Transportation tax debated at city candidate forum
Published: Monday, February 24, 2014 at 10:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 at 10:13 p.m.
The potential sales tax referendum in November and the redesign of Northwest Eighth Avenue were two topics at a transportation-focused candidate forum put on Monday evening by the Gainesville Cycling Club and Gainesville Citizens for Active Transportation.
Nine of the 10 candidates in March’s three races attended. District 3 candidate Craig Carter was absent.
A majority of the candidates spoke in favor of a transportation sales tax. The County Commission majority, which will have the final say on what goes on the ballot, is proposing a one-cent eight-year sales tax.
District 3 incumbent Susan Bottcher said she “absolutely” supports the tax to fund a “comprehensive approach” to transportation that includes road resurfacing and repair, enhanced bicycle facilities and expanding existing transit services.
District 2 incumbent Todd Chase said he could not say whether he would support the tax or not at this point because there was no set city project list at this time. During last Thursday’s commission meeting, Chase made a motion to remove bus rapid transit from the city’s working list after the final draft of a consultant’s study said a system in Gainesville would struggle to be competitive for federal funding. His motion died for lack of a second. The study still has to go through one more public input meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, before it is eventually finalized.
Chase said he does support putting some money toward transit and bicycle and pedestrian facilities. He said the city should work to accelerate its paving program for neighborhood streets.
District 2 candidate Cheri Brodeur said she favors the tax, but the voters she meets when out campaigning door to door appear to oppose it. She said she finds “a lot of animosity” toward the commission on transportation issues because of the money spent on consultants’ studies. In recent years, those have included the $650,000 bus rapid transit route alternatives study and a $100,000 initial study on a potential streetcar system downtown.
District 2 candidate Sheryl Eddie said she, too, favors the tax “but there’s a lot of distrust” among voters over what will turn out to be spending priorities. When it comes the sales tax, Eddie said the priority should be “road repair first.” During the forum, she also spoke in favor of improving bus routes that low-income residents rely on to get to work or the store.
Of the at-large candidates, Helen Warren said she supports a short-term tax with a specific project list featuring multiple modes of transportation.
Candidate Annie Orlando said the city should be working to meet its road needs with existing gas tax monies.
“In general, I don’t think a surtax should be the way to pay for paving our roads,” she said.
Candidate Mark Venzke supported the tax. In a written answer to a candidate questionnaire, Venzke, who said he uses his bicycle and public transit to get around, supported putting half the city’s revenues toward roads, 25 percent toward bicycle routes, 15 percent toward the bus system, 6 percent toward pedestrian facilities, 3 percent toward charging stations for electric vehicles and 1 percent toward bicycle rack installation.
Candidate Barbara Ann Ruth said all modes would be important to fund, but resurfacing neighborhood streets should be a priority.
Candidate Donald Shepherd, who also noted he uses his bicycle to get around, said the full commission has to decide, with the input from staff, where monies will be spent.
Separate questions on related issues asked candidates about their support for “complete streets” that accommodate all modes of transportation and how the city could better communicate its projects to the public in light of the contentious debate over the redesign of Main Street and Northwest Eighth Avenue despite “clear empirical evidence” they did not harm the level of service for automobiles. On Main Street, an automobile travel lane was removed to add a center turn lane and bicycle lanes.
A Public Works Department report from last year concluded that, after the project, travel times took longer but not, on average, significantly so. The report also shows lower speeds by motorists, fewer cars, more bicycles and pedestrians and a significant drop in the number of crashes.
As part of a larger resurfacing on Northwest Eighth, the City Commission majority now plans to remove a vehicle travel lane to add bicycle lanes, a median and wider sidewalks on a roughly seven-tenths of a mile stretch in the vicinity of Loblolly Woods Nature Park.
A consultant concluded the change would add 18 seconds to travel time.
Chase and Orlando questioned the conclusions. Chase said there was “still a lot of conjecture here.”
Orlando said in research the “best of them” still “hand pick and ignore data.”
Eddie said she initially opposed the Main Street redesign but now, after the project was done, she feels traffic flows more smoothly.
On the issue of complete street designs, Bottcher said she dismissed the argument that adding bicycle lanes takes something away from motorists.
“I don’t know where that logic comes from, but I dismiss it summarily,” she said.
Warren said that, during resurfacing projects, streets need to be designed for the next 20 years to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic and not just automobiles.