By Tanya Snyder, October 29, 2014
Activists in Clayton County, Georgia, support a ballot measure that would connect the county with the regional transit system.
Next week, voters in Maryland and Wisconsin may tell state officials to keep their greedy paws off transportation funds. Louisianans will consider whether to create an infrastructure bank to help finance projects. Texans will weigh the wisdom of raiding the state’s Rainy Day Fund for — what else? — highways. And Massachusetts activists who have been fighting to repeal the state’s automatic gas tax hikes will finally get their day of reckoning.
Those are just a few of the decisions facing voters as they go to the polls Tuesday. They’re the ones getting the most press and that could have the biggest impact. For instance, if Massachusetts loses its ability to raise the gas tax to keep up with inflation, it could inspire anti-tax activists in other states that would like to gut their own revenue collection mechanisms, too.
There are lots of local initiatives on next Tuesday’s ballot that aren’t generating so much buzz but could still have major implications for the state of transportation in key parts of the country. Here are some contests you should pay attention to.
Pinellas County, Florida: For years, transit advocates have been trying to correct what they see as a major deficiency in Tampa’s regional transportation network: It is the largest metropolitan area in the country without rail transit. Voters in the three counties that make up the Tampa Bay region — Polk, Pinellas, and Hillsborough — all have to approve a new one-cent sales tax to pay for a potential light rail system and other transit improvements. Voters in Hillsborough rebuffed an attempt to get approval in 2010. Pinellas and Polk are trying this year.
Specifically, Pinellas County voters will decide on Greenlight Pinellas, a plan to increase bus service by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater. It would form part of a regional transit system that the three counties are still trying to figure out. It’s by no means a done deal: The Pinellas contest has been one of the most bitterly and loudly contentious of this cycle. But a vote in favor of building the system would be a game-changer.
“The hope is that a positive vote, particularly in Pinellas, would really be a shot in arm for Hillsborough to come back to the voters or to proceed with some other funding mechanism to support the system,” said Jason Jordan, who tracks transit-related ballot initiatives around the country for the Center for Transportation Excellence.
Polk, the least urban of the three counties, will vote on a one-cent sales tax measure that would fund both transit and roads.
Alachua County and the city of Gainesville, Florida: More than 100 miles north of Tampa Bay, Gainesville voters will consider a one-cent sales tax. It would pay for eight years of transportation funding for the county and the city of Gainesville. The county plans to spend it mostly on roads, but the city has a more equitable split: 55 percent roads, 40 percent bus, and 5 percent bike/ped.
The interesting thing about this one, Jordan said, is that it previously failed as a roads-only measure, and now the city is coming back with money for transit and active transportation to make it more appealing to voters. University students, especially, might relate more to a funding package that includes transit, biking, and walking than one just for roads. If voters who rejected a single-mode funding package go for a multi-modal one, that will be an encouraging sign.
There hasn’t been a lot of organized opposition to the measure, aside from the usual suspects who will protest anything that has to do with taxes.
Clayton County, Georgia, is on the verge of redemption — if its one-cent sales tax to join the MARTA regional transit system is successful. In 2010, the county board eliminated its only bus service, leaving people without transportation options. Then, earlier this year, the board approved a half-cent sales tax to join MARTA, but the transit agency rejected it, saying neighboring counties paid a full cent and it wouldn’t be fair to let Clayton join for less. The measure looks likely to pass, and that will knit together various redevelopment activities in the region, especially near the airport, which straddles Clayton and Fulton Counties.
“Assuming it passes, it’s going to be a great reboot to the conversation in that region about transit,” Jordan said. “When the Atlanta measure that was so prominent went down to defeat, the story was, ‘Atlanta can’t get its act together.’ This tells a more nuanced story about trying to identify places in that region that want transit, where transit — from a land use perspective — is vital, where it’s likely to be well used.”
It’s especially positive, he said, that instead of agreeing to do transit on the cheap, MARTA insisted on Clayton being a full member, with the ability to bring more robust transit service to the area.
Alameda County, California, is proposing raising the current transportation sales tax from a half penny to a full penny to pay for a multi-modal package for the next 30 years. It’s the second time voters have been asked to decide on this proposal — the last time, it suffered a very, very narrow defeat in its quest for the needed two-thirds supermajority. Though it’s a very similar — if not identical — package as last time, supporters are now emphasizing the bicycle and pedestrian element in an attempt to put it over the top.
“It’s part of a trend we’re seeing,” Jordan said, “where communities are specifically including bike and pedestrian amenities as part of the overall package, or at least calling more attention to them, and that’s certainly true in Alameda. I think this has been one of the biggest years we’ve seen for bike measures.” Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Seminole County, Florida, also passed funding packages earlier this year that included active transportation and other livable streets elements.
Alameda County’s $8 billion plan includes $2.8 billion for transit, $2.4 billion for street improvements, $1 billion for paratransit, $650 million for bike/ped and safety measures, and $300 million for transit-oriented development.
Austin, Texas, has a bond measure that’s being drowned out by a much more visible statewide fight over using Texas’ rainy day fund — in boom times, mind you — to pay for highways. Yep, just highways. Polling shows that awful idea has overwhelming support.
But what’s going on in Austin is way more interesting — and way more contentious. A bond measure would fund a 9.5-mile urban rail route to run past several university campuses. Much of the opposition to the project comes from urbanists who think there are much better ways to spend scarce transit resources, while some of it comes from libertarians who criticize any transit investment.
Two ballot measures in Kansas City, Missouri , on the other hand, are a hot mess. Initiative sponsor Clay Chastain is a bit of a loose cannon — a “transit” activist with a penchant for getting transit measures on the ballot that have no bearing on what the transit agency is actually planning or building. Previous initiatives he’s sponsored have promised transit improvements but would have raised only a fraction of the money to pay for them, and then been thrown out after winning at the polls. The Kansas City Star calls these ballot measures just another episode of Chastain’s unique brand of “political theater.”
This time around, Chastain himself has turned against the measures on the ballot next week, which ask voters to support a quarter-cent sales tax increase for “capital improvements” and another eighth-cent sales tax increase for public transportation, both for 25 years. “It’s not my light-rail plan anymore,” Chastain laments. “I can’t advocate for it.”
Why the about-face? Chastain’s original petition sought a three-eights cent sales tax increase to help pay for a 22-mile light-rail system, a 19-mile commuter rail line, 150 electric shuttle buses, 150 miles of bikeways and an 8.5-mile streetcar line. The money raised from what’s actually on the ballot would be utterly insufficient to pay for all that.
The result is that there is no champion for the ballot measures. Jordan notes that if these initiatives lose, it shouldn’t be seen as an evaluation of whether or not Kansas City cares about transit.
The good news is that, nationwide, most of the time voters are asked to pay a little for better transit service, they say yes. Since 2000, 72 percent of ballot initiatives raising taxes for transit have succeeded — a sharp contrast from elected officials’ lack of will to find new revenues to pay for much-needed transportation upgrades.