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Transportation ballot initiatives to watch this November

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of ballot initiatives for transit and transportation funding passed during the 2020 spring and summer primary elections, and a surprising number will head to voters in November. Here is a look at some of the major initiatives to watch next month. 

A Capital Metro bus in Austin. Photo courtesy of Capital Metro.

Providing sustained funding for transit is more important than ever with potential service cuts looming across the country. Congress has yet to step in to provide sufficient relief funding, but some regions have a shot at raising local transit funding in November. 

A few weeks ago, we shared a summary of how transportation ballot initiatives fared during the spring and summer primary elections. While some regions and states opted to delay or cancel ballot measures due to COVID uncertainties, a number of initiatives moved forward in the primaries, and the vast majority passed

Many of the successful measures earlier this year were renewals of existing funding, and we’ll see some similar renewals on the ballot in November. However, there are also a surprising number of larger, forward-looking proposals headed to voters to raise new funding for transit expansion. Supporters in these regions see transit as a key part of economic recovery. Here are a few measures we will be watching especially closely.

Three big transit measures to watch 

Voters in Austin, TX will consider a proposal  to fund the first phase of Project Connect, a package of transit investments totalling $10 billion. For this initial phase, residents will vote on a property tax increase to raise $3.85 billion and leverage federal funds for a total of $7.1 billion. The proposal includes new light rail lines, a tunnel to house light rail in the downtown area, expanded bus routes, a transition to electric buses, and bus rapid transit service. It also includes $300 million for transit supportive investments, anti-displacement efforts and affordable housing along the proposed lines.

The region has a history of unsuccessful initiatives to fund light rail expansion. This proposal received unanimous approval from the Austin City Council but has faced some opposition locally, including in response to the cost and relative permanence of new light rail lines compared to improved bus service. 

Portland, OR’s Let’s Get Moving measure (Measure 26-218) would raise a 0.75 percent payroll tax for large businesses to fund dozens of light rail and bus transit expansion and safety projects for people walking and biking along identified priority corridors. The measure is expected to generate around $4.2 billion and leverage an additional $2.84 billion in matching funds. It also includes funds for anti-displacement work in predominantly Black and Brown communities along the corridors. 

Supporters argue that the investments will create 37,000 jobs and help jumpstart economic recovery. Critics have argued that the cost is too great. The business community has largely withdrawn support, and a number of larger businesses have contributed to a campaign against the measure.

These initiatives in Austin and Portland share some commonalities, including a forward-looking transit vision for the future, an emphasis on racial justice and preventing displacement, and robust campaigns supporting the measures as well as vocal local opposition.

In suburban Gwinnett County, GA in the Atlanta region, residents will vote on a proposed 30-year, 1 percent sales tax for transit expansion in the county that would raise a total of $12 billion for bus and rail expansion. This vote comes less than two years after a failed measure to fund transit expansion for both Gwinnett County bus and MARTA rail that would also have integrated Gwinnett County transit into the MARTA regional transit system—a change that county voters have rejected several times over the past few decades. This time around, the proposed improvements will primarily expand the existing Gwinnett County Transit bus system, with bus rapid transit, more local and express service, and paratransit, and some local leaders hope to see a different outcome as a result. 

We heard from Gwinnett County Commissioner Charlotte Nash at T4America’s Capital Ideas conference in 2018 about the region’s work building support for transit incrementally, so we are especially interested to see how this vote unfolds. 

Other local and state initiatives of interest 

Voters in Seattle, WA will decide whether to renew funding for the Seattle Transportation Benefit District via a six-year 0.1 percent sales tax and a car-tab fee that expires this year. The proposal will reduce total service below existing levels, but it will focus the remaining service more heavily in communities of color. The measure would generate $20 to $30 million annually over six years. 

Three smaller municipalities in Gratiot County, MI are seeking a 1-mill levy (one dollar per $1,000 dollars of assessed value) to join their region’s Alma Transit system. The St. Louis and Ithaca city councils and the Pine River Township board all passed the measure unanimously over the summer. Voters in each locality will decide in November whether they are willing to pay a property tax for public transit service in their communities. All three jurisdictions need to pass the measure for it to move forward.

Missoula, MT will ask voters to approve a property tax increase to expand Mountain Line bus service frequency, help fund the area’s zero-fare program, and support conversion to an electric bus fleet. 

Newton County, GA is seeking a 1 percent Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for transportation. Revenues will be shared among the cities located within the county using a formula, and each city will decide how to allocate its funds—a decentralized approach in contrast to Gwinnett County’s package of proposed transit investments above.

Voters in the Bay Area, CA will consider a 1/8 cent sales tax to provide dedicated funding for the region’s commuter rail, Caltrain. The tax would generate an estimated $108 million annually, which could help provide a lifeline for the rail line as it faces the possibility of a shutdown during the pandemic due to low ridership. 

In North Carolina, residents will vote on a $1.15 billion bond measure to fund the construction and renovation of highways, roads, bridges, and related road infrastructure. The measure also includes $1.95 billion in education bonds. The state is facing a potential $5 billion shortfall due to lost tax revenue from the pandemic. 

The State of Arkansas, Bellingham, WA, Monroe, MI and Wheeling and Bethlehem, WV will all decide whether to renew existing transportation and transit funding. Similar renewals have generally done well so far in 2020 despite COVID uncertainties. 

What’s next

It’s worth noting that a number of planned ballot measures have been postponed or canceled in response to COVID—see our previous post for a non-exhaustive list. 

We’ll watch these scheduled initiatives closely as we head into the November election and will share updates on the results. Stay tuned!

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