Friday, June 13, 2008

Regional Transportation Council considers how to pay for rail service

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER - The Dallas Morning News - Thursday, June 12, 2008

If North Texans are going to see a new 251-mile network of suburban rail lines by 2030 – an idea that remains a cherished goal of elected officials and regional transportation leaders – they are going to have to pay for it, and pay steeply.

The project will cost about $9 billion – an amount that would be funded almost entirely by new fees and taxes

The question of what those fees should be took center stage Thursday as the Regional Transportation Council voted to authorize a plan that will cobble together a menu of possible tax increases to pay for what is being called Rail North Texas.

Among the fees that the staff has proposed are higher property taxes, higher vehicle registration fees, a new sales tax on gasoline and a new tax on new car purchases, a new resident impact fee, among others.

Between now and August, council members will meet with Texas lawmakers to find support for a menu that will produce the hundreds of millions of dollars needed each year while drawing the lowest possible amount of opposition from lawmakers and voters alike.

Several elected officials who spoke Thursday said public support for the rail idea has only increased in the wake of worsening traffic and soaring gas prices. But as always, the question came down to how to pay for it.

Plans had initially called for the rail expansion to be paid for by sales tax increases, a funding source that would require legislative approval. That idea – which would allow cities to hold sales tax elections to raise rates above the state cap of 8.25 percent – has failed in each of the past two sessions of the Legislature.

And while the sales tax idea remains officially a possibility, Thursday's action – which followed only cursory discussion – made clear council members have all but given up on winning lawmaker support.

"We've walked into several buzz saws with the sales tax idea, and we have been told that that is not the panacea that is going to get us through Austin," said Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, who led the planning group behind the idea to request a series of smaller tax increases instead of the sales tax hike.

The decision to seek a menu of easier-to-digest tax or fee increases is smart politics, said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "It's a higher-odds proposition," said Mr. Whitley, who was elected vice-chairman of the RTC Thursday. Dallas City Council members Linda Koop and Ron Natinsky were elected chairwoman and secretary, respectively.

Still, each of the new fees will have their own and in some cases just-as-determined opponents who will have to be outfoxed in Austin, a prospect that has worried even some of the initiative's strongest advocates.

Car dealers, for instance, are hardly eager to support new taxes on vehicle purchases, Mr. Morris and Mr. Whitley each noted.

In the meantime, Mr. Whitley and others said, voters are ready to spend more on transportation – not just in spite of the higher gas prices and worsening traffic, but because of them. "If we don't have transit here eventually, there won't be any economic development," said Collin County Commissioner Joe Jaynes.

Mr. Morris added, "Four-dollar gasoline is really going to require all of us to look at our world in a different way. We may not need to have three or four cars in a single household. It just requires seeing our way forward."

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