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Three Transportation Measures to Watch This November

The ballot proposals include a tax on millionaires in Massachusetts, bus system improvements in the Detroit region and a penny sales tax in Orange County, Fla.

Boston's Green Line light rail is one of many transit services that could benefit if a millionaires tax ballot measure passes in Massachusetts.
Transportation systems, like schools, are foundational public goods that help set a baseline of opportunity for everyone who lives in or near a city. And like schools, they always seem to be operating somewhat shy of the needed levels of funding.

This November, voters in many cities and states will weigh in on how local funding for transportation projects should be raised and spent. The number of transit-related measures on state and local ballots is similar to the last midterm election in 2018, says Josh Cohen, executive director of the American Public Transportation Association’s Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks ballot measures around the country.

This year, the center is following 31 ballot measures, compared with 38 measures in 2018 and 52 measures in 2020, Cohen says. But the number of measures may not reflect the true amount of enthusiasm for the issue, he adds, as many places are still working to respond to the opportunities for new federal funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was passed last year.

“With the passage of IIJA, there is a lot more interest and excitement in pub transit in places that there hadn’t previously been,” Cohen says. “It isn’t just the exciting ballot measures that are up for a vote starting now, it’s all the activity we’re seeing in 2023 and 2024.”

Overall, says Cohen, more communities are recognizing that “this is a moment for public transit and for infrastructure in general.”

“Communities understand public transportation as an on-ramp to a better, more thriving community,” he says.

Here are three measures to watch on the November ballot.

A Millionaires Tax in Massachusetts

It’s been a hard year for transit riders in the Boston area. In May, the Federal Transit Administration launched an investigation into safety issues at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority after a string of injury-causing accidents and the death of a passenger on the Red Line subway. Later in the summer, the MBTA announced it was shutting down the Orange Line, one of its busiest train lines, to do five years’ worth of repairs and upgrades in just 30 days. Despite hopes that the work would make the train more reliable, it’s actually been slower after the shutdown ended, according to local reports.

In November, Massachusetts voters will weigh in on a proposal that could send more dedicated funding to the T and other parts of the state transportation system. The Fair Share Amendment, also known as the millionaires tax, would impose a tax on incomes above a million dollars per year, and stipulate that the revenue be spent on education and transportation.

According to the text of the measure — a proposed amendment to the state constitution — revenue raised by the tax could be spent only on “quality public education and affordable public colleges and universities, and for the repair and maintenance of roads, bridges and public transportation.”

According to a report from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, the tax would affect just 0.6 percent of Massachusetts households, and would generate some $1.3 billion in 2023 alone. That’s factoring in the likelihood that some millionaires would employ tax-avoidance strategies to lower their reported income in the state, and that others would leave the state altogether. The tax would generate over $2 billion a year if no one tried to avoid it, the report says.

If the measure passes, details of the funding will have to be worked out. The state Legislature will still have the ultimate say on how transportation funding is allocated, as it does currently. So it’s not a clear cure-all for transportation issues in Massachusetts. But if it succeeds, it could signal a popular appetite to fund broad-based public services with taxes targeted at the wealthy.

“We’re hopeful that at least half of the funds are spent on transportation,” says Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, a Boston advocacy group. “I also hope that 100 percent of the transportation funds go to either public transit, equitable decarbonization efforts, or ‘fix-it-first’ road projects. The funds should help us decarbonize and not induce more driving.”

Transit System Upgrades in Metro Detroit

For a long time, transit service in Oakland County, in the Detroit metropolitan area, has been funded through an “opt-out” property-tax system, in which individual cities and towns can decide whether or not to participate. That’s led to “a weird patchwork of buses driving through certain towns but not stopping within their borders,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group.

But a question on this November’s ballot would set the millage rate countywide, bringing in an estimated $66 million a year and dedicating $20 million of those funds to new service. The additional revenue would be an important benefit to the system, particularly for seniors and people with disabilities, and it would end an unbalanced funding mechanism in a growing part of the region, Owens says.

“The metropolitan Detroit region has underinvested in transit for decades. We spend about a third per capita of what most major metro regions spend on their public transit systems, and sadly it shows,” Owens says. “In some cases we have an OK or adequate bus system that tens of thousands of people do rely on every single day, but there are major destinations that people can’t get to if they don’t drive and the trans is nowhere near as frequent and reliable as it needs to be to truly be a convenient choice for people across the region.”

The measure was approved with a 13-7 vote in the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, but has been opposed by some municipal and county officials, who have criticized a lack of specificity in the plan for distributing the funds, according to reports. A local group has bought billboards and mailers opposing the measure, but Owens says she feels “pretty optimistic” about its chances of passing.

“When we have a chance to talk to people, and when they are aware that transit is on the ballot and what it is, we tend to get a lot of support,” she says. “There’s been some loud opposition, but most people, when they have a chance to pause and think about it, see the real value.”
The commuter rail line known as Sunrail would receive funding from a penny increase in Orange County's sales tax. If the measure passes, it could generate some $600 million a year for the metro area's transportation needs.

A Penny Sales Tax in Central Florida

The Orlando metro area is a booming city inside a booming central Florida region. According to officials in Orange County, home to Orlando, the area is facing a $21 billion gap in funding for critical transportation upgrades. In April, the County Board of Commissioners narrowly approved a ballot referendum that would create a one-cent sales tax to fund a wide variety of transportation projects. Voters will decide on the measure this November.

If it’s approved, it’s expected to generate some $600 million a year. Ninety percent of the funding would be split evenly between regional transit, including the Lynx bus system and SunRail commuter rail, and roadway improvements. Cities would receive 10 percent of the funding to spend on projects of their own.

Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings started working to get the tax approved in 2019, but the effort was delayed by the pandemic. Small increases in sales taxes have been a popular vehicle for funding transportation and infrastructure projects at the local level for years. In Orange County, officials are pitching the tax as a way to capture revenue from tourists in the area and spend it on projects that will benefit locals.

Ian Moor, campaigns director at the Center for Transportation Excellence, says transit initiatives backed by sales tax increases often include a major rail component, because cities are looking to attract new riders to a system. But it’s increasingly important to incorporate improvements to bus service for existing passengers in order to build the right level of support to get bond measures passed. Orange County, Moor says, has built “a very robust coalition that well represents the areas, and they are very close to passing a historic ballot measure.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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