Management & Operations

Transit Projects Seek Voter Approval for Financial Support

Posted on June 26, 2008 by Brendan B. Read

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Former House speaker Tip O’Neill is quoted as saying “all politics is local.” That is especially true when it comes to transit funding. There are, by mid-May, more than a dozen transit financing-related ballot measures that have already been confirmed for fall votes, while up to 30 more could join them, reports the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), a Washington, D.C.-based public-transportation-oriented information clearinghouse.

These proposals could generate a large amount of transit investment: more than $55 billion alone for the measures that have the green signal to go in front of voters.

The key ones to watch for in 2008 are:

  • A $42 billion package for transit and highways, to be built over 30 years in Arizona, which has been proposed by a coalition of Arizona business and political leaders, including Governor Janet Napolitano. The measure needs nearly 154,000 signatures to be placed on the ballot;
  • A $10 billion bond issue to provide initial financing for a $42 billion high-speed rail line between the San Francisco Bay area and the Los Angeles basin, to be completed in 10 years;
  • A possible sales tax increase to make up revenue shortfalls to implement voter-approved Measure A transit projects in the Santa Clara Valley (San Jose/Silicon Valley, Calif.). They include extending BART from Fremont; light rail expansion and new low-floor equipment; ACE and Caltrain commuter rail improvements; connections from San Jose International Airport to BART, Caltrain and light rail; and bus and paratransit upgrades.
  • A financial analysis by the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) reported that the current local sales tax revenue stream is insufficient to fund the projects. The VTA board will decide in September whether to seek more money from the voters or scale back the Measure A plans, which were approved in 2000;
  • A 0.4 percent sales and use tax increase to finance a $63 million, 44-mile BRT system between Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, Colo., implemented and managed by The Roaring Fork Transit Authority. If approved, the BRT could be rolling by 2015-2017.

Looking for voter approval

Several local transit systems hope to receive voter approval for stable or expanded financing sources, such as with dedicated property and sales taxes. Proposed new small city and rural transit systems are on ballots as well.

At least five approved and possible transit funding questions are second attempts. The proponents have gone back to adjust the proposals in the hopes of seeing them pass. The key ones include:

  • A 25 percent sales tax increase to finance the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), a 70-mile regional rail and trail project estimated to cost $450 million. A similar measure put to the voters in November 2006 narrowly failed to win the state-required two-thirds support. This time around the SMART proposal will include weekend service: the absence of which, research found, may have contributed to the measure’s defeat;
  • Seattle-based Sound Transit (ST) may once again ask voters to approve light rail, commuter rail and regional bus expansion in the Puget Sound region, but this time it may offer them one or more choices.

In November 2007 the electorate derailed Proposition 1 that had coupled ST’s plan and Sound Transit 2 (ST2), which included 50 new miles of light rail plus commuter rail and express bus improvements priced at $11 billion, with $7 billion in highway expansion built over 20 years. Voters refused to approve a 0.6 cent increase in local taxes to help pay for the combined program.

ST2 would have followed Sound Move or “ST1,” passed by the voters in 1996, which had started up Sound Transit’s network.

In response, the ST board is considering putting forward ST2 without the highway expansion, plus two other choices featuring light rail and BRT expansions, and commuter rail improvements that would be constructed over 12 years. One plan would include 18 miles of light rail, cost $6.8 billion and require a 0.4 percent tax hike, while a slightly larger proposal would feature 23 miles of light rail priced at $7.8 billion that would need a 0.5 percent tax increase.

Both of the lower-scaled projects would have design engineering to build out the light rail in the Proposition 1 package; voters would presumably have to approve financing at the end of the 12 years to meet ST 2’s expansion goals.

The CFTE is very optimistic that most of the ballot measures will pass. The organization reports that Americans have voted for 88 percent of all transportation financing measures put to them over the past seven years.

“More Americans are using public transportation to beat the high cost of gas,” says CFTE spokesperson Bridget Hennessey, “and are willing to pay for transportation choices in their communities.”

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