Greater Seattle found voters more willing to pay for transit than roads

By Maria Saporta

The Greater Seattle area could write the textbook on how to pass (and how not to pass) a regional transportation sales tax.

The story actually goes back to the late 1960s when Seattle voters turned down a referendum to build a rail transit system with a 20 percent local match for 80 percent federal funds.

Their loss was Atlanta’s gain. In 1971, Atlanta voters in Fulton and DeKalb counties passed the MARTA Act, and the federal dollars flowed to the Atlanta region.

Speaker after speaker reminded 110 metro Atlanta leaders visiting Seattle on the 15th annual LINK trip that they should thank Seattle for their transit system.

“We have regretted that every since; and I do believe you benefitted from that,” said Aaron Reardon, chairman of Sound Transit — a three-county agency that operates commuter trains, light rail and express buses for the Greater Seattle region. Reardon also is the executive of Snohomish County — the most northern county in the Puget Sound region.

Sound Transit was established in 1996 when voters approved a regional transit plan for Puget Sound and to begin building a rail system.

By 2007, the decision was made to go back to voters to approve a new investment in transportation in the region. The referendum proposed splitting the tax revenues between road and transit projects.

“That measure failed,” said Reardon, with only 37 percent of the voters approving it. “People wanted our system rather than road investments. When voters had they opportunity choose, they said: ‘We want investment in light rail, and we want investment in transit.’”

MARTA Chairman Jim Durrett introduces his Seattle counterpart at Sound Transit, Aaron Reardon (Photos by Maria Saporta)

So they went back to the drawing boards, polling voters along the way. Voters wanted to vote for a regional transit system. Suburban and urban voters all wanted light rail, but leaders knew they couldn’t build out the whole system right away and it could take years if not decades for outlying areas to get rail.

The decision was made to serve those areas with express buses until they would be able to get rail transit. Leaders also divided the region into sub-areas, and they pledged that each sub-area would get a proportionate amount of the new tax revenues for transit.

Reardon said that polling showed that transit was much more appealing to voters even if they would rarely use it.

“We drive everywhere; we love to drive,” Reardon said. “But voters could identify with the Sound Transit plan. They knew it. It was something they could understand. They could see how it fit into their daily lives.”

Metro Atlanta leaders explained that they too soon would be voting on a regional transportation sales tax.

Reardon said it was critical to have a regional transit agency that could sell the plan and explain how it would be implemented.

Right now, metro Atlanta and the State of Georgia are trying to figure out a regional transit governance agency that would include a much greater area than just the two MARTA counties.

Atlantans on LINK trip ask Aaron Reardon questions about passing a transportation referendum. Left to right: Renay Blumenthal, Sam Williams and Dave Williams of the Metro Atlanta; MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott and Aaron Reardon, chairman of Sound Transit

The timing of the 2008 Seattle referendum also was fortuitous because it was held on the same day as the general presidential election. That brought out many more transit-friendly voters to the polls, and the referendum passed by more than 60 percent.

Metro Atlanta leaders are becoming increasingly concerned about the timing of the regional sales tax vote — now slated for the primary election on July 31. Because it is expected that most of the contested races will be in Republican races, the likely voters would tend to be anti-tax, conservative and suburban.

There’s a growing consensus among those championing a new regional sales tax in the Atlanta region that the vote should be held in November during the general presidential election. That would attract a greater percentage of voters from throughout the metro area — including the core urban area that tends to be more accepting of transit and taxes.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. Jennette says:

    This is such an important lesson that the folks compiling a transportation list for the Atlanta region to vote on must learn! We don’t want to put our money towards more roads, smog and gridlock! Lets get a list that focuses on expanding public transportation and gives us options and an Atlanat we can be proud of 50 years from now.Report

  2. Skeptic says:

    Will voters in Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas, Fayette, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale really support investment in transit (MARTA) without the regional governance system in place?Report

  3. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Now wait just a minute, Juanita. I completely agree that this state and this region needs to invest much more in transit, but at the same time we also can’t stop investing in our road network, which we are so heavily dependent upon, just to try and attempt to push a transit agenda which may not be politically viable in this region. This state has made very little meaningful investment in transportation of any form since the pre-Olympic era of the mid ’90s. With the exception of the 316/85 project and the extension of the HOV lanes from 285 to Old P’tree Rd and the reconstruction of Hwy 78 in Gwinnett, many of the road projects we’ve seen in the last few years in the post-Olympic era, like the Barrett Parkway extension in Cobb and the construction of Sugarloaf Parkway in Gwinnett, have been locally funded by their respective county governments while the state has virtually refused to engage in any widespread transportation planning on a the large scale that it is critically needed since the Olympics. Just because we pursue planning and investment in other modes of transport doesn’t mean that we should stop all investment in our critically-needed and vitally-important road network to do so.

    With that said, I agree that some thought should be given to moving the vote on the transportation tax to the November General Presidential Election to give it a better chance of passing, but those who advocate doing so should keep two things in mind: One is that spending on transit is favored over spending on roads in a place like Seattle and Western Washington State because the political climate out there is alot more left-leaning and so-called “progressive” in nature so widespread public support for transit in a town that is very compact georgraphically with a dense population of lots of environmentalists isn’t really that much of a stretch politically. The second thing to keep in mind is that the current sitting President, Barack Obama, is very, VERY unpopular in many quarters in Georgia and the Southeast, especially in suburban areas that are dominated by conservative middle-class white voters and rural areas dominated with very conservative that still hold some allegiance to and have some sympathies for the Old Confederacy. These voters, who are very sympathetic towards the anti-tax-and-spend message of the Tea Party and are very angry at the presence of a Barack Hussein Obama in the White House, are going to show up on Election Day in November to vote in such massive amounts and with such political force to vote against Barack Obama, the Democrats and anything remotely tax-and-spend, that the polls may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume that show up which is sure to blow out of the water any organized Tea Party opposition to the flawed transportation tax that will show up to vote against it on the July primary date. That’s a major reason why I don’t necessarily like the transportation tax’s chances of passing. The July date is to attract special interest voters who oppose any tax increase, especially in a Republican Primary where the Tea Party holds major sway, but the November date is certain to attract a Tsunami of anti-Obama voters who will come out to specifically vote against Obama and Democrat Party agenda which in these parts is widely perceived as an anti-American, anti-military, far-left very liberal, socialist, pro-gay, pro-black, pro-illegal immigrant agenda. I don’t like the transportation tax’s chances of passing in July, and I like the tax’s chances of passing in November even less when put to the larger context of a solidly RED STATE Georgia where Democrats are almost a totally extinct political creature whose name is considered a derogatory term in the vast majority of the state these days.

    November 2012 may be the best chance of the transportation referendum’s chance of passing, but the proposed tax’s fatal flaw of taxing Fulton and DeKalb County voters an extra cent on top of the one-cent tax they already pay for the much-maligned MARTA may be enough to sink it with voters on the left side of the political spectrum as well. With the tax’s lack of popularity on both sides of the political spectrum, I not quite if the tax will pass or even if it should pass. Georgia may be at the point where a more purer form of user fees paid by those who use the roads, buses and rails the most, may be a more socially acceptable and politically viable way of raising funds for transportation improvements. Charging adequately-priced fares on public transportation and tolls on both new roads and lanes built and tolls on miles driven so that those who use the roads the most pay the most to build and maintain the roads that they use so much may be a little more politically palatable way of raising funds in the current Tea party-dominated climate than an across-the-board sales tax increase on the entire public.Report

  4. Will the last Democrat in Georgia please turn off the lights?.... says:

    Skeptic says:
    May 10, 2011 at 9:34 am
    “Will voters in Cherokee, Cobb, Douglas, Fayette, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale really support investment in transit (MARTA) without the regional governance system in place?”

    The short answer is NO. Voters in those suburban counties will very much likely NOT support anything that even smells of investment in MARTA without new system of regional governance in place in the form a either a state or regionally-administered multi-county metro or regional transit authority to show that their dollars won’t be going to the much-maligned MARTA.Report


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