City Council wise to form transportation benefit district

If new taxes or fees are imposed for street work the benefit district will ensure the money will be used for the intended purpose.

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If the city of Walla Walla raises taxes or establishes new fees to fund street repairs, every penny collected must go toward fixing roads.

Wisely, the City Council took action on Wednesday that should serve as a lock box for new street-repair funds.

The Council, in a 5-2 vote, took action to form a transportation benefit district. The new district is essentially a separate government entity, although it will be overseen by a governing board made up of City Council members.

Nevertheless, the funds from the transportation benefit district can't be commingled with city funds. The money must be used strictly for transportation.

Apparently there is a little wiggle room in the law. Transportation projects fall under a broad definition, according to a city of Seattle report on transportation benefit districts. The district funds can be used to pay for public transit, safety projects, improving air quality, freight mobility improvements as well as street projects, according to the report.

But in Walla Walla it will be very difficult, if not impossible, from a political standpoint to spend that money on anything other than street work. A spotlight -- metaphorically speaking -- would be on the transportation benefit district

The city has tried several times to raise extra money for streets. In the late 1980s the sales tax was boosted with the idea the money would be used strictly for roads. But a few years later that money, which was commingled with other money in the general fund, was being used for a variety of purposes. As a result, not much progress was made on improving the roads.

Our position has been that if any new taxes or fees are approved for streets, we want a guarantee they will be used only for that purpose -- forever.

Establishing a transportation benefit district is about as close to a guarantee as can be expected given the latitude City Council members have to make -- and change -- laws.

We are not yet ready to endorse any particular tax, although the proposed 0.2 percent increase in the sales tax appears to be the best of the options suggested.

Ultimately it will be up to the voters to decide whether a higher sales tax or some other tax or fee is adopted.

But the formation of the transportation benefit district is a positive step as it will ensure the taxes collected will be used for the intended purpose.

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