Monday, September 12, 2011

Bike-sharing deferred, but tax talk moves forward

Did I mention that a Charlotte City Council committee scheduled to discuss a possible bike-sharing program this afternoon was also going to talk about "finding new revenues" for roads? I believe I did.  And you don't have to be a political science professor to know elected officials won't breeze quickly through any talk of new or higher taxes.

The result: Much information about higher registration fees, new sales taxes, new toll roads and even a vehicle-miles-traveled tax. (For details, see below.) The council's transportation and planning committee voted to refer the whole topic to the council's budget committee and to urge city staff to make sure the topic comes up during the council's retreat next winter.

But no bike-sharing discussion. The committee ran out of time. That discussion is now scheduled for the committee's Oct. 10 meeting.

For transportation policy geeks and tax policy geeks (I plead guilty), the how-to-fund-it-all discussion was meaty and even, well, sort of fun. The presentation from developer Ned Curran, who chaired a 2008-09 citizen group called the Committee of 21, is here. (For details, read that PowerPoint.)  In a nutshell, the Transportation Action Plan, adopted five years ago and due for an update, lays out a series of countywide transportation improvements. The Committee of 21 concluded the gap between identified road needs and known funding sources (federal, state and local) over 25 years is $12 billion. So ... how do you find that money?

Curran, CEO of the Bissell Cos., made clear that the committee's charge was to look specifically at roads, not at other transportation modes. They looked at 19 different revenue options, such as sales tax and gas tax increases, driveway taxes, impact fees, sin taxes and even parking surcharges. (The full list is on page 6 of the presentation on the committee agenda.) They assessed the options based on how related they were to driving, how much revenue they'd produce, how easy to implement and operate, political reality, etc.

The Roads Final Four:

  1. Doubling the $30 vehicle registration tax from $30 to $60 = $18 million a year.
  2. A half-cent Mecklenburg sales tax increase for roads = $81 million. Note, that estimate was before sales tax revenues plunged in 2009. A more recent estimate would be $55 million, Charlotte Department of Transportation chief Danny Pleasant said.
  3. Tolls on all existing interstates in the county = $52 million a year. This, obviously, depends on the toll assessed and what revenue-splitting agreements would be forged with the federal and state governments. 
  4. A vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax. Curran said this option has gotten plenty of national discussion and would likely have to take place nationally, but as federal and state gas tax revenues sink due to more efficient cars and and people driving less, the VMT tax will get more credence. Privacy concerns? "If any of us have our phones on in our car, we're being tracked anyway," Curran quipped.

As Curran and Pleasant discussed the toll roads situation, it got interesting. A multistate agreement is in the works, they said, with which other states would agree to help each other capture the cents-per-mile tolls if, say, a New York driver zipped through North Carolina on I-95 and didn't pay the tolls. New York would collect the money (how? that wasn't clear) and send it to N.C.  Meanwhile, North Carolina is one of several states applying for a program to inaugurate tolls on parts of I-95. With more tolls and more states cooperating – and with innovations such as a High Occupancy Toll lane being planned for I-77 in north Mecklenburg – pretty soon you've got a VMT anyway.

One doubter about all this: Council member Michael Barnes. "There has never been the political will among elected officials to deal with it [funding transportation]," he said. "I am tired of it." Count him among skeptics who think council members will, once again, after discussion fail to enact any specific measures to fund the city's plans for transportation.  


Gary O'Brien said...

I'm sorry to hear this... you would not believe how much different the biking situation is here in Tucson - there are bike-friendly features everywhere.

Take a look at the bike map on this site: I live a block from the Mountain Avenue Bikeway, just south of the Rillito River. As soon as the weather cools a bit, I will be on the bike more than in the automobile.

Gary O'Brien

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