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October 01, 2008

Transit authority work group seeks feedback on legislative strategy

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The City-County work group developing a legislative strategy for the formation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is scheduled to meet again this Friday.  At their last meeting on September 19, 2008, the group met with representatives of a diverse 2005 community transportation committee known as the Transportation Funding Options Working Group (TFOG).  The committee’s 2005 recommendations were dusted off in search of a consensus regarding whether an RTA and new local government taxing powers would help tackle some of the numerous projects stalled on the area’s transit and transportation wish list.

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In January 2006, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) accepted the TFOG recommendations on policies and revenue sources that could be used to fund some or all of the area’s then $100 million in transportation project priorities.  Policy recommendations focused on structures under which the City and County could raise bondable revenue streams for cooperative projects. One of the funding options recommended for servicing these bonds was a new local sales tax of ½ cent dedicated to transportation.

Now almost three years after TFOG last met, their recommendations are taking shape as Charlottesville and Albemarle prepare legislation to go before the General Assembly in 2009.  A new RTA would take over the operations of Charlottesville’s CTS system and each locality would seek to levy a 1 cent sales tax to raise revenues for both transit and transportation needs. 

The September 19, 2008 meeting began with a briefing of the TFOG representatives by Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio), Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett), and City Councilors Dave Norris and Satyendra Huja.  Participants included representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the Realtors’ Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the UVA Foundation.

Supervisor David Slutzky, who chairs the RTA work group, provided the following background:

“We have had discussions with the City Council and the Board of Supervisors, in joint session, where the consensus view was we should ask for enabling legislation for it to be a transit authority, but that the funding tools would be transportation funding tools. Meaning that we would not only be able to fund transit needs, but also road projects, other pedestrian bike projects, other transportation needs.  It is clear to us that the General Assembly isn’t going to step up to the plate and fund our transportation needs for the foreseeable future, so we are asking them to at least give us the enabling legislation, [so] if we want, to do it ourselves.”

TFOG representatives peppered the officials with questions about legislative strategy, the projects that would be funded, different revenue options, and the allocation of funds towards transit vs. transportation.  New revenues would be required first to fund operational costs of expanded public transit and second to fund other transportation projects in the community (e.g. Fontaine-Sunset Connector; Eastern Connector).  As is done for water and sewer services, funding allocation formulas would need to be established by the City and County for transit operations. 

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One issue receiving significant discussion had to do with whether a local sales tax would require a voter referendum.  Mayor Norris said he was open to that approach.  Slutzky said he opposed a voter referendum on the sales tax.  He cautioned that a referendum could slow down the process and could obligate the community to specific transportation projects.  He did acknowledge that Richmond might require it (it could also be self-imposed) and that it may be needed to get necessary political support. 

Slutzky summarized his personal view about the consensus he hoped the group would share with the area’s local legislators. 

“In a perfect world…[the State] gives us the creation of the authority, they give us the enabling legislation, the penny on the sales tax to fund our transportation needs, and they let the local government officials wallow in the political process and be held accountable to the voters in the normal way, and that would be a great outcome.”

Speaking to the TFOG representatives, Rooker said, “We want to move forward on something that we feel like has community support.  If it doesn’t, it’s not going to succeed anyway.”

Once costs for transit operations were covered by new sales taxes, any balance collected in each locality, could then be contributed to a variety of transportation projects each year.  Attorney Morgan Butler, representing the Southern Environmental Law Center, focused his questions on which specific transportation projects would be on the list and eligible for support.  The group discussed a project list used by TFOG in 2005, as well as an updated list prepared by TJPDC staff for this meeting. 

Butler asked what would happen as projects were completed.  Rooker suggested the elected officials could go back to the voters and seek their input and support for additional projects, presumably if there had been a referendum on the sales tax in the first place.  In the absence of a referendum, the officials seemed comfortable with the existing community process that works through each local government, and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, to identify funding priorities.

Slutzky asked representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, the Realtors’ Association, the Southern Environmental Law Center, and the UVA Foundation, to report back as to whether their organizations would support the legislation allowing for the RTA and new taxing authority.

At this week’s meeting, the RTA work group will continue developing the draft legislation which will be reviewed by City Council and the Board of Supervisors before the end of the year.

Brian Wheeler

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