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Local editorial

New taxes for new bus routes? It's worth considering, but RVTD has a lot of convincing to do

Traffic is a little like the weather: Everybody complains, but nobody does anything about it.

The Rogue Valley Transportation District would like to do something about it by adding new routes as well as more and more frequent stops. If more people rode the bus, fewer cars would clog the valley's roads.

But in order to do that, RVTD needs more money. Last week, RVTD General Manager Peter Jacobsen told the Medford City Council that a payroll tax could generate the necessary revenue. If RVTD became a mass transit district under state law, instead of the special district it is now, the district's board could impose a payroll tax on local employers without having to ask voters to approve it.

That's not necessarily a bad idea. But the road from here to there is fraught with potholes, some of them deep enough to stop a bus.

For starters, RVTD would have to ask the governor to create the mass transit district. Alternatively, the Medford City Council, representing the largest community served by RVTD, could make the request. Then, the county commissioners would have to endorse the request as well.

Needless to say, the support of the business community would be essential to convincing the county and the governor to go along. Public support for the move also would be needed.

— Oregon now has three mass transit districts: Portland's Tri-Met, Salem and the Lane Transit District in the Eugene area. The Medford area is clearly approaching the size of community that could support a larger bus system.

The payroll tax would not have to be excessive to generate enough money to expand bus service considerably. State law allows a maximum tax rate of 0.07 percent of annual payroll. That amounts to &

36;21 a year for an employee paid &

36;30,000.

Jacobsen says that even half of the maximum rate ' 0.035 percent of payroll ' could generate &

36;4.5 million to &

36;6 million annually, far more than the &

36;1.5 million the district gets now from its permanent property tax rate of 17 cents per &

36;1,000 of assessed value.

Before crunching any numbers, however, the community should step back and consider the other requests for funding that are on the horizon.

The Medford School District is likely to ask voters to approve a local levy to fix crumbling buildings. The Medford police and fire departments are talking about needing more money. And Jackson County could lose millions if federal budget cuts brought on by hurricane relief efforts eliminate the timber-related payments that have supported 18 Western Oregon counties for decades.

If that happens, the county's system of new libraries could be left without operating money unless voters made up the difference. Asking valley residents to choose between buses and libraries would not likely be to RVTD's benefit.

Finally, Jacobsen said last week that the district needs a new headquarters building. We don't buy it, and we suspect the community won't, either.

The district has half the administrative staff it employed two years ago. Space can't be that much of a problem. Jacobsen notes that houses are beginning to encroach on the RVTD complex on Crater Lake Avenue, and bus noise could become an issue.

If it does, and if RVTD succeeds in its quest to find new funding and add more service, a new headquarters might make sense as the bus system grows. But for now, the district has its work cut out for it just to sell the community on the idea of a new tax.