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Will Voters Give Public Transit a Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

Transit officials are monitoring voter enthusiasm for a host of ballot measures they see as essential to economic recovery, supporting essential workers, social equity, climate goals and preventing traffic nightmares.

Caltrain at the station in Sunnyvale, Calif. Heavily dependent on fares for its revenue, the system has seen ridership plummet during the pandemic and may not survive if a ballot measure fails. (Shutterstock)
Riders may be coming back to public transit, but according to a recent review of data from the National Transit Database, monthly ridership is still down as much as 65 percent compared to 2019. Caltrain, an essential piece of the Bay Area’s transit network, has lost so much passenger revenue that it could be forced to cease operations.

Reasons for the huge drop in ridership include the fact that millions of workers are out of work and millions more are working remotely. A third reason — fear of catching the coronavirus while riding a bus or train — appears to be more a perception than reality, however. A new study from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found no direct correlation between urban public transit use and the spread of COVID-19. Public health investigations in France and Japan have also determined that public transportation is not creating “super spreader” events, an outcome that may reflect passenger observance of best practices such as mask wearing, distancing and refraining from talking.

This is encouraging news for the millions of Americans who need affordable transportation and to the officials who depend on their fares. But in itself, it’s not nearly enough to bring back the ridership levels or the cash flow needed to overcome the setbacks of recent months, much less to expand or modernize services.

More than 50 proposals for transit funding have been put forward for voter approval in 2020, and 16 of them will be on the November ballot. Almost all of them seek funding through increases in sales or property taxes. Whether voters believe we are currently in a recession, a depression or on the verge of economic growth, it’s not hard to imagine that they could be reluctant to vote for new taxes.

This wariness has transportation officials on edge, even though recent elections have been going their way. “So far, public transit has been on the ballot 34 times in 2020, and 32 of those measures have passed,” says Josh Cohen, executive director of APTA’s Center for Transportation Excellence. “Since the pandemic began, 100 percent have passed.”


A report from the American Public Transportation Association found that significant increases in ridership on New York City buses and subways were not associated with a rise in COVID-19 cases. (Graph: APTA)

Counterintuitive Popularity?

Public enthusiasm for these measures might be counterintuitive, Cohen admits. “I don’t know if voters are making a conscious effort to rebut Congress’s inability to take action, but that’s what we’re seeing.”

Public transportation provides vital access to jobs and education, especially for the chronically neglected communities that the pandemic has laid even lower. It’s integral to climate goals, and increasingly, city planners are acting on the understanding that progress toward cleaner cities inevitably touches on equity issues as well. Cohen believes this shift also reflects changing public priorities.

“What we are seeing from cities right now is a more holistic, strategic, thoughtful approach to urban planning,” says Cohen. “It’s a sound rejection of the outdated philosophy that the only reason that public transportation is worth it is if you are an urban center like New York, or if it turns a hefty profit.”

Romic Aevaz, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation, has also been tracking state and local government measures. He finds it striking that several multibillion-dollar projects are being put before voters at this time.

“There was a real question of whether marquee initiatives would be postponed this year,” he says. “The fact that a lot of them are still on the ballot shows that they felt these things were worth doing, so they pushed ahead.”

Over the past 15 years, voters have shown a willingness to tax themselves for transportation infrastructure, Aevaz says. “If some of the big ones fail, it will be interesting to find out if the pandemic factored into the outcome, but that’s something we won’t be able to answer until after Nov. 3.”

Cohen believes the 2020 winning streak can continue. “My career has been dedicated to policy and advocacy,” he says. “I’ve never experienced an issue like public transportation, which unites the business communities, communities of color, organized labor, groups that are usually on opposite sides of any number of issues.”

Even if the path ahead is generally smooth, potential risks loom largest over the biggest proposals, not because they involve bigger numbers but because they aim to solve much bigger issues for their communities.


Caltrain operations depend on revenue from riders. Shortfalls from decreased ridership during the pandemic have the potential to force it to cease operations. (Source: Caltrain)

Survival Is Not Certain

Measure RR, on the ballot for voters in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, seeks a sales tax of one-eighth of a percent to fund Caltrain, a vital element of Bay Area public transportation that has no dedicated funding. With the bulk of its revenue coming from fares, Caltrain has taken such a hit that shutting down the system is a real possibility.

If this did occur, Caltrain estimates that it would take at least two and half years to rehire workers, train them and resume operations. This recovery would be even more difficult given that it would not be receiving any fare revenue while it attempted to recover.

The measure was in the works well before the pandemic, says Adina Levin, the co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. Before COVID-19, the intention was primarily to fund improvements, but the evaporation of farebox revenue as its primary funding source meant that Measure RR was needed to prevent a shutdown.

The business community provided support for the campaign to get the measure on the ballot, says Levin, recognizing that their recovery depends on a working transportation system. Ending Caltrain services could add four lanes of traffic to local freeways, compounding projections by Vanderbilt University that a pandemic-inspired move to single-occupancy vehicles would hit San Francisco harder than any other U.S. city, making Bay Area traffic a nightmare.

Caltrain services are important to gaining control over the pandemic that has crippled it. “The ridership of Caltrain during COVID is predominantly essential workers — the people working on medicines and vaccines, essential government workers.”

As the pandemic crept forward in the spring, there was skepticism about whether RR would be viable, says Levin. “The polling came out strong, though — the community seems to believe it is essential for the Bay Area to be able to come back from COVID.”


At $12.5 billion, Gwinnett County’s plan is the largest seeking voter approval in November. Service expansion is proposed to accommodate the growth projected in the coming years, and to serve workers traveling to jobs both in and out of the county. (Image courtesy of Gwinnett County)

More Projects, Faster

A referendum before voters in Gwinnett County, Ga., asks for a 30-year sales tax increase of 1 percent to raise $12 billion for bus and rail expansion. This will fund a comprehensive transit development plan that the county board of commissioners completed in 2018, says Alan Chapman, transportation director for Gwinnett County.

Gwinnett county is the northeastern suburb of Atlanta. Over the coming decades, the county’s population is projected to grow from 1 million to 1.5 million, and the limited transit system put in place 20 years ago won’t be able to meet that need.

The board’s 30-year plan was rejected in a 2019 referendum, so a citizens’ transit review committee was created develop recommendations for changes. The county board reviewed and debated their input, and the updated plan that resulted is on the November ballot.

“One of the big differences is a new type of sales tax that was put into law in 2018 that would allow Gwinnett County to build and operate the system, with some connections to MARTA,” says Chapman. “The new plan delivers a lot more projects, a lot faster.”

Service capacity would be increased through strategies including a heavy rail extension, dedicated transit lanes, expanded local and express service and on demand micro-transit service in the lower density, outer reaches of the county. Major expansion of paratransit service is also planned. “We’re an aging county, and over time a greater percentage of our population will have mobility challenges,” says Chapman.

He’s hopeful the outcome will be different than it was last year. “One potential advantage is that this is a general election vote and not a special election, so the turnout to decide it should be much greater.”


A video overview of the elements of Austin's Project Connect and the process that was undertaken to develop the plan.

Project Connect

In Austin, Texas, Capital Metro is seeking $7 billion from an 8.75 cent property tax increase for Project Connect. The plan includes 27 miles of light rail, a downtown transit tunnel, electric buses and expanded bus service, park and ride facilities, electric bikes at transit hubs, and $300 million for anti-displacement measures, including affordable housing along transit routes. The city spent years developing Project Connect, led by Mayor Steve Adler and Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke.

“For more than a decade, the biggest single issue in Austin has been traffic, and the right of way for expanding roadways just doesn’t exist anymore,” says John Langmore, the chair of Transit for Austin, a nonprofit coalition of businesses, civic organizations and community leaders. “If this passes, we’ll be dealing with one of the biggest issues jeopardizing our quality of life.”

Electric buses and rail lines will make a significant contribution to lowering the city’s carbon footprint. “That’s really important to Austinites,” says Langmore.


Community stakeholders gathered at a rally in support of Project Connect. The proposal faces opposition from a PAC concerned about the property tax increase needed to support it. (Photo: Rio Sauer)

Caleb Pritchard, a spokesman for Transit Now, a PAC supporting Project Connect, has been involved in Austin transportation issues for 20 years, as a reporter and as a policy aide to a member of the city council. 

“We’re not just approaching this as a mobility solution,” he says of the plan. “There are intersections with issues like affordability, equity, environmentalism and even racial justice, and we’re addressing them with one large community investment.”

Austin has voted down two light rail proposals since 2000. Pritchard is concerned that three defeats could mean it would be years before a fourth campaign was mounted. “It’s looking like it’s going to be a tighter race than I expected,” he says.

Langmore is encouraged. “I’ve never seen such a broad coalition supporting a ballot proposition, and certainly not a transit initiative,” he says. “I think it’s indicative of the community’s awareness that we need this to continue being a world-class city.”

Kevin Mealy

Portland's Get Moving 2020 includes support for biking infrastructure. (Photo: Oregon Metro)

Get Moving 

Portland voters will be asked to support Get Moving 2020, a $7 billion plan that would fund projects including light rail, a regional bus network, bridge replacement and repair, biking and walking infrastructure and more.  

Unlike any other measure on November ballots, Get Moving would be funded by a payroll tax of up to .75 percent. The tax would not be assessed until 2022, and employers with fewer than 25 employees would be exempt. Not surprisingly, the most vocal opposition to the plan has come from companies with the largest payrolls, including Nike. 

Kari Schlosshauer is the co-leader of Getting There Together, a coalition of about 60 organizations that came together to bring community voices to the Get Moving planning process. 

Getting There Together partner organizations focus not just on transportation, but also on incorporating housing, labor, racial justice and the environment into the planning process. “The folks in our community are youth, older adults, those who are transit dependent, lower income people who tend not to have a voice at the tables where the sausage is being made,” she says. 

The coalition is happy with the plan, says Schlosshauer. In addition to the infrastructure projects, she cites details such as a region-wide free transit pass for youth aged 14-18 and funding for improvements to roads in high-crash corridors.

Schlosshauer has assisted in the development of numerous transportation projects in the Pacific Northwest. “This plan was built with the community at the table, which is not what you typically see in putting a transportation project together,” she says. “It has been created in such a way that it’s not harming working-class folks or small businesses.”

Oregon has a history of using transportation funding as a stimulus, she says, including a jobs act passed after the last recession. She rejects the notion that the pandemic is the wrong time to invest in public transit. 

“The right time was probably 10 years ago,” she says. “Transportation projects take a really long time to build and they are long overdue.”


In 2015, with support from community partners, Missoula, Mont., committed to no-fare public transit. A property tax levy would make it possible to expand service availability. (Image Courtesy of Missoula Urban Transportation District.)

Fare-Free Transit

The Missoula Urban Transportation District (MUTD) is asking for a mill levy increase of 20 mills, which would raise $3 million a year. It’s not the biggest initiative on the ballot, but it includes a strategy that may foreshadow the next frontier of public transportation, a Zero-Fare program. 

The bulk of the funding will be used to respond to service requests from the community. “We did robust community outreach in 2017, asking Missoulans what they wanted for the future of Mountain Line,” says Shanti Johnson, MUTD’s communications and outreach marketing specialist. “Overwhelmingly, people asked for increased service.” 

At present, buses don’t run on Sundays at all, or late into the evening. The levy would make it possible to expand service to include these hours. It would also support more paratransit service and shuttle vans for seniors with barriers to accessing fixed routes. 

Some of the funding will be used to enhance the Zero-Fare program launched in 2015 with support from community partners that include local businesses and organizations, such as hospitals and the University of Montana, that were already investing in public transportation by purchasing passes for employees or students.

“When we debuted the program, our ridership grew almost 70 percent and stayed that high,” says Johnson. “We’re up to 1.5 million rides annually.”

The MUTD request, which includes support for electric buses. was originally scheduled to move forward in February, but was put on hold due to the pandemic. A survey in July convinced the board that there was support for including it in the November election. 

“We were humbled and pleasantly surprised by how supportive the community was,” says Johnson. “I think people recognize how integral reliable public transportation is to keeping our society functioning.”  

Surprised and humbled: Shanti Johnson of the Missoula Urban Transportation District recalls the remarkable public support for public transit that was revealed in a recent poll.

Will the Streak Continue?

It’s hard to know which, if any, of the predictions of disorder and disruption around the general election might come true, or whether this chaos, combined with rhetorical battles (and health impacts) around the pandemic, will have any impact on the outcome of transit measures on the ballot. 

Josh Cohen of APTA is sanguine about the prospects for the recent streak of successes to continue. 

“Voters want public transit,” he says. “People rely on it and they want more of it — amid the pandemic, and despite everything that’s going on, that’s what they want.” 

So far, this popularity and consensus has been reflected in 2020 vote totals. “I think we’re going to see that again,” says Cohen.

Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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