By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — Local governments in Central Oregon have banded together ahead of the 2017 legislative session in support of a proposal that some say could lead to improved mass transit in the region.

The proposal would give the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council, which operates transit service in the tri-county region, new authority to ask cities and voters to raise property taxes to beef up transit. State law doesn’t allow such an arrangement.

The concept is being proposed in Salem as a way to lead the COIC down a more sustainable path while maintaining local control over taxes in a region where transit needs vary widely.

“As systems grow, they outgrow the capacity (for cities) to fund them,” said Karen Friend, interim executive director of COIC. Friend said the concept was “an additional tool” for funding transit that would allow cities, the council and voters to each weigh in.

Under the concept, which is still being finalized by legislative attorneys, supporters say city and county governments within the COIC service area would determine their own transit structure before COIC could decide to take a property tax levy to voters.

Friend said every county and city government in the COIC service area supports the proposal.

“I’m very supportive because it allows the cities to do what they feel is best and allow their own voters to determine that path forward,” said Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney.

The district has relied on a patchwork of funding from cities that can dedicate money from their general fund budgets, or from other public and private groups that work together to fund transit that might benefit their constituents.

Bend contributed $2.9 million to COIC for transit in its 2015-17 budget, a level of funding that City Manager Eric King on Tuesday said was unsustainable to meet a growing need or improve underserved areas in southeast or north Bend.

“Our goal is to leverage the strength of a system that’s operating already versus creating a brand new transit district that doesn’t recognize there’s a lot of distance between communities in Central Oregon, and the size” of the cities, King said.

Raising revenue to maintain and improve the state’s infrastructure has remained an emerging top priority for legislators across the state heading into the 2017 legislative session.

Legislators working on the package have highlighted preparing Oregon’s roads and bridges for an impending major earthquake event off the coast as a preferred target. That work will lead to focus on improving U.S. Highway 97, which would become the state’s major corridor if an earthquake destroyed infrastructure west of the Cascade Mountains.

Erik Kancler, who lobbies for the city of Bend, said he hopes the concept can move forward in the Legislature on its own, separate from the broader transportation package.

“This doesn’t take anything off the table, it just adds a new tool,” he said Tuesday. “You could be developing a long-term dedicated funding source and free up general funds for other uses.”

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who has taken a hard line against taxes while in the Legislature, said he was “sympathetic to the city’s local concerns on transit” but that he’d need to see the final concept before offering his support or opposition.

“Whenever you’re giving local government the opportunity to potentially raise taxes on citizens, I want to know exactly how the legislation is going to work and what taxing avenues they would have at their disposal if the legislation were to pass,” Knopp said.

The Legislature begins Feb. 1.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,