasure Valley Transportation Task Force, McGee said he's watched the progress of the proposed bill and calls it a "much more thoughtful approach to this problem."

"For those legislators who are clamoring to get more roads built, this is one way that we can look at getting some increased funding," he said.

The advantage of using a local option sales tax is that the amount raised is tied directly to consumption, Zuzel said. "You pay what you spend," he said. "That's the course that our citizens say, in large, would be the most acceptable."

"It spreads the burden out among everyone who uses the system," Fairless said, adding that even visitors to the area would share in the cost of maintaining the transportation system.

McGee said he appreciates the idea that voters have the ultimate say. "As a conservative, I like the idea that the voters can choose their own destiny," he said. "[It will pass] only if it's what they want to do."

"You have to find out what the public is willing to pay for," Fairless said. "If you don't get it right, they won't pay for it."

Nearly everyone concerned with the issue said they're hearing more about it from the public.

"We hear about it from our constituents all the time," Zuzel said. "It's one of the top two or three issues in almost any venue. Traffic, congestion, transit and air quality all go together.

"In Boise, for sure, and in the Treasure Valley, there really is a sense of a ground swell occurring, and that political momentum is building," he said.

Last week, Boise State hosted a transit summit, drawing elected leaders from across the state, including 15 legislators. Participants not only discussed the issues facing all of Idaho, but shared what's working here and around the region. Zuzel called the event "very successful" but admitted that's no guarantee of future success. "How it all translates when you get into legislative committee and on the floor, I'm not prepared to make that calculation," he said.

Zuzel said the coalition hopes to have a final version of the bill ready by Dec. 1 in order to introduce it to the Legislature when the new session begins in January.

Fairless said she's ready for an uphill fight.

"It's still a tough battle," she said. "Sometimes things have to hurt a lot more than they do today to get people to move."