Johnson County commits to railway funding

BY LUKE VOELZ | MARCH 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Johnson County officials committed funding to the proposed Iowa City-Chicago Passenger Rail Project on Thursday evening.

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to the Iowa Department of Transportation on behalf of the county, Iowa City, and Coralville, promising funding to supplement the $230 million in federal grants for the project.

The move comes after Gov. Terry Branstad said he wouldn’t devote state funding to the project.

Instead, he asked the DOT to find local funding and determine how much each county should pay. Johnson County’s share would be $354,690 per year.

The state of Iowa would be required to commit a $3 million operations subsidy per year.

Supervisor Janelle Rettig said she believed the state should assist in funding given the railroad’s potential benefits.

“The academic development, jobs made, reduced gas, and traffic is worth many times the $3 million,” she said. “I think the state should just step up and say it will pay matching funds with my money, your money, everyone else’s money. That’s a more responsible way to do this than this hodgepodge method.”

Supervisor Sally Stutsman disagreed.

“Why should taxpayers in Orillia, Iowa, want to contribute to something that won’t have an economic benefit for them when there are such limited state dollars?” she said.

Officials said possibilities for raising money include tax-increment financing, sales tax, hotel tax, or raising property taxes. But because county officials can’t raise the sales tax or use tax-increment financing — options limited to cities — officials would have to rely on property-tax increases.

“I don’t think Gov. Branstad would like that, and neither would we,” Rettig said.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil voiced concern over the ambiguity of terms in the letter.

“It wasn’t really clear how the subsidy will be broken down, and I’m concerned by that,” he said. “The letter states that we’re prepared to pursue [funding] through methods that aren’t supported through the Iowa government.”

Rettig also said she was concerned the county would be forced into property-tax increases if Iowa City and Coralville were unable to raise enough funding.

Iowa City resident John Gardner said he believes the state and local governments would both benefit from shared funding, citing the benefits Rettig mentioned.

“To have one party do it isn’t appropriate,” said the 60-year-old.

The letter sported signatures by Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, Coralville Mayor Jim Fausett, and Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Harney. Harney said the University of Iowa was originally included until the supervisors received a letter saying the UI would send a letter separately, because it had not received all necessary approvals.

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