November 8, 2010
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Public Transportation Initiatives Win Across Country; Success Rate Reaches 73 Percent
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
On Nov. 2, voters across the country—from Rhode Island and Ohio to Florida, Texas, Oregon, and California—had more than people to vote for; they had a host of public transportation-related ballot initiatives. Voters considered whether to approve new and increased sales taxes, property taxes, or car registration fees to support transportation; bond issues that would help to finance public transit; possible service changes and establishment of new transit authorities; and even state constitutional amendments.
As of press time, voters approved 22 of 30 transportation ballot measures, for a success rate of 73 percent, authorizing nearly $500 million over the next five years. When added to the initiatives passed earlier in the year, the Center for Transportation Excellence is reporting 43 out of 56 approvals, marking a 77 percent success rate.
“People understand the importance of having a good public transportation system in their communities,” said APTA President William Millar. “That’s why, despite the impact of the Great Recession, Americans overwhelmingly voted to improve or initiate public transportation, even though it means additional local or state taxes.”
The next issue of Passenger Transport will feature an analysis of the Nov. 2 election results, focusing on the potential impact to the public transit industry.
What follows is an overview of many of transportation-related ballot issues.
Sixty-four percent of California’s voters approved Proposition 22, a statewide initiative constitutional amendment to keep the state from borrowing or taking funds for transportation, redevelopment, or local government projects and services delaying distribution of tax revenues for these purposes. The measure protects more than $1.8 billion in state and local transit funding.
Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association, said: “With this victory, we have succeeded in constitutionally protecting more than $1.8 billion a year in state and local funding for transit, and prevented these funds from being raided, diverted, or outright stolen as part of the state budget process. With nearly $3.5 billion having been raided over the past three years alone—and with state funding for transit operations at one point having been eliminated completely—this victory will allow us to begin the process of recovery from the epidemic of fare hikes, service cuts, and job layoffs recently inflicted on transit providers and those they serve.”
“The passage of Proposition 22 in yesterday’s election sends a strong voter mandate to Sacramento that borrowing or taking vital transportation funds to balance the state’s deficit will no longer be acceptable,” said Los Angeles County Metro Chief Executive Officer Art Leahy. “The action taken by the voters will now prohibit the state from delaying the distribution of tax revenues for transportation purposes and is welcome news to L.A. County and Metro as we strive to ensure that scarce transportation dollars go towards much-needed transportation improvement projects.”
Carl Sedoryk, general manager/chief executive officer of Monterey-Salinas Transit in Monterey, CA, explained the meaning of the measure. “Proposition 22 closes the loopholes that the state legislature has used to redirect billions of transit-related tax dollars to other state general fund programs,” he said. “Californians can be assured that the tax dollars they have approved at the ballot box for specific transit-related purposes will be used for transit and not siphoned away to support the pet programs and projects of the governor and legislature.”
“Proposition 22’s success is not surprising,” said Mike Wiley, general manager/chief executive officer of the Sacramento Regional Transit District, “as voters have overwhelmingly favored past ballot initiatives to dedicate funding to advance public transit and transportation options in California. Prop. 22 is assurance that the Sacramento Regional Transit District and California’s public transit operators will have secure funding to provide reliable transit system operations and potentially restore vital services that were recently eliminated because of budget cuts.”
Another statewide measure, in Rhode Island, passed by an overwhelming margin of 73 percent. The ballot initiative includes $4.7 million in bonds to purchase and rehabilitate buses for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, along with $80 million in general obligation bonds, refunding bonds, and temporary notes to match federal funds and provide direct funding for improvements to the state’s highways, roads, and bridges.
Restoring, Improving Service
Seventy percent of voters in Clayton County, GA—which currently has no public transportation service—approved an advisory measure stating its interest in becoming part of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority area and support for a one-cent sales tax to pay for the new service.
In Oahu, HI, 63 percent of voters approved a city charter amendment establishing an independent transit authority for the city to govern over rail and bus services. The authority will have six members, three elected by the mayor and three by the city council.
Sixty-two percent of voters in Richland Hills, TX, approved remaining part of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority service area.
In Horry County, SC, voters approved by 63 percent an advisory measure to increase property taxes to support regional public transportation services.
Taxes and Other Revenue Measures
The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) in Toledo, OH, is the last public transportation authority in the state to use property tax instead of sales tax as its local funding mechanism, and voters approved a renewal of the existing one-mill levy for the next 10 years. TARTA receives approximately $7 million a year through this measure, and Steve Atkinson, director of marketing, noted that the millage “is obviously critical to our keeping the service out there.”
Five of seven California counties with measures proposing $10 increases in car registration fees to fund transportation measures voted in favor of them:
* Alameda County, Measure F, approved by 63 percent. Twenty-five percent of revenues will go toward congestion relief efforts such as express buses and transit passes; 10 percent for transportation technology improvements.
* Marin County, Measure B, approved 60-39 percent. Thirty-five percent for transit improvements for seniors and persons with disabilities.
* San Mateo County, Measure M, 53 percent in favor. Fifty percent for transportation programs.
* Santa Clara County, Measure B, winning with 52 percent. Fifteen percent for regional Intelligent Transportation System.
* San Francisco County, Proposition AA, passed with 51 percent. Twenty-five percent for transit reliability and mobility.
Bellingham, WA, voters approved a 0.002 percent sales tax increase for transportation projects, which will include the purchase of some transit service from the Whatcom Transportation Authority.
Three Michigan municipalities approved millages to support public transportation. In Bennington Township, 66 percent of voters supported a four-year, 0.15-mill levy to provide transit service in the township from the Shiawassee Area Transportation Agency at a reduced cost. Voters in Almer Charter and Indianfields townships and the city of Caro voted by 62 percent for a one-mill, three-year measure for the Caro Transit Authority to operate Thumbody Express. Eighty percent of voters in the Village of Spring Lake approved a two-year renewal of 0.9898 mills to pay for participation in the Harbor Transit system.
A new one-cent sales tax for transportation, with 75 percent of revenues earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), lost in Tampa, FL, by a vote of 42 percent in favor and 58 percent opposed. As the results came in, voters expressed sadness at the defeat and vowed to try again.
"It's not unusual for a ballot to come up short the first time," said Millar. "In many cities, including Phoenix, Seattle, and Salt Lake City, it took a few times before the voters' awareness level reached the point where they could realize the value of these measures--and pass them."
“The transportation needs of this community are significant,” HART Chief Executive Officer David Armijo said following the election. “The countywide transportation referendum did not succeed, but Hillsborough County’s population growth, increasing traffic congestion, and environmental concerns will not recede. HART will continue to provide excellent service to the best of our ability within our fiscal constraints while aggressively and creatively pursuing more efficiencies and funding opportunities. In addition, HART will leverage bus services to better serve those who depend on it.”
He continued: “So what happens next? HART is funded to continue with the Alternatives Analysis through the short-term, but additional funding will be needed to complete it. Many residents are excited about the opening of the TECO Line Streetcar extension this year. In 2012, HART plans to roll out its first MetroRapid service along Fletcher and Nebraska avenues to provide residents with a rapid connection between North and Downtown Tampa.
“With the support of this community, HART has had the privilege to serve residents for 31 years. The past few years have been very transformative for HART, and this team will continue to strive to exceed expectations,” Armijo concluded.
Also in Florida, only 38 percent of Polk County voters supported a half-cent levy that would have brought together three public transit agencies in the county—Citrus Connection in Lakeland, Polk County Transit Services in Bartow, and Winter Haven Area Transit in Winter Haven—to be operated under a single, county-wide authority.
Voters in the three Oregon counties served by the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon (TriMet)—Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas—defeated a bond measure that would have renewed the agency’s $125 million bond, originally placed on the ballot in 1990, with 54 percent opposed and 46 percent in favor. Had the measure passed, it would have dedicated revenue for faster bus replacements, fleet upgrades, and 300 bus stop improvements, and indirectly free up about $50 million for TriMet’s general fund over 20 years.
Richland County, SC, narrowly defeated a one-cent sales tax, one third of which would have supported the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. The margin was 49 percent in favor and 51 percent opposed.
The two California counties that voted down $10 car registration fee increases are Contra Costa County, where Measure O was defeated by 46 to 54 percent, and Sonoma County’s Measure W—with the largest amount of revenues (60 percent) supporting public transportation—which received only 42 percent of the vote.
Eaton County, MI, is facing additional service cuts with the defeat of a property tax increase, to 0.75 mill from 0.2469 mill, for the Eaton County Public Transportation Authority. An advocacy group, Friends of EATRAN, warned that the defeat would mean the authority would cease to exist after 2011 with the discontinuation of the rest of the current millage.
Supporters of California’s Proposition 22 gather Nov. 2 to celebrate passage of the initiative. From left are California Transit Association legislative advocates Gus Khouri and Andrew Antwih and the association’s executive director, Joshua Shaw.