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Task force eyes private aid, sales tax support for DART; panel considers tax increase, status quo services for next year


The community leaders who run the DART public transit system informally agreed today to maintain existing routes and services for another year — and to raise property taxes 5 to 8 cents per $1,000 of taxable valuation to pay for it. 

The tax increase would be needed to cover, among other things, losses from the proposed withdrawals from the agency of five communities — Carlisle, Elkhart, Mitchellville, Polk City and Runnells — which would cut $250,000 in revenues for DART. In addition, the increase would cover DART’s expected loss of state payments meant to offset tax breaks for commercial properties. 

Those circumstances could change, leading to a smaller increase, DART budget officials said. 

The other choice members of the newly reconfigured and expanded Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority board were given: freeze DART’s levy. That would mean a 20 percent cut in services, a move that would leave one-third of riders without the transportation they have depended on.

The commission today received a much-anticipated consultant’s report that drew on a broad task force and community input. Basically, it called for higher property taxes and a move toward corporate and other private aid while the agency explores the possibility of sales tax support — a political long shot at best.

Local leaders debating how to pay for a proposed expansion to the DART public transit system told consultants they would prefer in the long run to ask for private support or seek approval for a new sales tax rather than change the property tax that now covers much of the operation.

Consultants HNTB reported to the Greater Des Moines Partnership that 52 percent of participants in the task force review said they would prefer to supplement the existing property tax rather than increase it or eliminate it. Another 32 percent thought property tax relief was the best approach for DART. 

The property tax for DART is limited to 95 cents per $1,000 in property valuation in each jurisdiction. Raising property taxes would mean a budget shortfall in 2025 just for existing services.

When HNTB asked the task force how DART’s pool of property tax receipts from member jurisdictions should be supplemented, 55 percent wanted to use sales tax, and 21 percent preferred seeking money from businesses and other private interests.

Dallas County voters today are deciding the fate of a proposal to add a local option sales tax in the county, which could put pressure on Polk County voters to do the same. The transit task force noted that money from the proposed local sales taxes is already spoken for, so they talked of the short-term need to raise property taxes for current needs, look for ways to get tax-increment financing funds, or TIF, and ask private companies for help with capital improvements in addition to the operations they also support to some degree. 

But those involved in the transit study eventually want to see a dedicated funding source such as a sales tax, and have planned a campaign to gain approval over the next two to three years. 

That could be a tough road. Local option sales taxes have overwhelmingly failed in Polk County over the decades. Some Polk County leaders doubted the Dallas County measure would pass. 

Voters overwhelmingly approved a new outdoor recreation and conservation fund in 2010, and if the statewide sales tax were to increase, that fund would get the first 3/8ths of 1 percent. However, lawmakers have declined to even debate a sales tax increase, even amid mounting pressure to expand conservation work to help clean waterways. 

The transit task force — part of a two-pronged review of DART that also led to a new board with broader suburban representation — also found that 80 percent of those questioned supported the moderate growth plan for DART, rather than the status quo system. The agency has looked at adding new bike-and-bus stations that eventually could have rental cars, better bus stops and new, speedier routes along some major thoroughfares, for example. 

The report estimated that shared ride sourcing services such as UberPool and LyftLine could replace 10 percent of DART’s bus trips, saving $1 million a year. But if DART offered subsidies for shared rides, demand could jump, making it hard to project budgets. 

The consultants found that DART operates efficiently when compared with similar-sized markets elsewhere. The system could increase ridership by connecting to other services to get riders to and from the bus routes. 

Eventually, driverless vehicles may cut the cost of transportation, but probably not for five to 10 years, the consultants reported. 

The study was financed by these entities: 
Atlantic Coca-Cola Bottling Co.
Bankers Trust Co. 
Catch Des Moines
Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority
Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization
Des Moines Area Community College
Greater Des Moines Partnership
Mercy Medical Center-Des Moines
Principal Financial Group Inc.
Ruan Transportation
United Way of Central Iowa
UnityPoint Health-Des Moines
Wells Fargo

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