November 17, 2008
Transit wins big at the ballot box!
Q&A with FTA's James Simpson
TARC provides a Ride to Safety
Voters Shout “YES!” on 73 Percent of Transit Ballot Measures
Susan R. Paisner, Senior Managing Editor
While the major focus of last week’s election was no doubt on the presidential outcome, there were 33 public transit-related ballot measures initiatives in 16 states that attracted a great deal of attention – and set a new record for approval. Voters approved 24 of 33 ballot measures (73 percent) – which authorizes expenditures of nearly $75 billion – once again signaling their support for transportation-related investment.
Since 2000, nearly 70 percent of all transportation measures have been approved, a rate that is double that of ballot measures in general. Of the 24 measures so far approved, 14 increased sales taxes, four provided funding through property taxes, and three authorized bonds.
Biggest winning initiatives
In these difficult economic times, would voters favor – or oppose – measures that would make their lives easier – but cost them more? Over two-thirds of the time, voters said “yes.”
Take Measure R in Los Angeles County, which passed with 67.4 percent of the vote. It calls for investing $40 billion in comprehensive public transit and traffic relief efforts through a quarter-cent increase in the county’s sales tax.
“Voters once again have said they are fed up with traffic and are willing to pay for a comprehensive traffic relief plan,” Roger Snoble, chief executive officer of Los Angeles Metro, said. “The passage of Measure R will give Metro the resources to vastly improve the quality of life for all Los Angeles County residents.” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the vote, at a time of uncertainty in the economy, emphasized the need for investing in the future of transportation for the region.
California’s statewide Proposition 1A, authorizing $9.95 billion in bonds passed 52.3 percent to 47.7. “History will remember this night, when Californians demanded a new transportation system for California's 21st-century travel needs,” said Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. “Thanks to tonight’s vote, a state-of-the-art, new transportation choice will link every major city in the state and move people and products like never before. The citizens of California have put the 21st-century ‘golden spike’ in the ground with a clear affirmation of high-speed trains.”
In the Puget Sound region of Washington State – including King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties – voters approved Proposition 1, which provides for a one-half percent increase in the local sales tax to support a $17.8 billion expansion package for Sound Transit over 15 years. A different measure failed last year. Sound Transit spokesperson Bruce Gray noted several changes between this year’s successful ballot measure and the previous one, primarily that Proposition 1 covered only transit while last year’s package also included highway expansion projects. A review of voter initiatives over past years showed that measures do better when they are as simple as possible – so perhaps eliminating roads in this year’s measure made the critical difference.
Another difference? This year’s measure had a smaller price tag. “We also can’t downplay the fact that we had such a large turnout with enthusiastic voters, a lot of new young voters,” Gray added.
What made this victory particularly notable was the defeat of Initiative 985, which called itself a “congestion reduction measure,” but called for such measures as opening HOV lanes to through traffic during rush hours, defeating their purpose and creating more congestion. Initiative 985 was losing by a nearly 60-40 margin – not terribly far from the margin by which Proposition 1 – won.
More approved initiatives in California
Voters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties approved Measure VV, which increases AC Transit’s existing parcel tax by $4 per parcel per month for 10 years. The transit agency requested the measure to help offset a projected $20 million deficit.
“About 72 percent of the voting public decided to vote in favor of that measure, which we believe validates our overall effectiveness as a transportation agency,” said AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson. “The measure’s success clearly means that the public overwhelmingly understood our financial dilemma, and opted to vote in favor of those with acute transportation needs, mostly children, the disabled, and the elderly. We’re gratified that the public saw that public transit is important and was willing to back it in that way.”
Measure A in Santa Barbara County renewed the county’s current half-cent sales tax for transportation, which had been scheduled to expire in April 2010. A total of 78.6 percent of voters approved the measure, which will raise more than $1 billion over 30 years.
David Damiano, manager of transit development with the Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District, suggested that the community has a strong environmental awareness, which helped the measure pass: “People here looked at the environmental benefits that transit provides to the community. They understand the importance of public transportation.”
In a district that includes Sonoma and Marin counties, Measure Q—a quarter-cent sales tax to support the proposed Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit line—received 69.5 percent of the vote. The SMART project will connect the California wine country to San Francisco Bay with 70 miles of rail and trails and 14 rail stations.
“Given our current economic concerns, this is a clear sign that the voters understand the value of green transportation infrastructure,” said SMART General Manager Lillian Hames. “They understood that now is the time to design and construct a project that reduces greenhouse gases, maximizes sound land use, and improves the quality of life for the North Bay.”
Two-thirds of voters in Stanislaus County, CA, approved Measure S, a half-cent sales tax that will generate more than $700 million for transportation over 20 years.
Voters approved a sales tax and advisory measure in West Sacramento regarding the continuation of using one-fourth cent of the existing half-cent sales tax for general government purposes until 2033. They also approved using the proceeds of the sales tax to fund the operations of a streetcar system serving West Sacramento.
Winning Handily in Arkansas
A measure regarding the continuation of service by the Jonesboro Economical Transportation System (JETS) in Jonesboro, AR, after three years of operation passed with 86 percent of the vote.
“You can’t sell a bad product, so obviously JETS has been doing a good job for the past three years,” said Steve Ewart, transportation coordinator with the city of Jonesboro. He described how the Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce formed an advocacy organization called “Friends of JETS,” which promoted the transit measure through an advertising campaign and a newsletter with a circulation of 2,500. The group’s “tremendously extensive effort,” in Ewart’s words, also included a speakers’ bureau, which spoke about JETS to city clubs and church organizations, and encouraging the local newspaper and television station to run editorials in support of the measure.
A Precarious Situation – Averted
The Western Reserve Transit Authority in Youngstown, OH, returned from the edge of shutting down with the voters’ approval of a quarter-cent sales tax measure in Mahoning County. The measure passed by about 13,000 votes, compared with a similar ballot initiative earlier this year that lost by 15,000 votes.
“We were in a position where we’d have to cut nearly 60 percent of our service because of state funding being cut to almost nothing,” said WRTA Executive Director Jim Ferraro. “This vote will actually give us probably triple what we were getting in the property tax from the city only. We’re putting all the service together, working throughout all of Mahoning County instead of just the city of Youngstown and the near suburbs.
Ferraro credited WRTA’s promotional campaign for the shift in voting patterns, explaining that the message emphasized “what public transit means to an area and how our area was suffering from people not being able to get to work…People are beginning to understand the value of public transit for Mahoning County residents.”
Fourth Time the Charm in Hawaii
Voters in Honolulu approved an amendment to the city and county charter that would establish a proposed $3.7 billion elevated commuter rail system (53 percent). There was doubt that this measure would pass, because three previous mass-transit plans over the past three decades failed for lack of political support. But as reported in the Honolulu Advertiser, frustration over congested roads outweighed concerns about costs. Said Mayor Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann: “Obviously nothing can stimulate this economy more than the rail transit project.”
Neal Milner, a political scientist and ombudsman at the University of Hawaii, observed that the Mayor’s situation of an increasing fiscal crisis and the clear voter desire for this system is unfortunately what “every major politician, mayor, governor or president is facing right now. The typical way out of it, without raising taxes, is to cut the stuff you can cut and that’s not rail.”
Other Winning Initiatives
In Aspen, CO, voters approved a measure that provides for a 0.4 percent sales tax increase to allow the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority to begin implementing Bus Rapid Transit, along with approval to issue $38 million in bonds.
Voters in Lawrence, KS, overwhelmingly approved three sales tax proposals totaling .55 percent for public transit. The 10-year taxes are a 0.3 percent sales tax to provide dedicated resources for streets and infrastructure, and 0.2 percent and 0.05 percent sales taxes for fixed route and paratransit, and creation of a seamless public transportation system with the University of Kansas.
By a margin of 65 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed, voters in Lansing, MI, approved a 0.787-mill annual tax increase for five years, beginning this year, to support the Capital Area Transportation Authority.
In Spring Lake, MI, 76 percent of voters approved a property tax levy of up to 0.85 mill for a demand-response bus program in exchange for a general fund reduction of 0.72 mill.
Two regional transit districts in New Mexico approved one-eighth-cent increases in the gross receipts tax for transportation purposes. They are the Rio Metro Transit District (Bernalillo, Sandoval, and Valencia counties) and the North Central Regional Transit District (Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba, and Taos counties).
A quarter-cent sales tax measure in Mahoning County, OH, to support the Western Reserve Transit Authority in Youngstown passed by a margin of about 13,000 votes. A similar measure was defeated by a 15,000-vote margin four months earlier.
In Greensboro, NC, 59 percent of voters approved a bond measure providing $134 million for transportation projects.
A statewide measure in Rhode Island authorizing the state to issue $87.2 million in transportation bonds passed with 76.6 percent of the vote. The measure includes funds for commuter rail and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
Two Utah municipalities voted to raise their sales taxes by one-quarter cent each to join the Utah Transit Authority in Salt Lake City. The vote in Eagle Mountain was 78 percent in favor, while voters in Saratoga Springs approved the measure by 66 percent.
In Milwaukee, 52 percent of voters approved an advisory referendum to dedicate a one-half percent local sales tax to public transportation. The measure does not actually institute the tax. “We’re going to take these results to our legislators and let them know that we need action fast,” said Chris Larson, spokesperson for the Quality of Life Alliance, which spearheaded the ballot measure in Milwaukee. “Property tax payers can’t wait any longer [and] transit riders can’t wait any longer.”
Not all the initiatives were successful. Organizers who advanced the losing measures will likely conduct research to learn what was behind these disappointing defeats, and do whatever is necessary to ensure passage next time.
Missouri suffered two major transit-related voting setbacks in this election cycle. One of the biggest disappointments was in Kansas City, where last week only 44 percent of voters approved two sales taxes totaling 3/8 percent that would have funded a light rail transit system.
“We are disappointed in the results and continue to believe that the Kansas City area needs an expanded multi-modal regional system to be competitive in the world marketplace,” said Mark Huffer, general manager of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority. “Elected officials from throughout the region are already discussing the next steps, which will surely include extensive community dialogue on the future of public transportation.”
Huffer continued: “While this week’s defeat was disappointing, we should remember that citizens of Kansas City, MO, have voted twice in the last five years to support funding for Metro bus operations. These votes are indicative of the important role transit plays, day in and day out, in the lives of our citizens.”
Proposition M in St. Louis, a proposed half-cent increase in the transit sales tax, also lost (48 percent in favor and 52 percent opposed). “The footprint of the [St. Louis Metro] system may change; however, we are committed to continuing the industry-leading quality of service the region has come to expect,” Metro St. Louis President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Baer said following the election. “Proposition M came very close to victory, and we appreciate the support of the more than 48 percent of St. Louis County voters who said yes to preserving and building upon the transit system in the region. Nevertheless, the community has spoken, and now we are working to design the best possible transit system with the funds we have available.” One immediate result may be a cut in bus service and light rail operations.
A four-year property tax millage to pay for transit services in Kalamazoo County, MI, was defeated, with 58 percent of voters opposed. What led to this defeat? Three elements, suggested Kalamazoo Metro Transit’s Executive Director Bill Schomisch: “This was a graduated increase in taxes over several years – we think that was confusing, plus the economic condition of the country right now, and a huge turnout for a noisy presidential campaign. Our message just didn’t get out.” While they can draw down some funds from another revenue source, that will only allow the agency to continue service through July of next year. “If we don’t go back and secure a positive vote,” he said, “the system will cease to operate. We carry 3 million passengers a year and we cannot not have a system,” he added.
Additional Defeated Initiatives
A property tax levy for Salem-Keizer Transit in Salem, OR, of 49 cents per $1,000 in assessed value received only 44.9 percent of the vote, with 55.1 percent opposed. The measure would have provided for $30.4 million over five years to sustain transit service at current levels while adding service to overcrowded routes.
“Certainly the current economic climate didn’t help,” said Allan Pollock, general manager of Salem-Keizer Transit, of the defeat. He noted that the ballot also contained bond measures for the school district and for bridge repairs, both of which received more local support than the transit levy. Because the measure failed, Pollock said, Salem-Keizer Transit will begin implementing service reductions between now and March 2009.
Voters in Monterey County, CA, supported Measure Z by 61.2 percent – ordinarily a healthy margin – but this measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass. It would have supported transportation investment in the county with a 25-year, one-half percent sales tax, to be matched with federal and state funding.
A measure to enable Silt, CO, to join Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, supported with a 0.4 percent sales tax increase and a $10 vehicle registration fee, failed with only 41 percent voting in favor.
Only 36 percent of voters in Washoe County, NV, approved a proposed sales tax increase of 1/8 cent for transit operations and maintenance. Another measure, in support of state legislation that would allow additional funding for transportation projects, passed with 55 percent of the vote.
A measure in Bend, OR, that would have funded a transit district with a tax of $0.393 per $1,000 assessed property value, received 51 percent of votes in opposition and 49 percent in favor.
Too Close to Call
Measure B in Santa Clara County, CA, was still too close to call. If passed, it would enact a 30-year, one-eighth-cent sales tax for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority for a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District extension.