Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The conundrum of transit funding

Nice story on Spokane using federal stimulus money to bus buses, including some diesel-electric hybrids.

The problem with this in, say, Salem, is that we're not short of buses, we're short of operations dollars --- which you have to have to put a driver in the seat of the bus. In countless areas, the strings that the feds tie to federal funding make it worse than useless: you can buy a bus with federal dollars, but you can't use any federal dollars to make the investment pay off. Likewise, you can't use buses bought with federal dollars to start charter bus runs to staunch the flow of red ink in your transit system.

Right now the Legislature is debating letting districts like Cherriots impose a payroll tax to raise more operating funds. It's hard to know if this is the right idea -- transit is melting down, making all the money spent on the buses wasted. And, when gas prices shoot up again, people are going to be very angry when there's only a skeleton bus system waiting for them. On the other hand, there is a fundamental problem with paying for a basic service that should be on a par with sewers, police and fire protection, street lights, and garbage pickup through a payroll tax. Oregon, and Salem in particular, is already way too dependent on income taxes --- adding another dependency on income taxes just worsens the whipsaw we experience when jobs are declining.

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