Transit By Referendum: A New Way Forward for Atlanta and Seattle?

Atlanta and Seattle find themselves at a transit crossroads. Where at one time they might have looked to Washington to fund transit expansion, these two cities are now asking voters to reach into their own pockets.

Will Seattle voters step up to the plate and support a new fee for streetcar expansion? Photo: Transport Politic

Atlanta is seeking a one percent regional sales tax hike that will fund a wide range of general transportation improvements, with the balance going to transit. Voter approval would help fund the “Beltline” plan, a major expansion of Atlanta’s heavy rail service that’s been called “the most ambitious smart growth project in the country.”

Meanwhile in Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn is pushing a $80 license fee hike that would raise $27 million to further the city’s transit master plan, including a network of streetcar lines.

But given the calls for fiscal austerity in Washington, these cities may find that local revenue streams won’t advance their transit ambitions as far as they hope, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic:

Despite the skepticism about the importance of government spending now enthralling Washington on both sides of the aisle, the perceived value of investing local resources in public facilities such as new transit lines seems only to be ramping up. If this is the face of the future of transit funding, then supporters of improved public transportation offerings may have reasons for optimism. In contrast to Washington, municipal and regional groups, convinced that today’s infrastructure is underperforming, are pushing forward — alone.

One wonders how many of these projects will be able to advance, though, since most major transit commitments in the United States have relied on significant support from the federal government. With a Congress in continued cost-cutting mode, the likelihood that the proposals in Seattle and Atlanta — amongst those in many other deserving cities — will see full support may be shrinking by the day. If the federal government removes funding for day-to-day capital expenses, like the purchase of new trains or buses or the upkeep of rights-of-way, the new income resulting from these tax and fee increases will have to be redirected back to expenses that were supposed to be supported by other sources. This will disappoint voters, who hate to be misled or have promises pulled out from under them.

In addition, there is no guarantee that either of these referendums — or the others like them being proposed in other U.S. cities — will receive citizen approval. Though it is true that voters in municipalities as varied as Charlotte, Miami, and Phoenix have expanded funding for transit by taxing themselves in recent years, other cities have been less successful, such as Kansas City, where voters rejected a sales tax increase for a light rail line in 2008.

Freemark points to a study by the Mineta Transportation Institute [PDF] which examined successful transit referendums to determine the key ingredients to passage. The study indicated that the key factors to success were developing consensus among business and environmental interests as well elected officials and developing a savvy marketing campaign.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Burning the Midnight Oil looks at the “Texas Triangle” project, an aspirational plan to connect San Antonio, Houston and Dallas by high-speed rail. The Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia says opponents of a new Chinatown bike lane misjudge the effect on businesses. And Straight Outta Suburbia looks at LEED-Neighborhood Design’s point system for residential density.