Transportation tax votes show mixed results in elections across the country
By Saba Long
While the country is consumed with conversations about the demographic divides of the Republican Party and the shellacking the Mitt Romney campaign experienced, a number of transportation referenda have gone seemingly unnoticed.
Transportation investment measures on the Nov. 6 ballot included seven sales tax, five property taxes, one bond and one gas tax, according the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE).
Michigan alone had five referenda across the state, all funded via property tax increases ranging from .1 to .6 mills.
Four of the five referenda passed with a lone “loss” — in Walker, Michigan — being a measure supported by an anti-tax group akin to the Fulton County Taxpayers Association. If passed, the measure would have ended the city’s participation with the Rapid — the regional transit authority — without providing an alternate mode of public transportation.
A similar referendum in Sylvania, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, also failed to generate the necessary votes to remove access to public transportation.
Perhaps the most significant transportation referenda losses were Measure B1 and Measure J, in Alameda and Los Angeles counties.
Measure B, a half-cent sales tax, first passed in 1986. In 2000, an extension through year 2022 was approved to fund new projects and programs.
Measure B1 sought to add a half-penny to Measure B. Leading up to the general election vote, every major project funded by the prior referendum were either under construction or complete. If passed, B1 would have generated $7.8 billion over 30 years, increased para-transit funding, upgraded BART stations, funded “Complete Streets” and improved roads and highways.
Like the Alameda County transportation referendum, Measure J sought to augment an existing half-cent sales tax in Los Angeles.
Approved in 2008, Measure R is set to expire in 2039. Supported by Mayor Antonio Villariagosa and the local business community, Measure J was pitched as a job creation initiative — an estimated 400,000 jobs — to boost the construction industry by accelerating seven transit and eight roads projects already approved in the Measure R vote.
Also, it would have provided an additional $22.1 billion for bus and rail operations from 2039 through 2069. Estimates showed the additional half penny would have cost the average Los Angeles resident about $25 per year.
Measure B1 and Measure J received 65.5 percent and 65 percent of the vote, respectfully. California law requires a supermajority on ballot initiatives, meaning both measures had to receive 66.67 percent of the votes to pass. A representative of CFTE mentioned there is a post-elction grassroots effort underway to lower the super-majority mandate to 55 percent.
In the South, Orange County, North Carolina approved a half penny sales tax to boost Triangle Transit’s service and build a light rail connection from UNC Chapel Hill to downtown Durham.
In 2011, Durham also approved a half -cent sales tax for the same. The onus is now on Wake County to pass a transportation referendum to round out the public support for transit in the Research Triangle.
Voters in Memphis rejected a penny increase to the gas tax to support MATA — the Memphis Area Transit Authority. Receiving only 38 percent of the vote, the ballot initiative was supported by the local Sierra Club, transit unions and the League of Women Voters. Many speculate the failure to get voter approval was due to the short campaign — City Council voted on Aug. 7 to include the measure on the November ballot and the lack of clarity on how the $3.6 million would be spent year over year.
CFTE notes transportation ballot initiatives were a success in 2012, with more than 70 percent favorable. Like the metro Atlanta T-SPLOST vote, opponents cited low transit ridership and too much taxes as a reason to reject the local referendum.
While there still seems to be zero political will to bring up discussions on the Regional Transportation Referendum, it behooves our state and local leaders to pay attention to the successes and failures in cities and regions across the country and to develop a Plan B.
Much like the current situation at our nation’s capital, embarrassing losses have a way of bringing about compromise.