Transit district formed

The move portends a request to voters to raise the sales tax to pay for street work.

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WALLA WALLA -- The City Council on Wednesday approved the formation of a transportation benefit district, setting in motion the strong possibility that voters will decide the fate of a sales tax increase to fund road improvements early next year.

The TBD passed 5-2, with dissenting votes from Council members Dominick Elia and Conrado Cavazos.

The new district's governing board is made up of the City Council.

The board will have authority to ask voters to approve increases in sales tax -- voters may see a proposal for an increase of 0.2 percentage points -- bonds or vehicle license tab fees of up to $100. Each would require a simple majority for approval.

The board will also be able to pass, without voter approval, up to a $20 license tab fee and toll fees.

"For a lot of people, $20 is still quite a bit. I am paying $50 for tabs now. All of the sudden I am paying $70 and it makes a difference," Cavazos said.

Elia said he voted against the district because there were still too many unanswered questions over how funding will be handled.

One of the advantages of a district is that funds generated from it must be used for transportation.

Those projects, however, fall under a "broad" scope, according to a city of Seattle report on transportation benefit districts. The district's funds could be used to pay for public transit, safety projects, improving air quality, freight mobility improvements and other projects, according to the report.

The district had to be formed to allow the city to ask voters to approve the sales tax increase, and currently staff has no intention of raising vehicle license tab fees, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.

"I don't mean to sound greedy or overreaching, but the $20 would only raise about $400,000. Now that is not chump change, but it is not going to get us to where we need to be in the transportation plan," Shawa said.

Raising the vehicle license tab was also one of the least favored transportation funding options in a recent city survey, with a 17 percent approval rating; a 0.2 percentage point sales tax increase received 52 percent approval and would raise close to $1 million each year, according to city documents.

The boundaries of the new district are the same as the city's.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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