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Vote ‘yes’ to continue transit tax

Voters in four northern New Mexico counties – Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Los Alamos and Taos – have a tax issue on the ballot in the Nov. 6 general election. It’s a one-eighth of 1 percent gross receipts tax – the equivalent of 2.5 cents on a $20 purchase – to support transit operations.

A ‘yes’ vote doesn’t mean a tax increase. Approval will continue a tax that voters first approved in 2008. Back then, the four counties agreed to a “sunset” clause, under which the levy expires in 2024 without voter reauthorization, to give voters a chance to revisit the tax.

The revenue supports the North Central Regional Transit District, best known for its regional blue bus service. The transit district is asking for removal of the sunset clause now, years before the sunset, to accommodate better financial planning for the future and help the district as it seeks continued federal grant support.

Parts of the tax revenue go to the Santa Fe Trails bus system in the capital city, Los Alamos County’s Atomic City bus service and the Rail Runner Express commuter train. The district took over the Chile Line in Taos in 2015.

The Journal North recommends a ‘yes’ vote on the tax measure.

Back when the GRT increment was first approved, there were questions about the competence of the transit district’s management amid various controversies. But not now.

Ridership on transit district bus routes that extend from Edgewood to near the Colorado border and even over to Farmington continue to increase, despite relatively low gasoline prices that are always a drag on public transit passenger totals. Rides went up the past couple of years while bus ridership was declining nationally, according to district officials.

The transit district had 784,946 passenger trips for fiscal ’17, including numbers from the Santa Fe and Los Alamos systems, and southbound Rail Runner passengers. It has a 10,079-square-mile service area, a fleet of 53 vehicles and 419 bus stops. It provides bus service up the mountain to the Ski Santa Fe basin.

The district also has received kudos from national groups for its financial reporting and budget. In 2014, it earned a Federal Transit Administration award for outstanding public service in rural transportation.

Of about $7.8 million in annual revenue from the tax, Santa Fe Trails gets just over $1 million, Atomic City receives roughly $1.5 million and the Rail Runner gets $2,250,000. The rest goes for the district’s blue bus service.

Public transit is a must. Not everyone has a car or wants to use one. There’s also the obvious public benefits of reduced fossil fuel emissions, and just having fewer cars and trucks on the road. Public transit seldom pays for itself and taxes like this one provide a subsidy. Let’s not get into the debate here over whether the immense amounts of tax revenue that go for roads are mostly “user fees” or just a giant subsidy for vehicle travel. Bus systems need tax support.

This is the way to pay for bus service in northern New Mexico. Without the tax, rural and intercity bus service goes away unless some other funding source is found, district officials say.

Ah, but there’s also the Rail Runner, which gets money from this levy, too.

Declining ridership has amplified criticism about the train and its finances, and whether it should continue to run. Loss of its portion of the northern transit district tax revenue would mean cutbacks in rail service, according to the Rail Runners’ operators

The Rail Runner is cool as it is as it glides through Santa Fe, is a wonderful amenity for tourist or weekend day trips and is beloved by the commuters who do use it for its simplicity, its cost savings and eco-friendly effects versus car travel, and the time-out time a train ride provides. But the train takes longer than driving a car for those Albuquerque-Santa Fe trips (and there’s add-on time and trouble to get one’s final destination) and doesn’t go directly to the Sunport.

It’s not fair, though, to complain about the tax subsidy for the Rail Runner that this GRT increment provides, as long as voters approve it, again, with eyes wide open. That’s democracy. And the Rail Runner is there as a back-up for more commuters if fuel prices skyrocket again.

The Rail Runner’s eventual fate is a bigger issue than this tax and should be left for another time. For now, even Rail Runner critics shouldn’t throw the buses out with the bath water. Vote for this tax measure to keep the transit district going.

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