Where the 2020 Election Is a Referendum on Public Transit
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Hard to believe, but the U.S. election on Nov. 3 is about more than national politics. Local matters also hang in the balance, including how people will move. Across nine states and more than 15 localities, voters will decide on at least $1.4 billion worth of transportation ballot measures, more than half of which would fund various types of public transit, according the American Public Transportation Association.
Transit measures have had a strong record of success in recent elections, but this year’s crop faces a number of uncertainties. Together, these initiatives may be a referendum on whether voters’ desire to fund public transportation has changed due to Covid-19, with millions out of work, transit ridership at 76% of its 2019 levels, and at least 20% of the U.S. workforce still working from home as of August. While there isno evidence of transit driving coronavirus outbreaks to date, operators have sometimes struggled to control crowding on buses and trains for the essential workers and others who have continue to ride.
At the same time, calls for racial justice have animated the campaigns behind several of these measures, which present transit, as well as cycling and pedestrian improvements, as answers to a lack of mobility options in communities of color. It’s possible that voters will respond to those themes, which resonate with this summer’s historic protests, and decide to secure the role that transit has already played during the pandemic in transporting essential workers.
“At this point in time, it is just really hard to predict what the appetite for these is going to be,” said Rebecca Lewis, a planning and public policy professor at the University of Oregon who has studied past transit measures.
This year’s initiatives include several transformative visions for the urban areas they would serve. There are also some tax proposals to fund general operation for transit systems, which have collectively faced budget gaps in the tens of billions during the pandemic.
In California’s Bay Area, a one-eighth sales tax would provide Caltrain, the regional commuter rail line, with its first dedicated funding source at an estimated $108 million per year; the system faced the possibility of a shutdown this spring with theevaporation of its regular ridership of tech workers. In Austin, Texas, a no-sunset property tax of 8.75 cents per $100 of valuation would fund$7 billion for multiple light rail lines, revamped bus services, and a downtown subway system with two new tunnels or bridges over Lady Bird Lake.
Gwinnett County, Georgia, is proposing a 30-year 1% sales tax to fund $12 billion of transit expansions. Heavy rail services from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority would stretch into Atlanta’s most populous suburbs, and nearly a dozen rapid bus lines, 22 local bus routes and a sprinkling of new transit hubs would be added throughout the county. The Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area hopes to generate $250 million per year with a .75% payroll tax on large employers for multi-modal transportation upgrades, including a new light rail line, a rapid bus network, an electrified bus fleet, Vision Zero safety projects and free bus passes for youth.
Voters in some of these areas have been skeptical of transit in the past. Gwinnett County’s measure represents the second time a similar measure has been on the ballot since 2019. In Austin, major rail referendums failed in both 2000 and 2014. Josh Cohen, who leads the Center for Transportation Excellence, the election-tracking arm of APTA, said that support for this year’s major measures is about 50%, based on polls. In Portland, an opposition campaign to defeat the payroll measure has been led by Nike and other large employers, arguing that the pandemic’s ongoing economic toll on business should disqualify it.
Other regions opted to postpone big transit measures slated for the upcoming election, including Detroit, Orlando and San Diego, where the Metropolitan Transit System hit an April deadline for putting its $10 billion, 40-year transit proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot and decided to wait. Nathan Fletcher, a San Diego county supervisor and the chair of the board of directors for MTS, said that the later vote might come depending on the timing of a vaccine, return to offices, and “more insight into comfort and willingness to ride.”
Yet there are reasons to believe that transit’s appeal will transcend those anxieties. That is the trend so far this year: Cohen noted that 32 out of 34 of local transit measures that have gone to voters since January have passed, including 100% of those since the pandemic started.
Campaign leaders are also hoping that voters will see transit a means of racial and economic justice, in a year that has made chasmic inequalities difficult to ignore. Both Austin and Portland’s transportation measures include funding set aside to fight housing displacement, a product of input from community groups concerned about transit’s gentrifying effects.
“This proposal was drafted with communities of color, business groups and environmental groups all at the table to say we keep kicking the can to make these investments but we need to do this now — in order to address historic racism that’s built into our systems,” said Abigail Doerr, the campaign manager for Portland’s initiative.
Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, believes there’s a “real desire” to see transit used as a tool to achieve greater equity. “I do think Covid changes things about how people are thinking about transit, but in a way where more people are thinking about the workers that our community depends on,” he said.
Backers of this year’s initiatives can count a few other reasons for optimism. Historically, support for transit at the polls has been closely aligned with left-leaning political views, and presidential elections generally turn out large numbers of Democratic voters. That could bode well this year ifforecasts for a historic voter turnout come true. Past elections have also shown that it may not matter much if voters don’t plan to ride buses and trains anytime soon, said Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles and public transit expert. Transit measures have often passed in areas where the vast majority of enfranchised people drive. Their abstract social promises — such as traffic relief, economic growth and environmental benefits — can prove more important than the actual mobility services they propose.
“I think the bigger question now is whether the way people are experiencing Covid and the economic fallout has changed how they think aspirationally about their transportation system,” Manville said. “And we just don’t know what that will look like.”
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