Referendums continue to find success, but it’s not an easy road

Posted on February 22, 2012 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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With the country still figuring out its course following the recession, a new transportation authorization bill is beginning to look further and further away. Despite the lack of clarity, however, state and local referendums continue to be highly successful.

In 2011 alone, 22 out of 28, or 79%, of the initiatives on state and local ballots passed, many of which involved levying new taxes, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence. Meanwhile in 2010, 44 out of 57, or 77%, of the initiatives passed. While many of these ballot measures have been passed overwhelmingly, some have also been voted down just as strongly.

Judging from the more than substantial support, it is clear that state and local transportation agencies and advocates know these ballot initiatives are key to both generating revenue for important projects and showing the feds they are serious partners worth considering.

Regional transit plan
With the success of other regions in mind, the Metro Atlanta Transportation Referendum is a large-scale, transportation ballot measure that asks voters in 10 counties to vote for a 1% sales tax over a 10-year period per the area's Transportation Investment Act, to fund $6.1 billion in regional projects, including $3.2 billion for transit plus another $1.1 billion in local projects. The ballot measure, which includes the projects the funds will actually go toward, is slated for July.

"It's not just one transit route, one agency or road, it's a huge regional vote that is probably broader than most referendums in the nation," says Jim Stokes, interim executive director for the Livable Communities Coalition of Metro Atlanta. "A lot of transportation people around the country are watching this, and it's important to some national foundations for that reason."

The projects list was decided upon by a regional roundtable of 21 local elected officials who took into account several factors, including need, if the project was "shovel ready" and whether its cost fit into the projected dollar amount.

The $3.2 billion share for public transportation will go toward the Atlanta BeltLine rail system as well as several Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) heavy and light rail extensions and badly needed improvements, such as train control systems, track and electrical power rehabilitation, and airport station improvements. It will also significantly expand regional bus service in several counties, including DeKalb and Gwinnett.

"We have a lot of aging infrastructure, and like most other transit properties, we have had to defer some maintenance because we just didn't have the money," says Cheryl King, assistant GM, planning, at MARTA. "Although we had a long-term capital improvements plan to address some of these issues, this referendum will allow us to move those projects more quickly and free up funds for other things."

Both Stokes and King say the referendum is very important for a region that has historically not been proactive in addressing its transit and transportation issues.

"Atlanta as well as the state of Georgia have [been] behind in funding transportation, so it's an effort in taking the first step in catching up," says Stokes.

King adds that like most areas around the nation, Atlanta is also bracing for a huge population influx.

"We're anticipating a lot of growth coming into this area and have to accommodate those people," says King. "I'm not sure we can build enough roadways, so people need options."

For its part, MARTA is planning to educate the public on which of its products would be funded by the referendum and the benefits those projects will bring. Groups including the Metro Atlanta Voter Education Network and Citizens for Transportation Mobility will run the pro-referendum campaign by continuing to be a voice for transit, working with partners to promote the referendum and continuing a strong presence on social media outlets to reach young urban voters.

With the success of transit referendums nationwide, King and Stokes are optimistic the referendum will pass, however, both acknowledge advocates and stakeholders will have to overcome several factors, including the perception of public transit as well as the state of the economy.
"I've worked in this industry for many years, and transit is not very well respected by some people, because they don't understand what it takes to put service on the street every day," says King. "In addition, with these troubled economic times, it's going to be difficult for people to vote on an additional tax."

King adds an additional hurdle could come from some counties who have projects that weren't selected to be part of the referendum. On the positive side, though, she feels that the region is starting to understand the necessity of transit to help ease congestion by being part of a multimodal solution. King also points out the additional financial benefits the referendum will bring to the Atlanta region.

"There are a slew of secondary benefits that will help pump up the area's economy, including jobs," she explains.

Overall, though, King understands that this July's vote could be just the beginning of a long fight.

"With transportation referendums, it sometimes takes two bites of the apple before they pass," she says. "The last five years, we've been lucky to have a lot of them pass, but it's not unusual for it to take more than one try. I'm not trying to doom our referendum, but you do have to look at the trend."

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