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Once upon a time, in a conservative Western state with a significant LDS population, some citizens – concerned about traffic congestion and the increasing pollution in the valley location of its capital city – wanted public transit to help take the load off the beleaguered highway system. Stymied due to a lack of funds, they found themselves trying to convince a largely rural state Legislature that the affected counties should have the right to tax themselves to pay for it. But this story has a happy ending. The citizens convinced the Legislature, the population approved the tax, the system was built, and ridership is double what the experts predicted – for 2020. The tipping factor Utah had on its side is one thing Idaho lacks: the strong support of its business community.

Idaho Business Leaders Should Take Transit Lessons from Utah

Once upon a time, in a conservative Western state with a significant LDS population, some citizens – concerned about traffic congestion and the increasing pollution in the valley location of its capital city – wanted public transit to help take the load off the beleaguered highway system. Stymied due to a lack of funds, they found themselves trying to convince a largely rural state Legislature that the affected counties should have the right to tax themselves to pay for it.

Sound familiar? It should. Except this story is about Utah.

But Utah’s story has a happy ending. The citizens convinced the Legislature, the population approved the tax, the system was built, and ridership is double what the experts predicted – for 2020.

The tipping factor Utah had on its side is one thing Idaho lacks: the strong support of its business community.

“Business leaders were out in front on this,” said Lane Beattie, head of the Salt Lake City chamber of commerce, speaking at the City Club of Boise. “That’s why it was successful.”

But Idaho’s business community is not getting behind the effort the way that Utah’s business community did. Consider:

The Idaho Association for Commerce and Industry, arguably the state’s largest business lobby, has little to say about public transit except in a negative sense. “[T]here will be growing demands for local option taxes to address transportation, and, though there may be opposition to local option taxation on a philosophical front, there is a chance such legislation may be successful if the funds were directed toward road building rather than only public transit as in the past legislative session.”

Instead, IACI’s main focus this legislative session is the freezing and gradual reduction of the so-called personal property tax on business equipment, which applies to tools, equipment, furniture and other tangible items related to their operation. This tax contributes on the order of $100 million annually to the state – revenue that would have to be replaced from some other source – but legislative leadership appears to consider its loss a foregone conclusion.

To a certain extent, the Legislature committed to removing the tax when it removed a similar tax from agricultural equipment, said Speaker of the House Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, at a Press Club luncheon earlier this week. However, “this may not be the year,” he conceded, due to concerns about the economy and a number of expensive programs requested by Governor Butch Otter. “There is a lot of pressure being brought to bear on legislators, but ultimately we have to balance the budget,” said President Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, at the same event.

(The legislators are actually in a tough spot – in an election year, they have to juggle removing the personal property tax on businesses, reducing the grocery tax on individuals, giving raises to state employees and teachers, and trying to maintain, let alone improve, state services. Which group can they least afford to piss off?)

The National Federation of Independent Businesses, a nationwide organization for small and independent businesses, has not yet posted its Idaho legislative positions for 2007, but like IACI, its focus in 2007 was on removing the personal property tax – and opposing a local options tax that could help pay for public transit.

The Idaho Chamber Alliance, a statewide organization of local Chambers, is apparently in favor only of roads. “The Idaho Chamber Alliance supports prudent transportation legislation that improves and maintains that states highways, waterways, railways and airports to ensure statewide economic development, marketability and business development continue to flourish.”

One might think this makes sense; why might a Chamber of Commerce in Pocatello or Coeur d’Alene, say, be interested in public transit that primarily serves Boise? But that is shortsighted, Beattie said. “If you gridlock transit in Davis County [north of Salt Lake City], you kill development in Moab,” he said — in other words, transportation problems in the capital city, such as truck traffic, end up affecting all corners of the state.

Not all the news is bad. A couple of business organizations are taking a stand to encourage support for public transit.

The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce has not yet posted its 2008 legislative agenda, but it sponsored a trip to Salt Lake City last year to examine its public transit system and a local options sales tax was on its 2007 legislative agenda.

Coalition for Regional Public Transportation, which recently took the catchier name Moving Idaho Forward, has a long list of business supporters, though it’s missing major companies with large lobbying organizations such as Idaho Power, Micron, and Qwest. Nonetheless, it may be the best bet for applying pressure to legislators.

Certainly there’s citizen support for public transit, at least in the Treasure Valley. A recent workshop on a downtown multimodal transit system in Boise, sponsored by COMPASS, the metropolitan planning organization for Ada and Canyon counties, drew many attendees. Asked to comment by posting sticky notes on the presentations, a number of the comments boiled down to either “This is great, but we want more!” or “I don’t care, just do *something*!”

So what is it that business representatives need to tell legislators to encourage them to allow local options tax legislation? They have to show a need, Beattie said, by pointing out factors such as environmental impacts, requirements by Federal transportation funding sources to provide public transit, declining air quality and the penalties involved in not attaining clean air levels, and the growth rates in the area. Public transit isn’t going to eliminate congestion, but it could eliminate the need to go out and build a new freeway. (Which might be another persuader for rural Idaho – if all the roads money doesn’t have to go to Interstate 84, maybe Highway 95 could get money for some turning lanes.)

“Public transit doesn’t pay for itself – but neither do highways,” Beattie said.

About Sharon Fisher

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17 comments

  1. We in S. ID have a need of public transportation that surpasses more road building (poor construction of roads is a major problem also) and the legislature continues to give buisness’ a break in taxes; be it inventory or property.

    The cities continue to raise the value of our property to get more taxes for developers who never have to pay any fees (impact) for improvements to the city infrastructure.

    It is a sorry state of affairs when the people who have the least amout of money get the most taxes. Welcome to the new grab the money from the middle class and use it unwisely in a state that I grew up in and have seen become a lousy state to furthur a lousier state.

    Bud in Nampa.

  2. I could not find the 2008 legislative agenda on the Boise Metro Chamber web site, but Ray Stark sent it to me. Even so, I had some trouble opening it, but here’s the text for the transportation section:

    TRANSPORTATION
    Support Funding for Transportation Improvements
    1. Increased funding for transportation projects from
    gas tax and/or registration fees.
    2. Support a third GARVEE Bond for Ten Mile Interchange.
    3. Support a local option tax for public transportation,
    roads and bridges.
    Increased funding is required for transportation improvements
    in the metro area as identified in the “Communities
    in Motion” long-range transportation plan. The Chamber
    supports several state and local remedies to provide the
    necessary funding for this plan.

    Here’s the link to the whole legislative agenda:

    http://www.boisechamber.org/Images%202008/Legislative%20Agenda%202008.pdf

  3. I lived in Nampa when Karcher was a rather busy intersection between there and Caldwell.
    Last time I was there it seemed all one town from Boise damned near to Oregon.
    What a great place for some passenger trains..!

  4. hey, so did I! I lived at Karcher and Midway in 2001-2002.

    The big problem with trains is getting to and from them. When I lived in San Francisco, there were a number of studies showing how little time people would be willing to drive to a train station before they’d say, the heck with it, I’ll just drive in. Similarly, if it’s difficult for people to get from the train station to their office, they won’t bother.

  5. At $5 per gallon; a car parked near the station is not an extravagance.

    I left Nampa in 2/1956…

  6. Left San Francisco in 1974…

  7. It’s not the financial part of it. It’s people’s time, and it’s inertia. Once they’ve gotten into their car, it can be hard to pry them out again.

  8. Will $8.00 a gallon of gas make it worth it? Thats what a lot of other major countries are paying right now. What about $10? Where is the breaking point before the people are demanding better public transportation?

    As well, places like Sydney Australia are charging people to go into the downtown area with their own vehicles. That in itself has cut down on the traffic and has created opportunities to really advance their public transport.

  9. People are demanding it now. I rode public transit in Idaho for the first time this past semester, from BSU West to BSU downtown, and there were people sitting on the floor on the way in and people who got passed by on the way out because the bus was too full to hold them. And that is with a single bus, sometimes a short bus, that ran as little as once an hour.

    To take that bus, I had to drive 20 minutes or so to get to BSU West, but it was worth it to me — a) because it helped the environment b) because I didn’t have to deal with the commute and c) I didn’t have to deal with finding a place to park once I got there.

  10. It will never be worth it to we independent Yankees unless we can get the legislators to accept blame for it.
    Just a few new or tweaked laws and the Union Pacific could very easily become a commuter line between Boise and Ontario–or Nyssa…

  11. Is it that simple, though?

    Where do we get the rolling stock and the money to run it?

    Where does the track run and terminate?

    How do we handle at-grade road crossings?

    Where will the stations be? Where will parking for them be?

    How willing is UP to give up the line?

    In what sort of shape is it?

    Is commuter rail the most efficient way to move people through that area?

    Absolutely, preserving the right of way is critically important. Exactly what to do with the ROW once we get it is less clear.

  12. Why would you want to take the line from the Union Pacific?

    I’m pretty sure they’re still using it; but with CTC they’d have little trouble integrating your rush hours into their freight traffic.
    Idaho’s taxpayers are subsidizing practically every business in the state right now–at the moment.
    As for efficiency–wisth an existing roadbed there is no more efficient way to move anything than rail.
    Some imaginative laws would be required to get the neo-frontiers[wo]men out of their cars; but it ain’t rocket science.
    Just take a good look at the guys who have been doing it for the past 118 years.

    I don’t think anybody–not even an Idahoian expects there’ll be no expenses to make such a basic change in the lives of homo sapiens; but, c’mon! the price of fuel is not going to go down; and an engine towing cars is very efficient use of any kind of fuel…

  13. What sort of ‘imaginative laws’ do you have in mind?

  14. Taxes on Gasoline, Registration, etc. Graduated sales taxes on automobiles based on their gas mileage–anything to discourage the delightful practice of driving to and from work.

    As I said, I’m guessing even Idahoian legislators could probably come up with a lot of better ideas if it were clear their constituency wanted some public transportation…

  15. Actually, there’s work going on with that. The Division of Financial Management was talking about other ways of paying registration for cars, such as by weight or according to fuel efficiency rather than simply by age.

    http://www.newwest.net/main/article/so_what_does_zero_based_budgeting_mean_anyway/

    I thought you meant *laws*, like “you’re not allowed to drive on odd-numbered days.” 🙂

  16. That would be an enforcement nightmare, I suspect…

  17. Portland, Oregon, where they have spent or plan to spend BILLIONS on light rail, and reduce the number of handy buses, leaving the city and country with little money to fix streets, is now having an income tax proposed by their leaders to fix streets. And their light rail lines, in places, are building in the expansion lane property for their freeways, thus making sure their extra freeway lanes never get built. I only wonder how, if the technology is perfected, and where the hyrogen cell cars will operate with fewer lanes of traffic. Worry wart me.

    So last night one of their Tri-Met buses ran into a Max line light rail train in downtown, knocking the light rail train off the tracks. Slow speeds (duh! that is why people don’t use them) kept injuries to a few minor ones. But the train and bus were sorely wounded. Friendly fire. Collateral damage.

    Is that fratricide? Murphy’s Law? Karma? A part of keeping Portland “weird?” Peter Principle at work in a Union town? or just plain frigging funny? A testament to bureaucratic expertise and efficiency? If it can happen, it will happen.