Why wouldn’t the city help Cap Metro?

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At City Council today the issue of whether the city or Cap Metro should be paying for something briefly came up. CM Ora Houston, in her last meeting, worried about the city potentially funding fare discounts or other incentives as part of a pilot program to boost bus ridership.

Houston said that the relationship between the city and Cap Metro is “like a marriage,” and it’s important that neither partner take on too much responsibility. She noted that the city recently provided $6 million to the transit agency to help fund the corridor study for Project Connect, Cap Metro’s effort to develop high-capacity transit. She doesn’t want the city giving it more money, she suggested.

“I don’t want this to become a slippery slope … that’s actually coming off the property taxpayers’ backs,” she said. 

My response: Who cares?

I get why people who oppose transit care. But if you support transit, as Houston does, why wouldn’t Council support contributing to a transit initiative if it will help its constituents? And why would the average Austin taxpayer care which pot of money a good policy is funded by?

In case you’re unfamiliar, Cap Metro is funded by a 1¢ sales tax. The $6 million that the city provided it a few months ago was actually a portion of sales tax revenue that Cap Metro had collected but that it agreed to send back to the city as part of a convoluted political deal engineered by road warriors back in 2000.

Yes, sales tax is the dominant source of public transit subsidies throughout the U.S., but as far as I can tell there’s no particularly good reason that that’s the case. Successful transit systems are often able to levy property taxes. There are no sales taxes in Oregon and yet Portland has a great public transit system. How’d they do that?

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