Passengers boarding a Greyhound bus can be sure they’re in the right place by checking the destination label near the windshield.
If Douglas County voters are asked to approve a transportation district in November, they may lack such a sign.
U-Trans officials have worthy goals. They want to ensure more rural residents are able to get rides to work, classes, doctors appointments and for other essential errands. As part of that ambition, bus service representatives are exploring options for funding a transportation district that would cut U-Trans’ ties with county government.
What isn’t yet clear is the source of the money needed to maintain and perhaps extend its operations.
Nobody can accuse former U-Trans Manager Toby Notenboom of being idle in pursuit of his goals. He won the endorsement of nine out of 12 cities for a public vote. Had he not suffered a heart attack that forced his retirement in January, he may have persuaded more city councils to support putting the proposal to voters this fall.
His successor, Cheryl Cheas, has said it’s possible to shape district boundaries in such a way that cities could keep out of it. But she’d prefer to get buy-in from the full dozen, and is redoubling efforts to draw Reedsport, Myrtle Creek and Canyonville into the fold.
Meanwhile, U-Trans is outlining a scenario in which voters would only be asked to approve formation of a transit district. Instead of being governed by the county, U-Trans would be overseen by an elected board. Voters needn’t bother about ponying up the money until later, however, maybe in 2014.
One potential source of revenue is a payroll tax. This would relieve the need for city contributions and would qualify as a local match for state grants. Should voters approve this route, employers might pay a $5 per $1,000 payroll tax, possibly phased in over five years.
Given the fate of many local district and school levies in recent years, and the fears of jabbing small business owners concerned about providing health insurance to their workers, the prospects of voter approval for any kind of new tax seems dim at best. A dearth of support last year closed the book on a proposal to form a library district, and that was before it reached the ballot stage.
Those who support U-Trans’ plans put forward compelling reasons to extend its range and increase its ridership. Too many county residents are struggling with unemployment, poor health, diminished access to services. Finding work, already a daunting prospect for many people, is a lot tougher without reliable transportation.
Still, forming a transportation district first and figuring out the finances later seems like putting the driver before the bus. Before voters buy that ticket, they should be told where the ride will take them.