Saturday, June 9, 2007

Still hope for transit expansion

Sales tax funding plan derailed in Legislature,
but regional coalition is set to try again in 2009

By MARICE RICHTER - The Dallas Morning News - Friday, June 8, 2007
Area transportation advocates are disappointed by the failure of legislation that could have expanded rail transit in North Texas, but they aren't giving up hope.
Instead, meetings and discussions have already begun to regroup and develop a new strategy to target the Texas Legislature in 2009.
"I wish we didn't have to wait two years," said Mark Enoch, chairman of the DART board. "But I think we will get it next time. For a first effort, we did very well. We got the bills out of two committees and onto the floor."
A coalition of more than 100 local entities – including city councils, county commissioner courts and chambers of commerce – endorsed a plan that would have allowed local-option elections on raising the state sales tax cap by up to 1 cent to pay for transit expansion.
Efforts by Rep. Fred Hill, R-Richardson, and Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, to push this plan through as legislation died on the House floor near the end of the session.
Some Tarrant County officials said they may try to explore other funding options for new passenger rail lines. However, most area transportation leaders said research has shown that sales tax remains the best way to finance an estimated $3.5 billion to $5 billion in rail improvements needed in North Texas.
As local leaders begin regrouping, a top priority will be to counter opposition to the local-option sales tax plan. They said opponents succeeded in derailing the plan in the last session.
Opponents have argued that higher sales tax in North Texas would hinder the region's competitive edge in business. Detractors also suggested that cities that want to join a rail authority could redirect funds from their economic development and crime control districts rather than raise sales taxes beyond 8.25 percent.
The local-option plan would have allowed cities to raise the sales tax up to 9.25 percent. It also would have allowed cities that are already part of a transit authority such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit to raise their sales tax by 1 cent to create economic development or crime control districts, officials said.
Since Grapevine voters recently agreed to join the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as "The T," there are only a few small cities left in North Texas that can still ask voters to raise their sales tax rate to join a transit authority.
A recent survey of area cities found that most have economic development and crime control tax dollars tied up in long term bond-indebtedness that will take 15 years or more to repay.
"It would take too long for all those cities pay off that debt and then hold elections to pull out of their other districts," Mr. Humann said. "By comparison, we can accomplish a lot more a lot quicker if we can get the plan we have approved by the Legislature in two years."
In the meantime, transit agencies can spend their time on right-of-way acquisitions and seeking federal grants to help defray costs, officials said.
Tarrant County transportation officials said they may look at the possibility of creating tax-increment-financing districts or using property taxes to jump-start some new rail corridors or add more stations to a line being developed between southwest Fort Worth and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "Sales tax is still the best option for financing regional rail," said Vic Suhm, executive director of the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition. "But we'll consider any other forms of financing to open up some new corridors."

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