taxes: The wrong route to take for funding rail projects
posted March 10, 2003
If there is a surefire way to guarantee that
rail transit systems never get built it is this: ask for tax increases to pay
for the costs. Yet rail backers have made this mistake again and again in cities
all over the country. In recent years, virtually all the initiatives on local
ballots that asked for sales tax increases to pay for new rail systems ended up
being soundly defeated.
Does this mean that the public hates or opposes
new rail systems? Not at all. Voters in Denver, who defeated several plans to
pay for new rail systems with tax increases, voted overwhelmingly in 1999 in support
of T-Rex, a new rail line paid for by the reallocation of existing gasoline tax
funds. The massive numbers of people riding new rail lines around the country
also show that the public likes rail transit and wants more. They just don't want
new taxes to pay for rail transit. Even in the very transit friendly city of Portland,
Oregon, the voters weren't willing to back tax increases for transit.
lesson is clear, rail transit programs must not be linked to tax increases. New
rail proposals that are not connected to tax increases meet with little or no
opposition and often find popular support.
Nor are new taxes or tax increases
necessary to get rail systems. New rail systems have been built in cities all
over the country, without tax increases. In city after city, where transit officials
originally claimed that rail transit required massive increases, they magically
found the funds needed to build new lines after tax proposals were shot down at
the ballot box. Denver is a typical example. Despite the voters' opposition to
new taxes for rail transit, the Mile High City now boasts around twenty miles
of light rail and another twenty miles of light rail under construction.
key to getting new rail transit systems built is not to raise taxes but to use
existing funds and federal money. As the example in Denver shows us, it is possible
to build impressive transit systems without new taxes or huge expenditures. Without
massive tax increases, transit planners are often forced to utilize lower cost
alternatives such as light rail, and to avoid expensive touches like subway tunnels
and elevated bridges.
If rail transit can be seen as a lower cost alternative
to freeways, it'll get approved every time. If transit is seen as just another
tax and spend liberal program, it'll never get anywhere.
Perhaps what we
need to get transit across to the public are ballot initiatives that divert a
fourth or a third of freeway funds to rail transit construction and simultaneously
give taxpayers a five or ten percent cut in the gasoline tax. I bet voters across
the country would strongly support such ballot measures.
is do transit backers have the guts and the brains to propose such common sense
G. Jennings is a freelance writer and journalist who lives and works in Denver,
CO. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in
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