Atlantic Cities

We Shouldn't Be Surprised That Most Transit Referendums Won

We Shouldn't Be Surprised That Most Transit Referendums Won
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Last week a number of cities across the country took it upon themselves to improve their transit networks. Of the 20 transit referendums on November ballots tracked by the Center for Transportation Excellence, 14 are considered wins for transit, for about a 70 percent success rate. A sales tax in Pierce County, Washington, remains too close to call but appears to be failing.

The wins generally fall into three categories: metro areas that approved property or sales taxes in support of transit efforts, that defeated attempts to withdraw from regional transit authorities, or that passed bonds to fund capital projects. One of the biggest wins occurred in Arlington County, Virginia, where voters passed a $32 million transit-friendly bond by an 80-20 vote. A penny sales tax that will support pedestrians, bike riders, and buses, slipped by 53-47 in Richland County, South Carolina.

Several measures that the center doesn't count as wins could be considered such. These include a failed sales tax measure in Alachua County, Florida, that prohibited transit spending. The six clear losses included a failed gas tax proposal in Memphis that would have sent one cent per gallon to transit programs. Houston voted 79-21 to continue to divert part of its one-cent transit sales tax to localities that often use it for road work.

The results are encouraging, but they shouldn't be particularly surprising. For the entire year, close to 80 percent of city transit initiatives have succeeded at the voting booth, according to CFTE. Last year was successful too: with about 79 percent of 28 referendums meeting local approval. And 2010 wasn't much different, with 44 wins in 57 measures counted by the center. You get the idea.

What's particularly notable about last week's success is the number of cities that passed initiatives calling for self-imposed taxes. Kalamazoo, Michigan, approved a property tax expected to generate about $1 million a year for transit operations by a 63-37 vote. Orange County, North Carolina, passed a half-cent sales tax for regional transit investment, with 59-41 approval, expected to go toward a new light rail line.

In the recent past, tax-based transit referendums (which impose a cost on current residents) have performed worse than bond-based measures (which delay the hurt for future generations). A 2010 report, which evaluated 111 transit referendums from 1999 to 2007, concluded that tax proposals were less likely to pass than bonds. The latest results suggest that disparity may be closing.

The biggest upset was the failure of Measure J in Los Angeles, County. The measure would have extended the county's half-cent transit sales tax, which was approved in 2008, for another 30 years — extending it through 2069. Measure J received majority approval, 65-35, but failed to collect the two-thirds majority needed for a successful outcome.

Over at Streetsblog L.A., Damien Newton writes that Measure J's failure was not an anti-transit vote but rather a coordinated effort by several pro-transit groups who simply didn't like how the money was being spent. "There was no opposition arguing for an 11th lane for the I-405 through the Sepulveda Pass or a new carpool lane on the I-10," he writes. At his blog, Columbia planning professor David King sees the decision, in part, as a reminder that transit authorities must convince the public of their credibility:

Federal funding is declining as a share of overall transport investment. As a response, local, regional and state actors have to take a larger role in taxing and spending for transport, as well as assessing priorities for investment. Voters are not likely to support new taxes, road fees, transit fares and other revenues if they think their money will be spent foolishly or dishonestly.

Photo credit: Alex Kosev/Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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