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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
The deteriorating economy is forcing people to make some tough spending choices. If election results on Nov. 4 are any indication, transit makes the priority list.
Voters approved 24 of the 32 transportation-related measures placed on ballots throughout the country, authorizing about $75 billion worth of transportation expenditures. And while economic woes still could impact the measures — for example, the amount of investment could be affected if sales tax revenue declines for a prolonged period — transit agencies, for now, are celebrating last month’s success at the polls.
Included in the “yeas”: a $10 billion statewide bond measure in California to provide initial financing for a high-speed rail system. In summer, state polls showed that voters supported the measure; however, support steadily declined as the economy worsened, and the final poll taken the week before the election showed that just 43 percent of voters favored the bond measure, says California High Speed Rail Authority Chairman
“We turned our campaign emphasis from focusing on environmental and economic benefits to focusing on economic benefits first,” he says.
The authority emphasized projections that the high-speed rail system will create 160,000 construction jobs during the next two decades and 320,000 permanent jobs by 2030. The measure passed by a 52.7 percent/47.7 percent margin.
“It was remarkable,” says Kopp. “We had substantial concerns, so I was happily surprised it passed.”
Officials at Sound Transit also had cause to celebrate. Seattle-area voters approved Sound Transit 2, a measure that calls for implementing a 0.5 percent sales tax increase to fund $17.8 billion worth of transit projects during the next 20 years, including 34 miles of additional light-rail service.
Sound Transit had proposed a similar plan last year as part of a larger “Roads & Transit” ballot measure. The measure failed, mainly because voters believed the package — which called for a 0.6 percent sales tax increase and 0.8 percent car tab tax increase to fund both transit and highway improvements — was too large, says Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick.
So, Sound Transit this year presented a transit-only measure that was slightly scaled back from last year’s version, then touted the plan’s economic benefits.
“The campaign emphasized the importance of good public transit to regional economic competitiveness, and also pointed out that public infrastructure construction stimulates the regional economy,” said Patrick in an email.
Another large-scale measure that passed was Los Angeles County’s Measure R, a half-cent sales tax that will provide about $40 billion over 30 years for transit and road projects. The measure will fund a handful of rail extensions, as well as new rail cars, operational system improvements and rail yard upgrades.
“We were a little worried about it with the economic news, but we still felt we had a really strong base of support,” says Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble. “Travel around here is miserable, so people felt it was worth paying a little extra on the sales tax to get some meaningful relief.”
Other successful measures included: a one-eighth-cent sales tax increase in Santa Clara County to help fund a Bay Area Rapid Transit extension to the Silicon Valley; a quarter-cent sales tax increase in California’s Sonoma and Marin counties to fund a passenger-rail system between Cloverdale and Larkspur; a continuation of the existing quarter-cent sales tax in Sacramento that could be used in part to fund a streetcar system; approval of Honolulu’s proposed $3.7 billion, 20-mile elevated commuter-rail line; and a one-eighth-cent gross receipts tax increase in New Mexico’s Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia and Santa Fe counties, half of which will be dedicated to the Rail Runner Express commuter-rail system.
Voters in Missouri weren’t as supportive of transit-rail projects. In Kansas City, a 25-year, three-eighths-cent sales tax measure that would have funded a 14-mile light-rail system failed.
In St. Louis, voters narrowly shot down a half-cent sales tax increase to support mass transit, including maintenance and expansion of the MetroLink system. The sales tax would have provided a new, dedicated revenue source for the agency; without it, Metro likely will have to resort to service cuts.
“Because Proposition M found itself on the wrong side of a very narrow margin, the agency is now working to design the best possible transit system it can, given current funding levels,” said Metro President and CEO Bob Baer in a prepared statement.