Government Issues

Passing Public Transportation Ballot Measures: What Works

Posted on February 6, 2017 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti
Office of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti
In November, the nation’s voters continued a recent trend by passing more than 70% of 2016 state and local ballot measures that will create funding for public transportation programs.

“We have been monitoring these since 2000, and in 2016, we had a record 77 ballot measures in 23 different states,” explains Jason Jordan, director for the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE). “In all, almost half the country saw communities and regions use these measures as a tool to try and generate a total of $170 billion, so it clearly is a trend that warrants attention.”

While November’s elections also saw a party change in the White House, bringing with it uncertainty as far as how the federal government will be or not be involved in public transportation funding, the use of ballot measures to fund projects could only continue to grow in popularity.

“We set a record in 2015. We set one in 2016. I think the trend lines are very telling, in terms of the number and types of communities that are going to use ballot-box finance, and I suspect the success rate will also continue to creep upwards,” says Jordan. “In terms of the dollar amount, I don’t know that I would expect to hit nearly $200 billion year over year. I hope so, but in terms of the folks who are going to use this, I think those numbers will grow.”

METRO spoke to campaign representatives who successfully had ballot measures passed, as well as one who lost by a thin margin, to discuss what did or did not work for them.

A huge success
Along with Seattle, there was perhaps no bigger winner at this year’s ballot box than L.A. Metro’s ambitious Measure M, which will renew the current half-cent sales tax for another 40 years to continue funding transportation projects throughout the region, as well as an additional half-cent sales tax to expand and improve light rail and subway lines. The measure could raise up to $120 billion over 40 years for transit and road improvements and also includes plans to keep the agency and its bus and rail fleets in a state of good repair.

“We needed a two-thirds majority to pass the ballot measure and got nearly 70 percent, which is, I think, a very solid voice of support from the public, because they see that transportation is not just a need for today. We are very encouraged by that,” says Pauletta Tonilas, chief communications officer for Metro.

In all, 18 megaprojects will be completed or started by Metro in the first 15 years, and 40 projects will be started or completed in the first 40 years. The countywide projects include finishing up a light rail connection to Los Angeles International Airport, creating and enhancing BRT projects, and bike and pedestrian improvements.

Juan Ocampo/LA Metro
Metro’s Measure M will help the agency complete several projects, including the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line.
Juan Ocampo/LA MetroMetro’s Measure M will help the agency complete several projects, including the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line.

“Some of these projects have already gone through the environmental process. A whole bunch will be starting environmental, and those that are in environmental, we’re going to look to see what we can do to move them along to be construction-ready as soon as possible,” says Tonilas. “The first projects through Measure M are set to go under construction in 2018, and we have a few projects in the program that we are going to be getting ready to hopefully move into construction by 2018.”

The projects to be funded by Measure M were selected using a “bottoms-up” approach, Tonilas explains, where each sub-region prioritized projects based on their needs. Each of those major projects was then evaluated based on metrics passed by the Metro board to rank the projects in five categories: how well they provided better access, mobility, safety, economic benefits, and sustainability and quality of life.

“We really relied on each region to be the experts on the transportation needs of their area,” Tonilas says. “We then had a methodology to put together the sequencing of the projects, so it didn’t seem like we randomly decided which project should be first, second, third, and so on.”

Since the passage of Measure M, Metro has begun taking several steps to implement the tax before it begins being collected in July 2017, including determining the criteria for how it will split approximately $20 billion among 88 cities over the 40-year life of the bill and updating its long-range transportation bill to reflect the success of the ballot measure.

A key to Metro’s success with Measure M was its proven track record with the Measure R half-cent sales tax since it was implemented in 2008, Tonilas explains, including the recently opened and extremely popular Expo Line, which links downtown Los Angeles with the beaches in Santa Monica.

Another key element, she adds, was the voters’ recognition that there is a need for viable transportation options to deal with the region’s continuing population growth.

“We still have people stuck in traffic for 81 hours, on average, a year, and have six of the top seven worst bottlenecks in the country right here in L.A. So, we really try to showcase the need for options and how it’s only going to grow, with 2.3 million people expected to move into the county over the next 40 years,” says Tonilas. “Our messaging is really about not only how we need to do something today, but also how we have to plan for tomorrow to keep up with the growth and increased needs we are going to have.”

Key takeaways

1. Strong champion
CFTE’s Jason Jordan says that one similarity often found in areas where ballot measures are successful is the presence of a strong champion for public transportation who gets out in front and takes the lead in rallying the community.

“Could be a mayor, a business leader, somebody from another walk of life, but it has to be somebody that could really galvanize the public’s imagination,” he says. “Then what you will see is a robust and diverse coalition of interests aligning behind the package, ranging from the business community all the way down to environmental and social advocates on the progressive end of the political spectrum. When you see those things align and layer on top of an effective professional campaign operation, more often than not you are going to see success.”

2. Outreach and education
Once a coalition of supporters is built, the most important facet of any campaign is outreach and education.

“We put an incredible effort forth to make sure we were out there touching and educating people in every way we could think of,” says L.A. Metro’s PaulettaTonilas. “There was some opposition, but as we went out and did scores of presentations, held community and small group meetings, held telephone town halls, and executed social media campaigns, we were encouraged by what we were hearing from voters.”

More MARTA’s Fred Hicks explains there were around 76 community meetings across the city in less than three months’ time, as part of his group’s grassroots effort to make sure people knew what this bill was and how it was going to work.

“I think a lot of people are afraid to talk to the community for fear that they will get asked tough questions, or that the community will not like the plan and start to push back against it, but that’s not our experience,” says Hicks. “Our experience is, even if someone doesn’t agree with a specific program or project, the fact that you are there and talking and explaining, and more importantly, they have an opportunity to make themselves heard, far outweighs any concerns people may have about the project.”

3. Battle misinformation
For their part, the RTA of Southeast Michigan also held several public meetings over the year leading up to the ballot measure and had every piece of information — master plan, financials, planning process — available via its website. Ultimately, though, Tiffany Gunter explains it was the agency’s inability to battle the misinformation being spread by their opponents that the agency was just not able to overcome.

4. Move ball down the field
Although it didn’t work out the way they hoped it would, Gunter says she did learn an important lesson along the way that would be important to share with groups trying to get public transportation measures passed at the ballot box.

“First time ballot initiatives are very difficult to pass, so you just have to do your best to move the ball down the field more than anything else,” she says. “As long as you are making progress, feel good about that progress and keep pushing for it, because transit is desperately needed and an issue worth fighting for.”

Learning from the past

In 2012, the Metro Atlanta Transportation Referendum — a large-scale, transportation ballot measure that asked voters in 10 counties to vote for a 1% sales tax over a 10-year period to fund $6.1 billion in regional projects, including $3.2 billion for transit plus another $1.1 billion in local projects — was soundly defeated. In 2014, however, Clayton County voters approved the first-ever expansion of MARTA, and in November, not one but two measures were passed by voters to fund transportation projects.

MARTA
To increase awareness of its ballot measure, MARTA held several events and listening sessions in every community in Atlanta.
MARTATo increase awareness of its ballot measure, MARTA held several events and listening sessions in every community in Atlanta.

“I feel like voters in 2012 viewed the plan as if it took a top-down approach, where some people were meeting in backrooms to decide for them what was best for the region,” explains Fred Hicks, campaign manager for More MARTA, a public outreach group that handled the grassroots education process for MARTA ballot measures in 2014 and 2016. “People really just want to be heard if they are going to give us their money. And we did that, we listened and were able to incorporate things along the way this time and in 2014. I think that really made voters feel fairly confident about what we are trying to do.”

In 2016, a measure to raise $2.5 billion for more MARTA service passed by an overwhelming 72%, while a complementary referendum, which will generate $300 million to fund Atlanta road improvements, including completion of the Atlanta Beltline, a former railway corridor that will link dozens of Atlanta neighborhoods, was passed with 68% of the vote.

With the referenda, and a 2015 infrastructure bond, Atlanta is investing more than $3 billion in its transit and transportation infrastructure — the largest investment in the city’s history. As a result, 94% of Atlanta residents and 98% of the city’s jobs will be within a half-mile of a new transportation project.

In the short term, MARTA will use the funds to expand bus services, including bringing back some bus routes that had previously been discontinued. A little further down the road, the agency will focus on bringing light rail in to connect university students with the downtown Atlanta corridor, essentially enabling residents to get from downtown to anywhere in the city.

In the long term, the agency will provide some heavy rail options, including in southwest Atlanta — an area that was promised heavy rail 40 years ago when MARTA started, but never received the promised investment.

“On the enhancement side, we’re looking at doing things like increasing the accessibility for people with disabilities, which includes everything from increasing lighting to new and improved signage and increasing walkability and wheelchair accessibility at stations,” adds Hicks. “Also, something we’re excited about is providing Wi-Fi on all buses and trains, including when they are underground, which will be completed by the end of next year.”

Hicks explains that Atlanta’s support for these ballot measures has almost been a 180-degree turnaround for the region, which had historically been hostile toward public transportation prior to MARTA GM Keith Parker taking the helm. Parker’s work to regain the public’s trust in MARTA, combined with increased gridlock in the area, however, have helped voters understand the important role public transportation plays in the region.

“The one interesting thing we found in our early polling was that there was no actual relationship between whether or not people used MARTA or whether or not they supported MARTA,” says Hicks. “In other words, you would think that people who do not use MARTA would vote against it, but that simply wasn’t the case. That really bore out with the election results, where every single council district supported the bill.”

RTA of Southeast Michigan
RTA’s ballot measure, which lost by a slim margin, would have brought BRT, light rail and more to the region.
RTA of Southeast MichiganRTA’s ballot measure, which lost by a slim margin, would have brought BRT, light rail and more to the region.
Not always a success
According to CFTE’s Jordan, not all public transportation ballot measures are as highly successful as the ones this November in L.A. and Atlanta, in fact, most measures are decided by a few percentage points. That was exactly the case for the RTA of Southeast Michigan, where a ballot measure that would create a 1.2% mill property tax to pay for public transit in four counties was defeated by about 18,000 votes, or one percentage point.

“The millage itself was going to generate about $3.3 billion over a 20-year period, or about $160 million a year,” says Tiffany Gunter, deputy CEO/COO for RTA. “We anticipated that we would leverage another billion dollars from federal and state resources through rapid transit infrastructure investments and with those resources we were going to build out a rapid transit network, which included over 60 miles of BRT, 40 miles of commuter rail between two major business and employment centers in Ann Arbor and Detroit, and connect the system where it is currently disconnected.”

The millage would also have improved options for seniors and people with disabilities and created services to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and commuter routes along two heavily congested corridors — Interstate 75 and the M-59 highway.

The measure, passed by voters in Wayne and Washtenaw Counties, lost by about 1,000 votes in Oakland County, and took a significant loss in Macomb County, explains Gunter.

“In terms of what we expected, I’d say we were pretty hopeful the measure would pass given the amount of support we had when we were out discussing it with the public,” she says. “In the end, there were just some things that happened that we couldn’t anticipate, and we ended up losing by a very slim margin.”

Following its defeat, Gunter says the RTA is currently retooling to figure out what the next steps are, including if it will try to get another ballot measure passed.

“It’s too early to tell what the next couple of years will bring. Some folks complained the plan was too aggressive, while others complained it wasn’t aggressive enough,” she says. “So, our key challenge will be to find what that happy medium is that speaks to the larger populace and the mechanisms for which we ask people to fund it. We will continue to look at all of those factors and try to determine what the best formula is in the future.”

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