Want Transit? Get It on the Ballot!

(Photo: AP/Seth Perlman)

Construction crews work to build a four-lane highway on Route 29 in Edinburg, Illinois. The state has a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year geared toward preventing transportation funding from being used elsewhere.

Some voters who can’t get there from here may soon be able to. An estimated $200 billion in transportation ballot initiatives go before voters around the country on November 8. The 72 initiatives that will have been put to voters by year’s end represent the highest number of transit ballot questions since the Center for Transportation Excellence began tracking ballot initiatives in 2000. Of those, 44, or about 60 percent, will be decided on Election Day.

“Communities are increasingly looking to the ballot box as a tool for transit investment,” says Jason Jordon, the center’s executive director. Transit ballot questions give municipalities the opportunity to get public buy-in (and, in some cases, give politicians a way out of taking a tough tax vote in a hostile anti-tax climate). Local questions appeal to voters who understand how a specific project benefits their city or town, the environment, and their own commute and recreation choices.

These campaigns have high success rates. Since 2000, about 70 percent of transit measures the center has tracked have passed, which likely reflect voters’ belief that current public transportation networks are inadequate, decrepit, or both. But winning hearts, minds, and wallets on transit ballot questions is not a sure shot. Although the pro-transit side usually tends to be better funded, and better able to mobilize a strong grassroots coalitions of senior citizens, business leaders, union members, and others, the final vote is usually close, according to Jordan.

The composition of the electorate matters, too. Midterm elections can be tough going: 2010 and 2014 were banner years for Tea Party and no-new-taxes types who oppose revenue-raising initiatives. In Massachusetts in 2013, after the Democratic-dominated state legislature approved a three-cent gas tax increase, indexed to inflation, the following year voters repealed the indexing component by a margin of 6 percentage points. A coalition of anti-tax groups convinced voters that gas-tax indexing would lead to pegging other taxes to inflation.

Presidential elections turn out a more diverse cross-section of voters who tend to be more transit-dependent—one reason why there are so many measures on ballots this November. California has the most impressive slate of initiatives. On Election Day, there are 17 transit measures for local voters to weigh in on, mostly consisting of small, multi-year tax increases destined for a variety of transit projects. The country’s biggest transit ask goes before Los Angeles County voters, who will consider a $120 billion ballot question, Measure M, which would add a permanent half-cent sales tax and renew the existing half-cent tax; $98 billion of those funds would go to several light-rail line extensions, bus networks, and street and bicycle route improvements.

Western states generally use ballot initiatives to help fund transit, since localities have authority under state constitutions to put question before voters. Like California, Washington state has frequently seen winning transit campaigns. The Seattle metropolitan area will field the second largest initiative in the country in November, a $54 billion measure imposing sales, property, and excise tax increases to ramp up the region’s light rail, commuter rail, and bus networks.

In the upper Midwest, Michigan also has a history of transit question victories, particularly in smaller towns where municipalities use incremental hikes in property taxes to fund regional systems. The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has a $1.2 million property tax measure on the ballot to fund a commuter rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor and other projects.  Southern cities have also turned to ballot questions. On Election Day, Atlanta residents will vote on a 40-year half-cent sales tax to fund an expansion of the metropolitan area’s transit network.

Surprisingly, municipalities and counties in the transit-dependent Northeast, home to some of the oldest, most ramshackle transit systems in the country, generally do not have the authority to place local revenue-raising measures on the ballot. But the victories elsewhere have put pressure on states like Massachusetts, where transit advocates continue to fight without success for the authority to allow cities and towns to levy their own local transportation taxes.

Yet voters’ greenlighting of funding at the local and state levels should not be taken as a signal that states and municipalities plan to assume even more of the burden of paying for public transportation projects. They will still need to turn the federal government for a share of the costs. The problem is that the federal government hasn’t been all that responsive since Republicans took control of the House in 2010. Republican House members tend to resist increasing funding for public transportation, viewing it as a local responsibility and a policy that chiefly benefits disproportionately Democratic city-dwellers.

With federal dollars scarce, getting grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation has become fiercely competitive. Municipalities must take a sophisticated approach to designing an application that stands out—and a win at the polls can help. The transit projects that get built are partnerships that harness local, state, and federal dollars. No municipality or region can realistically go it alone without support from Washington, given the multibillion-dollar price tags attached to the more ambitious undertakings.

“In today’s world, what we are seeing is that in order to get to the front of the line for federal funding, locals need to be able to raise more to demonstrate that they’ve got political support for the project,” says Jordan.

Undergirding the ballot-initiative-as-transit-investment strategy is a recognition that transportation can be a great unifier. The attention on reinvigorated cities and young people’s zeal for transit, cycling, and ride-sharing services have forced many municipal leaders and transportation officials to stifle their car-centric economic development reflexes. But the appeal of transit extends beyond millennials and city limits. Senior citizens and business leaders could not be more unlike in their needs and wants, but enough of them have relocated to regions that offer, or at least have on tap, viable transit options. This growing support among a diverse group of voters eventually may compel members of Congress and federal officials to recognize that states and localities cannot meet these needs on their own dimes. After this Election Day, if most of these measures pass, the locals may be better able to persuade the feds to chip in. 

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