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Revisiting Factors Associated with the Success of Ballot Initiatives with a Substantial Rail Transit Component

Executive Summary

This report presents the replication of an MTI study conducted in 2001 by Peter Haas and Richard Werbel.1 That research, itself a continuation of an earlier project completed in 2000,2 included an analysis of transportation tax elections in 11 urban areas across the nation and culminated in the identification of 17 community-level factors with potential impact on the success of ballot measures for sales tax increases to fund transportation packages with substantial rail components. Many of the 17 factors identified in the research were moderately to strongly associated with electoral success and failure of transit tax initiatives. Among the key findings from the original (2001) report were:

  • Passing transit initiatives in communities featuring transit agencies of questionable reputations, in those fielding credible opposition, or those lacking a traffic congestion “crisis” is extremely difficult;
  • Achieving consensus support from business community leaders, elected officials, and environmental groups is potentially problematic, but may be crucial in fundraising for and promotion of the final transit package;
  • Support for transportation-related tax increases from business community and key elected officials is apparently linked to their close involvement in development of the package; and
  • Attracting campaign funds in excess of $1 million seems essential to effectively promoting transit initiatives.

Closely following the approach of the 2001 study, this updated research employs in-depth analysis of transportation tax elections in eight communities, representing a variety of urban settings across the United States. Unlike the 2001 study which was somewhat exploratory in nature, this report presents a more direct analysis of each of the 17 factors, denoting whether a condition is present, absent or inconclusively present in each case. Whereas the total number of cases is insignificant for purposes of statistical inference, these findings do represent the population of this type of election in the past decade and may be applicable to communities of similar land use patterns, socioeconomic dispersal, political climate and other like environmental factors. Most important, this replication enables a careful reconsideration of the applicability of conclusions of a decade ago to the present day.

The eight cases studies included in this report represent a variety of circumstances, ranging from approval of a starter rail line, to supplementing an existing tax, to affirming public desire that a general excise tax fund a light rail system, to voting against repeal of an existing sales tax.

Maricopa, AZ (November 2, 2004): Success

At the height of a population boom and associated increased congestion, under conditions that conformed almost perfectly to successful transit outcomes identified in the 2001 study, Maricopa County approved with 57 percent voter support to renewal of a ½ cent sales tax to fund an extension of light rail, new bus services and new highway construction, representing up to $14.3 billion in revenue generated over a 20-year period. Campaigners were able to successfully blend multimedia tactics in soliciting support for the proposal, raising $4 million in contrast to (possibly record) unusually large amount of opposition funding (in excess of $2 million).

Seattle (November 6, 2007): Failure

The 2006 Washington State Legislature required the King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties’ Regional Transit Investment District (RTID) to work in partnership with Sound Transit (RTA) beginning in June 2006 to jointly submit a comprehensive transportation and highway plan to voters in the November 2007 election. Sound Transit primarily developed plans for 50 miles of new light rail services and park-and-ride facilities. RTID focused on 186 miles of highway expansions, including HOV lanes and improvements to the pivotal 520 floating bridge connecting Seattle and Medina. The resulting package, nicknamed “Roads and Transit,” amassed a base cost of $18 billion in 2006 dollars, nearly $10.8 billion of this for Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail. The projects would be funded by a combined 6/10 of a cent sales tax increase and each automobile owner within the Sound Transit District would pay an increased vehicle excise tax of $80 for every $10,000 of his or her car’s value for a projected period of 20 years. The remaining financing relied on state and federal government grants, and did not account for $1.5 billion of the projected cost. Questionable past transit financing decisions and key voices of well-funded, well-organized opposition (including the environmental community) seemed to contribute to the measure’s 45 percent to 55 percent defeat.

Charlotte, Mecklenburg County (November 6, 2007): Success

This measure was a repeal vote of a voter-passed 1998 initiative. MTI’s 2001 study detailed Charlotte’s 1998 vote in favor of a ½ cent sales tax increase to fund the “2025 Transit/Land Use Plan.” Underperformance of tax revenues, construction delays and cost-overruns associated with Charlotte’s first light rail line (LYNX Blue or South Corridor Line) led an individual critic of light rail with the financial means to fund a petition drive repealing the ½ cent increase, which would have effectively ended Charlotte’s indefinite plans for expanded light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and street car services. The signatures were accepted and the repeal measure approved for the November ballot in spring of 2007. In response, the Charlotte City Council and Chamber of Commerce launched an aggressive campaign protecting the light rail system, which was set to commence operation Thanksgiving weekend, November 2007, regardless the result of the vote. Citizens of Charlotte voted against the repeal (and for light rail) 70 percent to 30 percent.

City and County of Honolulu (November 4, 2008): Success

This measure was an affirmation vote of a previously enacted excise tax. In August 2005, the council of the City and County of Honolulu exercised its authority to increase the General Excise Tax (GET) on Oahu by .5 percent for the dedicated purpose of funding a new transit system. Prolonged dispute as to what form the system should take, coupled with “steel wheel” champion Mayor Mufi Hannemann’s failure to win reelection outright (in a runoff system), prompted the mayor and council to place a Charter Amendment on the November ballot affirming public support for an elevated 20-mile light rail system to be funded by the tax increase. On November 4, 2008, citizens of Honolulu agreed to the 16-year (sunset-limited) GET increase being devoted to a “steel wheel” system with 53 percent of the vote. Honolulu demonstrates how multi-level governmental cooperation in cultivation may help lead to public support for a new light rail system.

Los Angeles County (November 4, 2008): Success

Measure R funds a comprehensive, 30-year plan for congestion relief in Los Angeles County. A marquee project to be funded by the ½ cent sales tax increase and championed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is a “Subway to the Sea” connecting downtown Los Angeles and coastal Santa Monica. Projected to raise $40 billion over its 30-year lifespan, Measure R will also fund extensions of light rail service to East Los Angeles, and new light rail lines to West and South L.A. In drafting this enormous proposal, Los Angeles Metro officials appealed to bus riding and automobile constituencies by dedicating 20 percent of revenues to highway construction and 20 percent to bus operations and maintenance. The series of 14 proposed projects garnered support in West Los Angeles particularly, and was able to secure 67.93 percent in favor, exceeding California’s two-thirds threshold.

Kansas City, MO (November 4, 2008): Failure

After approving an infeasible citizen-led initiative in 2006, the people of Kansas City voted to defeat a proposed . cent sales tax increase to fund a 14-mile starter light rail line. The tax would have generated approximately $815 million over a 25-year period, with remaining financing relying on federal matching grants. While the brand-new line would have connected downtown activity centers and the proposal detailed origin and terminus points, the route was yet to be specified. Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser lent the measure his avid support only after conceding that no consensus could be achieved for a more broadly-based (and expensive) transportation plan. Lukewarm support came from the business community, leading to a poorly funded pro-rail campaign that relied largely on novel ploys (such as use of social media websites and direct contact via text message). This lack of spirited coalition of pro-rail advocates allowed substantially funded opposition forces to fill the news vacuum with messages of lingering uncertainty as to the wisdom of the plan.

St. Louis County (November 4, 2008): Failure

Facing a $45 million deficit, St. Louis County proposed Measure M, a ½ cent countywide sales tax increase, to meet this operations shortfall and fund future (unspecified) extensions of Metrolink light rail services by generating $80 million annually over a 20-year period. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama drew tremendous crowds to polling places across the country, particularly among young people and minorities. In St. Louis County, the Measure M campaign assumed support of the African American community for a measure protecting bus services, and did not target this decidedly pro-Obama group. Many predominantly African American precincts of St. Louis County featured wait times of two to four hours, and Measure M, which appeared at the end of a long ballot featuring “competing” sales tax initiatives was defeated 48.5 percent to 51.5 percent.

Santa Clara County (November 4, 2008): Success

MTI’s 2001 study featured Santa Clara County’s improbable passage of Measure A in 2000, a 30-year extension of a ½ cent transit-dedicated sales tax increase set to expire in 2006. The 2000 vote featured $6 billion in projects, including the highly anticipated Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) heavy rail extension to San Jose. Measure A “included more than $1 billion in rail operating costs, but according to VTA staff, another sales tax to cover operating costs for the life of the tax would probably be needed in 2112 or 2114.”3 In 2008, the VTA board proposed a . cent supplemental sales tax increase to generate a dedicated revenue stream sufficient to fulfill the bulk of VTA’s obligation to BART for the operation, maintenance and future capital reserve of the system. On November 4, 2008, the tax increase was very narrowly approved with 66.78 percent of the vote, California requiring a two-thirds majority.

General Trends

General trends observed in these case studies were highly consistent with the following findings from the 2001 study:

  • The importance of consensus amongst the business, elected and environmental communities, and accompanying depth of financial support
  • The difficulty of passing an initiative without well-funded, effective use of multimedia
  • The importance of utilizing experienced campaign consultants

Again, while limited inference can be drawn from this set of case studies, factors or conditions that seemed to decrease in prominence included:

  • The effectiveness of presenting a multimodal package
  • The perception of benefits of a package being distributed throughout the voting district
  • The experience gained in recent transit elections
  • The credibility of the transit agency

Further, this compilation includes an exploration of “rebound” elections – those instances in which a failed measure is quickly followed by a successful one – and the factors that seem linked to achieving success in such instances. Four of the eight cases studied were part of a pair of ballot measures offered in rapid succession. While this is again reflective of a small study sample, additional factors that may be of possible importance in this more differentiated context include:

  • Assured financing may enhance voter confidence in the deliverability of proposals;
  • Specified routes may increase perceptions of individual benefits;
  • The bleak reality of tangible service cuts may trump other factors; and
  • The effectiveness of a region’s predominant newspaper in portraying an initiative in a positive or negative light

These findings suggest that a number of variables not included in the primary analysis may be particularly relevant to the success or failure of transit measures and should not be discredited by transportation planners and campaign entities.