Just like greater Portland, metro areas across the country are growing. They’re also seeing the need to expand transit lines, update highways and streets, and create better transportation choices for relieving traffic.
People in some of these places are stepping up to the moment. They’re setting strategies, building coalitions and running successful ballot campaigns to create solutions at a local or regional level.
Last year was a historic year for transportation ballot measures across the country. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks such measures, there were 77 transportation measures before voters or elected leaders in 26 states last year. Of these, nearly three-quarters were successful.
Every city and metro area is different. So are the reasons they succeed. But what kinds of things help? Here's a quick look at success in five places.
Seattle metropolitan area
The Puget Sound region's growing pains are similar to greater Portland’s – only more intense. They expect 800,000 more residents by 2040; we expect 600,000. And just as in Oregon, growth is fueling more time in traffic, more crowded buses and light rail, more demand everywhere.
Voters have recognized the challenge – and taken action.
First, voters in Seattle passed a $930 million city measure for paving streets and improving safe access to schools in 2015, an impressive comeback from a smaller King County measure that had gone down in defeat in November 2014.
Last year, voters region-wide scaled up with a measure called Sound Transit 3. The measure won 54 percent of the vote in the Sound Transit District, which includes Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue and more than a dozen other cities along the I-5 and I-405 corridors.
How much they’re raising: $53 billion over 25 years, the biggest transportation ballot measure Washington State had ever seen. The package includes a half-cent sales tax, increases to the annual motor vehicle excise tax and property taxes, along with some federal grants, existing revenue and other sources. All told, it is expected to cost the average adult resident $169 a year.
What they’ll build: Stretching the area’s light rail network to 116 miles – more than five times its length today – reaching new communities and linking neighborhoods from Tacoma to Everett. The investments would also build two new bus rapid transit lines, add more express service on other lines, make more room for riders and add two new stations on the Sounder commuter rail line south of Tacoma, and make it safer to walk and bike to transit.
What helped: Created through an extensive outreach campaign, the Sound Transit measure earned support from a diverse group of organizations and individuals. Much of the support was spearheaded by a nonprofit called the Transportation Choices Coalition, which brought together business and labor leaders, advocates for affordable housing, equity and safety, and environmental groups. The advocacy community also helped add ambitious affordable housing criteria to the plan and investments that will make it safe for riders to walk and bike to stations.
Some of the region’s biggest employers, including Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft, also supported the measure, with an eye toward attracting talent and getting their employees to work on time. And key elected officials emerged as champions, including King County Executive Dow Constantine and most of the district's mayors and local elected officials, making the case directly to their communities' voters.
The coalition continues to defend the measure as it moves forward. An impressive range of organizations signed a letter of support to state legislators this spring, including leaders from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, major environmental groups and housing and equity advocates.
“These investments are critical for our environment, economy and livability as the region grows in the next several decades,” the letter reads.
What happens next: Washington legislators are considering changes to the package voters passed, which could affect how much is ultimately raised for transit investments.
When the dust settles, a 15-member citizen oversight panel will oversee how money is spent, along with plans for numerous audits by state, federal and independent agencies.
Santa Clara County, Calif.
It's the heart of Silicon Valley. Tens of thousands of people go to work daily at Google, Apple, Facebook and countless other tech firms, while major institutions like Stanford University are hubs of research and education. The county seat, San Jose, has grown to be the largest city in the Bay Area with more than one million residents. But the fast-growing county is also home to crippling traffic, overburdened transit and many highly populated neighborhoods that lack basic walking and biking safety.
Santa Clara County is known as a "self-help" county, which means it uses local sales taxes to pay for transportation. Voters have approved sales taxes several times since 1976 as the county's population boomed.
The county’s voters decided to take action again in November, approving a major investment in traffic relief and safety with 72 percent support.
How much they’re raising: $6 to $6.5 billion over 30 years, via a half-cent sales tax increase.
What they’ll build: About half is dedicated to transit, including extending BART trains from the East Bay to San Jose for the first time, making CalTrain commuter rail safer and more efficient, and improving bus operations throughout the county.
Another $1.9 billion is targeted toward improving highways and expressways that link major employment centers. And $1 billion is dedicated for local streets and roads and to close key bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure gaps. Any local spending must include safe places to bike and walk alongside relieving congestion.
What helped: The measure attracted a diverse coalition of support, including business leaders at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, bicycle advocates, labor and livability advocates. Proponents were careful to show how the measure would provide benefits throughout the 1,300-square-mile county – almost twice the size of Washington County.
The measure did face some opposition. The local chapter of the Sierra Club and some transit advocates opposed the amount dedicated to roadways, while other organizations thought too much was going to transit.
Voters in Santa Clara County also showed awareness of the close link between transportation and housing, passing a $950 million affordable housing bond by a wide margin.
(It wasn’t the only transit measure to see success in the Bay Area in November. Voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties also approved a $3.5 billion plan to modernize the aging Bay Area Rapid Transit system. And several other Bay Area cities and counties also considered transportation measures.)
What’s next: The county’s transit agency, VTA, is creating a community-based oversight committee to help hammer out how to begin allocating the funds raised by the measure.
Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County voters more than doubled down on upgrades to transit, roads and transportation choices in November by backing Measure M, an extension and expansion of a measure they’d passed back in 2008. With nearly 70 percent support, Measure M firmly exceeded California’s two-thirds approval requirement, after a previous proposal in 2012 failed with just 66.1 percent support.
It adds up to a huge investment for the nation's most populous county, with more than 10 million residents and another 2.3 million expected by 2060.
How much they’ll raise: By extending a previous half-cent sales tax measure and adding another half-cent, Los Angeles County residents will raise $120 billion for transportation over 40 years. It will cost the average county resident about $25 a year, according to estimates before the election.
What they’ll build: Slightly more than three-fifths of the total goes to transit, including a massive expansion of Los Angeles’ subway and rail system, operations and passes for seniors and students. About 17 percent goes to numerous highway and freeway projects, mostly focused on decongesting key bottlenecks. Sixteen percent goes to local cities for spending on street improvements, active transportation and maintenance.
What helped: Measure M had a key champion in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who threw his full weight behind a campaign to build a countywide coalition of elected leaders, chambers of commerce, labor and advocates for environment and equity to support the measure.
Another key player in shaping the measure and building support: A nonprofit organization called Move LA. The organization had led 2008’s Measure R campaign in part by building what the organization calls a “green-blue-green coalition”: Business, labor and environmental advocates working together to keep the county moving.
Move LA founder and executive director Denny Zane told Portland-area leaders last fall that the coalition formed in part based on a common awareness of the urgency of solving traffic – and a recognition that bold action would be needed.
“Everyone had some sense that there was a shared crisis and everyone had a sense that the solution would benefit their communities in some specific way,” he said.
Local leaders in every part of the county developed their own set of priority projects to include on the Measure M funding list, helping each city be confident it would help with local priorities – even if some hope to have their projects built more quickly.
L.A. Metro leaders highlight an extensive public outreach campaign as well.
“We put an incredible effort forth to make sure we were out there touching and educating people in every way we could think of,” L.A. Metro spokesperson Pauletta Tonilas told an online transit magazine last month.
What’s next: An independent taxpayer oversight committee will oversee how money is spent over the long term, ensuring that L.A. Metro keeps its promises and remains transparent to the public.
Indiana’s capital city – home to about 940,000 people – approved its first-ever public transportation measure in November, when 60 percent of voters backed a major expansion of bus transit. The vote was technically advisory; in February, city/county leaders signed off.
How much they’re raising: Using a small income tax bump – about 25 cents for every $100 of income – Indianapolis residents will raise about $56 million a year.
What they'll build: Completing an ambitious expansion of Indianapolis’ bus system, called IndyGo. Plans include a 70 percent increase in bus service, with more frequent service and weekend service on every line. They also plan to complete three rapid bus lines by 2021, starting with a 13-mile line from the University of Indiana through downtown to northern neighborhoods.
As a result of those investments, the county says, nearly two-thirds of Indianapolis residents and more than four-fifths of jobs will be within a 10-minute walk of transit by 2021.
What helped: Many in Indianapolis credit a broad coalition of churches, businesses and social advocacy groups with the measure’s success. A faith-based coalition called Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, or IndyCAN, proved critical in sharing a message of transit as a "ticket to opportunity" by linking transit access to jobs and justice for historically marginalized communities.
The organization used an extensive volunteer-driven grassroots campaign to reach voters, making more than 150,000 phone calls to voters and talking directly with bus riders.
“It was just educating people about what this transit plan would do,” a campaign manager told the Indianapolis Star after Election Day. “You can have all the signs and fliers you want, but there is nothing like having a real person who can answer your questions right on the spot.”
For business leaders, improving economic development by creating more opportunities for transit-oriented development was a key selling point.
“Our city has taken a monumental step toward improving talent retention, enhancing economic development and growing our tax base,” Mark Fisher, the vice president of government relations at the Indy Chamber, told the Indianapolis Star.
Next steps: The county transit agency will use the funds to implement the Marion County Transit Plan. They will break ground this year on the university bus rapid transit line and continue preparing to build the next.
Georgia’s largest metro area has long been choked by infamous traffic and a dire need to make other travel options safer and easier. Residents regularly cite traffic as their No. 1 concern. But Atlanta has no shortage of vision for what to do about it. Voters in November signed off on a major expansion of transportation options in the city and its surrounding county.
How much they’ll raise: Atlanta city voters approved two measures that together will raise almost $3 billion through raising the local sales tax 9 cents for every $10 spent. About half of that increase will expire after five years.
Atlanta’s population makes up less than half of Fulton County’s nearly one million residents. Voters in the rest of the county approved increasing the sales tax outside city limits by about 7.5 cents for every $10. That is expected to raise $655 million over five years.
What it’ll pay for: About half of what’s raised inside city limits will be dedicated to expanding MARTA Atlanta’s rapid transit system, including new light rail, rapid bus and commuter rail lines and service improvements over 40 years.
The rest goes to a variety of other transportation improvements, including $66 million that will help complete right-of-way for the Atlanta BeltLine, a long-planned 45-mile ring of trails, transit and economic development around the city. $69 million will go to sidewalk improvements and $75 million will bring 15 major streets to modern standards.
The Fulton County revenues will be devoted to local transportation priorities identified by each of the county's cities (except Atlanta). That could mean building and repairing roads, bridges, sidewalks and bike routes.
What helped: November’s success came after the failure of a much larger 10-county measure in 2012. Some said its demise came from a lack of strong regional identity, while others blamed a more basic cause: not enough local impact in many communities to earn their support. Most voters in the city of Atlanta did back that measure, though, giving locals hope for taking another shot.
The MARTA measure’s campaign manager Fred Hicks told an online transit journal in May that a key takeaway for 2016 was the need to increase public outreach so voters could understand what they are voting for and know their concerns are heard. “
“Our experience is, even if someone doesn’t agree with a specific program or project, the fact that you are there and talking and explaining, and more importantly, they have an opportunity to make themselves heard, far outweighs any concerns people may have about the project,” Hicks said.
What’s next: MARTA, the City of Atlanta and Fulton County are continuing public outreach as they move forward with the first investments from the measures. All three organizations will also be guided by taxpayer oversight organizations and complete annual reports on their progress.
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