While we celebrate a huge victory for transit here in Seattle and lament the result of the presidential race, one must not forget about the plethora of other transportation ballot measures put on by other cities across the country Tuesday night. Out of a total of 48 local and state transit measures, 33 were approved as of Tuesday night (including ST3 and the Kitsap fast ferries measure), a success rate of 71%, and representing over $200 billion in transit investments (the lion’s share of which is taken by Seattle and Los Angeles).
The Transport Politic has an excellent list of measures, results, and a basic summary of what is required for each to pass (and what is in each package). Streetsblog USA has also been going around the country and looking into the measure during the run-up to the election, and each piece is worth a read.
For now, let’s review some of the major measures and others of regional significance here in the Northwest.
Los Angeles’s “Measure M“, a $120 billion transit-and-highways program similar to our failed 2007 Roads and Transit measure, passed by 70 percent—only slightly clear of the required two-thirds majority for raising taxes under California state law. Using a new 0.5 percent sales tax and an extension of the existing 0.5 percent sales tax approved in 2008 via Measure R (set to expire in 2039), Measure M will build out 89 additional miles of light rail and operate 850 new buses for improved service on bus routes, done in stages between as soon as 2020 and as late as 2057 (unless federal funding can accelerate timelines, like ST3). The completed network will span most of Los Angeles County, extending existing lines and branching off new ones; uniquely, the measure also includes conversion of the current Orange Line BRT to light rail, which is currently suffering from overfilled buses at rush hour.
Los Angeles fell short of passing Measure J, a smaller transit-only measure that only extended the 0.5 percent sales tax from Measure R. The measure was opposed by the local Bus Riders Union (no relation to Seattle’s Transit Riders Union), who feared that it would redirect investment from bus lines to accelerating rail in other corridors and areas.
Atlanta’s MARTA, whose origins lie in our failed Forward Thrust measures of 1968 and 1970, will finally embark on a much-awaited expansion of its rail transit system after approval of a 0.5 percent sales tax, raising $2.5 billion for transit improvements, and a separate 0.4 percent sales tax for the city of Atlanta to fund $300 million for road improvements. The existing MARTA subway will gain some infill stations in close-in neighborhoods near downtown and existing stations would be modernized under a “station enhancement” program. 30 miles of light rail, forming a loop around downtown on the existing “Belt Line” trail corridor, and 5 arterial bus rapid transit routes are also slated to be built as part of the plan. As of Tuesday, over 71% of voters have approved the measure.
San Francisco (BART) and San Jose/Santa Clara
The San Francisco Bay Area’s BART is well known for its sprawling suburban lines and unique technologies, but in recent years the system has suffered from maintenance issues not unlike those seen in Washington, D.C. (though not quite as extreme). Measure RR (a fitting designation), a $3.5 billion bond measure funded by property taxes to the tune of $35 to $55 a year, is passing with 70.1 percent of the vote across all three counties (including a whopping 81.1 percent approval in San Francisco County). The measure funds the “Better BART” plan, which will dedicate 90% of funding towards repairing critical infrastructure, including patching leaky tunnels and replacing rails, electrical systems, and aging control systems, and another 10% for potential expansion to relieve congestion. The overwhelming support of a maintenance-oriented ballot measure is an promising sign to other older systems in need of emergency repair and modernization, like Washington, D.C. and New York City.
At the other end of the Bay Area, Santa Clara County (including the city of San Jose) has passed Measure B, a 0.5 percent sales tax, with 70.1 percent in support. The measure, managed by VTA, will fund a BART extension into Downtown San Jose and to Santa Clara, serving the tech oasis of Silicon Valley; improve Caltrain commuter rail service and add grade separation; improve and expand highways and freeways; and fund increased bus frequency.
BRT and buses in Indianapolis, Raleigh, Charleston, and Spokane
Indianapolis passed a 0.25 percent county development income tax, the first of its kind in central Indiana, to fund construction of a bus rapid transit line through the city as well as increased frequency on bus routes across Marion County.
Raleigh, North Carolina has approved the Wake County Transit Plan, which uses a 0.5 percent sales tax to increase bus frequency and build a bus rapid transit network and a commuter rail line over the next 10 years, generating $2.3 billion in local revenue.
Charleston in neighboring South Carolina has approved its own 0.5 percent sales tax for transportation improvements, raising $2.1 billion over 25 years to fund highway widenings and higher bus frequencies.
While not on the same scale as the other cities mentioned here, our state’s 2nd largest city, Spokane, has managed to pass a $200 million transit measure to support bus service expansion. The plan, called “Moving Forward“, built upon a ballot measure from April 2015 that was rejected by a margin of 572 votes, primarily by opponents in the suburban areas of Spokane County and a 0.3 percent sales tax increase. The revised plan uses a smaller 0.2 percent sales tax increase (implemented in two phases) over 10 years to fund bus improvements to keep pace with expected demand in Spokane, but stronger turnout and fine-tuning of the plan are credited with getting voter approval. The centerpiece of STA Moving Forward is the construction of a bus rapid transit route called the “Center City Line“, linking Browne’s Addition to Downtown Spokane and Gonzaga University with electric buses.
The losers: Detroit, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco (Muni)
While the majority of measures were passed by voters, several sadly were not able to meet either a simple majority or two-thirds majority needed for approval.
Detroit had ambitious plans laid out for a regional bus rapid transit and express bus network to reconnect a region that is attempting to reinvigorate itself after decades of decline. A property tax assessment of $1.20 per $1,000 of taxable value over a 20 years would have been used to raise $3 billion in local funding (to be augmented with $1.7 billion in state and federal funds) for the planned network. As of Wednesday morning, it is 18,000 votes short of passing and not likely to recover.
In San Diego, the $18 billion roads-and-transit Measure A only garnered 57 percent approval from voters, falling 10 points short of the two-thirds minimum to implement a 0.5 percent sales tax. The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that opposition to the measure “created odd bedfellows, uniting environmental groups and some Republicans”, in an all-too-familiar scenario for those who remember the 2007 Roads and Transit vote; another common criticism was an excessively long timeline, with one trolley project not expected to open for another 40 years. The $7.5 billion transit portion of the plan would have funded fleet replacements for the North Coast Transit District, a suburban bus and train operator, as well as build a north-south light rail line through the eastern suburbs along Interstate 805, and operate a dozen new bus rapid transit routes (though more similar to our RapidRide than a true BRT). The failure of the measure may be the catalyst for a transit-only measure similar to ST2 in another year to build out the 35-year vision of trolley and bus rapid transit lines that San Diego desires. For the time being, San Diego can look forward to the ongoing construction of a Blue Line light rail extension to La Jolla and University City (home to UC San Diego), funded by a 2004 sales tax and a FTA grant, and is scheduled to be completed in 2021.
Another roads-and-transit measure in Sacramento narrowly failed to meet the required two-thirds majority, which could endanger the struggling transit authority in California’s state capital. Measure B, a 0.5 percent sales tax over 30 years to raise $3.6 billion in revenue, was intended to keep transit afloat in Sacramento while slowly expanding the city’s light rail system, including an extension to the airport on the Green Line (which was on the chopping block to save money); the lion’s share of funding, however, would go towards highway improvements and expansion. Critics saw a lack of investment in buses that would serve less-affluent areas of the Sacramento region, and the fairly recent approval of a transportation sales tax in 2004 that would overlap with Measure B for over 20 years, jeopardizing funding for other needs.
In the “most San Francisco way possible”, voters in San Francisco County approved Proposition J, an allocation of $150 million for improving Muni transit service and homeless programs, but rejected Proposition K, a 0.75 percent sales tax increase meant to pay for said improvements. With the loss, Muni will be unable to expand its low-income fares or expand bus service in a city that faces congested streets with little transit priority.
In the final try for expanding rail transit in Kansas City by activist Clay Chastain, who submitted nine propositions during his 20-year career, Kansas City voters rejected a measure to build light rail from the city’s airport to downtown and southern Kansas City. Despite the popularity of the city’s new streetcar, the 40-mile, $2 billion light rail system only saw approval from 40 percent of voters on Tuesday night. Chastain did, however, have one success at the polls: a tax-neutral measure in 2006 that reallocated an existing bus tax, which was subsequently shot down by the city council.
On the East Coast, the city of Virginia Beach voted heavily against expansion of a current light rail line, “The Tide”, 3.5 miles from Norfolk into Virginia’s largest city at a cost of $243 million. It followed in the footsteps of a 1999 measure that also failed to deliver light rail to Virginia Beach, and was opposed by grassroots groups for its high cost (laughable in comparison to ST3, but still relatively significant), using an outdated technology (sound familiar?) and move little to few people. If the city government decides to not pursue light rail once again, it will have to pay $20 million back to the state of Virginia and miss out on $155 million from the state government earmarked for light rail.
While the failure of these plans, stemming from reliance on roads in California and misinformation in Virginia, there are chances at redemption. Second chances, as we’ve shown here in the Puget Sound region, are well appreciated and can be used to iron out any remaining flaws in these transit plans to help seal the deal with voters. We here in Seattle hope these cities and others like them will try again, and find success with voters and eventually be able to, like us, feel the immense happiness that comes with cutting the ribbon on completed transit projects that link people together with themselves, jobs and recreation.