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The Local Option

Plan could add tax dollars to public transportation

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The ball has begun to roll on future public transit options. Public transportation backers are closer to offering their solution to the Treasure Valley's quixotic public transit picture.

A coalition of local business leaders, elected officials and transportation authorities recently put the finishing touches on a proposal to funnel new tax dollars toward cash-strapped public transportation budgets. The Members of the Coalition for Regional Public Transportation have given their OK to a proposal that, if approved by the 2007 Legislature, would give public transportation agencies the ability to ask voters to approve a local sales tax for public transportation.

Voters could be asked if they would support a sales tax hike between one-tenth of one cent to one-half of one cent, to fund local public transportation. That question could go before voters on the 2008 general election ballot.

If voters approve the tax hike, the local transportation budget could increase by about 500 percent, to about $6.6 million.

Along with that approval, and the new money, could come new and expanded transportation services. The funds would help maintain the current bus system, and could even pay for additional routes and vehicles. Some planners say that more bike paths could also be part of the system, to provide commuters with a variety of transportation options.

Last but not least, local transit planners and civic leaders are also thinking about the potential for rail transit options as they draft these proposals. Both light and commuter rail systems are topics of discussion, and Mayor Dave Bieter has pushed for both in speeches and interviews.

A commuter rail could run diesel trains on existing train tracks in the Treasure Valley, and as envisioned, would likely make just two to four stops along the route. Light rail systems typically run lighter, electric trains along smaller tracks that often run parallel to existing streets. Such trains usually make more stops.

But as much as rail transit is a part of the long-term dream of local leaders, it's too early to consider laying track, said Michael Zuzel, spokesman for Bieter.

Idaho is one of four states that cannot institute a local tax for public transportation.

"We're really behind," said Mark Carnopis, community relations manager for Valley Regional Transit.

The coalition has further plans. The explosive growth in the Treasure Valley over the last decade has done more than add to the congestion on Ada and Canyon county streets. In fact, growth has become something of a liability against public transportation funding.

Valley Regional Transit, the Boise-area transportation provider, has typically relied on federal dollars to fund part of their operations. But those federal dollars came with a caveat: the grants could only fund public transportation systems that service areas with a population of 200,000 or fewer. So even as Valley Regional Transit was faced with ever-growing demands on their bare-bones system, the area's explosive growth chipped away at that money.

In the 2007 fiscal year, Valley Regional Transit will get $505,000 in federal dollars for operations, to help with $6.6 million in annual costs. In fiscal year 2008, those federal funds will no longer be available.

Valley Regional Transit can use federal dollars to fund costs such as planning and capital expenditures. But after fiscal year 2007, which ends in October, federal dollars can no longer fund day-to-day operation costs.

"To keep the level of service we have now, we'll have to find local dollars to make up the costs," said Carnopis.

Currently bus fares cover just $660,000, or 10 percent of Valley Regional Transit's total budget. About $3.9 million in revenue comes from Boise and Garden City. Carnopis said Valley Regional Transit may have to ask cities to increase the amount allocated to the bus system.

But, he said, the legislative proposal could fill in that gap.

Crafters of the legislation said that Idaho lawmakers historically have been reluctant to provide transit with any local funding. Ray Stark, senior vice president and a government affairs representative with the Boise Chamber of Commerce, noted that local taxes tend to ignite controversy in Idaho.

To change the playing field this year, the Chamber helped assemble a coalition of corporate leaders and companies to back the legislation, hoping support from the business community would help push the proposal through the Legislature. Businesses stand to gain from comprehensive public transportation services, Stark argues, and an improved system could even lure new businesses to set up shop in Boise.

"A few years ago we got the question from these companies to describe the public transportation system," he said. "We think it's a realization on the part of the companies that employees need various ways to get to work."

The proposal has already gained broad support from local government entities.

"It's really obvious to a lot of folks, especially those stuck in traffic, that our [public transportation] system is stressed," said Zuzel. "We have a transportation system that is, frankly, bare bones."

Bieter and the Boise City Council recently dipped into the city's reserves to help fill in the money hole left by the loss of federal funding. The $622,961 appropriated by the city for fiscal year 2007 almost filled in the gap, but the city can't help make up the difference much longer.

"It would be difficult, if not impossible, to continue this subsidy, even for a year," said Zuzel. "That can't go on forever. That general fund has to support many things."

But building more county-supported roads isn't the answer to rush hour congestion, he said.

"By pouring more pavement, you encourage more congestion because you're encouraging more people to drive," said Zuzel.

Several city council members have been vocal advocates of alternative transportation sources. Council member David Eberle said he supports the concept of the legislation. But he said he's not ready to give the bill his approval until he has read it through.

"The 21st century calls for a 21st century infrastructure and the [Idaho] Constitution restricts us to 19th century funding mechanisms," Eberle said. "Public transportation is one of those things that is a public good. Not only does it help with (environmental quality) and congestion, it also helps people get around. It should have a tax subsidy."

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