State and Local Transit Won in a Landslide Yesterday

That may be *because* — not despite of — a pandemic that terrified millions of Americans off buses and trains.

Image: Creative Commons
Image: Creative Commons

Voters across America overwhelmingly supported their state and local transit networks at the polls yesterday — and they did it amid a pandemic that some feared could kill public support for mass transportation altogether.

A whopping 13 out of 17 major transit measures on state and local ballots across the U.S. yesterday passed, bringing the public transportation industry’s 2020 win rate at the ballot box to a stunning 92 percent. Of the remaining four races, two are in the presidential battleground states of Michigan and Georgia and are still too close to call (although the latter isn’t looking good), and the two that lost — a controversial payroll tax in Portland, Ore., and a sales tax Newton County, Ga. — were both broad transportation bills that committed some revenues to transit, walking, and biking, but also devoted big money to autocentric projects.

The 13 bills that passed will amount to a total of $38 billion dollars in new funding for public transportation — more than the roughly $11 billion that Federal Transit Administration devoted to the mode last year and the $25 billion in emergency relief the industry received at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined.

Those victories are significant at a moment when year-to-date transit ridership is still down 44.18 percent and agencies are cutting service simply to survive, with no new relief package in sight. Some experts think yesterday’s wins are an indicator that the pandemic has reframed the way Americans think about mass transportation: not as a luxury of affluent, blue cities, but as an essential public service in every community, without which our society cannot sustainably or equitably function — especially when it comes to getting essential employees to work. 

“Voters showed last night that they’re willing to think big about our future. Americans voted to invest in transit and in their communities,” said Josh Cohen, executive director of APTA’s Center for Transportation Excellence. “The big measures this year were innovative and collaborative, and represent an approach to development that extends beyond mobility alone. The measures, and the campaigns themselves, talked to voters about equity, cleaner air and water, economic growth, and support for frontline and essential workers – a message and approach that was met with applause.”

Here are a few of the biggest wins:

  • Austin, Tx., passed a property-tax hike that will fund a historic transit expansion, effectively doubling the city’s light-rail network, greatly expanding its bus and bike-share service, and funding a raft of flexible anti-displacement funds. It’s an enormous leap forward for the Violet Crown city — and though the bill is not without its critics, it could serve as a model for fast-growing metros that want to meet the challenges of ending climate change and keep vulnerable residents in their homes.
  • Beleaguered commuter rail agency Caltrain got a lifeline from Bay Area voters with the passage of Measure RR, which will give the system its first stable, dedicated revenue source in the form of a sales-tax increase, and will allow the agency to operate a soon-to-be-electrified route. Reporting from our sister site Streetsblog San Francisco was instrumental in preventing an 11th-hour rewrite of the bill that would have saddled the funding with onerous contingencies, such as supermajority voting requirements; experts say such a rewrite could have easily doomed the bill at the polls or even in the courts.
  • The college town of Missoula, Mont., approved a mill-tax levy that will fund, among other things, the expansion of the region’s Zero Fare program — a notable achievement for a city of fewer than 75,000 residents, and a potential model for other smaller communities .
  • It’s not quite an out-and-out victory compared to the above races, but Seattle, Wash., at least preserved bus and shuttle service for residents, including low-income families, BIPOC communities, and essential workers. Proposition 1 will renew an earlier 0.1 percent sales tax and raise it to 0.15 percent, while striking an accompanying car-tag fee that met legal challenges earlier this year. The revamp is projected to generate less revenue for transit, but experts think it will be enough to keep the wheels on buses going round and round — even if Congress never delivers the transit agency a relief package that would restore complete service.

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