A majority of Spokane City Council members have stated their interest in creating a transportation benefit district, an option created in state law to provide local governments with a dedicated source of revenue for building streets and roads.
Transportation infrastructure isn’t the motivating factor in this case, however. The city is approaching its year-end deadline for adopting a 2011 budget, and it needs some way to erase a $12 million shortfall. Significant layoffs, including in the fire and police departments, lie ahead.
A transportation benefit district, or TBD, would allow the city to collect an annual $20 tab fee on motor vehicle registrations, which would add an estimated $1 million to city revenues in 2011 and $2 million per year thereafter. Technically those funds would be for street maintenance, but the city could use them to supplant existing funds that then would be diverted to other general fund expenditures.
Under the dire fiscal conditions confronting the city, the council members’ interest in a TBD is understandable. It’s a reasonable strategy for dealing with immediate pressures.
But the city needs to anticipate and make allowance for the long-term implications of such a move.
For some time now, Spokane County commissioners have been contemplating a countywide TBD that would help fund individual municipalities’ local street projects while also supporting regional projects needed in an efficient areawide transportation network.
As modern automobiles become more efficient, and as cost-conscious and conscientious citizens use more alternative transportation modes, gasoline tax revenue will continue to lose buying power. TBDs are seen as a means of compensating for that loss as well as providing local matching funds that state and federal transportation projects increasingly require.
In a recent letter telling the county of their interest in a TBD, City Council members said they plan to drop their tab fee and become part of a countywide district if the county forms one. Spokane Valley City Council members gave indications at a meeting last month that they might favor their own municipal TBD over a countywide one.
A countywide TBD would require participation by 60 percent of the county’s municipalities and enough of them to represent 75 percent of the incorporated population. Another way to put it: Without Spokane and Spokane Valley, it’s all over.
Spokane City Council members who signed the letter to the county need to do more than wait passively for the county to act. They need to demonstrate their commitment to a countywide TBD by playing an active role in making it happen.
As recessionary troubles subside, the city’s fiscal condition will improve, but the transportation funding challenges will only grow more complicated. It would be a mistake to address a short-term problem by sacrificing a long-term opportunity.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.