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Mass Transit Won Big on Election Day. But It Could Still Lose.

U.S. cities committed to paying for the rail and bus systems they want on Tuesday. But a Republican-led Congress might threaten that.

Sunshine on the platform (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

In a country marked by ever-deepening divides, there are only so many ways that Americans from different walks of life come together anymore. Public transportation is one of them, and on November 8 urban voters signaled that they want more of it. Mulling hundreds of billions of dollars in public transportation investment across referenda nationwide, voters approved 33 of 48 local and statewide public transit measures—a 69 percent passage rate (based on results as they currently stand). Los Angeles, Seattle, and Atlanta were three major cities that gave the thumbs-up to better public transit.

With nearly 70 percent voting yes on Measure M, Los Angeles County is set to see a dramatic transit transformation over the coming decades with a permanent half-cent sales tax hike. The plan will rake in some $121 billion for proposed and ongoing projects such as a rail connection to LAX and a subway tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass. Long-disconnected neighborhoods in the region’s southeastern reaches are also slated for rail and bus-rapid transit connections. The tax increase will also pay for badly needed sidewalk upkeep, pothole repairs, new bike lanes, and bike-share stations, as well as a clutch of greenways. The plan’s greatest potential may be in improving mobility for the people who already use transit in L.A.: predominantly lower-income bus riders. And if enough rail connections are built, it could also persuade more Angelenos to get out of their cars, helping to keep the city’s famously snarled traffic at bay—at least for awhile.

Also clearing the ballot box was Sound Transit 3, an ambitious light-rail jump-start that promises to become one of the largest transit projects in American history. The plan is to more than double the Seattle region’s light rail system, with 62 miles of new track and 37 stations built over 25 years. It will also install three BRT lines and a chain of park-and-ride stations across urban Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties by 2041. The plan, which would be paid for by sustained increases in sales, motor vehicle, and property taxes (to the estimated tune of $169 per adult per year), is slated put the area’s rail system in the same weight class as San Francisco’s and Washington, D.C.’s, as the Ringer recently reported. Supporters say that it will tame traffic on the fast-growing metro’s increasingly jammed streets. Ultimately, it might not, but as in Los Angeles, transit doesn’t have to cut congestion to be worthwhile.

Atlanta voters overwhelmingly passed a .4 percent sales tax increase that would raise $300 million over five years for transportation improvements, with projects including the completion of the city’s BeltLine loop of green trails, 15 “complete streets” projects, a bike-share scale-up, and significant sidewalk improvements. Meanwhile, a separate half-penny sales tax increase will generate $2.5 billion over the next 40 years, allowing the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to make "major investments in transit infrastructure, including introducing high-capacity rail improvements, building new infill rail stations within the city, purchasing new buses, adding more frequent service, and introducing new bus routes," according to the city.

Those are bold commitments, and not only because of the price tags attached. The nation’s political sands have shifted more dramatically than most expected with Donald Trump’s presidential upset over Hillary Clinton Tuesday night. Another factor: The landscape of public transportation is quickly rearranging, with the likes of Uber and other private “shared mobility” companies filling service gaps—and also cannibalizing transit ridership. Some might argue that investing in traditional, publicly funded rail and bus systems is the way of the past. The victory of these ambitious measures signals that there are large concentrations of voters who believe in government investment, and who are willing to tax themselves to pay for it.

But most of these ballot-approved transit projects are also designed to rely heavily on matching funds from the federal government, and that may run counter to the priorities of a Republican-led House, Senate, and executive office. The GOP’s 2016 platform articulates a strong stance against funding transit, noting that “we propose to phase out the federal transit program.” It’s possible that when Congress’s current authorization of transportation spending expires in 2020, conservative leaders could create a highway/transit funding formula that’s less favorable to transit. And newer funding programs that have helped drive bus and rail projects under the Obama administration, such as the DOT’s TIGER grant program, could disappear.

All of which could mean that some of the referenda that passed Tuesday night will have a harder time seeing the funding lift-off they expect. “It’s going to an incredibly regressive anti-public spending, anti-redistributive government, no question,” says the transportation consultant and researcher Yonah Freemark. “I don’t see why transit wouldn’t suffer.”

On other hand, University of Minnesota transportation scholar David Levinson isn’t so worried. “I think there will be more money being spent on transportation rather than less,” he says, based on Trump’s frequent campaign statements about infrastructure funding. And he sees little reason why transit’s share would necessarily suffer. “My bet will always be on something that resembles the status quo, because there is always a large coalition of interests behind it.”

The president-elect’s “New York City values” notwithstanding, few are imagining that his administration will be one geared towards friendly urban policies, as Anthony Flint pointed out earlier today. Rural votes propelled his victory Tuesday night. As the dust settles, and Trump begins to lay out his plans for the first few months in office, the road forward will become clearer as well.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that the GOP majority in Congress had grown after the election. In fact, the Democrats picked up two Senate seats and six in the House of Representatives.

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.