The future of public transit: Where’s the money?

Teya Vitu//February 24, 2017

The future of public transit: Where’s the money?

Teya Vitu//February 24, 2017

Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley are three of 13 Idaho resort communities that are allowed to enact local option taxes. The Blaine County cities used LOT to establish the Mountain Rides bus system. Photo courtesy of Mountain Rides.
Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley are three of 13 Idaho resort communities that are allowed to enact local option taxes. The Blaine County cities used LOT to establish the Mountain Rides bus system. Photo courtesy of Mountain Rides.

Cities and states and voters are giving thumbs up to expansive public transit projects in many places around the country, but not in Idaho. The state stands out in the U.S. in terms of meager public transit funding.

The November election saw 34 of 49 public transit ballot measures – or 69 percent – approved in 23 states. In 2016, voters across the country considered about $200 billion for public transportation projects in 77 transit measures, the most ever appearing on ballots during one year, according to the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C., organization that works to advance public transportation.

Except for small resort towns, Idaho state law doesn’t allow for the basic tool many states use for public transit, the local option tax. With this tax, people in a given state or county vote to tax themselves to fund projects, typically with a sales tax increase of one-tenth to half a percentage point.

Public Transportation Series blurbLarge transportation projects (streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, bus system overhauls) are in the works in several cities, including big ones like Atlanta, Indianapolis and Oklahoma City and small cities such as Kitsap County, which voted for faster ferry service from Bremerton to Seattle. Recent years have seen completion of about a dozen streetcar systems. There are operating streetcar systems in about 30 American cities, light rail in about 24 cities, and commuter rail in roughly 28 cities, according to Federal Transportation Administration statistics.

Streetcars are typically one- or two-car trains that generally share streets with automobiles; light rail trains resemble streetcars but usually operate on their own right-of-way; commuter rail trains are heavier passenger trains that link city centers with suburbs.

The Treasure Valley has no new modes or routes of public transit either recently completed, planned or even feasible in the foreseeable future. Status quo could remain the best-case scenario for decades to come.

Local city leaders, public transit leaders and transit advocates have been itching for years to get major transit projects in motion.

“From the transit standpoint, we’re beyond the cusp of needing it,” said Matt Stoll, executive director of COMPASS, the metropolitan planning agency for the Treasure Valley. “In order to adequately prepare for the next 20 years, we should be in the queue for federal funds. To get in the queue, you need a dedicated funding source. “

drive-timeBoise’s achingly steep climb to get a public transit funding measure on the ballot would potentially lead to just another steep climb. Transit measures elsewhere have frequently failed in their first vote. That happened last spring in Spokane, Wash.

Spokane voters, however, in November gave 55.8 percent approval to raise the sales tax .1 percentage point in April 2017 and an additional .1 percentage point in April 2019 to generate about $200 million over 11 years for more than 25 transit projects.

High-profile projects in Spokane include extending Saturday bus service past 11 p.m. on all lines in a city where most lines stop by 9 or 10 p.m.; establishing all-day, non-stop bus service from downtown Spokane to Liberty Lake along the Idaho state line, a route that now only serves commuter hours with stops on the way; and building two new transit centers and expanding three existing transit centers, including the small center at Spokane Community College, said Beth Bousley, spokeswoman at Spokane Transit Authority.

Denver in April and July 2016 opened two routes of its $2.2 billion Eagle P3 project with a 22.8-mile train serving Denver International Airport and a second 11.2 mile commuter train to the suburbs. These trains became operational nearly 20 years after the first transit ballot measure failed in 1997.

“I think you have an exciting challenge ahead of you (in Boise). You have a hard challenge ahead of you,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C., alliance of elected, business and civic leaders.  “They didn’t give up (in Denver). That is an important theme.”

The Idaho Legislature has had little appetite for involving itself in Treasure Valley public transit matters – or to give local governments the tools to generate funding from local taxpayers. And that’s the way it should be, said Wayne Hoffman, president of Idaho Freedom Foundation, a group that monitors Idaho government and promotes private free market solutions.

“Public transit in general is not a very good use of taxpayer money,” Hoffman said. “The stories of poorly run transit systems across the country around the country are legion. Many buses are devoid of people, same thing with trains. Mass transit done correctly would pay for itself and not require public subsidization.”

Public transit is always subsidized, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

“We did try to operate with business principles but there are broader public roles,” Guzzetti said. “It’s a public service. Historically, it was a public utility because it is something you need. It’s subsidized. We have to look out for the well-being of the community.”

A Valley Regional Transit bus in downtown Boise. Photo by Erika Sather-Smith.
A Valley Regional Transit bus in downtown Boise. Photo by Erika Sather-Smith.

COMPASS’s Stoll illustrates the Treasure Valley version.

“When you add 400,000 people, you need to have a much more viable public transit system,” Stoll said. “To make it a reality, you need funding. It’s subsidized. It does not pay for itself. If you’re serious about building a transportation system, you need a funding system dedicated to transit. You can’t rely on a gas tax. You also need a local taxing option. Let our citizens decide based on a vision we come up with. The existing funding systems are not building the transit system we need.”

Bey0nd providing mobility for people to get to jobs and doctors, public transit can shape land use and development patterns and influence energy use, air quality and carbon emissions policies. Sometimes rail transit systems are built more as an economic development stimulus than for transit reasons, advocates say.

Unlike freeways and federal highways, which can bank on federal funding, such as the new Broadway Bridge across the Boise River and the recent Interstate 84 widening,  public transit often is a local sport, funded to greatly varying degrees by Legislatures in other state but mostly by local governments.

 “A lot of people think the federal government spends the most funds on these projects. That is not the case in most cases,” said Robert Puentes, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C.-based group that provides training for transportation professionals. “States are a mixed bag in stepping up. Most are not. The federal government is not doing it. (Local option taxes in cities or counties) is one way to do a market test for your ideas. Seventy-five percent of these referendums pass on election day.”

Legislatures provide varied state funding for public transit, from $4 billion in New York and more than $1 billion in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts and California to zero in Hawaii, Utah, Arizona and Alabama. Twenty states provide at least $50 million in state funding for public transit, according to statistics from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Utah Transit Authority built a 49.7-mile TRAX light rail system in Salt Lake City with voter approved local option taxes. Photo courtesy of Utah Transit Authority.
Utah Transit Authority built a 49.7-mile TRAX light rail system in Salt Lake City with voter approved local option taxes. Photo courtesy of Utah Transit Authority.

Utah and Arizona may dedicate no state funding to transit, but voter initiatives allowed for the Salt Lake City building of the $3.5 billion, 49.7-mile TRAX light rail, 89-mile FrontRunner commuter rail, and 2-mile streetcar; and in Phoenix the $1.9 billion 26-mile Metro light rail and the $200 million, 3.9 mile Sun Link streetcar in Tucson.

Idaho supplies $312,000 in state funding for public transit, specifically for the Vehicle Investment Program for senior citizen transit in rural areas. Idaho allocates the third smallest amount of state funding, not counting the states that provide none, and the third smallest per capita investments, behind New Hampshire and Nevada in both categories, according to AASHTO statistics.

“Idaho has the least options,” said James Corless, director of Transportation for America, director of Transportation for America, a Washington, D.C., alliance of elected, business and civic leaders focusing on locally-driven transportation solutions.

Corless looks at Nashville with a city population of 600,000 and a metro of 1.8 million.

“It’s going to add another million in 15 to 20 years,” Corless said. “Nashville is really aware of thinking ahead. Nashville will tell you right way ‘we don’t want to be Atlanta,’ lot of growth, little comprehensive planning.”

Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas sings the same tune for the Treasure Valley.

“The timing is right for us,” said Nancolas. “We don’t want to be like Seattle and wish we did something 20 years ago. The cost of waiting to do it is so much more than doing it right now. We need to do something to put a funding mechanism in place.”

Valley Regional Transit, which operates the ValleyRide bus system, has no dedicated funding, which COMPASS’s Stoll said is essential to secure federal funding. The federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary fund  since 2009 has provided a combined $5.1 billion to 421 transportation projects in all 50 states, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Valley Regional Transit in October opened its $11.9 million, eight-bay underground Main Street Station in downtown Boise with a $9.6 million Federal Transportation Administration grant and $2.3 million in  matching funds from the Capital City Development Corp., Boise’s downtown redevelopment agency, and $300,000 in in-kind matches for land and waived permitting fees.

A $63 million TIGER grant funded a large share of the Tucson streetcar.

Idaho communities have received five small TIGER grants:  $1.3 million to complete construction on facilities at Port Lewiston;  $7.9 million to upgrade 28 miles of U.S. 95 in Worley in northern Idaho; $2.3 million to narrow road lanes, widen sidewalks, create bike lanes and add streetscaping on five downtown blocks in American Falls; $1.5 million for an intermodal facility in Moscow; and $3.5 million to rebuild Woodside Boulevard in Hailey .

VRT relies on $6.5 million from the city of Boise general fund, a dominant share of the 41.7 percent of local funding for the $16.1 million fiscal 2016 budget. Federal funds from Fix America’s Surface Transportation funded 52 percent of the budget, and income from bus fares and advertising 5.27 percent.

VRT’s share of federal funding comes through the $24 million in federal transit funding allocated to Idaho. Half goes to five urban transit systems, including VRT. The other half is used by the Idaho Transportation Department to fund rural transportation programs such as SPOT bus in Sandpoint, Smart Transit in Moscow, Mountain Rides in Ketchum, bus purchases for the Parma Senior Center and Payette Senior Center, and purchasing rides for seniors on Treasure Valley Transit, said Mark Bathrick, ITD’s public transportation manager

“We help with capital funding and seniors,” Bathrick said.

Public transit needs dedicated funding, whether for day-to-day operations or to build a future transit system, said Kelli Badesheim, executive director of Valley Regional Transit.

“Without some sort of dedicated funding, we are going to continue putting our efforts into filling gaps instead of building a more robust regional transit system you see in other regions our size,” Badesheim said.

Sen. Chuck Winder
Sen. Chuck Winder

Local option tax

State Sen. Chuck Winder is a Boise Republican who stands apart from most state lawmakers regarding public transit in the Treasure Valley, and allowing a local option tax to pay for improvements.

Eight years ago, Winder proposed a local option tax to include public buildings, public transit and infrastructure. He said a local option tax just for public transit would be even harder to pass.

“One of the first things I tried to do when I arrived in the Legislature was (get a local option tax) modeled on Oklahoma City, where you pay for projects as you go,” said Winder, who has been in the Statehouse for eight years. “They tell the people what the projects will be, how much money it costs, how long the tax would last. I got (the bill) to a point that it was going to move along but it stalled. The House has to initiate such legislation but nobody picked it up.”

Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett visited Boise in February 2016 and told local leaders his city has had three local option tax-funded Metropolitan Area Projects  (MAPS) that first focused on quality of life, such as a new downtown library, a downtown AAA minor league baseball stadium, a downtown NBA arena, and creating the Bricktown entertainment district; the building or refurbishing 75 inner city schools; and now on health initiatives. Local option tax was written into the Oklahoma constitution at statehood.

“We tried to make MAPS about economic development but what we learned is quality of life is the source of economic development,” Cornett said. “People expect a focus. You need to decide what it is you want and create a path to get there.”

Adding a local option tax to the Idaho constitution has been mulled over the years.

“The big question is on a constitutional amendment,” COMPASS’s Stoll said. “That’s a philosophical question. We don’t think the constitution should be amended. (That would entail) a county by county vote and 66.66 percent approval in each county.”

City v. rural issues

“The typical argument you hear is nobody uses public transit. It needs to be self-sustaining,” Winder said. “I think the real reason is it is focused on urban areas and we don’t get the support from rural counties.”

About 17 of 35 legislative districts can be characterized as urban but 10 of those urban districts are in the Treasure Valley. The rest are all cities with fewer than 60,000 residents.

““I think a lot of the reason is because our area is growing but a lot of the state doesn’t have the same issues. They are fearful of any type of tax,” Winder said.

Winder didn’t know if the 2017 Legislature will warm up to the local option tax.

“I don’t know if anybody is going to take it by the horns,” Winder said. “I think there is an open door and open ear  (among legislators regarding local option and public transit), but most people don’t have the same problem with their constituents they represent… They are not willing to step forward and deal with a solution. If it’s just the Treasure Valley, it gets little support. They say: ‘Take care of it yourself.’ You need the tools to take care of it yourself.”

COMPASS takes the region’s lead in lobbying the Legislature to enact local option tax enabling legislation. Stoll hasn’t succeeded in doing so in his first 10 years as COMPASS’s executive director.

Idaho Business Review staff writer Teya Vitu has ridden on at least 14 streetcar systems and at least 16 subway systems across the U.S., Canada and Europe.