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Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Mass-Transit Plans Would Raise Taxes, Fees

By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE New Mexicans could be paying for mass-transit projects when they register their cars or buy a new shirt under bills before state lawmakers.
    The idea is to use some registration fees and additional gross receipts taxes to pay for regional transit-related projects on a continuing basis, bill sponsors and supporters said.
    "You need a perpetual revenue stream if you are going to have a public transit system of any value," said Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque. Beam is sponsoring a bill (HB 584) that would allow cities to increase car registration fees by up to $25. If approved, the money would be earmarked for public transit and light rail projects.
    Another bill (SB 420), sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, would give cities the authority to ask voters for up to a half-cent gross receipts tax add-on on goods and services sold in the state.
    "We're looking to make mass transit an option, to cut back on people using cars," Lopez said.
    But only cities that are part of so-called regional transit districts would be eligible to get the funds under Lopez's bill. Those districts are provided for in a bill approved Tuesday by the Senate. And under another bill (SB 34), sponsored by Sen. Ben Altamirano, D-Silver City, any local government in the state could agree to form a district to pool resources for increasing mass-transit options.
    It would take local government and voter approval to fund a project under Lopez's measure.
    "Right now you've got all these governments planning transportation in a fragmented way. This brings it together," said Lawrence Rael, executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, who is supporting the transit district measure.
    Proponents said the combination of bills would put New Mexico on par with other states when it comes to ride sharing, reducing pollution and creating new jobs.
    "Obviously we need to look at transit on a regional basis and I think these bills are a step forward," said Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez.
    County Manager Juan Vigil said he supports the transit district idea because the county has had to ask Albuquerque to expand SunTran service to some areas of the county.
    "I think it's important to allow us to have a transit system that serves a whole area," he said in an interview.
    Some opponents to the transit district idea including the 17 senators who voted against the transit district measure during debate on the Senate floor said regional transit can be extremely expensive.
    "There is no place in this country where a mass-transit system is self-sustaining," said Sen. H. Diane Snyder, R-Albuquerque. "... When you keep going to the public for funds, the people will rebel," she said.
    Altamirano said the measure is sorely needed, in particular in the state's rural areas.
    "Many of them can't do it themselves," he said.