In Atlanta and Seattle, Hope for Better Transit Through Referendums

» Recognizing the limitations of federal  aid, local leaders in Atlanta and Seattle propose tax increases or additional fees to improve the quality of their transit networks.

Despite the skepticism about the importance of government spending now enthralling Washington on both sides of the aisle, the perceived value of investing local resources in public facilities such as new transit lines seems only to be ramping up.

Take Atlanta and Seattle, sitting at the helm of the nation’s 9th and 15th-largest metropolitan areas, respectively. In the first, a regional initiative supported by political and business leaders across a ten-county area will advance a 1% sales tax to the ballot next November. Over half of the billions in locally raised funds is proposed to be transferred to transit capital and operational programs. In the second, an enthusiastic mayor is articulating a grand, citywide strategy to bring high-quality transit to his city as quickly as possible. If approved by voters, a significant increase in the vehicle registration fee could mean rapid streetcars and more bus rapid transit.

If this is the face of the future of transit funding, then supporters of improved public transportation offerings may have reasons for optimism. In contrast to Washington, municipal and regional groups, convinced that today’s infrastructure is underperforming, are pushing forward — alone.

Atlanta’s referendum, if passed by voters in the 4.1 million-person, 10-county region covered by the Atlanta Regional Commission, would represent the most significant expansion of the area’s transit system since the creation of MARTA in 1971. After state legislation was passed last year to allow the region to ask its voters whether they wanted to increase their own taxes, a “Regional Roundtable” comprised of elected officials was established to determine how exactly to spend the estimated $6.1 billion that will be raised by a 1% sales tax over the course of ten years. Though the final list has yet to be completed (that will not happen until October), 54% of the funds noted in the preliminary list would go to transit (the rest mostly directed towards highway expansion).

The projects suggested for funding range from general support for suburban bus operations in Clayton and Gwinnett Counties to $600 million for state of good repair upgrades for existing MARTA lines to significant expansions of the heavy rail network. Of those, several are particularly exciting: $658 million of the $1.55 billion in total costs for the Beltline light rail corridor; $700 million for a link along the Clifton Corridor between Lindbergh Station and Emory University, expected to cost $1.11 billion; and $879 million of $1.23 billion for a light rail line from Midtown’s Arts Center to Cumberland Mall in northwest Atlanta. In general, these are good projects: Unlike several others proposed by exurban counties in the region, they are aimed towards upgrading transit links in the urban core, where rail investments will be most cost effective.

Not everyone will be completely satisfied, however long the list: DeKalb County politicians have argued that they will actively fight against the tax’s passage if their preferred rail line, an extension of MARTA five miles south from the existing Indian Creek terminus on the east side of the system to Wesley Chapel Road and I-20, if not included in the plan. That threat is likely to be heeded in order to maintain the regional collaboration that appears necessary to support this referendum (it can only pass with a majority of votes across the metropolitan area, not in one municipality at a time). Supported projects must reach as much of the taxed zone as possible. Otherwise, this once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the transit system could be lost.

Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn has taken a wholly different approach, focusing on his municipality alone. Unlike his predecessor Greg Nickels, who championed regional thinking and the successful passage of a 2008 ballot question that increased funding for a regional light rail system, Mr. McGinn has determined that the needs of his city may be best met through its own initiative.

Just a few months after Seattle increased its vehicle licensing fee by $20 and a week after King County (which includes Seattle) added its own $20 charge to prevent cutbacks in the county’s Metro bus network, Mr. McGinn challenged the city to increase the tab by $80 more in order to “be bold” an fund a citywide network of rapid streetcar corridors. In theory, voters would be asked to approve the increase this November.

Displaying genuine entrepreneurship in his approach, the mayor suggested that the city could invest in five high-capacity rapid transit corridors, four of which qualify for rail. Instead of relying on slow-moving Sound Transit, which is building the Seattle region’s light rail network, Seattle could be more successful by playing alone and avoiding having to deal with the delicate matter of regional cooperation, Mr. McGinn argues.

The city council must approve the proposal — other members have suggested raising the fee by $40 or $60 instead — but Mr. McGinn’s initiative speaks for itself: Here is a leader who recognizes the value of public investment and is willing to put his face forward in order to support what is effectively a significant increase in the cost of driving a car in the city. That’s courageous.

Of the $27 million the fee is expected to generate annually, about half would fund transit, and those dollars would go towards investing in city corridors based on recommendations from the city’s Transit Master Plan, currently under development. Mr. McGinn’s approach would spread good transit throughout the city and put corridors within easy access of most of its citizens. The most important links not already in Sound Transit light rail plans would connect Ballard, Fremont, and the University of Washington each to downtown in conjunction with the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines, the first of which is in service and the latter of which is funded. (These and other potential corridors have been meticulously described by Seattle Transit Blog: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.)

To save costs, Mr. McGinn has been pushing European-style rapid streetcars — some might refer to them as tramways — that run mostly in road rights-of-way but that have fewer stops and reserved travel lanes and therefore travel more quickly than most American streetcars. This could allow Seattle to build significantly more rail than other American cities investing in more traditional light rail.*

Though the annual sums that could be collected by the license fee are modest, one approach being considered would involve asking the U.S. government to finance low-interest bonds that the city could pay back with expected future revenues; this would allow faster construction.**

One wonders how many of these projects will be able to advance, though, since most major transit commitments in the United States have relied on significant support from the federal government. With a Congress in continued cost-cutting mode, the likelihood that the proposals in Seattle and Atlanta — amongst those in many other deserving cities — will see full support may be shrinking by the day. If the federal government removes funding for day-to-day capital expenses, like the purchase of new trains or buses or the upkeep of rights-of-way, the new income resulting from these tax and fee increases will have to be redirected back to expenses that were supposed to be supported by other sources. This will disappoint voters, who hate to be misled or have promises pulled out from under them.

In addition, there is no guarantee that either of these referendums — or the others like them being proposed in other U.S. cities — will receive citizen approval. Though it is true that voters in municipalities as varied as Charlotte, Miami, and Phoenix have expanded funding for transit by taxing themselves in recent years, other cities have been less successful, such as Kansas City, where voters rejected a sales tax increase for a light rail line in 2008.

report from the Mineta Transportation Institute last week provided some insight into the success factors that account for the passage of similar measures. By examining eight case studies, the study’s authors pointed to the importance of consensus among business, elected, and environmental interest groups and suggested that campaign leaders must be able to orchestrate a savvy, well-funded media message. What appears to be less important — especially as compared to the 2001 study that this report updates — is producing a multimodal plan that distributes gains evenly across the area whose population is asked to fund it. The reputation of the existing transit agency may or may not be important.

While Atlanta appears at least so far to have sufficient business and political support for engaging a positive dialogue in favor of higher taxes or fees for investments, Seattle’s Mayor McGinn may have more work to do. On the other hand, Seattle’s city-only referendum may by its very nature be easier to pass than Atlanta’s region-wide ballot question, which must convince typically transit-hostile exurban voters. Other cities hoping to fund similar improvements should examine these experience to see what lessons can be learned.

Update, 17 August 2011: The final list of projects approved for funding has been agreed upon.

* It is ironic that Mayor McGinn has become such a fervent supporter of light rail investment; his pre-election persona was in favor of bus rapid transit rather than rail because of what he described as its lower costs and equivalent performance.

** This closely mirrors Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s America Fast Forward proposal, which he hopes to encourage cities across the country to emulate.

Image above: Seattle Streetcar, from Flickr user sillygwailo (cc)

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • political_incorrectness

    There are going to be issues to passing extra on the car tabs in Seattle. The King County council has just raised car tab prices $20 to avoid Metro service cuts. With light rail and buses on separate fare structures and operators, it is difficult to feed light rail due to the extra cost and lack of coordination with KC Metro. There is a lot of anti-tax sentiment in the Seattle region due to Tim Eyman and his innitiatives that might shut down East Link for good due to our 18th amendmnet to the state ocnstitution approved back in 1944.

    • Ben

      Conflating “the Seattle area” with the city of Seattle as a political entity is a very, very bad idea. As you are almost certainly aware from the phrasing of your post, but readers might not be—I would have to go back and look at the numbers, but I am reasonably confident off the top of my head that exactly zero of Eyman’s raft of anti-tax initiatives has won a majority vote from the city of Seattle, and I would guess that even the ones that have passed have barely broken even in King County.

      The initiative process also has nothing to do with lawsuits over the use of the I-90 center lanes for East Link—that’s a matter of existing law, and will be settled by the courts. Who will very certainly not decide that the bridge that the federal government built with the understanding that it might be repurposed for mass transit cannot be so repurposed because somebody waved a gas tax dollar at it sometime in the last 20 years.

  • Questions

    Is there any map of alignments, not just routes, for the Atlanta plan?

  • Ocean Railroader

    Adding $80 dollars in one sitting to a car tax is really nuts and out of control if I where on the polls and someone wanted me to pay $80 more in a sitting on a tax I would vote it down in a hreat beat. They should try something more reasonible like $10 or $15 but $80 in one pop is like a gun shot wound for a lot of people.

    • Felipe

      What is the total absolute price of the licensing tax? It is a yearly tax for each car?

      I ask this to understand better this, but I already add that it sounds to me yet again that people in the USA are not aware that government services cost money. In most countries in the world taxes over car ownership and usage are *much* higher then in the USA. In Brazil for example, licensing a car costs around 2% of the market value of the car per year. For a car worth 20000 dollars one would pay 400 dollars per year only to be able to use it on streets. The older and cheaper the car, the less you pay.

      On top of that, the discussion about sales taxes is also very strange. 1% sales tax a lot? Poland has 23% of sales tax for fuel and most other non-food products. And for *everyone*, not just people in a city which needs transit. For every single person buying or selling something, and it is worth it to keep the country living on it’s means and with very high infrastructure investment.

      This kind of thing strikes me into thinking that taxes are absurdly low in the USA. Are there other sales taxes which put together a higher amount or only transit/road sales taxes? How much is the usual total sales taxes in the USA? People in suburbs don’t pay sales taxes???

      Also extremely wierd are the 10-cents sales taxes and stuff like that. That really sounds crazy to go for a fixed value instead of a percentage… a fixed value will simply devalue because of inflation, and therefore the revenue will be each time lower.

      • American states tend to have a sales tax in the middle or upper single digits – for example, 8.875% in New York, and 7-8% in Rhode Island.

        The 1% sales tax referendum is about increasing the sales tax by a single percentage point whose proceeds are dedicated to mass transit funding. Such things are normal in higher-tax European countries as well: Ile-de-France funds transit out of a dedicated payroll tax equal to 1.2-1.7%, depending on the region.

        Those sales taxes are always percentages, never flat. One-cent sales tax is just another way of saying 1% sales tax.

    • Nathanael

      The state government forced this, from what I can tell. The car license fee is, from what I can tell, the only option they gave cities for raising extra revenue. It’s certainly not the one Seattle would have chosen on its own.

      Yes, the US has absurdly low taxes. The capital gains tax is the most absurdly low of the bunch, if you want to look that up….

  • Sean

    Cities, counties, and states are going to have to take the lead in financing infrastructure expansion in the future as the federal government is heading down the path of low taxes and absurdly high defense spending- with every other government program being cut severely.

  • Mike B

    It’s funny to see Atlanta and Seattle’s transit systems in the same article. Back in 1968, Seattle voteres rejected ponying up $385 million, along with the federal providing $765 million, to fund a $1.15 billion heavy rail system in Seattle. Where did that federal money end up going? Atlanta, to build the MARTA heavy rail system. To this day, it may have been one of the most stupid things Seattle has done to itself.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forward_Thrust

  • Tim E

    St. Louis learned a hard lesson when it came to going on its own. It built the cross county light rail extension on its own dime and found itself starving the rest of transit system until voters approved Prop A, sales tax increase. The problem is that you start getting a system that is now obligated to pay on its bonds first and providing services second.

  • ThomasD

    After visiting Portland and Vancouver recently, I am dumbfounded that Seattle, sitting in between, has been so slow on the uptake.

    Given Seattle is a progressive city with dense neighborhoods on an narrow isthmus, it is tailor-made for successful rail transit to augment bus transit. Anyone needing a clue should observe the legendary traffic jams on I-5 Freeway and SR 99 Highway. Since the $80 tax is difficult to pull off politically, why not aim for $40?

    Seattle needs the Light Rail northern extensions and and the initial 4 Streetcar lines completed by 2025.

  • Yonah, DeKalb County wants more rail. I’m pretty sure that your sentence fragment, “DeKalb County politicians have argued that they will actively fight against the tax’s passage if their preferred rail line, an extension of MARTA five miles south from the existing Indian Creek terminus on the east side of the system to Wesley Chapel Road and I-20,” was meant to end with, “is not added to the plan.”

  • Joe

    One interesting item of note for the Atlanta story is that there are no transit none)or even significant roadway improvements planned for the southeast quadrant of the City, including unincorporated portions of SE DeKalb county. All of the transit related projects, worth an estimated $3 billion, are planned for areas north of Interstate 20, which has over the years become a major geographically based source of socio-economic differentiation..rich and white to the north, poor and black to the south…and the traditional allocation of resources continues within the context of this process. As one elected official said, ‘there is life south of I-20.’, but apparently nobody in a decision making capacity agreed with her.

  • Steve D

    @Joe, don’t the segments on the Beltline in question run right through SE Atlanta, south of I-20 down to the Connector?

  • Tom Marney

    @Steve: the map in the newspaper showed an un-beltline, with the southeastern and northwestern portions of the “belt” replaced by a link along Tenth Street (I think) and spurs eastward and southward to MARTA’s Inman Park and Oakland City stations. This was news to me, and I haven’t seen such a scheme anywhere else as yet. Odd things can happen during negotiations, though.

    Want a laugh? I’m a Beltline skeptic, but I’ll likely be working on building it within two weeks. My company has a contract for part of a 14 foot wide multiuse trail that’ll eventually be one side of the light rail roadbed. With its grade separations and easy grades, the path will be like an Autobahn for bicycles. :)

  • alki

    So that your readers clearly understand…..McGinn is proposing an $80 tax on top of the $40 worth of additions recently passed by the Seattle and King County councils. That’s on top of the existing car tab charges which range from $50 to $300 depending on how new your car is. Seattle currently has an unemployment rate of 9%. And Mr. McGinn is a very unpopular mayor.

    I doubt the initiative will pass in November.

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