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Public Transportation's Big Winners at the Ballot Box: What's Next? Agency GMs Describe SGR, Expansion, Ridership Plans for Coming Year and Beyond

After all the grassroots outreach and education, public hearings, rider mobilization efforts, media interviews and election night vigils, winning public transportation agency leaders typically take a breath on post-Election-Day morning and then gear up for their next challenge: allocating the voter-approved funds among competing—and pressing—priorities.

After public transportation agencies of all sizes and in all areas of the country racked up a series of wins at the ballot box in November (amounting to more than $170 billion in voter-approved funding nationwide), Passenger Transport asked a few agency leaders to share their thoughts in this ­one-­question interview:

Your agency was one of several public transportation systems that experienced significant wins at the ballot box in November, an election that also delivered historic wins for the industry in general. How will this funding impact your agency both in the short term and in the years ahead?

BART: Priority on Safety, Reliability, Meeting Demand

Grace Crunican
General Manager
San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART)

Last November, voters in our three-county district sent a clear message: It’s time to fix BART.

Measure RR, a cornerstone of the plan to rebuild and improve our 45-year-old system, will raise $3.5 billion in bonds with the first projects slated to begin immediately in 2017.

Thanks to BART’s focus on asset management, our short-term capital improvement projects have been prioritized based on necessity so that those with the greatest impact on BART’s safety and reliability will be addressed first.

These state-of-good-repair projects will rely heavily on funds raised from Measure RR and include rail replacement, power transmission equipment replacement, escalator replacement and tunnel waterproofing.  Our immediate focus is on reducing the number of delays that occur due to deteriorating infrastructure; this ensures the system stays safe for riders and remains a viable alternative to personal vehicles.

BART’s victory at the ballot box, however, was only one piece of a larger financial puzzle we are working to solve.

Our mandate to rebuild comes at a time of breakneck growth in the Bay Area, and changing attitudes toward public transit are bringing people on board faster than our capacity can keep up. Voters’ approval of Measure RR signaled a willingness to invest in effective public transportation and validates our plan to begin long-term projects like the implementation of communications-based train control.

Qualifying components of that program will be paid for with funds from Measure RR, and once complete will enable us to run more trains more often. Moreover, new train control enables us to expand our fleet to more than 1,000 cars—a separate project we hope to have delivered by the mid-2020s.

With mounting uncertainty over federal and state funding, we cannot overstate our gratitude for the passage of Measure RR. Without it, we would be facing unprecedented difficulty. Balancing state-of-good-repair needs with core capacity improvements is a tightrope we will be walking for quite some time, yet we have every reason to be optimistic.

Voters are taking notice of our industry’s growing pains and are offering overwhelming support. Everyone moves forward together, and we’re excited to keep up the momentum.

Los Angeles Metro: Measure M for ‘Momentum’
Phillip A. Washington
Chief Executive Officer
Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

It has been an incredible year for Los Angeles Metro. At a time of uncertainty and division across our nation, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly confirmed their commitment to mobility by supporting Measure M, the Los Angeles County Traffic Improvement Plan.

In November, more than 71 percent of voters approved the new half-cent sales tax and extension of the Measure R half-cent sales tax. Both will continue until voters decide to repeal them (“no sunset”). We think the broad support was the result of the process we used to determine the projects and programs for the measure.

At the outset of the tax initiative exploration, we vowed to uphold a transparent, bottom-up input process, with ideas coming from the communities to create a balanced plan for all of L.A. County. Communities responded with vigor, and we were able to craft a ballot measure that we think reflects the needs of our patrons.

The voters agreed and Measure M is forecast to raise about $120 billion in its first 40 years.

Measure M is the fourth half-cent sales tax approved by county voters since 1980. Those local funds have been and will continue to be instrumental in leveraging state and federal funds —and possibly private monies in the form of P3s— to accelerate “mega projects.”

In the short term, we have a lot to do at Metro and we’re hard at work on a master guidance document to detail the broad investment categories in Measure M. The guidelines will help us stay on target as we implement the projects and programs. We know that fulfillment of the ballot measure is going to impact many L.A. County residents and we want the process to go deliberately and smoothly.

We’re also setting up the all-important Independent Oversight Committee to provide an enhanced level of accountability on the use of Measure M sales tax revenues.

And the future? We will be embarking on significant construction. Measure M will bring us 40 capital projects to be built mostly over 40 years. It includes new rail and BRT projects, highway projects and enhanced bus and rail service. It ensures that fares remain affordable for seniors, students and persons with disabilities.

It also provides billions of dollars to the 88 cities in L.A. County (a provision called “local return”) for them to do their own local street, sidewalk, pothole and signal improvements while also dedicating billions more to the kind of transportation projects that might not otherwise be built, including active transportation, such as pedestrian and bike projects to help our patrons solve the first and last-mile gap.

And for the first time, it provides us with a dedicated funding stream to keep our system in a state of good repair so that we can replace railcars and buses and other transit infrastructure as it ages.

We have begun a transportation infrastructure revolution here in L.A. County … a revolution that will transform the region, creating an estimated 465,690 jobs and building and maintaining transportation infrastructure that will endure for the next 100 years.

We are grateful to voters for their support and generosity as we are invigorated and inspired by the job ahead. Here we go!

NAIPTA: Building on Security, Laying Groundwork
Jeff Meilbeck
CEO & General Manager
Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority
Flagstaff, AZ

The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (NAIPTA) put Proposition 411 before Flagstaff ­voters in November 2016, asking if the existing Mountain Line sales tax should be continued for 10 more years.

When the votes were tallied, the measure passed with a resounding 71 percent approval rating, securing Mountain Line’s funding until 2030.

Although it was a renewal of an existing tax, having success on a crowded ballot was a significant win for our organization.

It also gives us the breathing room to know that our base funding is secure for the foreseeable future and opens up opportunities to potentially have a public transit component as part of a larger Flagstaff transportation initiative in 2018.

NAIPTA has a history of success at the ballot box, but we did not take anything for granted going into the Proposition 411 campaign.

A pre-election survey of likely voters revealed that more than 85 percent of voters have a positive opinion of Mountain Line and 87 percent of voters supported a 10-year continuation of the existing transit tax. Armed with this information and input from a Citizens’ Review Commission, we developed ballot language that reflected the will of our community.

With a high level of public support, our main goal was to create an educational campaign that kept Proposition 411 top-of-mind during a noisy election season and laid the groundwork for the 2018 election.

We hosted a series of open houses, conducted a small advertising campaign and used social media and the Mountain Line website to keep voters up-to-date.

The highly visible campaign reinforced the fact that voters put their trust in us when they increased the transit tax in 2008 and Mountain Line delivered on the promises made during that campaign.

In the short term, having a secure funding source through 2030 gives NAIPTA the freedom to deliver on its mission of “Getting You Where You Want to Go” on a daily basis.

In the long term, having success at the ballot box in 2016 allows us to be thoughtful and deliberate about where and how we want to grow in the future, with the eye to the 2018 election.

SARTA: Focus on High-Tech Tools, Ridership
Kirt Conrad
Chief Executive Officer
Stark Area Regional Transit  Authority, Canton, OH

Passage of our levy demonstrates that Stark County residents are keenly aware of and enthusiastically support the things SARTA does today.

Thanks to the convincing “Yes” vote, we’ll keep meeting—and exceeding—the expectations of the thousands of seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, students and commuters who depend on us to get them where they need to go when they need to be there.

Levy funding will also enable us to both upgrade our already-impressive suite of high-tech tools that put riders in control of their public transit experience and build upon the award-winning initiatives that have made SARTA a national and world leader in the acquisition and deployment of low-emission vehicles, including buses powered by the energy of the future: hydrogen fuel cells.

In the years ahead, our levy will enable us to develop and implement programs that will grow ridership by making SARTA an attractive transportation option for a wider segment of the population.

To accomplish that goal, we’re actively considering a number of initiatives to make SARTA more affordable and convenient than ever. They include the following:

Installing Wi-Fi at our bus islands so riders can stay connected;
Increasing service on key routes to reduce wait times and improve connectivity;
Partnering with local colleges and universities to provide SARTA service as part of students’ tuition;
Developing express service to and from our transit centers to employers, job sites and childcare facilities;
Making SARTA the “go-to” option for the Hall of Fame Village development;
Implementing a pilot “Dial-A-Ride” program to serve those who don’t have access to our fixed routes; and
Restarting operations on Sunday to accommodate the riders who work weekends.

Most importantly, our plans for the future will enable us to provide transportation solutions that help workers, students, commuters and families deal with the challenges they face in a world in which time is an incredibly valuable—and scarce—asset.

Our planned programs will help the people we serve succeed and they’ll guarantee that SARTA remains a valuable, and valued, community asset well into the 21st century.

Time to Get Started?
If your agency is planning a ballot initiative for 2018, Election Day will be here before you know it.

It’s never too early to get started on building support and launching educational campaigns. One good way to begin is to review the resources at the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE), an APTA affiliate that serves as an online clearinghouse for news and resources related to public transportation-related ballot measures.

Public transit officials preparing for an election will find resources at the CFTE website, including examples of ballot language and sample campaign materials, an interactive map showing the location of recent transit votes, extensive research and original reports regarding the connections between communities and their public transit agencies and information on training opportunities and webinars. CFTE also keeps a running year-by-year list of ballot issues and tabulates the percentage of measures that pass.

Transit leaders can also attend CFTE’s biennial Transit Initiatives and Communities Conference, scheduled for May 21-23 in Seattle. This meeting—the only national conference exclusively devoted to understanding transportation ballot measures and providing concrete advice on how to win—features firsthand accounts from industry professionals and volunteers who have worked in the trenches of successful ballot campaigns.

In addition, more information on how to build and cultivate grassroots advocates for public transit can be found in an in-depth article that appeared in the Oct. 24 Passenger Transport.
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