» 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.
A 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)