Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Streetcar Tax to Go to Voters
By Jim Ludwick
Copyright © 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
The tax for streetcars will go on a ballot after all.
Mayor Martin Chávez and City Council President Martin Heinrich said they will ask voters to decide whether the city's transportation tax should continue until 2020 to pay for a streetcar system on Central Avenue.
Councilors recently approved a rewrite of the transportation tax ordinance to provide money for streetcars while extending the tax until 2020. It led to controversy because the council did not send the question to voters, who had approved the original tax in 1999 with the idea that it would expire after 10 years.
Chávez said he wants to end the dispute over whether to have a public vote on the tax, so the community can concentrate on the merits of a streetcar system.
He said the streetcar project was intended "to unite the community, not divide the community. We feel we've gotten off track with a vocal minority who has made this a very divisive issue."
Heinrich said a vote on the tax is "the best way to clear the air." He predicted the proposal will win public support.
Albuquerque is "a forward-looking, progressive-policy community," and the streetcar project fits that profile, Heinrich said.
They also pointed out that the transportation tax would provide money for road projects, trails, bikeways and the bus system, in addition to the streetcar project.
Chávez said he wants to share the ballot with the Albuquerque Public Schools election scheduled for Feb. 6. Legislation will be introduced at the next council meeting, he said.
The announcement drew praise from the three councilors who had opposed extending the transportation tax without a public vote. All three Don Harris, Brad Winter and Michael Cadigan said they're willing to consider the streetcar idea.
"I think it's a good day for the city of Albuquerque," said Harris.
Winter said the decision "is a great thing. It gives the taxpayers a chance to vote on this issue."
He said he has no opinion about the streetcar proposal and that his objections had focused on extending the tax without going to voters.
"I look forward to the debate on the streetcar, and I think the citizens of Albuquerque will, too," he said.
Cadigan said holding an election will be healthy.
"I think a project like this has to have support from the public before you go forward," he said.
He said he has "an open mind" about the streetcar proposal and it seems to be "a good idea, generally." He said he wants more information, especially about alternatives for funding the project.
Councilor Craig Loy said many people thought the tax should go to voters and with that issue settled, they will consider the streetcar proposal on its own merits.
"I think the streetcar program is good for Albuquerque," he said.
Councilor Ken Sanchez said officials should consider putting the tax on the ballot in October, during Albuquerque's regular municipal election.
He said it would be less costly than holding a special election in February, and it would provide more time to study the streetcar issue.
Sanchez said the APS election on Feb. 6 will deal with a property-tax proposal, and adding the transportation tax to the ballot might hurt the chances for both measures.
Chávez said an election in February would provide a decision while the Legislature is still in session. That could help the city in its efforts to get state support for the streetcar system, he said.
The plan calls for spending $150 million from the transportation tax for a streetcar line on Central, from Washington Avenue to Atrisco just west of the Rio Grande. It could be expanded later.
State funds would be sought for a connection to the airport, which would bring the total to an estimated $270 million.
The transportation tax provides $34 million annually. It's a quarter-cent gross-receipts tax.
When councilors changed the tax to pay for the streetcar, critics called it a tax increase. Chavez said it was simply an extension of an existing tax.
To extend the tax, which was supposed to end after 2009, the council repealed the 1999 law and replaced it with a rewritten version that changed how the tax was divided and when it would end.