Map of city-level transit measures during the November 8, 2016 elections (CFTE)

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

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

One member of the new BART train fleet (San Francisco Chronicle)

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)

Detroit’s failed regional transit plan (RTA of Southeast Michigan)

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.

14 Replies to “Across the Nation, Transit Wins on Election Night”

  1. So what’s the history of these ridiculous supermajority requirements? I know Washington used to have it because the Forward Trust rail proposition had a majority but failed because it needed 2/3.

    In San Diego, the measure that got 57% would have been called “passing with high margins” in Seattle, yet failed because of this.

    1. Tax revolts in the late 70s. It’s one of the reasons California has so many funding issues these days, along with their zany property tax stagnation laws. Thankfully, that never quite caught on in Washington (besides low turnout voting for unconstitutional Eyman measures).

      Forward thrust needed a supermajority (60%), not 2/3. King County must’ve gotten rid of the supermajority rule a some point in the past, luckily.

      1. Nope, the supermajority rule is still there in the state constitution, article 7, section 2. If a taxing agency goes north of a set property tax limit or indebtedness level you need a 3/5 yes vote and certain turnout requirements to be met to pass.

        That’s what a lot of complainers about ST3’s seemingly lackadaisical schedule didn’t get. Bringing in the money faster could get things done faster, but you’d need a supermajority and it would fail at the polls just like forward thrust.

  2. I am grateful that in the Puget Sound, transit measures are able to pass with a simple majority, rather than a 2/3 super-majority. When I heard the LA measure had a 2/3 requirement to pass, I assumed it was going to fail because getting 2/3 of over a million people to agree on anything is virtually impossible. The fact that LA passed anyway shows just how bad traffic is around there and how desperate people are to do something.

    At the moment, local victories for transit still feel very hollow given the outcome of the presidential race. But, it’s important to put things into perspective and remember than when Donald Trump leaves office – be it after one term or two terms, ST3 still just be getting started.

    Of course, some of the what the Republicans want to do to the environment could have lasting impacts well beyond the lifetime of ST3 (e.g. think, climate change), so it’s important to remember that too.

    1. Let’s see how much debt Drumpf is willing to rack up with his infrastructure plans. Let’s also see if he and his ideologically right wing administration chooses to punish the west coast by not letting us feed at the pork trough. Hopefully they won’t be so myopic to only find roads.

      1. Might also be a good time to see how much transit, and other things, we as States and localities can do if we, like Flint, Michigan, lose the services our taxes will keep on paying the Federal Government for.

        Party now in power has been fulminating for decades about all the things we should be doing for ourselves. Next four years, let’s take them up on it. Call it a long-overdue emergency drill. A ‘quake really could leave “The Coast” heavily on our own for several years.

        Huge percentage of major improvements won’t take a Federal dime, and not that many city and State dollars. Put arterials to flashing yellow and cross streets to flashing red for every hour after 9PM. And all the lane reservation and signal pre-empt we need rest of the time.

        Seattle could probably do a lot of this without having to bother the State at all. Combined with above measures, by the time LINK reaches and Bellevue, transit might at least be able to provide fast enough travel around Seattle that nobody will have to force cars to be left home or parked outside the city.

        Nothing to lose by early-on putting the Spirit of Independence out there, just to show both local self-sufficiency and intimidation- immunity. Because most respectful gesture across the political spectrum will be to honor the legitimate effort of his opponents to make Barack Obama a half-term President in two years.

        A strong and admirable example I’m sure will draw wide and deep admiration on all sides. Including from those professional demonstration-sponsors. Just so they don’t put those damn wraps on buses, even in the pro-transit cause.

        Mark Dublin

      2. I’m somewhat skeptical that Trump’s infrastructure plans are going to go anywhere with the Republican congress. Obama had infrastructure plans which sound awfully similar, and under the Republican congress, they went nowhere. Part of the problem is that nobody has come up with a credible plan to pay for any of it beyond simply adding to the national debt.

        Which is probably, ironically, a good thing, since we’d be talking about plans that would be all highways, no transit.

      3. Except, this congress opposed everything Obama wanted to do simply because Obama wanted to do it. Witness the immigration bill they supported until Obama supported it.

        With a Republican as president, they won’t be trying hard to make his tenure unsuccessful.

  3. All across, good news for our country. Idea that Detroit is planning any transit at all is encouraging. Tempting to say that the Electoral College should be replaced with a super-majority requirement, but better to do without minority rule, period, and live with the results.

    Which really favored the candidate who did not get hired for a Constitutionally temporary position.
    So best approach in any fight is to leave the lamenting to your enemy. Best thing about what you’ve reported, Bruce, is that transit isn’t the only thing in this land that’s very much alive.

    Including the Republic for Which Our Flag Stands. From experience at last demonstration against the Iraq War, to which my wife forced me to go, incidentally, it’s a good idea to carry your flag respectfully folded before boarding transit, and even if you bought it at All The King’s Flags in Ballard, don’t post it on a wood pole six feet long.

    But don’t sweat being able to afford between 48 and 96 months’ worth of full price ORCA fare. According to this morning’s news, the people paying you to demonstrate have got it covered. In American political tradition, beer still being negotiated.

    However, in recognition of a lifetime of purring, sofa-clawing, toilet-paper unrolling and rodent control, deceased cats are now excused from attendance at rallies. Rooowwwwr-I.P.

    Mark Dublin

    1. Interestingly the perceived lack of competitiveness in Michigan may have killed the Detroit transit measure. If more individuals in the Detroit metro recognized that they were on the front lines to stop the Trump Train, they might have turned out to vote. As it stands, Michigan was not considered competitive be the media until Hillary showed up a few days before election day. Turnout was markedly reduced in Wayne County because Obama wasn’t on the ballot.

  4. Great coverage! Please note that the sales tax measure in Spokane was different than in 2015 in that voters approved only 2/10 cent sales tax rather than the original 3/10 cent tax proposal. I think it is unique that the tax is phased in over several years, with the first tenth of a cent collected beginning April 2017 and the second tenth coming online in April 2019. The same list of projects will be funded, with some shifts in sequencing, but overall it costs less than in 2015 because of more favorable tax revenue projections and grants that have been received/committed since April 2015. You can read more about the plan here: http://www.stamovingforward.com.

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