DOT Elections Infrastructure United States

The path to a better transport system runs through progressive states and cities

We’re two weeks out from the 2020 United States presidential election, and the winner will undoubtedly play an important role in directing American urban policy. Given the importance of the presidency and the high stakes of the position on every policy area, it is hard not to focalize on this electoral race as key in establishing what sort of future the United States will have.

Hoping to respond to the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 and the prospect of Democratic control over both houses of Congress and the White House, Senate Democrats have begun preparations for a $1 trillion infrastructure package. If the legislation pulls from this year’s House-passed H.R. 2 and from Joe Biden’s presidential platform, the legislation could include new funding for electrification; increased support for transit and intercity railways; and requirements that states “fix it first” before expanding highways. These are good concepts, and indeed, there is a lot of room for federal intervention, especially when it comes to filling the gaps left by declining tax revenues over the past several months, particularly when Americans support a potential big federal stimulus by an enormous margin.

Yet the key questions regarding transportation in the United States—whether the country is able to truly adapt its mobility system to mitigate the devastation wrought by climate change; whether we integrate transportation and land-use planning so as to reduce exurban expansion and automobile dependency; whether we harness access as a tool to reduce inequality, rather than as a mechanism to further empower and enrich a lucky few—are in fact more often than not in the hands not of the federal government, but rather in those of elected officials at the state and municipal levels.

This reality of the U.S. federal system will continue to be the case no matter which presidential candidate wins the election, and no matter how exciting their proposed policies may be.

States and cities make most choices on transportation infrastructure—and their choices have been regressive

The federal transportation legislation authorizing expenditures on transportation—reauthorized every five years or so, and known by such acronyms as FAST, MAP-21, and SAFETEA-LU—is typically the big story when it comes to transportation (though it may not be next year, depending on the scale and inclusiveness of a new infrastructure-focused stimulus). It’s essential for members of Congress, who can advertise it as meaningfully contributing to their respective district’s surface transportation infrastructure needs, to the tune of an average of more than $60 billion annually nationwide. It’s important in defining the overall patterns of spending, such as the share of funds to be distributed to road projects versus transit investments.

Despite this avalanche of funding from Washington, the administrators at the U.S. Department of Transportation are not the primary decisionmakers when it comes to what actual planning choices are made about new transportation projects.

The failure of the Obama Administration to make good on its proposed intercity rail plan is a case in point. After convincing Congress to devote billions of dollars to a national network, high-speed rail became a policy against which to rally among conservatives. Several states run by Republican governors simply sent back grants (free money!) the administration had allocated to them.

The result, then, was that a theoretically national plan for investment became a series of planning choices made state-by-state, each picking whether or not they wanted to engage in the overall program. One can imagine a similar outcome if a future administration makes a similar push for new rail investment.

Moreover, the U.S. government distributes transportation funds primarily by pre-determined formula to states, cities, and transportation agencies. For example, in 2020, of federal highway funds more than 90 percent is distributed directly to state governments to do, largely, what they wish.

It is true that certain programs, like the New Starts transit capital program, are more discretionary in that they give the U.S. Secretary of Transportation more oversight over what projects to advance. But, for the most part, even programs like that are largely formulaic; if you follow the rules for developing a transit project, and it scores well enough based on standardized criteria, you can get it in line on the federal list.

Those lower levels of the public sector, in fact, are those that make most of the choices related to what roads should be built or expanded, and what transit lines to promote.

Indeed, consider how different levels of government have distributed funds to transportation. Between 1956 and 2017, the federal government allocated a total of about $3.1 trillion in 2017 dollars to highways, transit, and rail investments around the country (most of which was simply sent down to lower levels of government to spend). During the same period, states and localities spent way more of their own funds: $8.9 trillion.

Since 2000 alone, the story is similar: The federal government has devoted roughly $1.2 trillion to surface transportation, while states and localities have spent $3.4 trillion raised by their own sales taxes, gas taxes, and the like.

In other words, not only does the federal government largely allocate decision making about what transportation projects to build to states and localities, while handing them control of most of the money that it raises, but also states and localities raise way more money that they use to spend on their own objectives.

U.S. governments at all levels have contributed to an infrastructure system that prioritizes road-based travel above all else. Transport Databook.

Unfortunately, neither the federal government nor lower levels of government have been particularly effective custodians of their massive expenditures on transportation—at least when it comes to achieving more sustainable and equitable outcomes. Since 1956, the federal government has devoted just 21 percent of its surface-transportation expenditures on transit or rail investments; states and localities, just 22 percent.

In other words, both have participated in the creation of an American society dependent on the private automobile for most of its function.

An infrastructure stimulus won’t be equitable or sustainable without buy-in from states and cities

If Democrats take the presidency, retain control of the House, and inherit the Senate, they are likely to push a new federal stimulus bill. It may well offer billions of dollars for improved transportation infrastructure, and if you take what Democrats have said over the past year seriously, it will include a vast expansion in support for transit, new climate-focused policies, and a renewed national rail program.

Yet the role of states, municipalities, and other public-sector entities will only be heightened if a stimulus is passed. States will be the entities deciding whether to participate in bringing improved inter-city rail to their communities. Cities will have to determine whether they want to use federal funds to renovate streetscapes to prioritize pedestrians and bicyclists. Transit agencies will have to identify new bus and rail projects that serve the most passengers.

In other words, even with new federal funds, lower levels of government are ultimately those entities making choices about what kinds of projects they want to build. And there’s little stopping states and cities from spending their own money on new highway expansions that encourage pollution, sprawl, and further exacerbate inequality. Because of the focus on what happens in Washington, however, the actions those entities take is typically less visible. Road projects continue at a reckless pace throughout much of the country despite what we know about climate change.

Fortunately, some states have made progress. California, for example, has altered its system of measuring street performance away from prioritizing moving cars. Yet localities in that state continue to push destructive road investments.

Along with a federal stimulus, then, we need action for change within lower levels of government.


On the ballot in 2018, a clear contrast among those who would move into Governors’ mansions

» On the gubernatorial ballot, Democratic and Republican nominees have vastly differing views when it comes to transportation. And voters across the country will be making important choices about referenda.

November’s U.S. elections will determine the control of the Congress, and as such may play an important role in impacting the nation’s transportation policy. Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has put dozens of transit projects in limbo. Even as the Congress has reaffirmed its funding for new investments in rail and dedicated bus lines throughout the country, the executive branch has put most grant-making on hold. As a result, long-planned projects in places like Dallas, Minneapolis, and Seattle are simply not being funded.

Keep track of key elections at

If Democrats retake the House of Representatives or the Senate, they may gain more power to force the Department of Transportation to release funds needed for transit projects, and potentially reorient the BUILD discretionary grant program, which has reinforced the administration’s focus on rural, rather than urban, projects.

Yet the real action this year may actually be in the nation’s states and cities, where 36 gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, dozens of transportation-related referenda are being considered, and several major mayoral positions are being contested. Voter input on these races will orient the course of action for states representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

If state and local elections are less visible, they are likely to be quite impactful in terms of actually defining how urban transportation works, since cities decide what projects they want to pursue, states allocate resources between transportation modes, and referenda often determine funding streams.

Here, I round up some of the key races at stake this November. Most importantly, there are clear differences in approaches among the candidates running for governor—with, as I show below, many Democrats promoting platforms that would increase transportation funding, support specific transit projects, and encourage transit-oriented development. Republicans, in contrast, for the most part have platforms that actively oppose increasing transportation funding and offer little reason to suspect they would support transit investments.

In addition, I am providing a summary of key elections at and on a dedicated Google sheet. On election night, I will update both of those pages, as well as my Twitter profile, with results, and you can keep track there.

Major gubernatorial elections

Of the 76 major candidates for governor in the 36 states with elections (36 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and four Libertarians or independents), a majority have stated positions on transportation on their policy platforms posted on their respective websites. But Democratic candidates are far more likely to have made a transportation-related statement (72 percent have such a statement) than their GOP opponents (just 42 percent of them).

Of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, 72 percent currently have GOP governors.

The GOP candidates who do have positions on mobility almost universally focus on themes such as cutting spending, “improving efficiencies” and “reforms.” Other than the Republican candidate for New York Governor, Marc Molinaro—who supports a plan to generate new funding for the New York City Subway—none of the GOP candidates supports increasing taxes or fees for transportation; in fact, South Carolina gubernatorial incumbent Henry McMaster specifically highlights his veto of a gas tax increase as one of his accomplishments, and Minnesota candidate Jeff Johnson says he would cut car license fees.

In terms of their policies on transportation spending, the Republicans focus overwhelmingly on roads. John H. Cox, the GOP candidate in California, says he would cancel that state’s high-speed rail program; Jeff Johnson would put a moratorium on light-rail construction. None of them appear to make a link between transportation and land use.

The Democrats running for office, on whole, have endorsed quite a different transportation program. The candidate in Alabama, Walt Maddox, suggests a new funding plan for transportation, pointing to a 12¢ increase in the gas tax as a possible approach; Jared Polis in Colorado, Jay Pritzker in Illinois, Jay Gonzalez in Massachusetts, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Richard Cordray in Ohio, and Tony Evers all endorse identifying new funds for transportation. Walz specifically commits to increasing the gas tax and Gonzalez to passing an income tax increase on the wealthiest to pay for transportation and education investments.

A large share of the Democrats—unlike the Republicans—say they would improve transit offerings, and provide specific examples of changes they would pursue.

California candidate Gavin Newsom has reaffirmed his support for high-speed rail. Polis would complete Denver’s Northwest rail line and invest in the Front Range Passenger Rail project; Connecticut candidate Ned Lamont would extend the Waterbury commuter rail line to Hartford and improve the New Haven line; Maryland’s Ben Jealous would build the Baltimore Red Line light rail, which was cancelled by incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan; and Massachusetts’ Gonzalez would invest in an extension of Boston’s Blue Line to Lynn, while funding new planning for a North-South Rail Link for regional rail through Boston and high-speed rail to Springfield.

The transit commitments of several other Democratic candidates—all attempting to overturn existing Republican power at the governor’s mansion—are a bit less specific but still indicative of what would happen were they to win the election. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams would make transit a statewide priority, and in Ohio, Cordray would dedicate state funding for transit for the first time in years. Finally, Michigan’s Whitmer would pass a Detroit-region transit plan and Texas candidate Lupe Valdez would find ways to encourage a state with better transit and high-speed rail.

Several of the Democrats, finally, note the connections between land use and transportation and intend to pursue policies related to them. Maryland’s Jealous says he would incentivize transit-oriented development (TOD), and Colorado’s Polis says he would develop new state regulations for TOD. Connecticut’s Lamont says he would eliminate parking requirements around stations to encourage more housing in those locations.

It is worth noting, of course, that the candidates’ platforms profiled here only tell us so much about what will actually happen in their states were they to be elected. Many of them are relying on federal grants for their programs, and they’ll have to get support from state legislatures, which must pass legislation.

Major municipal elections

In the U.S., most mayoral elections occur in off-years, but several cities have scheduled their races for this November. Unlike the gubernatorial elections, of the three elections profiled here, only one has candidates associated with a party.

In Austin, incumbent Mayor Steve Adler is promoting a systemwide transit plan to replace the previous proposal, which failed to attract the support of voters in a 2014 referendum. His opponent Travis Duncan says he would encourage zero-emissions vehicles, provide free public transit, and improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure; others running have less concrete strategies.

in Phoenix, Kate Gallego, who is apparently the frontrunner, says she is a “strong proponent of investing in the infrastructure” the city needs to grow, but her platform makes few other commitments. Her opponent Nicholas Sarwark, on the other hand, specifically promotes the idea of encouraging the city’s residents to leave their cars at home through improved bike lanes, and Daniel Valenzuela supports light-rail extensions.

In Washington, D.C., incumbent Muriel Bowser, a Democrat in this partisan race, has no acknowledgement about transportation in her platform. Nor, unfortunately, do her opponents say much about what they would do differently.

It is also worth pointing out that Toronto’s mayoral election is next week, October 22. There, former head of city planning Jennifer Keesmaat is attempting to oust incumbent mayor John Tory. Keesmaat is running an aggressively planning-oriented campaign, premised on developing a new network plan for transit, expanding light rail, and building a Relief Line for downtown Toronto more quickly. She also says she would tear down a portion of the Gardiner Expressway, which runs along the city’s waterfront. Tory is running a far tamer campaign, but nevertheless does continue to support several transit improvements.

Transportation-related referenda

The dozens of referenda related to transportation on the ballot in November have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, notably by the Eno Center for Transportation.

The major referenda are catalogued at, but several are specifically worth noting here.

Voters are being asked to consider sales tax increases for transportation at the local level in Baton Rouge, Broward County (Florida), Collier County (Florida), Flagstaff, Hillsborough County (Florida), Marin County (California), St. Lucie County (Florida). San Benito County (California), San Mateo County (California), and Thurston County (Washington). Of these, the Broward, Hillsborough, and San Mateo referenda are the most significant, all raising billions of dollars over 30 years, a significant share of which would be dedicated to transit improvements.

Several statewide referenda are also worth following. In California, voters are being asked (Proposition 6) whether to repeal a gas tax increase and vehicle fee passed by the state legislature in 2017. Colorado voters are being asked to consider two separate referenda that would increase funding for transportation, one of which would increase the sales tax and fund significant transit improvements (Proposition 110), and the other of which would simply bond out funding for roadways (Proposition 109). In Missouri, voters are considering a 10¢ gas tax increase (Proposition D).

Finally, in Washington state, voters are considering whether to impose a carbon fee (Initiative 1631), which would represent a significant effort by the state to address climate issues.

Explore these and more races and referenda at I’ll be updating it on election night.

Elections Finance Infrastructure

Should the U.S. spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure?

» Donald Trump wants to make a big splash by supporting a huge new infrastructure bill. But we don’t want to end up with the construction of massive new highways from coast to coast.

After six years of proposals for significant new transportation funding being proposed by President Obama, and then being shot down immediately by intransigent Republican Congresspeople, infrastructure is suddenly the talk of Washington. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton proposed major infrastructure packages during the campaign, and the Trump transition team includes a proposal for transportation investment as one of its top priorities. As I’ll describe below, this proposal would likely primarily fund transportation projects that exacerbate climate change and encourage exurban sprawl.

We must remember that the primary goal of transit advocates should not be to simply get projects built. It should be to create more livable, less carbon-intensive cities by shifting the country’s transportation system away from personal automobiles.

The nascent administration has offered few details other than a 10-page fact sheet released by a consultant in October. This proposal would release $137 billion in tax credits over ten years to private companies spending on infrastructure; in exchange, those companies would be expected to raise $167 billion in total equity, supporting a potential $1 trillion in total new construction, amounting to the largest U.S. infrastructure binge since the construction of the Interstate Highway System. In contrast to the vast majority of public works in the U.S. today, projects would have to raise user fees to pay back initial loans and corporate equity contributions.

This proposal, though not fully developed, has been widely critiqued.

Most importantly, perhaps, Ben Fried contends in Streetsblog that supporting any Trump Administration proposal is suspect; “There is no moral basis for collaboration on Trump’s infrastructure agenda—because enabling any aspect of the Trump policy platform will grease the skids for enacting the entire Trump worldview. No piece of infrastructure is worth that risk.” Whatever the benefits of new infrastructure, Fried suggests, the Trump Administration is so problematic that we must fight any of its initiatives.

From a financial perspective, the tax credits would do nothing to support projects that don’t make money, meaning all hope is lost for fixing Flint’s lead-in-water problem through this legislation, for example. The plan would provide automatic 10 percent pretax profits to contractors, just as a matter of general policy. Credits could be distributed even to projects that were already planned, meaning that there is no guarantee that the investment would actually increase investment or produce new jobs. Meanwhile, the proposal provides no source to actually pay for those tax credits, meaning they could be “weaponized” to “justify future cuts in health care, education and social programs,” as Ronald Klein has put it.

Writing in The New York Times, Paul Krugman focuses on the proposal’s secondary effect, which would be shifting infrastructure from public to private hands. This is “not a plan to borrow $1 trillion and spend it on much-needed projects,” he writes. “It is, instead, supposed to involve having private investors do the work both of raising money and building the projects—with the aid of a huge tax credit that gives them back 82 percent of the equity they put in.” Krugman’s point is that the proposed tax credits are, in reality, giveaways to companies that will then own and operate infrastructure permanently at little to no costs to themselves. The plan, in this way, is privatizing future public assets.

These are, undoubtedly, important concerns that put into question not only Mr. Trump’s motivations on the development of this infrastructure bill, but also his policy agenda on several fronts.

Beyond the financial mechanisms and the question of whether to invest in public or private construction, though, the issue of what a new infrastructure bill might fund has been little mentioned in the press. And the reality is that, for the future of the transportation system, the types of projects funded may ultimately have more of an impact than the way they’re funded.

At the heart of the infrastructure proposal is the requirement that new projects built should be self-funding in some form. All the loans that government equity-through-tax-credits are supposed to support will have to be paid back through some sort of user fee. What consequence will this have?

For one, as noted above, many of the projects funded will probably have already been planned, meaning that government funding will replace private-sector investments that would have occurred anyway. Two, this package will massively preference projects that are designed to be profitable—not projects that may serve the greater good. In such, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising for the primary beneficiaries of this legislation to be oil and gas pipelines.

In the transportation space, as many have noted, profit-motivated investments will mean, overwhelmingly, toll highways. Given that the vast majority of transit lines—perhaps all of them in the U.S.—are deficitary, and the fact that it is inconceivable to imagine developing pedestrian and biking projects that charge customers to use them, a transportation investment structured on these lines seems likely to be very auto-oriented, at least compared to current federal transportation expenditures, which are distributed 1-to-4 transit-to-highways.

But I’ll take a step further. What if, somehow, the infrastructure bill were focused on transportation and required that investments followed a similar modal ratio as they do today? If the bill guaranteed $200 billion in transit investments and $800 billion in highway spending over ten years,* would it be worth it?

I am skeptical. We must remember that the primary goal of transit advocates should not be to simply get projects built. It should be to create more livable, less carbon-intensive cities by shifting the country’s transportation system away from personal automobiles.

At the heart of the issue is that fact that new transit infrastructure is typically only moderately successful in encouraging people to get out of their cars, while new highway infrastructure is usually very good at getting people into their cars. In other words, the net effect of a tripling of the nation’s expenditures on transportation—even if those expenditures were spent in similar proportion as today—would be not a reaffirming of the status quo; it would represent a dramatic incentive to get many more people driving.

Why am I convinced that a massive increase in overall transportation expenditures would do more than just reinforce existing trends? For one, the reality is that exurban or interurban highways are simply much cheaper to build than urban transit. Take Texas’ SH 130, a four-lane toll highway that was extended by 40 miles in 2012 for a cost of a bit more than $1.3 billion.—that’s about $33 million a mile. For comparison, Denver’s 12.1-mile West light rail line, which opened in 2013, cost $707 million, or about $60 million a mile. Minneapolis’ 9.5-mile Green Line light rail, which opened in 2014, cost $957 million, or about $100 million a mile.

In other words, for the same transportation dollar, an investment in new highways can produce dozens of miles of multi-lane, grade-separated highways in rural areas while an investment in urban transit can mean relatively little new capacity.

No new investment of any sort would likely encourage better use of existing infrastructure, thereby improving the performance of existing transit lines and supporting infill development rather than greenfield construction.  

Two, given the fact that a Trump transportation bill requires projects to contribute user fees, it seems very unlikely to contribute to the reconstruction of the Interstate System, since political and public support for the tolling of existing roads is basically nonexistent. This means funds will go to new projects, not renovations.

What would be the direct consequences of thousands of new miles of grade-separated highways? Massive incentives for increased sprawling, unwalkable development, destruction of greenfield and agricultural land, and disincentives for investment in urban infill. Significantly more vehicular travel generated through induced demand. Massive new carbon emissions.

What would be the direct consequences of hundreds of new miles of new transit investments, funded through the same mechanisms? Potentially significant additional transit ridership—but maybe not; what is more likely in most cases is a redirection of riders from buses to trains. New transit-oriented development might surround many new lines, but given that most public investment is being directed to suburban highways, and the simultaneous political resistance to increased density, there likely wouldn’t be much new development from a relative perspective.**

Where does this leave us? For the good of our environment and for the good of our cities, doing nothing would likely be better than supporting this infrastructure package—even if we ignore the potentially disastrous political and financial concerns about this infrastructure bill noted by others. More transit investment simply isn’t worth it in the context of far more massive new highway spending that would overwhelm any potential benefits being derived from transit projects. Indeed, no new investment of any sort would likely encourage better use of existing infrastructure, thereby improving the performance of existing transit lines and supporting infill development rather than greenfield construction.

Ironically, losing out on the massive stream of potential federal funding doesn’t mean that new transit projects have to grind to a halt. Indeed, the results of local referenda this election reinforced the notion that when presented with a generous transit plan, voters in many cities will jump at the opportunity to tax themselves to pay for it. Indeed, the large majorities that came out to support better transit—and pay for it—in Atlanta, the Bay Area, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Raleigh, and Seattle*** were voting for more livable, less car-dominated communities. Even though each of those plans rely on federal funding to support full implementation, even without support from Washington, much of what they propose can be completed.

Transit agencies will make the reasonable argument that they need funding to bring their systems back to a state of good repair. But this infrastructure bill won’t be of much use to address that problem, since it focuses on expansion projects. And new highways that suck ridership out of the transit system won’t help much, either.

Suggesting that new infrastructure funding isn’t worth it given what will be funded comes close to heretical in a political environment in which such investment has suddenly been identified by politicians on both the right and left as the solution for whatever it is that supposedly ails America. But we need to think long and hard about what kind of society we want before spending billions of dollars for new transportation projects all over the place.

* This would represent roughly a tripling of federal transportation spending, since the U.S. Department of Transportation currently distributes about $50 billion in surface transportation funding annually.
** Of course there are many benefits of investing in public transit projects, and many transit projects will in fact result in many additional riders. But maximizing the benefits of new transit projects—particularly in a short time horizon—is difficult because of the realities of land use.
*** In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, more than 70 percents of voters expressed themselves in favor of the referenda.

Elections Infrastructure

On the ballot 2016


» If passed, referenda in dozens of cities could expand funding for transportation across America.

This year’s U.S. election has overwhelmingly focused on the dynamics between the two presidential candidates, and for good reason: As I documented earlier this year, the policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on infrastructure are substantial. Control of the presidency and the U.S. Congress could dramatically alter the availability of funds for public transportation and active transportation projects; it is worth emphasizing that the Republican Party has repeatedly argued for the elimination of federal funding for transit, bike, and pedestrian programs while maintaining federal support for highways. At the state level, party control matters for transit as well; North Carolina’s GOP, for example, cut off most funding for light rail last year through a legislative maneuver.

But more is at stake, thanks to dozens of referenda offering voters the opportunity to support billions of dollars in new expenditures on public transportation. The largest referenda are Los Angeles’ Measure M, which would raise $120 billion for a huge expansion of that county’s transit network, and Seattle’s Sound Transit 3, which would fund one of the nation’s most extensive light rail networks. Many other metropolitan areas have smaller plans under review, from Raleigh to Atlanta.

Based on recent elections, we can expect between 70 and 80 percent of these referenda to pass.

In this post, I profile the most significant referenda for public transportation investments. Interestingly, though the majority of measures described here allocate more than half of their proposed revenues to transit, the argument put forward by many of the referenda supporters has been that these projects will address traffic congestion. As Laura Nelson documented in the L.A. Times, the traffic-reduction benefit of transit investments is limited at best, and often takes decades to be realized. Nonetheless, what many of the referenda will do is fund improved local bus services and new fixed-guideway projects, whether BRT or light rail.

For transit supporters, the real question is whether to support referenda that–even as they expand funding for transit significantly–nevertheless also invest in considerable highway expansion. Is it worth voting for new light rail lines if that also means voting for new highway capacity? In places like San Diego, for example, Measure A would pay for better transit, but also more road funding, and that’s provoked some in the environmental movement to oppose the measure; a similar dynamic is at play in Charleston. On the other hand, referenda in Detroit and Indianapolis fund transit alone.

Note that there are dozens of additional referenda on ballots countrywide. Many provide funding for highways only, or would reserve money collected through gas taxes to transportation uses, and others are for small cities that I do not provide details on here. Check out the Eno Center for Transportation’s ballot measure database for all referenda.

The following table lists the major public transportation-related referenda on this November’s ballots; details are provided further down in the post. I will update this page as election results come in on November 8. Live tracking will be here on this Google Sheet.

Referendum (click for details) Share in favor Passed?
California Proposition 53 49.0%* x_cc_naim_red
Alameda-Contra Costa CA Measure C1 82.1% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
BART CA Measure RR 70.5% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Contra Costa CA Measure X 62.7% x_cc_naim_red
Los Angeles CA Measure M 69.9% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Sacramento CA Measure B 65.1% x_cc_naim_red
Santa Clara CA Measure B 71.5% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
San Diego CA Measure A 56.9% x_cc_naim_red
San Francisco CA Measures J/K 66.9/34.9% x_cc_naim_red
Broward FL Sales Tax 51%** x_cc_naim_red
Atlanta GA MARTA Sales Tax 71.3% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Indianapolis IN Income Tax 59.4% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Detroit MI Region Property Tax 49.5% x_cc_naim_red
Wake County NC Sales Tax 52.7% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Central Ohio Region Sales Tax 73% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Toledo OH Property Tax 58.5% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Charleston SC Sales Tax 51.6% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Kitsap County WA Sales Tax 51.7% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Seattle Region WA Sales Tax 54.0% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green
Spokane WA Sales Tax 55.6% check_cc_kimmi_studio_green

* “Failure” in this case is good for transit, as it prevents having to undergo referenda for each major bond sale in the state.

** However, a related sales tax did not pass, so this funding will not go forward.

California (Polls close at 11 PM EST)

California Statewide Proposition 53 (constitutional amendment) [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • Would require voter approval before state issuing of $2 billion of bonds or more that would require an increase in taxes or fees for repayment.
  • This would slow projects such as California’s High-Speed Rail by forcing new bonding capacity necessary to support the project to undergo voter approval.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Alameda/Contra Costa Counties Measure C1 [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • Parcel tax ($96 per panel) extension for 20 years (does not raise existing taxes).
  • Would raise approximately $30 million annually; all would go to transit.
  • Maintains existing AC Transit services and continues low fares for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities.
  • Supporters

Bay Area region (Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco Counties) (BART) Measure RR [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • Bond funded by property taxes
  • $3.5 b
  • Funding for more frequent and reliable service through the Better BART plan. BART infrastructure renewal would occur between 2017 to 2038. All funding would go to transit.
  • 90% of funding will extend to repairing critical infrastructure, with 10% aimed at potential expansion to relieve congestion.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Contra Costa County Measure X [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $2.9 billion/30 years
  • Would fund Keep Contra Costa Moving Transportation Plan.
  • 27% of funding would fund improvements to BART, bus, ferry, and train networks. Funds will aid in the acquisition of new BART trains, improved local bus service, and initial funding for a potential future East Contra Costa Transit Extension. The remainder of the funding would go to non-transit transportation projects.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Los Angeles County Measure M [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $120 billion/40 years
  • Would fund Los Angeles County’s long-term transportation plan
  • 27% of funding would go to transit operations; 35% would go to transit construction projects; 2% would go to state of good repair; 1% would go to regional rail; the remainder would go to active transportation, roadways, and local governments. Major new transit projects funded by the plan include extension of Foothill-Gold Line light rail extension; West Santa Ana light rail; Sepulveda Pass transit corridor; Green Line extension; Vermont transit corridor; Crenshaw light rail extension; and several BRT projects.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Sacramento County Measure B [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $3.6 b/30 years
  • Would fund Sacramento Go mix of transportation projects, including road, transit, and other projects. 26.35% of funding ($952 m) would be distributed to Sacramento RTD, including expansion of Green Line light rail to airport and BRT from Cosumnes River College to the Southeast Planning Area. Remainder of funding would go to highway and other non-transit projects.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Santa Clara County Measure B [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $6.5 b/30 years
  • Would fund Envision Silicon Valley.
  • Projects funded would include $1.5 billion for BART extension to downtown San Jose and Santa Clara; $1 billion for Caltrain grade separations and capacity improvements; $500 million for improvement of local transit service; the rest would fund highway projects.
  • Supporters | Opponents

San Diego County Measure A [2/3 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $18.2 b/40 years
  • Would fund transportation projects throughout the county, including highway, open space, transit, and other infrastructure projects.
  • Transit component is $7.5 billion and includes a new light rail line from San Ysidro to Kearny Mesa and more than a dozen new Rapid routes (arterial rapid transit lines). The remainder of the funding would go to highway and other non-transit projects.

San Francisco County (City) Propositions J and K [1/2 of voters must approve to pass]

  • 3/4-cent sales tax (Proposition K)
  • $150-155 m per year/25 years
  • 2/3 of funding will be dedicated for transportation (Proposition J); of this funding, 12.4% would be distributed to Muni transit service improvement and reduced fares; 18.8% would be distributed for Muni maintenance and infrastructure; 9.4% would go to expansion; 14.1% would go to regional projects; and the rest would go to street projects.
  • The two propositions interact; without the passage of Proposition J, the passage of Proposition K would mean funding would go to the general fund.
  • Supporters

Florida (7 PM EST)

Broward County sales tax

  • 1-cent sales tax
  • $12.6 billion/30 years
  • Half of the tax would extend over 30 years for regional transportation projects; the other half would extend over 20 years for municipal projects, with the last 10 years shared between municipalities and the county.
  • At the county level. bus service would be improved; BRT service would be added to several routes throughout the county; light rail between the airport and the convention center; east-west light rail would also be completed.
  • Supporters

Georgia (7 PM EST)

Atlanta City MARTA sales tax

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $2.5 b/40 years
  • Would fund MARTA expansion projects ($6.3 billion in capital costs, $4 billion in operations costs in total). All funding would go to transit.
  • Projects planned include 7 light rail lines connected to Beltline, 2 BRT lines, a heavy rail extension, 5 infill stations. Clifton Corridor light rail, which extends into DeKalb County, would require additional funding. Local bus service would be improved, and new arterial rapid transit routes would be added.

Indiana (6 PM EST)

Marion County/Indianapolis Proposal 145

  • 0.25% income tax
  • $1.68 b/30 years
  • Would fund the IndyGo Marion County Transit Plan. All funding would go to transit.
  • Projects planned include three BRT routes, including the 35-mile, electric BRT Red Line, and improved local and express bus service. Project would be completed by 2021.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Michigan (8 PM EST)

Detroit Region (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw Counties)

  • 1.2 mills property tax increase
  • $4.6 b/20 years
  • Would fund the Regional Transit Authority Master Plan. All funding would go to transit.
  • Projects planned include four BRT lines (Gratiot Ave, Michigan Ave, Washtenaw Ave, Woodward Ave), a commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, and improved local and express bus services.
  • Supporters | Opponents

North Carolina (7:30 PM EST)

Wake County (Raleigh)

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $1 b/10 years
  • Would partially fund the Wake County Transit Plan ($2.3 billion in total). All funding would go to transit.
  • Projects planned include a commuter rail line between Durham and Raleigh; new BRT lines extending in four directions from downtown Raleigh; and additional local and express bus service.
  • The plan would plug in directly to the already-passed sales taxes in Durham and Orange Counties, which are also funding transit improvements.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Ohio (7:30 PM EST)

Franklin County (Columbus) and portions of surrounding counties sales tax (Ballot Issue #60)

  • 1/4-cent sales tax
  • $62-65 million/year for 10 years. All funding would go to transit.
  • Renews dedicated sales tax for Central Ohio Transit Authority. Primarily funds operations for transit in the area.

Toledo City Issue 18

  • Renewal of existing 1.5 mil property tax.
  • $7.9 m/10 years. All funding would go to transit.
  • Supports Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, funds a quarter of the agency’s operations.
  • Supporters

South Carolina (7 PM EST)

Charleston County sales tax

  • 1/2-cent sales tax
  • $2.1 b/25 years
  • 29% of funding would be distributed to public transportation projects. The remainder would be spent on road projects.
  • Opponents

Washington (11 PM EST)

Kitsap County Fast Ferries

  • 3/10-cent sales tax
  • Tax expected to raise $33 million/year. All funding would go to transit.
  • Funding would support faster, passenger-only ferry service from Bremerton, Kingston, and Southworth to Seattle, as well as improving bus service. Overall travel times would be reduced dramatically. Service would begin between 2018 and 2020.

Seattle Region Sound Transit 3 – Proposition 1

  • 1/2-cent sales tax; License tab increase of 0.8%; Property tax increase of 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.
  • $27.7 billion/25 years.
  • Would support Sound Transit 3 (full cost $53.8 billion). All funding would go to transit.
  • Plan would support 62 miles of new grade-separated light rail, including new lines to Everett, Ballard, West Seattle, Redmond, Issaquah, and Tacoma; BRT would be added on I-405 corridor; commuter rail would be extended south to DuPont; express bus service would be improved.
  • Supporters | Opponents

Spokane County Proposition 1

  • 1/10-cent sales tax beginning in 2017; additional 1/10-cent sales tax in 2019; both taxes would extend to 2028.
  • $20 million/6 years
  • Would fund STA Moving Forward plan. All funding would go to transit.
  • Plan would increase service on local routes, creation of BRT routes between downtown Spokane, community college, University District, Gonzaga, and Browne’s Addition. Additional routes would be added.
  • Supporters

Image at top: Flickr user Mary (cc). Icons: Naim, Kimmi Studio, Austin Condiff (cc).

Elections Metro Rail New York

The boundaries that divide our transit systems


» In New York City, transit providers create new services to handle disruptions—even when existing lines can support the load.

Beginning early this month, PATH—the metro rail system operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that connects Manhattan and Northern New Jersey—began installing new signals, forcing the closure of a section of its network in New York City. In the process, the agency is providing a bus shuttle service as a substitute over the course of 17 weekends, shuttling passengers on an above-ground route between the Midtown business district and the World Trade Center, where PATH trains continue to run.

All of this might make sense under normal circumstances; in fact, in places like Chicago where rail lines have been shut down, bus service replacement has worked well. Yet in New York, the service being replaced runs on a corridor shared by other subway lines*—but they’re managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) instead. Those lines not only are faster than the buses PATH is providing, but they show up more often, and they connect directly underground to the World Trade Center (which the buses do not).

Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas delved into the details—and appropriately condemned—this service change last week. PATH has chosen to shuttle its passengers rather than take advantage of existing New York City Transit Subway services, giving them vouchers to use on the buses instead of working with the MTA to let riders take advantage of the trains it is running. It is a disappointing reflection of the state of cooperation between the Port Authority and the MTA.

Yet I can’t help chiming in, too, to discuss the mentality of transit operators that choose to pursue this course of action. For, while PATH’s “bustitution” is uniquely problematic, the agency’s perspective on how to act is hardly rare at all. Indeed, as I’ll describe below, given their general understanding about how to operate, it is a surprise that we don’t see more actions of this sort by transit agencies in the U.S.

Operators act as if their riders are incapable of using other services—or as if those other services simply don’t exist

It is possible that the Port Authority asked the MTA to provide free transfer rides to its PATH riders arriving at the World Trade Center, and the MTA declined the idea. Or perhaps the Port Authority determined that providing riders vouchers for rides on the MTA would be more expensive than operating the relatively minimal-cost substitute bus (see below). Even so, the decision to “bustitute” smacks of agencies that don’t believe customers should be transferring between services.

PATH’s approach is to assume that its customers can only take PATH-branded services, and thus that if the PATH rail line isn’t working, they’ll have to take a new PATH bus. Other transit services might as well not exist.

PATH, of course, is hardly alone in this approach. The MTA was capable of producing a map that demonstrated “regional transit connections,” including the Subway, PATH, and other services—but only during the Super Bowl in 2014. Otherwise, the Subway map treats PATH (which carries more than 250,000 riders a day) as a minor railroad hardly visible on the map, and with its service in New Jersey simply not shown.

In Chicago, the commuter rail agency Metra and the local metro rail system, the CTA ‘L,’ share stations at two points (the product, no doubt, of clearheaded thinking at some point decades ago), yet riders are provided no discount to transfer between these services. When required by state legislation to provide a single, shared fare card, the commuter rail agency responded by cooperating on the development of an app that can’t be used to board a CTA bus or train.

These agencies operate with isolation mentalities, ignoring the fact that their riders may well want to take advantage of other transit services, or even (gasp!) that many of them already do.

This approach has nefarious consequences that extend not only into the service that operators provide but also into the projects they choose to build. When planning a new route, for example, agencies often ignore the potential for improving existing services operated by other agencies; this results, for example, in BART pushing a multi-billion dollar expansion of its services to San Jose instead of encouraging local stakeholders to invest in improving existing commuter rail services such as Caltrain or Altamont Corridor Express.

Operators act as if they are in competition with other operators

Behind PATH’s decision to provide users a bus to substitute for its weekend service outage is the sense that the agency is somehow in competition with New York City’s Subway network. The agencies both provide services under Sixth Avenue, but to transfer between trains requires leaving one system and entering the other. From the rider’s perspective, the relationship between the two services is confrontational, rather than cooperative—and the weekend “bustitution” furthers this impression.

What’s ironic about this arrangement, of course, is that both PATH and the New York City Subway are run by public agencies (supposedly) serving in the public interest and receiving public subsidies to operate and construct projects. Each receives funding from the federal government to maintain infrastructure. Each operates on a tax-free basis. And each is controlled by state governments (in the case of the Port Authority, its management is 50 percent controlled by the State of New Jersey). One would think they might have an incentive to work together.

In other cases, transit agencies are even more directly linked. In the Chicago region, for example, both CTA and Metra receive operating subsidies from the same regional sales tax and from the same state matching funds (MTA and PATH have different operating subsidy sources). Yet those agencies’ management is divorced from one another and neither is compelled to consult the other when developing service plans or integrating fare systems.

The results are familiar to transit riders in many parts of the country: Difficulty making multimodal transfers, confusion about which services operate where and when, and additional costs when using multiple operators.

Sources of operator isolation

It is worth noting that the “bustitution” provided by PATH will not be particularly expensive to provide on the grand scheme of things. Using the information provided by PATH about its weekend service, I estimated that the agency would need a total of four buses to provide service—such a small number that the organization can surely scrounge up the buses from its existing airport fleets.

Assuming operating costs of New York City Transit buses in 2014 (from the Federal Transit Administration’s database), the total costs of operation will be between $720,000 and $930,000 for all of the relevant weekends (depending on whether you calculate based on average cost per vehicle revenue hour or revenue mile). These costs would account for less than a third of a percent of PATH’s $342 million 2016 operating budget.

Nevertheless, it would be cheaper for both transit systems overall for the MTA to simply absorb the transferring PATH riders during the weekend shutdowns. This would require no additional operating costs on the part of the Port Authority and likely nothing for the Subway system either, as it has the capacity to absorb these weekend passengers. But this would mean the MTA and the Port Authority would have to work for the good of the general public, not just their respective riders or agencies.

To place the blame for the operator malfunctions described above on the operators alone is almost as bad as the actions of the operators themselves. For while it is true that operators often have a lot of responsibility for the way they interact with their peers, it is also true that their economic and political makeup often obligates them to act as they do.

Transit operators in the U.S., as noted above, are universally subsidized. Those subsidies are provided to operators based on pre-set parameters that have been negotiated over time between elected officials, the public (through referenda), and the operators. In general, the subsidies are attributed to operators without operating requirements. As a result, operators are often free to make their own decisions about how to spend their funds, without required consideration of regional needs, potential overlap with other agencies, or direction from political officials.

Most transit providers are public authorities with boards appointed by elected officials representing local, regional, and state governments. In many cases, the same elected officials appoint officials to multiple transit boards; New York’s governor appoints representatives to both the MTA and the Port Authority, for example. This setup might imply that elected officials have some oversight responsibility (or sense of obligation) to make the right decisions for transit riders.

In regions where transit services are consolidated, such as in Boston or Minneapolis, these conditions are less problematic. State leadership holds transit service accountable and sets priorities for system expansion. And one agency (MBTA or Metro Transit) is tasked with setting service standards, and the agencies generally have an incentive to encourage riders to experience the system as a whole, not just a collection of lines.

That said, even in Boston, unified control of the transit system under one agency hasn’t prevented such absurdities as it costing riders $6.75 to ride between Braintree and South Station on commuter rail and only $2.25 to make the same trip on the Red Line subway. The commuter rail line, yes, is nine minutes faster—but it also runs only 18 times a day in total, versus every 9 to 12 minutes on the Red Line.

A better grasp on what regional goals are for transit networks in general, and a commensurate focus by elected officials on telling agencies what to do, rather than letting agencies operate in isolated fiefdoms, would aid American transit riders. In places with multiple transit agencies, it probably shouldn’t be up to individual operators to determine which services to prioritize, or what fares to charge, or where to expand, or how to deal with a major service change due to construction.

Elected officials rarely take responsibility for running transit services effectively and responsibly, the sort of “Sewer Socialism” Sandy Johnston has focused on of late. Transit agencies shouldn’t operate in a vacuum, devoid of political involvement (despite their considerable public subsidies), but they often do—and they do so with the explicit support of politicians who don’t have the interest, engagement, or expertise to demand better. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo should force the Port Authority and the MTA to work together. His constituents should demand that he does.

* Riders trying to get from Midtown near Sixth Avenue (where the PATH runs) to the World Trade Center have several options on the Subway system: Taking the 1 to Chambers Street; the 2 or 3 to Park Place; the E to World Trade Center; the A or C to Chambers Street or Fulton Street; or the R to Cortlandt Street.

Image at top: PATH’s 33rd Street Station, from Flickr user Friscocali (cc).