[Ok so I’m having a nerdy this-blog-is-also-about-buses moment again. Here in MA we have several interesting ballot proposals. None of them cover transportation, however, which might be too bad given the woes we face. The $200 billion on the table for transportation improvements through ballot measures won’t benefit the MBTA but I’d be happy to provide some free advice. 1. Register your Charlie Card. I’ve messed this up twice, including yesterday. On day two of my monthly pass. Guess I’ll see it as a small donation to the MBTA since I won’t get to vote it more funding. “In an ideal world, the federal government would be doing more to support these local initiatives,” but I’m also hoping we wake up to a president, in addition to public transportation funding, on November 9th so I’ll hold off on hoping for idea federal government support.]
Many local officials say they have no choice but to raise taxes to invest in transportation, especially in mass transit, because their highways are clogged and more people are moving to cities. In Seattle, for example, the average commuter wasted an estimated 63 hours a year stuck in traffic in 2014, up from 44 hours in 2010, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. It is no surprise that voters faced with worsening conditions have approved more than two-thirds of the local transportation proposals since 2000, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
The federal government used to offer more aid but has pulled back over the last few decades. In 2014, only about 27 percent of the public money spent on highways, mass transit and rail came from Washington, down from a high of 35 percent in 1980, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
For years, many local and state governments failed to pick up the slack when the money from Washington dried up. Lawmakers didn’t push for higher taxes, fearing a backlash from voters. This has had terrible consequences, as major systems, like the Washington Metro, Boston’s T and New Jersey Transit, shortchanged maintenance budgets and suffered high-profile accidents, shutdowns and other problems. Only this month did New Jersey agree to raise its gas tax by 23 cents a gallon to help pay for improvements, the first such increase since 1988.
The ballot proposals this year would raise local sales, property and other taxes and use the money to develop new rail systems and dedicated bus lanes for communities without public transit, as well as repair existing infrastructure. The most ambitious of these efforts is Los Angeles County’s Measure M, which will raise the local sales tax and spend $120 billion over 40 years on expanding mass transit and fixing highways and bridges. Seattle will vote on an initiative called ST3 that will expand train and bus lines over 25 years for about $54 billion. Officials in the San Francisco area are asking voters to spend $3.5 billion to rebuild the aging Bay Area Rapid Transit system. There are also transportation proposals in Atlanta; Broward County, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; Detroit; Indianapolis; and Wake County, N.C.
Cities like Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City offer some good examples of the progress possible when money flows to mass transit. And in car-centric Southern California, Los Angeles Metro has built an extensive network. Residents in that county voted in 1980 to dedicate money from a half-cent sales tax to bus and train service. The system now has 105 miles of rail and serves 1.5 million riders every day. If more than two-thirds of voters now say yes to Measure M, a 1-cent sales tax will pay for 100 more miles of rail. The tax will pose a burden on the poor, but officials note that mass transit tends to benefit lower-income families by making it easier and cheaper for them to get to work. “The strongest support for this is among the most transit-dependent,” said the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti.
In an ideal world, the federal government would be doing more to support these local initiatives by, for example, providing matching funds. This would help cities like Los Angeles and Seattle and encourage others to expand existing systems. During this campaign season, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and some congressional candidates have talked a lot about improving infrastructure. It will be up to the next president and Congress to make good on those promises.