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USA: Whopping Public Mandate for Transit in Record Number of Ballot Successes

Light Rail Now! Publication Team • November 2004

Across the USA, a record number of transit-supportive ballot initiatives were approved by voters this year according to an analysis by the Center for Transportation Excellence. All told, that suggests a massive US popular mandate for public transport, and a tremendous rebuff to the relentless anti-transit crusade by Highways, Inc. (including the efforts of national pro-highways "hired guns" Wendell Cox, Randal O'Toole, and others).

Will Washington take heed?

According to the CFTE, of the 28 transit funding measures on Nov. 2nd ballots, 22 initiatives (worth a total estimated to exceed $40 billion) were approved. Public transport initiatives were considered this year in both sizable metro areas and smaller communities, and were present on ballots throughout the country – from Arizona to Michigan to South Carolina.
[Center for Transportation Excellence, 2004/11/03]

Earlier this year, 18 similar measures (out of 22) had already been approved by voters. For example, voters in Branson, Missouri, voted 81 to 19% in August to extend a % retail sales tax to fund public transportation and road projects. Altogether, with the Nov. 2nd successes, that represents a combined total of 40 initiatives approved so far in 2004, "reflecting a staggering win rate of 80%" says CFTE. The organization points out that "The increase is being driven in large part by citizen demand for more transportation choices."

"This has been a record year for transit initiatives. We've seen a significant jump in the number of transit initiatives on the ballot and in how many passed" noted Stephanie Vance, CFTE program manger, and a familiar figure to many transit advocates who have attended her seminars at Rail-Volution and the Transit initiatives conferences sponsored by CFTE. "This year has also shown that it's not just big metro areas that are clamoring for transit" Vance observed, but, in addition, "medium and smaller communities like Parkersburg, West Virginia, El Paso County Colorado, and Kalamazoo, Michigan also see its benefits."

In addition, Vance emphasized, "This clearly is not a partisan issue. Of the states that passed initiatives yesterday, seven went for President Bush and four went for Senator Kerry. Citizens across the country regardless of party strongly support transit investments and more transportation choices."

The CFTE also points out that, on average, transit-funding ballot initiatives garnered 62% support on Nov. 2nd, and that all but nine of the initiatives decided this year were supported by more than 50% of voters. Furthermore, in California, where a supermajority (67%) approval is required by state law to pass tax increases, of the 11 of 12 total ballot measures that were decided, only three failed, and one of those (Solano County) garnered 64% of the votes – certainly, a "pass" in the traditional majority-takes-all scenario.

The voting pattern reflects an increasingly pro-transit trend among the public in general, says Mike Dabadie Vice President of Western States for Withlin Worldwide, an international polling firm that has conducted opinion polls on public transportation issues. "People overwhelmingly support public transit" he notes. Voters see transit as a way to reduce traffic and air pollution as well as improve quality of life not only for themselves, but for the community as a whole. Businesses and cities see transit as a way to bring dollars and revitalize neighborhoods. And, for many others, transit is their only means of getting around."

"From suburban to urban to rural communities, the success of these initiatives proves that people are willing to invest in quality transit services that will pay dividends for years to come" commented APTA President William W. Millar. "Voters clearly said that they deserve a better quality of life that available public transportation brings, namely, less congestion, cleaner air, and access to jobs."
[Passenger Transport, 8 November 2004]

Faced with uncertain funding, says the CFTE, communities are increasingly turning to ballot initiatives to back transit. This is particularly true in eleven of the sixteen states with transit measures on their ballots. in these 11 states, motor fuel tax revenues are currently barred from being used for transit.

Some of the most critical ballot initiatives voters considered on November 2nd were in the West and South – especially those in Denver, Phoenix, and Austin, all of which passed by substantial margins. (See US Rail Transit Hits the Trifecta! Big Wins in Austin, Denver, Phoenix.) However, support for public transportation was certainnly not limited to areas west of the Mississippi. As Light Rail Now has also reported, residents in Arlington and Fairfax counties in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area overwhelmingly passed proposals to fund public transportation services.

In Charleston, South Carolina, opponents of funding for the urban area's Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) had been successful in raising questions about the agency's funding approved in previous ballot measures, and had the question of funding was placed back before voters. Yet Charleston voters rebuffed the critics, holding firm in their commitment to funding for public transport.

It's also worth noting that, in every single one those urban regions with ballot initiatives for rail expansion where rail transit is already working, the overwhelming majority of the public voted to support more of it: Washington, DC, Miami, Denver, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco-Bay Area.

Denver LRT station with passengersIndeed, in the Denver area, voters have approved what the New York Times calls "one of the most ambitious urban transportation projects in the nation's history" – a vast, 119-mile network of light rail and regional "commuter" rail, targeted to reshape the Denver area's urban form to resemble "the early days of urban rail in the late 19th century, when trolley systems snaked out of cities like Denver and Boston, creating what were called streetcar suburbs. Some of Denver's new lines" notes the Times, "are meant to function precisely in that way."
[New York Times, 11 November 2004]

In summary, the bottom-line message from voters is clear: They want more public transportation, not less, and they're willing to pay for it. They're not buying the anti-transit malarkey from the naysayers and highway lobby that their only mobility option must be the private motor vehicle. And they not only want rail transit, they want more of it – lots more.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2004/11/11

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