Making it on the November Ballot: Update on Transportation Measures Seeking Local Funding Sources
While all eyes are on the Presidential election this November, this year will also bring a flurry of transportation-related ballot measures as cities, states, and metropolitan areas seek expansions and maintenance of their infrastructure.
The Eno Center for Transportation is tracking these measures closely, as they have the potential to raise hundreds of billions of dollars for projects and services that will transform mobility options for their constituencies. Among them are:
- Seattle’s proposal for a $54 billion build out of its light rail system;
- Los Angeles’ proposed tax increase to support a massive $121 billion plan for a range of new investments including transit build-out and freeway fixes;
- Atlanta’s plan to raise $2.5 billion for rail expansion;
- Indianapolis’ measure to boost its income tax to fund bus rapid transit investments, among others.
Ahead of the political battles that will unfold this fall, it is useful to understand how these proposals get on the ballot in the first place.
Placer County, California
Placer County, in the Sacramento metropolitan area, is one of at least ten California counties with plans for a local transportation half-cent sales tax increase. This measure cleared the first hurdle and successfully made it to the November ballot last month. The plan would raise $1.6 billion over the next 30 years with 75 percent for road, 12 percent for rail and transit, 5 percent for bike and pedestrian improvements, and 8 percent for other local programs. The Placer County Transportation Planning Agency (PCTPA) began promoting the proposition after polling citizens in May 2015. The results showed that a 61 percent of county residents favored it and by August 2015, PCPTPA released its Draft Transportation Expenditure Plan.
While some counties twice as large as Placer, including San Diego and Ventura, have also approved transportation sales tax measures for the November ballot, this case is significant because it is the first time such a proposal qualified for the county’s ballot.
As one of the largest counties in California with no localized source of transportation funding and over 1,000 miles in roadways, Placer needs the revenue to match funds used for the area’s surface improvement projects. The measure even gained support of a Libertarian councilman whose concern for road ratings overrode her staunch opposition to new taxes.
At a PCTPA meeting this past June, Executive Director Celia McAdam noted the effectiveness of sales taxes compared with other ways of raising transportation revenues. Gas taxes, for example, would be too volatile for long-term planning due to low gas prices and higher fuel efficiency standards – and, moreover, an increase would require special legislation and could encourage Placer residents to buy their gas in surrounding counties.
In her advocacy for the county sales tax, McAdam emphasized that “one-third of the half-cent sales tax revenue would come from out-of-county visitors,” allowing the burden to be shared with others who use the county’s roads. By speaking to a range of civic, industry, and advocacy organizations, McAdam has continued to build support for the sales tax increase throughout the county.
PCPTA prepared its county sales tax proposal for the ballot this November through effective public outreach that outlined the proposal through their Keep Placer Moving website and circulating pamphlets. The plan’s supporters assured the Place County Board of Supervisors of the measure’s potential for success, and in July they voted unanimously to place Measure M on the ballot for November. Current projections show 63 percent of voters approve of the tax, which is just short of the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass.
Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA)
At press time, Michigan is second only to California in the number of transit-related measures on the ballot. Five counties in Michigan officially approved renewing property tax levies, or millages, earlier during March, May and August special elections for the continued funding of local transit services.
The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) is requesting such an investment from its voters this November. The RTA’s Regional Master Transit Plan (RMTP) asks voters in Macomb, Washtenaw, Oakland and Wayne counties to approve a $1.2 million increase on property taxes for 20 years. This would fund an estimated $3.1 billion of the $4.7 billion dollar Master Plan proposal that includes: building a bus rapid transit system, passenger rail service to Ann Arbor, airport shuttle service, increased paratransit and bus services, cross-county connectors and a streetcar in Detroit.
Created in 2012, the RTA is the first regional transportation agency for the Detroit metropolitan area. It was created to integrate the local transit agencies by allocating state and federal funds among its four counties.
Timing is crucial for the measure’s approval, as ballot measures on millage increases in Michigan are primarily viable only in election years with high turnout. Paul Hillegonds, Chairman of the RTA Board, reaffirmed its urgency, stating, “Southeast Michigan is the only major urban area in the country without a viable, coordinated public transit system. If we are going to be competitive in a 21st-Century global economy, developing a transit system that meets the needs of a changing world is absolutely essential.”
RTA approval of the measure was delayed after two executives from Macomb County and Oakland County raised concerns that Detroiters already pay the highest effective property taxes in the country, and their taxpayers would barely benefit from the plan. If this measure were to pass, Oakland residents would be expected to provide $1.2 billion in millage revenue, but Wayne County and the city of Detroit would only provide about $900 million yet receive most of the funding. Additionally, the executives noted a lack of funding information provided by the agency and suggested the creation of a funding allocation committee within the RTA.
In a recent statement, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterman indicated:
“My biggest concern was that 40 cities north of M-59, about 540,000 of my residents were going to pay for these services but weren’t going to get anything for it. They were going to pay $700,00 million over this 20-year period, the life of the bond. That was just choking me. I could not abandon those people and approve the plan . . . They weren’t going to get anything back for what they were funding.”
In response, over thirty regional business, university, and civic leaders signed a letter imploring the Oakland County and Macomb County executives to “work through any open issues in the days ahead to ensure that the people of this region have the opportunity to vote on the regional transit plan.”
The executives yielded in early August, and the measure is now slated to appear on the November ballot. While the reason for this change of opinion is unknown, but the promise of a RTA funding allocation committee is a probable factor.
The Detroit case exemplifies the inherent challenge in developing consensus for regional spending measures: who should pay, who should receive, and who decides?
Placer, on the other hand, had an established agency but no local source of funding for transportation. Although the public ultimately chooses whether to approve each ballot measure, the interactions between county executives, city leaders, and planning agencies play a critical role in shaping the discourse and influencing the outcome of local elections.