Chamber offers advice on future transportation tax initiative
Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 8:01 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 8:01 p.m.
The Alachua County Commission plans to revisit the transportation sales tax issue early next year, and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce looks to play a considerable role in that discussion.
Recognizing the role that infrastructure plays in the local economy, the chamber organized a transportation task force this year to develop policies to guide its involvement in that arena.
“Transportation funding and infrastructure investment is an issue that’s being grappled with all across the country — city by city, county by county, state by state,” said Tim Giuliani, the chamber’s president. “We’re looking to work with government partners on how we address transportation funding and projects in the future.”
Giuliani said he is interested in the transportation summit that the County Commission plans to hold in early 2013, where local officials and citizens can discuss ideas for a new transportation sales tax referendum that the county hopes to develop for the 2014 ballot.
This year’s “Fix Our Roads” referendum, which would have levied a ¾-cent, 15-year sales surtax to fund countywide road repairs, was rejected by voters in November.
The chamber task force’s report suggested that any future transportation funding method, such as a roads tax, must include transparency and accountability. It mentioned the creation of an independent citizens’ oversight committee as a possibility.
Adrian Taylor, chair of the task force and senior pastor of Springhill Missionary Baptist Church in Gainesville, said the group knew accountability would be an important issue moving forward.
The chamber’s report raised concerns about the bus rapid transit plan for Gainesville, which could receive funding through a future transportation tax initiative. It mentions that the chamber could support a phased plan that gradually adds higher-volume routes like one along Archer Road to the University of Florida.
Taylor said the task force had concerns about bus rapid transit’s financial feasibility, particularly regarding how it will be sustained long term. He said a serious issue they noticed was whether the community could have enough population density to support bus rapid transit.
But the chamber does support improving Gainesville’s transit system overall, including improving Regional Transit System service in underserved areas like east Gainesville, Giuliani said.
“You know, we want to make sure that the ultimate decision is one based on data, that it’s responsible and that it’s financially prudent,” Giuliani said of bus rapid transit.
The goal of the task force was to develop a well-researched policy document to convey the chamber’s position moving forward, Giuliani said. The group, comprised of seven members from various professions, developed a report that offers policy positions and suggested strategies for local transportation improvements.
Taylor said the group evaluated transportation issues from a commerce perspective.
The report provides various suggestions, including some related to a potential transportation sales tax initiative. Its proposals include limiting the program’s duration to eight years or less.
An eight-year run allows citizens to build trust in the program and later renew it, similar to how Alachua County voters renewed the one-mill property tax for schools this November, Giuliani said.
County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said he wanted this year’s roads tax to run shorter than the 15-year plan that was ultimately proposed because it would give the county enough time to show people results, earn credibility and hopefully gain support for a subsequent tax. A shorter duration could also help raise initial support for the referendum.
“You don’t start out with a group that’s automatically against you because of the length of years, which did create a problem with some people the last go around,” he said.
Pinkoson mentioned that one advantage the schools property tax had is that an initiative revolving around children tends to have a more favorable starting point than one about roads.
The report also suggested the county match the revenue raised by a transportation tax with general fund allocations for road maintenance. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a dollar-for-dollar match, Taylor said.
“Asking for more revenue is going to be a touchy issue with anybody,” he said. “We recognize that the county is strapped, but so is our citizenry.”
Pinkoson doubted a full match would be possible because the tax would raise millions that the county doesn’t have to devote solely to road maintenance. But he thinks devoting a portion of general fund money could help demonstrate that the county considers it a priority.
Gainesville City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the chamber report raises good questions, especially the idea of phasing in routes. He said he doesn’t agree with everything in the report, but that the chamber has identified the connection between a strong economy and transportation investments.
“Transportation is economic development. What we really need to do is put together an economic development plan made up of transportation projects,” Hawkins said.
The task force completed its work this year, and now the chamber will move forward by working with local governments to advance transportation improvements in the community, Giuliani said.
After doing extensive research for the transportation report, Taylor said he hopes discussions about a new sales tax initiative won’t be short-circuited over personal ideologies.
“I would hope there could be compromise and cooperation, because, at the end of the day, this is about the community,” he said.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.