In Red States and Blue States, Transit Wins

The 2016 election was full of surprising twists and turns, but one thing that stayed true to historical precedent was the bipartisan, local support for public transportation. Here's a rundown on some of the most consequential of these projects.

Sean Doyle

The 2016 election was full of surprising twists and turns, but one thing that stayed true to historical precedent was the bipartisan, local support for public transportation.

In recent years, about 70 percent of local transit referenda have passed, and support has come from both Democratic and Republican states. Congress may be divided on the need to invest in and prioritize transit, but those at the local level, those that actively rely upon these critical services day in and day out, are not.

This year, 34 out of 49 transit initiatives seem to have passed – roughly 69 percent. The result: a vast majority of the $200 billion in new funding for transit investments was approved by voters spread across 20 states. At a time when the nation faces an estimated $86 billion in overdue repair and maintenance for our transit systems, this is an important win that will help give consumers more and better options for how to get around while safeguarding public health and protecting the environment.

Below is a rundown on some of the most consequential of these projects.

Big Victories for Big Projects

By far, the largest transit initiative on the ballot was in Los Angeles County, where $120 billion over 40 years was at stake. CalPIRG worked to support the measure, which passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote. Voters there approved a half-cent sales tax that will provide funding for numerous new light rail lines and extensions, fund multiple bus rapid transit (BRT) projects, and provide money for transit operations. In the epicenter of American car culture, an area famous for its traffic jams and a city often used as a case study in urban sprawl, Los Angeles County voters approved a massive investment in transit that will create a more multimodal city and county.

The second largest transit measure in the country was in the greater Seattle region, at $54 billion over 25 years. Planned projects include 62 miles of new light rail, creating a regional light rail system five times bigger than exists today, as well as new BRT routes and capacity increases for the regional commuter rail. The project will be paid for with increases to sales, motor vehicle, and property taxes (covering $27.7 billion – the part voters approved), but also relies on bonds and federal money for the remaining $26 billion. Seattle has made national headlines recently as a growing city that has seen significant drops in drive-alone commuting (-8.8 percent) over the last decade. This infusion of money into regional transit will help it continue to grow without adding more cars to the road.

Atlanta, another city known for traffic and sprawl, similarly approved new transit funding, if on a smaller scale. At the city level, the half-cent sales tax will raise $2.5 billion over 40 years with all of the money going to transit operations and construction. Planned projects include new stations on and extensions to existing commuter rail lines, new light rail lines, several BRT projects, and improvements to bus service. In a red state, Atlanta stands out for its overwhelming support of transit with almost 72 percent of voters approving the tax.

In Raleigh, N.C. (Wake County specifically), voters approved a half-cent sales tax that will raise $1 billion over the next ten years to partially fund the Wake County Transit Plan ($2.3 billion total). The money will build out new BRT lines, additional bus service, and a new commuter rail line to nearby Durham, N.C. And in Indianapolis (Marion County) voters approved a 0.25 percent income tax increase that will raise $1.68 billion over 30 years for transit. The money will build three new BRT routes (expected to be completed by 2021) and fund improvements to other local bus services. Voters in the City of Toledo and Franklin County, Ohio (which includes Columbus) both reaffirmed property and sales taxes, respectively, that fund local transit operations. All of these measures passed comfortably in red leaning states where Republicans won the race for the presidency, senate seats, and governor’s office (though North Carolina appears to have unseated their incumbent republican governor by a margin of about 5,000 votes).

Finally, Bay Area voters approved $3.5 billion to improve Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) over the next 20 years. The vast majority of money (90 percent) will go to critical maintenance and repairs while the remaining 10 percent will go to expanding capacity to relieve congestion on the popular rail service. CalPIRG also backed this measure.

A Minority of Measures Failed

There were a number of notable loses on Tuesday too, however. The Detroit region narrowly rejected (49.5-50.5 percent) a $4.6 billion proposal that would have funded four BRT lines, commuter rail to Ann Arbor, and improvements to local bus service. But there’s a silver lining: the close nature of the vote bodes well for future attempts at funding a better, more connected regional transit system.

Two big measures in California, in Sacramento County and San Diego County, also failed to garner support from the required two-thirds of voters. Both measures would have raised billions for transportation but only about 26 percent of the funds in Sacramento and 41 percent of the funds in San Diego would have gone to transit. The remainder of the funds would have gone to highway and other non-transit projects. Transit Center suggests that “tying transit scraps to highway meals,” as these two measures did, is unappealing to voters. With such a small percentage of funds going into transit in these proposals, their failure to pass isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Hundreds of Transportation Measures

This is only a run-down of the results for 11 out of the 50 public transit measures and more than 400 transportation-related measures across the country. For more information about transit results, you can visit the Center for Transportation Excellence and The Transport Politic. The Eno Center for Transportation has a complete database of all the transportation-related measures.

As Localities Step Up, National Uncertainty Increases

Even though this election has seen a large majority of transit initiatives pass, the future of federal transit funding remains uncertain. Federal transportation funds have been dwindling for years as gas taxes, the primary way we fund federal transportation investment, continues to generate less and less revenue. The gas tax is not indexed to inflation and has not been raised since 1993. Increases in fuel efficiency have put further pressure on federal gas tax revenues, as people fill up at the pump less often. As a result, federal transportation spending has been uncertain for years.

So far, Congress has been unwilling to raise the federal gas tax, and instead has been cobbling together a series of questionable revenue sources. In the most resent long-term spending bill, the FAST Act, much of the “pay-fors” were little more than budget gimmicks and accounting tricks that will keep federal transportation spending afloat through 2020. The FAST Act maintains the status quo funding for transit at 20 percent, with the remaining 80 percent going to roads. Meanwhile, research shows that states frequently funnel those funds into road expansion projects rather then much needed repair and maintenance. A report from Smart Growth America, 2014 Repair Priorities, found that between 2009 and 2011, states collectively spent over 55 percent of available resources on new roads and expansion and under 45 percent on repair. In other words, we spent the majority of transportation funds building just one percent of the road network while largely neglecting the other 99 percent. Consequently, the nation has more than 58,000 structurally deficient bridges and an $86 billion transit repair backlog.  

That is where we were prior to this week’s election. Where we go from here is even more uncertain.

President-elect Donald Trump has publicly called for a massive, $1 trillion investment in infrastructure. To accomplish this, his plan is to leverage “public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives.” Or put simply, President-Elect Trump’s wants to largely cede responsibility for infrastructure investments to the private sector, relying on tax subsides to spur investment, with any profits generated largely going back to private companies (though some of this revenue may go toward covering the expense of the subsidies themselves). 

There are a lot of potential problems with this approach. For one, this will only benefit money making ventures like airports or toll-roads. Infrastructure shouldn’t be built with a sole focus on profits, but with the public interest in mind – the interstate highway system itself was one of the largest public works projects ever. Similarly, we have long commented on the tradeoffs involved with public-private partnerships, which can include losing control of local transportation decision making for decades and creating structural disincentives for further investment in transit, biking, and pedestrian solutions that may take cars off the road. These critical projects can become more difficult to build since taking cars off the roads reduces corporate toll profits, for example.

At a time when MIT estimates that 53,000 Americans die each year due to pollution from transportation, and another 40,000 are on track to lose their lives in traffic collisions this year alone, we will need to think long and hard about whether we want to lock ourselves into a system that is largely dependent on maximizing driving to increase corporate profits. If you are interested in learning more about public-private partnerships, you should read our report on the subject: Private Roads, Public Costs.

If one thing is clear, it’s that infrastructure funding will be a major issue in the new administration. Members of both parties have seized on infrastructure as a point of agreement – we need more funding. While that’s true, how we spend that money is just as important as how much money there is. Spending more on roads while neglecting transit and maintenance/repairs will only make matters worse. We’ll continue to be vigilant and vocal to make sure we don’t move in the wrong direction and pour more money into new roads and wider highways.


Sean Doyle