Even when it’s not rush hour, a normally 30-minute trip from Nampa to Boise on a ValleyRide bus can take an hour-and-a-half or more, leaving residents with the only realistic option of driving their own car.
Traffic congestion and limited public transit options have long been a concern in the Treasure Valley — one that gets more and more pressing as the population grows.
“Really the only option to get (around) here is to drive a car,” said Austin Walkins, a senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League.
Idaho doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for public transportation, but there’s growing support for another revenue stream: a local option sales tax. This voter-approved tax would allow cities or counties to impose an extra sales tax to fund a specific project.
Idaho law says only voters in resort communities can pass a local option sales tax, but there’s a push to expand this tool statewide. Before this year’s legislative session, chamber, county and planning associations all came out in support of this taxing authority for local governments.
The Legislature, however, did not take up a bill on the issue.
“The time I’ve been in the Legislature, of course there’s been a myriad of local option tax ideas that could come across,” said Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee.
To Collins, those bills either weren’t a good fit for Idaho, or the proponents of a local option sales tax found the conditions of the bill unacceptable.
Collins said he’s not flat-out opposed to a local option sales tax, but he has certain stipulations — such as a two-thirds majority required to pass a sales tax increase.
“We don’t think it’s too high of a hurdle to meet if you’re going to be raising everyone’s taxes,” Collins said.
As the chairman of the Revenue and Taxation Committee, Collins has the ability to kill a bill if he refuses to give it a hearing, which he’s done in the past.
“Generally I try to gauge the support for it,” he said, noting that he doesn’t want to put the committee through unnecessary stress of debating a bill if he thinks it will fail.
Collins also recalled a local option tax bill from the 2008 session that passed the House but failed in the Senate.
“I’m not saying I never would vote for it,” he said. “It just depends on how it was presented.”
Collins’ issue with a local option tax is he believes it unfairly disadvantages local businesses.
“The merchants here in the area are going to be at a disadvantage,” he said.
If consumers have the option to shop in a neighboring city that does not have a higher sales tax, they will, Collins said. While smaller purchases such as groceries may not cause an exodus of consumers, higher-dollar purchases such as cars may hurt local sellers, he said.
“That’s the point that a lot of people make and a lot of legislators have made,” he said.
Communities that pass a local option sales tax can choose to exclude certain products from the tax. Ketchum voters, for example, approved a 2% tax on retail sales, but excluded groceries and vehicles from that.
Collins doesn’t believe a local option tax for a transit system is the best path for Idahoans.
Valley Regional Transit provides more than 1.3 million rides a year, and ridership in April was up 2% year over year. Routes with newly added stops saw even bigger gains, ranging from a 17% to 34% boost.
The interest in public transit is there, VRT principal planner Stephen Hunt said, but service frequency isn’t at the point where it can adequately serve the public. VRT is working to improve this with its ValleyConnect 2.0 plan, a blueprint to expand public transit and cut down travel times. One idea is an all-day, 15-minute service on State Street in Boise.
A better bus system wouldn’t just serve riders, he said — it would benefit the entire community. He noted that more than 70 percent of respondents to Boise State University’s public policy survey said they would like to see more public transportation in the Treasure Valley.
Yet residents’ dollars are going toward personal vehicle transportation, to the tune of $2 billion to $3 billion a year in the Treasure Valley, Hunt said. That’s a VRT estimate that factors in vehicle sales, gas and other car-related expenses.
“I think we often discount the money that is spent on our own personal freedom (to drive), then wonder why public transportation doesn’t do more — when there’s simply not enough of it,” Hunt said.
The roads are getting increasingly crowded. Ada and Canyon counties are expected to have over 1 million people by 2040, almost twice as many as in 2010, according to Compass.
With Boise as the economic epicenter of the valley, many residents commute to work from their home in Meridian, Kuna, Caldwell or Nampa.
“Right now, growth is pricing a lot of people out of downtown corridors where they like to live,” said Walkins with the Idaho Conservation League.
Walkins said Idaho maintains a public image of independence and freedom, and for many that means owning a car. For others, commuting by car is not necessarily a choice.
Valley Regional Transit relies on year-to-year voluntary contributions from local cities. Boise is by far the largest contributor, funding $7.4 million of the $8.4 million contributions last fiscal year.
To secure another transit funding source, Compass, the regional planning association, has year over year called for a local option sales tax, and it’s received some bipartisan support.
House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said not only is local option sales tax a bad choice for Idaho. There are others options, he said — governments can try to pass bonds and levies, or cities could give more money to Valley Regional Transit.
“We do have options right now. We can go to the voters right now,” he said.
Rather than waiting for the Legislature to act on the issue, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said citizens need to take it into their own hands by petitioning for a ballot initiative.
“There is substantial opposition in the Legislature, and just like Medicaid, we need to look at an initiative,” Gannon said. “I would fully support an initiative.”
Gannon isn’t confident the Legislature will pass a local option sales tax.
“The initiative process is a safety valve for citizen action when the legislature doesn’t respond,” he said.
Gannon said requiring a simple majority to pass a local option sales tax would be appropriate but said he could settle for a 55% majority.
“An initiative is a tough road to go,” he said. “But if people really want it, if people really want a particular law, they’ll get out there and get it done.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, is one of the few in legislative leadership in favor of allowing a local option sales tax.
“It allows people to participate in the process,” Winder said.
If the Legislature allowed for a local option tax, local governments would have to authorize it via an election. Then to use the tax for a specific purpose, it would have to pass in another election.
“Then the people get to vote on the projects themselves,” Winder said.
Winder understands the opposition to it and said you can make the argument that it hurts local businesses.
Still, it allows the people to decide what they want to pay taxes for, he said?
Winder, like Gannon, thinks an initiative to pass a local option sales tax may be the best way to go about it. In fact, he met with city of Boise officials roughly 10 years ago to tell them exactly that. At that time, they did not want to push for an initiative, he said.
“So far there’s been enough opposition to it that it’s been difficult to get anyone to consider (introducing a bill),” Winder said. “It’s a formidable task, let’s put it that way.”
As for requirements of the local option sales tax, Winder thinks a 55% or 60% majority vote would be fine, but a two-thirds majority is too high of a hurdle, he said.
Taking on public debt such as a bond requires a two-thirds supermajority under Idaho law, but a local option sales tax is not public debt, Winder said.
Ultimately, a local option tax is a good and versatile funding tool for communities to have, he said.
Winder noted that Oklahoma City used a local option tax to build its transit system, and the tool has since been used for other things.
As it pertains to transit, Winder believes a two-county local option tax between Canyon and Ada counties could be a good solution if the region wants to build an effective transit system.
“If you’re going to have transit, it can’t just go to the Ada County-Canyon County line and stop,” he said.