Developers, Realtors are funding the campaign to raise your car’s registration fees

Commuters inch along Garden City’s Glenwood Street in bumper-to-bumper traffic. On Tuesday, Ada County voters will decide whether to raise their vehicle registration fees, providing millions of dollars more every year for projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion. A campaign for the increase is mostly funded by local Realtors and developers.
Commuters inch along Garden City’s Glenwood Street in bumper-to-bumper traffic. On Tuesday, Ada County voters will decide whether to raise their vehicle registration fees, providing millions of dollars more every year for projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion. A campaign for the increase is mostly funded by local Realtors and developers.

For an end-of-the-ballot measure, the campaign to raise car registration fees in Ada County has attracted some big donations.

As of Oct. 30, the campaign, Citizens for Better Transportation, had raised almost $180,000. That’s more than twice the combined total raised by all six candidates for two spots on the Ada County Highway District commission. Most of the money came in donations of $1,000 or more.

Some donors’ interest in the fee hike is obvious. Companies like Strata, Kittelson and Associates, JUB Engineers and Horrocks Engineers design roads. They could benefit from accelerated road projects that the fee would pay for. So could construction firms McAlvain Companies and Central Paving.

But the biggest chunks of money came from people in residential development and real estate sales. Some of the biggest names in Treasure Valley development — Corey Barton Homes, Brighton Corp., and M3 — each donated $10,000 or more. Hubble Homes donated $5,000.

And $87,500 from Boise Regional Realtors, the trade group for real estate agents, accounts for almost half the war chest. The campaign has spent some of that money on internet advertisements.

Why all the money?

The donations have drawn criticism.

“Surprise, surprise: it is primarily the developers themselves, contractors, and consultants who are happy to have current residents subsidize their profits and their ‘build baby build’ frenzy,” an Oct. 11 post on the Vanishing Boise Facebook page reads. Lori DiCaire, Vanishing Boise’s leader, is a frequent critic of the way local governments have handled growth in and around Boise.

But there’s nothing nefarious in the real estate experts’ advocacy for better roads, the campaign’s backers told the Idaho Statesman. They just don’t want traffic congestion to sap the market by making Boise and its surroundings a less attractive home.

“It’s a hot growth market, which is mostly good, particularly if you’re in the home-selling business and, obviously, in the home-building business,” said Craig Quintana, a former highway district spokesman who’s running the campaign. “But at the same time, you have to have a transportation system that keeps pace. Otherwise, you can kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs.”

A Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce executive was more blunt.

“If we do not address congestion issues, we know that our community will deteriorate,” said Ray Stark, senior vice president of government and community relationships and events.

Several developers who donated to Citizens for Better Transportation didn’t return phone calls.

How the Realtors got involved

In July, the five-member ACHD Commission approved a ballot measure to raise the district’s vehicle registration fees, which haven’t gone up since 2009. Ada County residents will decide the measure’s fate Tuesday.

If it passes, the annual fees would increase by 75 percent. For vehicles as old as two years, the fee would increase to $70 from $40. Vehicles between three and seven years old would cost $63 instead of $36, and vehicles older than seven years would cost $42 instead of $24.

These fees are on top of state registration fees.

In late summer, Boise Regional Realtor staffers met with Quintana, who’d recently joined the campaign as one of 16 committee members and its sole employee. The local Realtors group routinely vets candidates and ballot measures for endorsements, Director of Government Affairs Soren Dorius said.

Staffers recommended an endorsement of the registration fee campaign, Dorius said. A committee of real estate professionals, including Realtors, mortgage lenders and title experts, concurred. Boise Regional Realtors’ 15-member board voted unanimously to endorse.

A political action committee for the state Realtor organization approved the local group’s request for a $17,500 contribution to Citizens for Better Transportation, Dorius said, and the National Association of Realtors coughed up $70,000.

ACHD’s job list

ACHD says it would spend money from increased fees to widen intersections, add turn lanes, improve signal timing, install sidewalks and bike lanes, and provide safer routes to schools.

The list of projects resonated with Boise Regional Realtors, Dorius said.

“Our Realtors, when they look at issues, they look at them as people who are actual, active members of the community,” he said. “They live in the communities in which they work. And so, they really do care deeply about the future of the area.”

They also want to make sure traffic congestion doesn’t take hold here, he said

“It’s one of many factors that people look at when they’re wanting to relocate to any area,” Dorius said. “And it’s something that’s only going to get worse if something doesn’t get done about it.”

Boise councilwoman questions ACHD’s intent

Boise City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg, an urban planning expert, said she’s “really ambivalent” about the proposed fee increase.

“I’m not opposed to more money, but I want it spent effectively and efficiently,” Clegg said. She’s not convinced the highway district will meet that bar. She’s worried it will spend too much on road widening — an approach that can ease congestion initially but induce more drivers to use roads, causing the same traffic problems to reappear. She said maintenance alone costs $10,000 per lane mile per year.

Clegg suspects the highway district, cities and county government would more effectively address traffic if they invested the same amount of money in public transportation improvements.

“It would offer a way to move more people right away, as soon as the transit [improvements] were in place,” Clegg said. “It would also, in the long term, discourage or at least not encourage people to move farther and farther away because you’ve made it easier for them to drive.”

Boise Regional Realtors isn’t angling for ACHD to spend the money on any specific project, Dorius said, though the organization believes safer, more convenient pedestrian routes would make Ada County a better place to live.

Stark said traffic congestion is always a concern for business leaders considering a new or expanded operation in the Boise area. He said workers’ commute times aren’t usually the reason these business people worry about traffic. Rather, they see a plan to address transportation as a sign of a place that’s attractive for long-term investment.

“They want to know if we have our act together as a community,” Stark said. “They want to know what your plan is for future transportation improvements. They’re attracted by our growing area. But they also want to know that we’re on top of the growth issues by having a plan to improve the streets, improve the intersections, have more pedestrian-friendly projects.”