More than two decades ago, in 1990, voters in Orange County, CA, approved a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. By the time Measure M expired on March 31, 2011, it had provided more than $4 billion in aid to public transportation, freeways, and local roadways.
“These county sales tax measures in California are the absolute pristine example of performance,” said Will Kempton, chief executive officer of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). “The public is advised at the outset what they’re going to get and when they’re going to get it, and the program has to deliver on these programs. Our slogan was ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept.’”
Kempton said the measure appeared on the ballot twice before it finally passed by a simple majority. Subsequently, the California Supreme Court ruled that county tax votes must pass by a two-thirds majority: “When we went back to the voters [to renew Measure M] in 2006—after the success of the first measure was very obvious, after the voters had received the outcomes they wanted—they approved the measure by nearly 70 percent.”
He called fulfillment of the measure’s promises “a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can go back to the voters and ask if they’d like to do it again, and as long as we deliver, generally the public is quite pleased.”
Under Measure M, 43 percent of tax revenues funded freeway projects, with 32 percent for streets and roads and 25 percent for public transit—including Metrolink commuter rail and service for seniors and persons with disabilities. Specifically, the measure provided $1 billion for Metrolink service and bus fare stabilization for seniors and persons with disabilities; $1.75 billion to upgrade to every Orange County freeway; and $1.3 billion for city street and road projects.
During its 20 years of operation, Measure M supported the implementation of Metrolink service in Orange County and $600 million to local agencies for improvements.
Kempton explained that, in addition to operating public transportation, OCTA is in charge of implementing sales tax improvements for all transportation services in the county.
“It’s very critical that you follow the guidelines provided by the voters,” he said regarding the distribution of funds. “It’s important to build the program based on input from the community, what the voters would like to see. In Orange County, the majority would like to see funding for the streets, roads, and freeways, but also an investment in transit.”
Although Measure M has now expired, its successor—Measure M2, another half-cent sales tax—went into effect April 1. OCTA anticipates that this 30-year measure will raise $15 billion over the next 30 years.
“We’re moving full speed ahead on implementation of this second measure,” Kempton said, “and we’re looking forward to as much success with M2 as we had with M1. ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’ was not just a slogan.”