B end voters are likely to be asked to create a permanent taxing district for public transit within the next few years, City Manager Eric King told The Bulletin’s editorial board in December. Selling taxpayers on such a district will be no small task, as they’ve said “no” multiple times. For that reason, I’ve argued previously, local officials should be careful to avoid missteps that could erode voters’ trust.
The past two weeks have been a mixed bag.
First, the good news. On May 18, the policy board that directs Bend’s Metropolitan Planning Organization decided not to go ahead with a plan to spend nearly $200,000 in discretionary funding on a type of bus that costs more than twice as much as the model that has served Bend adequately for years. The money has been set aside with the intention of eventually using it for public transit.
The MPO is a federally designated body that helps with regional transportation planning and acts as a conduit for federal funding. One source of funding, the surface transportation block grant (STBG) program, has been used historically to pay for street preservation. Since 2012, some of the money has been carved out for the purchase of transit buses. In December, the MPO’s board voted spend $652,500 on street preservation and $184,000 to buy a fixed-route bus.
But not just any bus.
Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, a regional entity that operates Bend’s fixed-route transit system, has been working to replace cheaper, high-floor buses with expensive, low-floor buses. The last high-floor bus COIC bought cost about $150,000 while the desired replacement buses cost $400,000 apiece. COIC has ordered a few such buses using other sources of funding and would like to combine two years’ worth of STBG funding to buy another.
The expensive buses have one notable advantage: People with limited mobility can board and exit more quickly. This is not an insignificant difference, but the less-expensive buses function adequately, which is why COIC has been using them for years. And spending limited discretionary funding on expensive, state-of-the-art buses used by relatively few people while short-changing Bend’s roads, which are used by many people, is strategically short-sighted. At least if local officials want to convince Bend voters to raise their taxes for public transit.
The MPO board’s decision to approve the street-preservation funding while setting aside the bus funding is a good one. If nothing else, the board, which features three Bend city councilors, is willing to act slowly and carefully with so much at stake.
Even as the MPO board exercised caution this month, however, the city of Bend has continued to push a Rube Goldberg hallucination through the Legislature that could poison any attempt to create a local funding district for transportation. Even if House Bill 2745 survives, local officials should have the good sense never to use it.
The bill would set up a complicated process for doing something Bend residents can do very simply, and with greater accountability. If Bend wanted to create a special district to fund public transportation — and it does, desperately — councilors could put the question to the city’s voters. It did just this in 2008. If voters had gone along with the proposal, their district and their money would have been overseen by an elected district board, ensuring accountability.
The transit bill would create a multistep process to achieve the same end. First, voters in COIC’s entire service area, which includes Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties, would have to approve a permanent rate limit.
Next, the Bend City Council and COIC would impose a rate within that cap, no second local vote needed. COIC would collect the money and prove transit services within Bend, and the local accountability that would usually be provided by an elected district board would be provided, instead, by a transit advisory council appointed by COIC’s board with the help of the city. Reassured?
This complex process serves one overriding purpose: It keeps COIC in the transit driver’s seat. While the folks at COIC surely appreciate this, simplicity and local accountability are a lot to ask Bend taxpayers to sacrifice for the purpose of propping up a regional bureaucracy. That’s why they’ll never go for it.
And that’s why Bend should seek to form a transit district the old-fashioned way, no matter what happens with HB 2745. With buses and tax policy alike, sometimes older and simpler really is better.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.