To Fund Transit Equity, Local Advocates Turn to Ballot Initiatives

By Courtney Hutchison, senior communications associate at PolicyLink

As all eyes turn to the presidential election, many transportation equity advocates are setting their sights on more local battles, where city and county ballot measures are offering key opportunities to invest in more equitable transportation systems.

Though both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have come out in support of overhauling the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, this is no guarantee of an influx of federal transportation spending. As Gabrielle Gurley noted recently in The American Prospect, “the person moving into the Oval Office may actually matter less than who gets new digs on Capitol Hill,” considering the sizeable challenge that Congress’s austerity politics have posed to local leaders desperate to address infrastructure issues in their jurisdictions.

As Washington politics fail to move on the rebuilding America’s infrastructure, advocates and local governments have had to find local means to meet their transportation needs, resulting in dozens of transit-related ballot initiatives in cities and counties across the country. Transit-related ballot initiatives have an impressive success rate (in 2015, 7 in 10 proposed ballot measures passed) and because they require a public vote, they are a powerful method for communities to create direct policy change on issues that elected officials might otherwise shy away from — such as raising revenue through increased taxes or tackling politically controversial topics.

For example, in Atlanta, Mayor Kasim Reed and local advocates succeeded in getting a proposed half-penny sales tax to fund transportation on the November 2016 ballot. If Atlanta voters pass this ballot initiative, SB 369, it will generate at least $2.5 billion in revenue over the next 40 years, funding the largest expansion of the regional transit system, MARTA, in its history. This potential expansion opens doors for equity advocates in Atlanta to advocate for a more equitable and inclusive transit system.

“You can’t talk about public transit in Atlanta without also understanding the history of structural racism and the built environment,” says Nathaniel Smith, Founder and Chief Equity Officer at the Partnership for Southern Equity. “We need policies that minimize displacement and gentrification and expand transit to communities that have been left behind.”

The Partnership is working in coalition with the Transformation Alliance to advocate for the development of a revolving loan fund that will take $200 million of the $2.5 billion to provide grants for equitable transit development around MARTA stations.

A similar opportunity to expand transit is taking place in Seattle, where local advocates are asking voters to approve a measure that would raise $54 billion dollars over a 25-year period to regionalize the current mass transit system of light rail, commuter rail, and bus services. Puget Sound Sage, which works for equitable and sustainable solutions to the regions problems, has mobilized a coalition of community members that helped put language into the ballot that enables measures to address potential displacement and meet the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. For example, the ballot now includes  mandates for transit agencies to dedicate 80 percent of their surplus properties as affordable housing; a light rail stop in previously overlooked neighborhood; and a revolving loan fund for acquiring property near transit stations for affordable housing and family-owned businesses.

In the Bay Area, TransForm, which advocates for equitable transportation solutions, has had to contend with ongoing tension between expanding the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system to serve primarily wealthier suburban communities and channeling transportation funding to meet the needs of low-income communities and communities of color. Their focus has gained new urgency with the upcoming $3.5 billion bond measure that voters in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties will vote on in November. TransForm has worked to ensure that this ballot measure focused improving and expanding service on the core system as opposed to funding more expensive suburban expansions.

These three measures are just a few examples of the 34 ballot initiatives that transportation advocates across 13 states are working on — from bus expansion in Southeast Michigan to a new regional transit plan for Wake County, N.C. Given the high success rate of transit ballot initiatives and the strong community engagement that has driven these campaigns thus far, these referenda offer significant opportunities to move the needle on transportation equity, regardless of who moves into the White House in January.