Transportation ballot measures analyzed
Regional Transportation looks for more money for roads and public transit (and less asking the voters for it)
Two of the local questions on this year’s ballot involve raising taxes to fund the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission, which shapes the community in the form of roads, highways and public transportation. Both of the questions involve raising local taxes to make up for large budget shortfalls. If urban planning is vital for a clean, efficient and possibly green community, getting these questions right is important.
The first question, RTC-2, asks if the general sales tax should be increased one-eighth of 1 percent to fund Washoe County public transportation—Citifare, now called RTC Ride, and Access, which provides public transit for the elderly and disabled. These services are seeing a sharp increase in ridership as people seek alternatives to cars.
The ballot measure would add to the tax of five-sixteenth of one cent already imposed, and according to the explanation on the ballot, would serve to avoid service cuts and expand service in the Virginia Street corridor.
According to Derek Morse, deputy director of RTC, the tax has already been authorized to go this high by a 1981 law but needs a “yes” vote with each incremental raise. The increase would be paid by all those who buy sales-taxed products in Washoe County, including those who do not use the public transportation system.
Ken Manz, a local blogger interested in urban planning, believes that all people in the community have a responsibility to pay for public transit but has doubts that RTC will provide the services that many of those people need.
“Every taxpayer is a potential user of the public transportation service,” Manz wrote. “I’m not real confident that RTC’s bus service is good enough to serve as a backup plan for most people, I think RTC-2 is a worthwhile measure to pass to prevent further service cuts from those already announced, but RTC could use a shakeup in the form of some serious public involvement and priority setting. Until that happens, the bus isn’t going to register with voters.”
Linda Scott, an accountant on the committee that prepared the sample ballot arguments and rebuttals against RTC-2, said that an expiration date is needed on the tax, and that more transparency is needed in how money is spent.
“RTC got money from the federal government three years ago to buy property for the Pyramid highway corridor, and the property is still there, and there’s no explanation of how the money was used,” Scott said.
Due to funding problems, RTC has cut 9 percent of the current bus service and faces another 25 percent cut that, according to Morse, would set the bus system back to the same level of service as it had in 1988.
Nine days before the election, two bus routes were discontinued and service to several other routes reduced.
Morse said that if RTC-2 is passed, not only will it prevent the 25 percent cut, but also it will reverse many of recent cuts and even allow for some modest growth.
“I realize that people have been asking for service in certain areas,” Morse said. “Especially in the Spanish Springs and Sierra Summit areas we are looking at some modest expansion.”
Manz says that after reviewing RTC’s long-term plan, he is impressed with some of the changes.
“I was ready to give the RTC a hard time, but then I took a look at the routing and schedule changes due November 26, and it seems they’re doing a few things right routing-wise,” Manz wrote. “The main problem with RTC is that service just isn’t frequent enough and still, not enough areas are covered. It all comes down to money.”
Ending voters’ role
RTC-5 seeks funding from the Nevada Legislature for transportation projects that will: “Reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and maintain and repair roads in the Truckee Meadows.”
The basic question, which appears on the voting machine and which is found in bold print on the sample ballot, can be misleading when looking at the fine print.
A more direct question would read: Should RTC seek new legislation for indexing (read: raise) the fuel tax to make up for inflation in labor and construction costs associated with road and highway projects?
The arguments on the sample ballot do not address the fact—or even mention it—that voters could lose the ability to vote on these increases. Depending on how the legislation was drafted, RTC could raise the tax on its own.
According to RTC Deputy Director Derek Morse, the indexing would reflect the producer price index on labor and construction costs. Morse said that RTC faces a 60 percent budget shortfall because of inflation.
Donald Drake, who is on the citizen committee that wrote the opposition ballot arguments, said that a major concern is how much the taxes would be raised by the indexing.
“It will be a real hit to the taxes, and it should be explained better to the public what they are getting into,” Drake said. “Another issue is how the figures that were used to represent the budget shortfall were presented. As the election got closer, the figures got lower, and I think that these need to be taken into consideration.”
Morse said that indexing the inflation is a needed measure because 60 percent of the budget shortfall is due to lost purchasing power caused by inflation.
“It’s a common misconception to think that because fuel prices have increased, that the tax has gone up,” Morse said. “Fuel prices and fuel tax are not related. This is a flat tax and has barely gone up in 15 years.”
Another concern about this ballot measure is the question of who decides how the money is allocated.
Morse said that the fuel tax can only be used for road and highway projects and that the legislature would have no say in how local money is used. Morse also said that priority projects are decided by the RTC Board comprised of county commissioners and city council members from Reno and Sparks.
“This is locally raised money and will stay in local control,” Morse said.
Some detractors have argued that by increasing road and highway capacity, there could be generated traffic—more traffic attracted by the initial ease of driving new routes—which would undermine the arguments of reducing congestion and improving air quality.
Manz finds these arguments faulty.
“I think viewing funding for infrastructure through the lens of social engineering is detrimental,” Manz wrote in an email exchange. “It just doesn’t make sense to pit drivers against riders. Roads and transit are both needed infrastructure: Price and wage fluctuations mean people need mobility options that account for contingencies, and Washoe County’s economy is heavily invested in logistics, so freight mobility is a big concern. Rather than trying to piecemeal and play factions off against each other, it’s best to think of these as quality of life issues that affect the entire region. Roads are good, so is high-capacity transit.”
Richard “Skip” Daly of Laborers Union 169 said that he is for both ballot measures, especially in an economy where more jobs are desperately needed.
“I think it is important to have an up-to-date, efficient transportation [system],” Daly said. “It means less cars on the road and will increase the capacity. If we want the community to be viewed better and become a green city, then everyone has to contribute. I think that if they don’t, then they are being selfish.”