Ballot measures to fund transit proposals in many U.S. cities seem to be succeeding in spite of a prevailing anti-tax sentiment, a speaker at the sixth-annual Smart Growth Summit said Thursday.
“There are a lot of them on the ballot, and if you look at the last decade, the win rate is about 70 percent,” Jason Jordan, director of the Center for Transportation Excellence, a Washington, D.C., transit advocacy organization, told a group gathered at the Shaw Center for the Arts downtown.
The summit, organized by the Center for Planning Excellence, brings together policymakers, politicians and other professionals from across the country to discuss how 21st century cities should evolve in a way that conserves resources and creates the type of places people want to live.
Transit is a significant part of that discussion.
If communities across the country are approving mass transit ballot measures, this may be good news for many hopeful supporters of Baton Rouge’s beleaguered bus system.
A 17-member transit-study committee was recently assembled by Mayor-President Kip Holden to secure dedicated funding for the Capital Area Transit System. It has recommended a tax election next fall calling for an estimated quarter-cent sales tax and 4-mill property tax to generate an estimated $18 million a year. This would bring CATS’ annual budget to $29.9 million, compared with its proposed 2012 budget of $14.2 million.
In October, voters rejected a property tax dedicated to CATS, 53 percent to 47 percent, though proponents are hoping for a new sense of urgency.
The Brookings Institution released a report Thursday showing only 34 percent of working-age residents in the Baton Rouge metro region live in areas with access to mass transit. And only 28 percent of all jobs within 90 minutes of Baton Rouge are reachable by bus, the study concluded.
Nationwide, some 700,000 U.S. households face a daily challenge getting to work or to stores because they don’t have a car and cannot reach their local transit system, the “Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households” report found.
“If you’re going to keep afloat during the recession, you have to be able to get to work,” said Adie Tomer, senior research analyst and author of the report. “We knew there were pockets of households who are economically hampered by the fact that they own no car and have no access to transit, but we didn’t fully understand the true scope of the problem until now.”
When ballot referendums have been sent to voters, they are mostly in the form of property tax increases and have been the most successful, Jordan told conference attendees.
“We were fully expecting to not be very successful in 2010, for a couple of obvious reasons, namely the economy, and two, the political tide that was sweeping the country in 2010,” he added, referencing economic problems in many communities and a political climate that seemed to have chilled to any ideas of new taxes or even tax renewals.
The successes seemed to be across the board regardless of political winds, Jordan remarked, noting two recent ballot initiatives in Ohio and Michigan. So far this year, transit measures have seen about a 90 percent approval rate, he added.
“The blue districts had slightly more transportation issues on the ballot and slightly better results,” Jordan said.
“This is not a case where you have to need Democratic voters to pass a local tax increase,” he added. “It’s often a blend of different kinds of voters.”
And what does a successful transit campaign include?
“Be clear and specific,” Jordan said. “The idea here is to avoid any sense that the ballot initiative is a blank check to an agency.
“People aren’t going to raise their taxes simply for a train or a bus,” he added. “They will vote to raise their taxes to buy a train or a bus if they believe it supports other things that they care about.”