AZ: Council gives nod to Mountain Line tax going to voters on November Ballot

May 22, 2024
The question posed to voters will be whether to extend and increase the city's transit tax to support and expand bus services throughout the city.

May 19—It appears voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the future of public transit in Flagstaff in November after the Flagstaff City Council this week gave informal approval to a transit question for the ballot.

The question posed to voters will be whether to extend and increase the city's transit tax to support and expand bus services throughout the city.

But the transit tax question is likely to come as voters are also asked to weigh in on several other financial and tax questions, and as local leaders have expressed concern over the ever higher cost of living for residents.

The city is mulling increases to water and sewer rates, and could also look to put a question regarding the city's Bed, Board and Beverage tax on the ballot.

On Tuesday during Council's meeting, several councilmembers wondered whether it was the right time to be asking voters questions on the transit tax.

Mountain Line CEO Heather Dalmolin said there will never be a perfect time to have such a question be on the ballot, acknowledging that they are asking voters for a significant increase in the tax — nearly doubling it — at an already difficult time.

"There will always be a reason not to go to the voters," Dalmolin said. "But we feel like if we just put it off there will be another issue. Two years ago, we didn't come and ask to be on the ballot because there was a housing question and there was a floodwater mitigation question. But the truth is, if we had asked two years ago we may have had some of the funding we need to be responsive [to new challenges and opportunities] today."

And Dalmolin added that, given the hopes they have for expansion, and the importance of public transit to Flagstaff's climate goals, it might make sense for voters to weigh in sooner rather than later.

"I think it's important that we ask the voters now if they're interested in seeing an expanded transit with additional funding. I think that until we have the opportunity to engage the public and have that conversation, then we have plans that sit on a shelf. I think those plans need to be out there and people need to understand them," Dalmolin said.

Councilmember Lori Matthews pointed out that voters rejected the last transit-related question put to them regarding an increase in the transit tax back in 2018.

But Dalmolin said that in surveying voters after the question had failed, they heard that one issue for voters was they felt it was unclear how the money would be used. Dalmolin said they believe they can show voters exactly how past transit tax money has been used to improve service.

The current transit tax is already about .29 cents per $100, and sunsets in 2030. In November, it appears voters will have the opportunity to decide on whether to extend that tax to 2040, and increase it by about .20 cents per $100.

Of that, .08 cents of it would go to support current operations, with the remaining going to expand and increase service across the city.

"That's to catch up with all the cost increases that we're seeing," Dalmolin said.

Mountain Line officials have said they have seen costs increase substantially in recent years as the cost of labor and gas has increased. Many of those planned service upgrades were outlined within the transit agency's new five year plan.

That plan includes adding service to and from the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, and looks to increase frequency on existing routes and expand their service hours each day.

For example, currently Mountain Line's Route 5, which runs from downtown to the neighborhood of Cheshire, only has service every hour. But that could become service every 30 minutes if they are able to implement the plan during peak hours.

"One of the things we know is that we need to increase frequency across the system," Dalmolin said. "If you want to change people's behavior around transit, it has to be as convenient as the car. And this five-year plan really allows us to address that."

Similar changes could be made to Route 3, running along the length of Butler Avenue and out to the mall, and for bus service along Route 66. Per the plan, frequency could be increased on those routes to have 20-minute service at peak hours, and 30-minute service at other operating hours.

And Dalmolin said the increased funding would allow for flexibility as the city continues to evolve and grow.

"What we're really looking for is to have the funding available for when there is a service need. Imagine if we'd had this conversation five years ago, how different our approach could have been in supporting the relocation of the hospital with transit service," Dalmolin said.


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