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Transit on the ballot: How cities voted to fund transportation

Voters approve measures to boost public transit—and candidates who pledge to improve how they get around

Austin approved new funding last night for walking and biking infrastructure like the city’s Pfluger Pedestrian Bridge.

Two years ago, voters across the country approved dozens of major transportation measures funneling billions of dollars into transit infrastructure projects.

While there weren’t quite as many major transit-related referendums on ballots last night, some notable measures to fund transportation saw big wins, including several victorious candidates who made transportation a key part of their platforms.

Governors make transportation a priority

Several governors who won decisively last night campaigned on promises to bring better transit to their constituents. But none more effectively than Michigan’s gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer, who ran on the platform “Fix the Damn Roads” (which she later revised to “Fix the Roads,” due to FCC concerns).

Beyond simply addressing the state’s crumbling and pothole-ridden streets, Whitmer’s pledge is part of a comprehensive infrastructure plan she has laid out for the state that includes a big push for public transit, including reviving Detroit’s failed regional plan, which did not get placed on the 2018 ballot, and an overhaul of the state’s beleaguered water system.

California keeps its gas tax, Washington rejects a carbon tax

Last year, California’s state legislature passed State Bill 1 into law, imposing a higher tax on gasoline which could be used to fund road construction, bridge and tunnel repair, and public transit. The state’s Proposition 6, which attempted to undo SB 1, was soundly defeated last night. (Many believed it was placed on the ballot as a way to entice Republican voters to the polls.)

While the ballot measure didn’t allocate new funding for transit, it protected one of the best streams of revenue for the state. SB 1’s funds have already funneled hundreds of millions of dollars towards transportation, including $750 million for public transit and $100 million for bike and pedestrian projects in the past year. Plus, gas taxes can be instrumental for encouraging people to drive less—which is the only way that California can achieve its climate goals.

Another effort to fund transit by taxing fossil fuel consumption was not successful last night. Washington State’s Initiative 1631—dubbed the “New Green Deal”—would have been the country’s first carbon tax, charging a fee per ton of carbon emissions. The tax would have used the funds to pay for renewable energy improvements, including clean transportation initiatives. Gas and oil companies rallied hard to defeat the measure.

Although it failed last night, expect a version of a carbon tax to reappear in other progressive states—transportation’s carbon emissions are now the biggest contributor to climate change.

The urban vs. rural divide plays out at the polls

In Colorado, Propositions 109 and 110 presented a mixed bag of transportation funding. Proposition 109 (also named “Fix Our Damn Roads”) proposed a bond measure to raise money, but only for roads, leading advocates to claim the funds would only benefit drivers. Proposition 110 (“Let’s Go Colorado”) offered a more multimodal approach to transportation, but would have increased the state’s sales tax. Both measures failed.

The losses illustrate an ongoing concern from rural or suburban factions that worry measures like this will only benefit big cities and neglect the needs of smaller municipalities. Across the country, dozens of transportation sales tax increases were generally more successful when proposed at the local or regional level.

Multimodal transportation wins in Austin and Tampa

Big ticket transportation measures usually fund large transportation projects like bridges or rail lines, meaning cities or counties often have to carve out specific allocations for other transportation modes. This year, several localities saw ballot measures passed that will specifically benefit people walking and biking.

In Austin, Proposition G passed overwhelmingly, as voters approved a bond measure that would pay for active transportation improvements including addressing accessibility issues, expanding the urban trail system, and fixing bike lanes and sidewalks. Part of the funding also includes $15 million for Vision Zero, the city’s initiative to end traffic deaths.

In Hillsborough County, which encompasses Tampa, a sales-tax hike passed, bringing more money to sidewalks, trails, and transit. This was after a massive Koch Brothers-funded campaign attempted to defeat the measure—the same campaign which derailed a transit measure in Nashville earlier this year.

Did free rides mean bigger turnout?

One transit-focused win from last night’s election was the fact that so many big transportation players provided free rides to the polls.

Major cities like Los Angeles and Houston made public transit free on Election Day, and major bike share operators like Motivate and Bicycle gave out free rides as well. In addition, discounts were offered by ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, car-sharing companies like Zipcar, and even scooter companies like Lime, which offered a code for anyone in the U.S. to get two rides for free.

While it’s too soon to know if this year’s uptick in turnout can be attributed to better transportation access, the free fares might have galvanized a few voters who could be more likely to boost transit at the ballot box next time around.