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Taxes, Buses and the Urban Transportation Future

Levies for public transit can win at the polls when taxpayers perceive that a project benefits them. These days, properly designed bus rapid transit systems seem to have better chances than expensive light rail.

San Francisco's Van Ness Avenue busway
A recent report concluded that San Francisco’s new Van Ness Avenue bus rapid transit line had reduced travel time on the route by 35 percent. (Photo: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency)
Taxation is a complicated subject, but I have a theory about it that can be summed up in a single sentence: The best tax is one that people are willing to pay. It helps if the tax money is used for a superior public purpose, but first people have to be willing to accept it. Otherwise, even the most important programs are hard to implement.

The tax that is easiest to sell to the public has always been the sales tax. There is no disputing that it’s regressive, hitting the poor and middle class harder than any other form of taxation. But the public puts up with it. For proof of this, one need look no further than Alabama and Tennessee, two publicly tax-averse states that impose state and local sales taxes totaling nearly 10 percent.

Sales tax toleration extends to levies for public transit. Far and away the most striking recent example is Measure M in Los Angeles, a 2016 ballot proposition that asked voters to raise their sales tax rates by half a cent to pay for transit expansion scheduled to cost $120 billion over several decades. It passed with 71 percent of the vote.

When sales tax measures for transit fail at the polls, it isn’t usually because of generalized displeasure but because too many voters perceive that the new transit lines won’t reach any place close to the neighborhoods where they live. That’s why an ambitious transit tax referendum lost decisively in Nashville in 2018. When tax promoters spread the benefits of a new transit system more equitably around their metro area, they usually win. Pro-transit forces in Seattle, for example, pushed through a sales tax increase two years ago, even though voters knew it would cost them $42 million a year into the far-distant future.

But since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically reduced transit ridership all over the country. Are voters still willing to pay more in sales taxes for transit even though fewer people are using it? We may soon find out.

The cities of Tampa, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, are planning to bring transit tax measures before the public this fall. The county commissioners in Tampa voted to add a 1 percent sales tax to support as much as $10 billion in transit improvements over 30 years. The business community is enthusiastically for it. “Our county cannot grow and prosper,” a Chamber of Commerce official said, “without this decisive action.”

Local leaders in Columbus, meanwhile, are readying a ballot measure that would double the tax levy for transit to 1 percent, raising the overall sales tax rate to 8 percent. This could finance $8 billion in transit expansion over 30 years. Here, too, business support is solid and crucial. The Intel Corp. plans to create 3,000 new jobs in the Columbus area in the coming years, and while Intel itself is maintaining a low profile, it’s widely understood that the company’s presence is at the core of the argument for more and better transit. Josh Lapp, who heads an organization called Transit Columbus, calls the proposed measure a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to make Columbus a world-class city. “We don’t have any high-capacity transportation in Columbus,” Lapp told me. “This is the optimal time to be investing in transit.” He doesn’t think COVID-19 will interfere.

WHAT’S REALLY INTERESTING is that both Tampa and Columbus are talking about using the added sales tax money to invest in bus rapid transit (BRT), not rail systems. Columbus has had a limited BRT roadway since 2018; local transit planners claim it is 20 percent faster than conventional bus service.

The truth is that sales taxes and faster buses are now inextricably linked as building blocks of the transportation future, whether they score political victories in a particular place or fail at the polls. The evidence that bus rapid transit works is mounting. Just last month, a report on San Francisco’s new Van Ness Avenue BRT line concluded that it had reduced travel time along the route by 35 percent. In Los Angeles, the 18-mile BRT G line, opened in 2005 at a cost of $324 million and consisting of 17 stations located roughly a mile apart, has demonstrated its value. It is running into problems now because it is reaching full capacity.

Properly designed, BRT systems possess quite a few features that ordinary buses can’t match. They collect their fares outside the bus from machines located at fixed stations, avoiding on-board slowdowns. They are given priority over other vehicles at busy intersections. Platforms are set at normal boarding heights, minimizing awkward and sometimes dangerous climbs to get on. If you have to move the routes, that is infinitely easier than altering a light rail system.

Virtually all the research conducted so far suggests that a fully operational BRT line can handle about as many passengers as light rail. And it is much cheaper. The federal Government Accountability Office reported some years ago that the average capital cost per mile for rapid busways was $13.5 million, compared to $34.8 million for a light rail system.

There is a catch to all this, of course, and it is not a small one. In order to justify the sales tax dollars being sought to pay for them, rapid-transit buses need their own dedicated lanes to operate in. If they have to weave down the streets alongside automobiles and conventional buses, they lose their advantage.

THIS DOESN’T JUST APPLY TO BUSES, strictly defined. I spent years supporting a streetcar project aimed at sending comfortable and attractive vehicles traveling up and down Columbia Pike, one of the busiest streets in Arlington County, Va., where I live. This line would have had the appealing stations, comfortable entry levels and offboard fare collection that have worked in other places. But it had a fatal flaw: no dedicated lanes. State law didn’t allow for that. Mixed in with all the other traffic on Columbia Pike, the streetcars wouldn’t have done much to help passengers travel more rapidly or more efficiently. Eventually, the county board killed the project. And I realized I had been wrong about it all along. Dedicated lanes are the key to any BRT or similar transit project. Without them, the precious tax money is likely to be wasted.

There is a related problem, which has come to be known as “BRT creep.” Sales tax promoters promise the electorate full-fledged BRT systems, but then gradually pare them down to cut costs. Without the raised platforms, off-board fare collection and dedicated lanes, they turn out not to be bus rapid transit at all, and their performance is disappointing. The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy took away BRT designation from Boston’s Silver Line after several of the most important elements had been removed. The group decertified New York City's Select Bus Service for the same reasons.

As of now, there are estimated to be bus rapid transit systems up and running in 166 cities on six continents. The majority of them are in Latin America, where the late transit visionary Jaime Lerner began working on rapid buses nearly half a century ago in his home city of Curitiba, Brazil. In fact, though, BRT has existed in this country since 1977, when Pittsburgh inaugurated a 4.3-mile network of buses running in exclusive lanes. At some points, this system has been able to reduce the headway between bus arrivals at busy stations to two minutes.

Weighing the potential against the pitfalls, I end up thinking that bus rapid transit is where urban public transportation is going, but the campaign to pay for it amounts to a major undertaking with potent political obstacles. There are people who simply don’t want to spend that much money, or who don’t want a higher tax for anything. There are those who say making the investment before the pandemic fully subsides is a questionable leap of faith. There are the commuters who simply don’t like buses, don’t believe rapid-transit buses will be much better, and prefer to hold out for light rail. And finally, not to be overlooked, there are the motorists who fear that losing a lane to a dedicated busway will add unwanted minutes to their car trips.

So the campaign for BRT has to be a sophisticated and expensive sales job. These have worked in diverse places in the past. Whether they will be equally effective at a moment of decreased transit ridership remains to be seen. We are likely to get some answers before the year is over.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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