Transit vs. Highways: Which Came Out on Top in Local Elections?

Ed Murray's Move Seattle plan got a $900 million nod from voters yesterday. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog
Ed Murray’s Move Seattle plan got a $900 million nod from voters yesterday. Photo: Seattle Bike Blog

There were several local ballot measures with big implications for streets and transportation yesterday, and results were all over the map. Here’s how three of the most notable votes turned out.

Seattle’s property tax increase to fund walking, biking, and transit

This map shows all the projects planned as part of Ed Murray's 10-year Move Seattle Plan. Image: Seattle. Click to enlarge
This map shows all the projects planned as part of Ed Murray’s 10-year Move Seattle Plan. Image: Seattle. Click to enlarge

Voters have spoken and they decided to enact Move Seattle, the $900 million property tax levy for transportation.

The funding will support Mayor Ed Murray’s 10-year transportation vision [PDF], which lays out an agenda to reduce traffic deaths and greenhouse gas emissions, and generally make it safer and more convenient to walk, bike, or ride the bus.

Among the projects that will receive funding: seven rapid bus routes with dedicated lanes, a creative plan to fill gaps in the sidewalk network, and a network of 50 miles of protected bike lanes.

One of the longer-term goals of the plan is to put 75 percent of Seattle households within a 10-minute walk of frequent bus routes, running at least every 15 minutes.

The constitutional mandate to subsidize highways in Texas

In Texas, voters overwhelming passed Prop 7, a sales tax measure that will generate revenue for free highways. The measure mandates spending $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue annually on highways without tolls. As expected, Prop 7 won in a landslide, with about 83 percent of voters supporting the measure, according to the Austin Statesman.

There are a lot of problems with Prop 7, to put it mildly. To start with, $2.5 billion is a huge number, but pouring billions into expanding highways to “fix congestion” is an exercise in futility. The wider roads will generate more traffic and soon congestion will be right where it was before, or worse, which is what happened with Houston’s 23-lane Katy Freeway.

Prop 7 was sold as a something-for-nothing type of deal. But because it didn’t generate any new tax revenue, just mandate that existing funds be spent on one thing — untolled highways — Texans will likely see cuts to other state priorities like healthcare and education as a result.

Utah sales tax to fund transit and streets

On the ballot in 17 Utah counties was a quarter cent sales tax increase to fund transportation. The result looks like a mixed bag.

In counties that passed Prop 1, about 40 percent of the money will go to increased transit service — especially bus routes, according to proponents of the measure. Another 40 percent will go to city governments and 20 percent to county governments, to spend on transportation projects including street maintenance, sidewalks, and bike paths. In counties without transit service, county and city will split the funds 60-40.

Interestingly, the Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity came out against Prop 1, a tell-tale sign that on balance, the measure was good for transit.

Prop 1 passed in 10 out of 17 counties. But it looks like it fell short by 1.8 percent in Salt Lake County, where Salt Lake City is located — by far the state’s biggest transit center. Proponents there haven’t conceded; they’re hoping absentee ballots will help them overcome a 2,600-vote deficit.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    if texans want to pay for their own mass Motoring – that is their affair.

    Seatlle with 50 miles of protected bike lanes will Be transformed

  • Bernard Finucane

    Except that the sales tax is regressive and poor people don’t own cars.

  • If poor people don’t own cars, that means that they also probably aren’t paying sales tax on car ownership either. Provided that the highway building isn’t accomplished by tearing down the neighborhoods of the poor, I see nothing wrong with spending money that is more likely to be paid by car owners to build infrastructure that primarily benefits car owners.

  • datbeezy

    plenty of poor people have cars.

    Most, in fact.

  • datbeezy

    unless the rich have figured out how to drive two cars simultaneously.

  • ohnonononono

    According to the Census Bureau, approximately 533,000 Texas households don’t have a vehicle.

  • Bobberooni

    We are becoming two countries. One is civilized, progressive, and taking on the challenges of the 21st century. The other is doing everything it can to act, look and feel third world.

  • J

    Details are slightly less grim. The dedicated sales tax amount only applies when sales tax revenue exceeds a threshold, and only applies to some of that revenue. Funds from Motor vehicle sales and rental tax are dedicated to free highway only if a threshold is met. The MV funds are less problematic, since they are only paid by MV users. There is a sunset after 15 & 10 years, respectively. Definitely a step in the wrong direction, though. Here are more details:

    “If the state collects more than $28 billion from the sales and use tax in one fiscal year, the next $2.5 billion of tax revenue is to be directed to the State Highway Fund. This will run 15 years— September 1, 2017 through September 1, 2032. If the state collects more than $5 billion from the motor vehicle sales and rental tax in one fiscal year, 35 percent of the remaining revenue collected that year is to be added to the State Highway Fund. This will run 10 years— September 1, 2019 through September 1, 2029.[3]

    The funds collected can only be used to build, maintain and restore non-tolled public roads and repay transportation-related debt. The proposition authorized the Legislature to reduce the amount deposited into the State Highway Fund by up to 50 percent in one fiscal year. This provision was meant to give lawmakers the ability to respond to economic downturns or other changes in the state’s funding needs. Though both appropriations have expiration dates, the Legislature can extend the measure by 10-year increments with a majority vote in each chamber.[3]”

  • J

    Yep, progressive and regressive america. It often breaks down into urban vs rural, but red states (e.g. Texas, Tennessee) seem hell bent on screwing their more progressive cities (Austin, Houston, Nashville). New York State, though, could be seen in a similar light, though, as the state blocked congestion pricing, speed cameras, etc, even though the city overwhelmingly voted for them

  • datbeezy

    so…. 6%? Even if those households are exclusively low-income (ie, excluding downtown condo car-free people); that indicates that… 64% of households meeting federal poverty guidelines have cars. That’s a little back-of-the-envelope, but even with a lot of latitude, most poor people have [access to] personal vehicles.

    Any policy which is rationalized by saying “poor people don’t have cars” is more ideological than rational.

  • Southeasterner

    The term “progressive” in America is horribly over-used.

    If “progressive” implies a $15 minimum wage, composting
    service, banning plastic bags, and legalized pot than I guess Seattle is a utopia.

    However, if you consider the term in the context of
    taxation, which is probably the most critical element to most citizens, Seattle sits in the most regressive state in the country, and the transportation package that just passed is funded by property tax which further pushes Seattle down on the regressive scale, in a city where more and more employed residents are living on the margin as property values (and rent) skyrocket.

    If we look at other important “progressive” issues such as
    gun control, mental health care, homelessness, and education Seattle is almost always on the bottom or near the bottom of the list.

    Similar to Austin, Madison, New York, Baltimore and on and
    on Seattle is a liberal city stuck in a very conservative state, that actually just became more conservative with another republican taking a democratic seat in the state house.

    Just to emphasize that point we passed a $1 billion package
    in Seattle for all modes of transportation while a $16 billion package passed at the state level almost exclusively allocated to new road projects.

  • ponchoes

    that’s because Seattle and a handful of other cities are carrying the burden of the entire country’s homeless and mentally ill population with one way bus tickets because the Feds aren’t doing anything and red states are happy to pass off dealing with the issue on other places.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    true, but it’s difficult to argue with a 83% yes vote. I Think expanding highway capacity Is perhaps the most boneheaded Idea today, but If Texans want to Spend Their own money on the Black hole of expandinh subsidies for mass Motoring, their choice.

    The Seattle item is more my style.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The sad thing is that poor Americans are too dumb to vote. That’s why they get screwed.

  • Bernard Finucane

    I’ll rephrase. “Poor people have fewer cars and travel less by car than rich people”. Happy?

  • Bernard Finucane

    Then sales tax on cars should be earmarked for road building.

    Even better, the gas tax should cover road expenses. This is always claimed by cars fanatics, but Texas just showed pretty conclusively that it is a lie.

  • datbeezy

    No, because the ultimate goal of any such statement is to argue that a policy reducing the value of car ownership is a means of increasing equity.

  • Dee Leggett

    Referring to poor Americans as too dumb to vote is a little harsh. Most often, they can’t take time out to vote. Work, child care, etc or have no way to get to the pollling place. But yes, they are getting screwed.

  • Dee Leggett

    I would say that the most disappointing element is that this did not include any funding for mass transit. The proposition would have passed with transit too. Texas is at the bottom of the lists in terms of state funding for mass transit. The Texas legislature also refuses to give local urban areas more flexibility in how they choose to fund mass transit at the local level. Texas is the fastest growing state in terms of population and economy, there is no way the highways alone can keep up with the growth.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Well, I dunno. Consider Ferguson, MO. After all the troubles they had with the city government and a big push by outsiders to get out the vote they had an election — and they had a record turnout — 29% of the registered voters voted!

    That is just depressing. We are talking about a city where poor people were actively preyed on by a corrupt government. It is well documented. And people were being shot down on the street by a police force of outsiders that acted like an occupying army.

    I think half of them might have found time to get out and vote.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Bernard,

    very few Ameeicans vote. The only people who vote in droves are gov’t employees. Productive Americans who vote is miniscule

  • Bernard Finucane

    That’s a great attempt at justifying stupidity. “I’m getting railroaded by the gummit but I’m too productive to vote”. Brilliant.

    The whining you hear from Americans is deafening. It’s incredible. And yet nobody seems to be able to have the intelligence or exert the energy to do anything about it.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    slightly different

    the overwhelming majority of votes cast are from government employees. Americans who do not vote; typically do not vote because they have withoi drawn their consent.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Haha better and better. By refusing to vote and thus allowing people they don’t want to rule them to rule them, they are withdrawing consent. In other words, they are living in cloud cuckoo land. Sounds a lot better than saying they are stupid.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    fantasy island is believing voting makes a difference

  • Phantom Commuter

    That’s funny. It’s the coastal cities that seem most “Third World.” Greater division of the rich and poor. No middle class. High crime. Homeless roaming the streets. Housing shortages. One party rule.

  • I generally agree, but the Texas bill passed isn’t as horrendous as it’s being made to sound. Here’s a synopsis from TxDOT [PDF] showing exactly where it fits.

  • It wouldn’t be impossible to use it for transit, though I’m sure anyone doing so would get railroaded. But based on TxDOT’s synopsis [PDF], the Legislature could vote to redirect up to 50% of it away from the Highway Fund, theoretically including to fund transit, and it can also be used “to pay down certain transportation-related debt”. I’m too lazy to dig further, but I would think that “certain transportation-related debt” could potentially be construed to be debt for transit projects too.

  • Agreed. Over-used.

  • I really like the Texas/Seattle comparison. Of course, one is a state, the other a city, so the comparison is limited from the onset. But this caught my eye. Angie wrote, “To start with, $2.5 billion is a huge number, but pouring billions into expanding highways to “fix congestion” is an exercise in futility.”

    Here’s how funds in Seattle will be spent to fix congestion: 33 percent of funds, go to “congestion relief” but without the usual asphalt-laying seen elsewhere. Instead, funds will go to “bus lanes, bike routes, sidewalks, signal re-timing, and freight corridor improvements.”
    http://static.seattletimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/moveseattle-piecharts-c-300×297.jpg

  • Bernard Finucane

    You’re right though, it is a bit harsh.

  • rao

    That doesn’t make any sense. If only government employees voted, I can assure you that the Republican Party would not be the dominant party in this country.

  • Dee Leggett

    Everything I read, including during the legislative discussions, made it clear that transit wasn’t included. But maybe debt servicing of projects is another issue. However, a larger portion of the other revenue pots could be used for alternative modes since highways now have another dedicated source. Only time will tell.

  • neroden

    You’ve never visited the rural parts of the country, have you. That’s where you see the real third-world / underdeveloped-country effect.
    Middle classes ONLY exist in cities — rural areas have none. And the one-party rule in most of the rural areas is extreme. Even the media is controlled by the tiny ruling class.

  • neroden

    It’s really more because Washington State is one of the few urban states in the country to refuse to pass an income tax. It’s an anomaly which cannot last; it makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Seattle only has a middle class because of immigration from outside Washington state.

  • neroden

    Well, more accurately, they’re too ignorant to vote: poor Americans have mostly never been given the information they need to vote, or to know that they need to no-matter-what. Ignorance can look like stupidity, but ignorance among the proles is carefully cultivated by the ruling class in order to maintain power.

  • neroden

    Voting does make a difference — *particularly* at the local level. My family has been the swing vote in an election decided by 2 votes, locally, and it changed government policy, locally.

  • neroden

    Well, uh, it is. Just as a policy reducing the value of degrees from Harvard (in favor of making all college degrees valuable, for instance) is a means of increasing equity.

    If you believe *meritocracy* is a good idea — as I do — then any policy which reduces the value of *spending oodles of money on something* will increase the degree to which people advance from their own abilities, rather than based on their access to inherited cash.

  • neroden

    It usually is accomplished by tearing down the neighborhoods of the poor.

    Actually, especially highway widening. Nobody likes living next to a highway, so all the neighborhoods next to a highway quickly become neighborhoods of the poor. So widening the highway means tearing down those neighborhoods…

  • datbeezy

    a car is cheap – exponentially cheaper than the cost of housing in transit-rich areas.

    There’s a reason low-income people are generally opting to move to suburbs and keep/buy vehicles, rather than giving up their car, and it’s not because they’re too stupid to understand the trade-off.

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