This election has been an exhausting slog, winding down to the final days of anxiety and apocalyptic fears. If I had to judge the current mood of the electorate, I’d say it resembles the look on Harvey Firestein’s face in Independence Day right before he’s consumed by the giant fireball: “Oh crap.”
Given that we’re dealing with two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history (one more so than the other), it’s understandable if many voters stumble into the ballot box feeling a total lack of enthusiasm for the decision they are about to make. To those voters I say, read your ballots very closely, because there’s a good chance you live in a city or state that is asking you a much more optimistic question than the one at the top of the ticket.
On November 8th, there will be 45 ballot proposals across the country that have the potential to raise up to $200 billion for better trains and buses, more bike-sharing and ride-sharing services, and more walkable cities. It’s the most measures in a single year ever, which experts say is a sign that cities and states are increasingly taking advances in transportation into their own hands.
Why are there so many transit-related ballot questions in one year? In part it has to do with the federal government’s failure to do its job. In 1980, Washington contributed 35 percent to the total public dollars spent on highways, mass transit, and rails. Today, that number has dropped to 27 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
That’s why these ballot proposals are so crucial to building a 21st Century transit network. Cities and states can’t rely on the federal government for money, so they need adopt that DIY ethos and ask their own citizens for the authority to do it themselves.
The measures are a bright spot in an otherwise grim election. I asked Greg Stanton, the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona and a hero among transit advocates for his effort to grow transit options in his car-centric city, whether he was worried that the general level of disgust with the presidential race could negatively impact voting on these ballot questions.
“How many more days until this election’s over?”
“Wow, that’s a loaded question,” Stanton said during a briefing on this year’s election. “How many more days until this election’s over?” He agreed that election fatigue could lead to lower voter turnout, which “may be the strategy” of one of the campaigns. (He wouldn’t name names, but come on, it’s Trump.)
Stanton said it will be important for transit advocates in all the places with ballot proposals to get the word out, because cities can’t grow unless they attract young people. And young people don’t want to drive, they want to use Uber and Lyft, take car-sharing or bike-sharing, or ride clean, safe, and efficient trains and buses. “Even if you’re not excited by the top of ticket, you still should vote,” the Phoenix mayor said. Which is a totally obvious statement, but still needs to be said.
So where are these ballot proposals, and what would they do? Allow me to break it down for you.
Voters in Los Angeles are being asked to approve Measure M, which would raise money through a half-cent sales tax increase to nearly double the city’s rail network. That would mean $120 billion to spend over 40 years on projects like the extension of the Purple Line, numerous light rail extensions, an improved bus network, more bike enhancements, and a Sepulveda Pass transit corridor. The city that never walks could finally discover the pleasure of leaving cars in the garage.
LA Metro’s chief says he wants to convert 20 percent to 25 percent of the county's population into regular transit riders, but to do that the city will also need to transform itself from endless sprawl to a more compact urban space with taller buildings.
Residents of the rain-soaked Northwestern city will vote on an initiative called Sound Transit 3, or ST3, that will spend about $54 billion over 25 years to expand train and bus lines.
This means 62 new miles of light rail service, new bus rapid transit service on the east side of the city, and extended commuter rail service. In a city of rapidly rising housing costs, advocates say ST3 will provide a crucial link between affordable housing developments and places where people work.
The measure is a mix of sales taxes, property taxes, and motor vehicle excise taxes collected for 15 years. Several tech and retail companies have endorsed ST3 and donated $3.5 million, including Uber, Microsoft, Expedia, and Amazon.
San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit is only 44 years old, but it hasn’t aged well, with leaky tunnels, warped rails, and malfunctioning circuitry. Proposition RR would inject $3.5 billion into the struggling transit agency.
The measure has divided Bay Area homeowners, mainly because the bond would be paid back by property owners in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties. In a city where housing prices have skyrocketed thanks to a booming tech industry, the idea of paying more property taxes to subsidize the BART is striking some as unfair.
But the amount is tiny — it would cost homeowners in the three designated counties about $9 per $100,000 of their homes’ assessed valuation annually. Silicon Valley has its fair share of millionaires and billionaires. It deserves a world-class transit system, too.
Can the city built by the automobile industry wean itself off its addiction to cars? We’ll find out next week, when Detroit residents vote on whether to approve a 20-year, $4.7 billion plan to build a bus rapid transit system, a commuter rail line to Ann Arbor, and a myriad of other transit-related projects.
The plan is expected to cost the average homeowner about $95 per year in increased property taxes if approved. But in return, those homeowners will get a more mobile city, less congestion, less pollution, and overall better quality of life for themselves and their kids.
Atlanta’s metro system, MARTA, hasn’t expanded much since the 1980s. The FX show Atlanta does a good job portraying how poorer residents of the city struggle with the city’s transit system, as the website Grist notes. That could change next week, when Atlanta residents vote on a half-penny sales tax referendum for the purpose of “significantly expanding and enhancing MARTA transit service,” as the ballot language has it.
The plan is to raise $2.5 billion for a light rail loop along the BeltLine, a former rail corridor that’s been transformed into a park and trail. New transit centers would be built and the underperforming Atlanta Streetcar would extend east and west to connect with the BeltLine.
Other transit measures
There are many arguments against all these measures: that they’re expensive, too burdensome for lower income folks, that the transit agencies are wasteful, there’s no accountability, and so on. There is always a need for more transparency in how these dollars get spent, but most local officials have no choice but to raise taxes to improve mass transit, because their highways are choked with traffic and their populations are growing.
“This is truly historic figure”
In 2014, congestion caused urban Americans to travel an extra 6.9 billion hours and purchase an extra 3.1 billion gallons of fuel for a cost of $160 billion, according to Texas A&M University. In order to reliably arrive on time for important freeway trips, travelers had to allow 48 minutes to make a trip that takes 20 minutes in light traffic. This is a problem that is only growing worse.
“Two hundred billion dollars,” marveled Richard White, the acting director of the American Public Transportation Association. “This is truly historic figure that can help transform communities around the country.”
2016 doesn’t have to just be the year of secret email servers or taped bragging about sexual assault. It can also be the year of the shorter commute, the faster bus, and the amazingly convenient train, the shiny new bike-share, the more walkable city. A well-funded transit network makes for a better functioning city and happier residents. Nobody wants to be stuck in their cars forever. Just look what happened to Harvey Firestein.