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New taxes: The wrong route to take for funding rail projects

By Daniel G. Jennings
web 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The question is do transit backers have the guts and the brains to propose such common sense measures?

Daniel 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 five states.

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