Voters Have Their Say on Transit Initiatives, With Mixed Results

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

In an election like no other, voters in a number of metropolitan areas decided whether their transit districts would raise taxes to spend more money on local transit.

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), 16 measures on various ballots gave voters the chance to make decisions concerning $38 billion in potential transit funding; some did not concern rail transit. They went before voters in cities as big as San Antonio, Texas, and towns as small as Missoula, Mont. The focus here is on ballot measures for transit systems that concern an existing line or would include at least one new rail start in the district: the San Francisco Bay Area; Austin, Tex.; Portland, Ore.; and Gwinnett County, Ga. Bay Area and Austin voters said “yes,” saving Caltrain and advancing the $7.1 billion Project Connect bus and rail transit improvement initiative, respectively; Portland and Gwinnett County voters said “no.”

In many ways, this election seems vastly different from all previous ones, including for older Americans who remember many. Partisanship has never been stronger. Control of the Senate is vital to many voters—perhaps as important as the presidential race, and it now appears that Democrats failed to change the makeup of that body. On top of that: legal battles have already been fought (probably with more to come) over new ways to vote, necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic that now dominates not only this nation, but also the world.

Against this backdrop, transit ridership and service plummeted in many places because of the virus, as Railway Age documented in the spring. More recently, transit has seen a slow but uneven recoveryAPTA’s pre-election report was upbeat, noting on its website: “Despite the tough environment across the country amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, public transportation has won 32 out of 34 (94%) of elections this year.” The report noted a measure in Hamilton County, Ohio, (the Cincinnati metro area) that approved a sales tax increase that would provide $100 million per year for transit. In Cincinnati, that means Metro buses. The city has only one streetcar line, which is confined to downtown and Over-the-Rhine, an adjacent historic neighborhood. It is not a test of where the voters stand in an environment rich in rail transit.

In the APTA report, Josh Cohen, Executive Director of APTA’s Center for Transportation Excellence (CTE) said: “This is a change election and voters are tired of negotiating the core infrastructure that makes our communities go. Now is the time to invest.” The question remains if voters are willing to spend money specifically for transit infrastructure. Transit ridership has recovered from its low points last spring, but traditional commuting into urban office centers is still down significantly, compared to pre-COVID levels. Unemployment in many places has also ascended to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Many states are facing financial difficulties ahead, which could make many voters, especially motorists, nervous about agreeing to spend scarce dollars for transit that they do not expect or desire to ride. Some voters were willing to pay, but many were not.

There were some ballot measures that local transit and political officials had planned to place on the ballot for this election, but later withdrew. In California, San Diego’s “Elevate SD 2020” initiative was scrapped for now. So was the “Faster Bay Area” proposal that would have raised $100 billion in funding for upgrading and linking transit systems in the San Francisco Bay Area. A proposed sales tax increase for transit in the Sacramento area met the same fate. All of those systems have light rail, while the Bay Area also has streetcars, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and Caltrain commuter trains. Still, California presents an especially difficult electoral environment today. The virus is spreading, the state economy is in trouble, San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) has been slashed beyond any levels known in recent memory, and a two-thirds majority vote is required to approve any tax increase in the state—for transit or any other purpose. 

In Washington state, as the virus hit Seattle on March 17, officials in King County called off an initiative that would have raised taxes to improve transit in the suburbs around Seattle. While most of the rail transit there serves the city itself (Sound Transit serves the suburbs and provides rail transit in the city), any decision by officials to back away from facing the voters indicates the expectation that those voters will not approve the measure. Thus, these decisions to withdraw the funding measures from the ballot should not be excluded from the total, but should be considered as additional defeats. There was still a ballot measure in Seattle that would have increased taxi fees and the sales tax for transit projects, but those initiatives were bus-oriented.

Ballot initiatives concerning transit have delivered mixed results in recent years. An initiative in 2018 that would have expanded transit in Nashville, Tenn., including 20 miles of light rail lines, failed by a wide margin, despite widespread expectations that it would pass. Last year, voters in the Phoenix, Ariz., area gave their light rail a green signal, defeating a measure that would have prevented further expansion of the line. So against this backdrop, what did the voters say about transit initiatives on Election Day?

It is still a mixed bag, as voters in the San Francisco Bay Area met the threshold for providing dedicated funding for Caltrain; Austin voters approved new rail and bus lines; Portlanders rejected a tax on employers to finance transit improvements; and Gwinnett County, Ga., narrowly defeated a proposal to extend a MARTA rail line from Atlanta into the county.

The San Francisco Bay Area: Caltrain Will Survive

It appears that voters in the Bay Area have decided to keep Caltrain going.  The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Wednesday (Nov. 4) morning: “Caltrain, hemorrhaging money during the pandemic, was comfortably winning a bid for a temporary lifeline and long-term financial future with the support of voters in three counties for a sales tax increase.” Measure RR would add 0.125% (1/8 of 1%) to the sales tax for operating support for Caltrain, the rail line between downtown San Francisco and San José, with a few trains going further south to Gilroy. The line has taken commuters into San Francisco since the Southern Pacific Railroad’s predecessor founded it as the Peninsular Service in 1862. 

Since the COVID-19 virus hit, though, commuting has plummeted on Caltrain; perhaps more deeply than on most similar lines elsewhere in the country. Matthew Quevado of the League of Conservation Voters described the situation in an op-ed published on Sept. 27 in the Mercury-News based in San José: “Currently, Caltrain relies heavily on fares from passengers, who provide an astonishing 70% of its budget, to continue running. However, COVID-19 has proven that running Caltrain on fare revenue alone isn’t sustainable. The pandemic, which left many working from home, has led to a 95% decrease in Caltrain ridership. This has put Caltrain in a fiscal crisis during our environmental and public health crises, while the train remains vital for thousands of frontline and essential workers.” 

Historically, the farebox kept the railroad going, but that revenue source collapsed. Some trains were eliminated since the virus hit—mostly ones that ran during peak-commuting hours. The schedule still calls for full-service at other times. Quevedo continued: “Although Measure RR was initially conceived to allow Caltrain to upgrade from diesel to more environmentally-friendly electric trains, the measure will generate $108 million in yearly revenue and is needed to keep Caltrain on the rails at all. Measure RR is critical to keeping Caltrain alive in the short term. This dedicated revenue source will also cover the operations needed for electrification and expansion once ridership recovers.” 

Measure RR was on the ballot in the three counties along the line. San Francisco’s Chronicle reported that the measure garnered 74.7% of the vote in San Francisco County, 73.2% in San Mateo County, and 68.7% in Santa Clara County (the county that includes San José). The sales tax increase will provide the first dedicated funding for the line which, until now has depended on discretionary funding from the counties. It is projected to raise $108 million per year for the next 30 years to keep the line going and make future improvements. Without that funding, local advocates feared that the line could shut down. The voters rejected that possibility by the two-thirds margin needed to pass a tax increase in California.

Austin, Texas: More Rail, at Long Last

Austin residents voted overwhelmingly to support local transit and infrastructure expansion. Project Connect is a $7.1 billion initiative to improve bus and rail transit, financed by a 0.875-cent (7/8 of 1%) sales tax increase. The existing Metro Rail Red Line to Leander will get two new infill stations and enhanced service. A similar line, the Green Line, will be built from downtown to East Austin. There will also be two new light rail lines: the Orange Line between North Austin and South Austin, and the Blue Line between downtown and the airport. There will also be a new transit tunnel for light rail in the downtown area. According to Metro, the expansions will include 27 route miles with 31 stations. See map of the proposed system below.

The initiative also includes $300 million for anti-displacement measures, including affordable housing and transit-oriented development (TOD). All of this will be financed by an increase in property taxes. Radio station KUT reported on election night that Proposition A, the tax increase, got a 58% approval vote. Proposition B, an infrastructure initiative, received nearly 70% of the vote.

The victory for rail caps an ongoing campaign that started almost a half-century ago. Longtime advocates Dave Dobbs and Lyndon Henry founded the LightRailNow! website in 2000 to advocate for light rail in their city, and, after several defeats, it now appears that they and other rail proponents in the Texas capital will get their wish. Dobbs told Railway Age that Henry has been campaigning for light rail through the Texas Association for Public Transportation since 1973, and informally before that. Dobbs joined the campaign in 1979. He said: “This would not have happened without an incredible outpouring of the younger generation—from the kids that are just old enough to vote, all the way up to their 40s.  The numbers were staggering.” Dobbs noted: “The thing that impressed me the most was about the way money was used in the campaign and who was sending money. The battle lines here were purely drawn along financial terms. The automobile companies constituted 27% of the opposition campaign funding, according to campaign reports. People outside the city limits contributed to the campaign, including suburban real estate interests. This is the classic roads-vs-rail thing, in many respects.”

Henry told Railway Age: “This is certainly a phenomenal victory. I’ve been working toward this for 49 years. This is a remarkable victory, as a starter line, to get funding for two new light rail lines including a subway. It’s just incredible.” He attributed much of the measure’s success to local advocates.

Portland, Ore.: Employers Convince Voters to Say, “No”

Voters soundly rejected a transit initiative that would have required employers in Portland to pay for benefits they would have received from enhanced transit for their employees and other Portlanders. 

On July 16, the region’s Metro Council sent Measure 26-218 the “Let’s Get Moving 2020” initiative to the voters. The $5 billion plan is a general transportation plan; not strongly transit-oriented, but with a focus on roads, streets and bridges. Local officials also promoted the investments from the initiative as advancing racial equity. The transit component included bus enhancements and only one new light rail extension—an 11-mile MAX line from downtown Portland to Tualatin, a suburb southwest of the city.

The proposition was defeated, according to a report by Andrew Theen in Portland’s newspaper, the Oregonian: “Its failure officially ends a lengthy winning streak at the ballot box for the regional government.” He also noted that the initiative was defeated by a margin of 57% to 43%.   

The most controversial provision of the measure was a payroll tax to support transit. Kea Wilson described it this way in an Election Day article in Streetsblog: “Let’s Get Moving is innovative as a 0.75% payroll tax on the region’s largest corporations, which stand to benefit from their headquarters’ proximity to well-connected, accessible, and (mostly) sustainable transportation” slated to raise $5.2 billion. Those corporations fought against the measure, and Wilson reported that Nike alone spent $390,000 lobbying against it.

Gwinnett County, Ga.: Keeping Rail Transit Out of the County One More Time, But Just Barely

Gwinnett County is a suburban county, northeast of Atlanta. It has historically opposed initiatives that would have strengthened its transit connections to Atlanta, beginning in 1971, continuing through March 2019, and occurring again in this election. Last year’s measure was defeated 54-46. This year’s plan proposed raising $12.2 billion with a 1% sales tax for the next 30 years. The 2019 initiative called for MARTA to operate all transit in the county. The latest plan would have kept buses under county control, and the only rail component would have been an extension of MARTA’s Orange Line northeast from Doraville Station (currently the end of the line) to a new multi-modal transit hub in the county.

The plan was defeated narrowly. On election night, Arielle Kass reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “With all precincts reporting but some absentee and advance in-person votes yet to be counted, Gwinnett voters appeared to narrowly defeat a transit referendum and elect Democrats in nearly every local race in the former Republican stronghold.” Wednesday’s Gwinnett Daily Post reported that the “no” vote was 50.22% of the votes cast. While flipping county government from Republicans to Democrats may change some policies in the future, it appears that Gwinnett County voters have decided again to keep rail transit out of their county—albeit by the narrowest of margins.

The initiatives that included rail received mixed results. Two passed and two failed, but proponents withdrew four others in California and Seattle, rather than face defeat from voters. These developments now paint a grim picture for rail transit from this year’s election and prior events. Austin will get new rail lines and Caltrain will survive, but rail transit will not expand in the other places.