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How Transit Measures Fared on 2014 Midterm Ballots

It wasn't a great night, but it was far from a total loss.

James Willamor / Flickr

The 2014 midterm elections are officially over, and the D.C.-based blog Greater Greater Washington summarized the results as a "bad night for Democrats and transit." The first half of that headline is unequivocally true: Republicans made gains across the political spectrum, at both the national and state levels. But it's far less clear that November 4, 2014, was a bad night for public transportation; in many respects it was just the opposite.

At the broadest level, it's fair to say that urban mobility didn't have the most encouraging day. In recent years, conservative transportation policy has been much more inclined to favor highways serving rural and outer suburban regions than alternative modes that boost balanced city networks, and the ascension of Republican governors in several states (namely Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland) could shift local priorities likewise. Meanwhile, high-speed rail opponents Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Rick Scott of Florida also held their governor's seats, punctuating any last Obama hopes of a federal fast-train program.

But at the city and county level, where most transit initiatives occur, the midterms yielded a number of big victories, in keeping with the general success of transit ballot measures in recent years. The Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks the fates of transit-friendly referenda, registered 17 wins to 9 losses—for a 65 percent success rate. (Five votes went uncounted.) And many of these positive outcomes occurred in states where Republicans made gains at the state or national level.

By far the biggest win of the day for transit occurred in Georgia, the state's election of a Republican governor notwithstanding. In a vote that currently stands at 74-26, Clayton County approved a one-cent sales tax to join the MARTA regional transit network. Clayton rejected a vote to join MARTA back in 1971 and has struggled to provide good mass transit ever since—the latest blow coming in 2010, when a funding shortage forced its local bus system to stop running. The new MARTA tax will reportedly generate roughly $45 million year, with half the money going toward a new bus service and the other half toward long-term commuter rail or BRT plans.

Transit got some good news in three other states where Republicans gained or kept the governor's seat. In Maryland, voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment that blocks the governor from shifting money out of the transportation fund to a general fund (except for emergencies and with three-fifths legislative approval). In Wisconsin, a similar measure that requires transportation fees to go into a transportation fund also won big. While neither vote explicitly develops transit, both stabilize funding for long-term projects. And in Michigan, four localities adopted measures to secure dedicated transit funding (with one narrow loss).

California cities also took some steps toward stronger transit. San Francisco easily passed Measure A, a $500 million transit bond that will go toward a number of alternative transport improvements; the city also rejected a measure asking officials to shift planning priority toward cars. Alameda and Monterey counties passed transit measures—the former a full penny sales tax to fund $8 billion in transit upgrades over 30 years. San Bruno raised a building height restriction around a Caltrain station from 50 feet to 90 feet, which should encourage more transit-oriented development there.

The list of wins goes on. Rhode Islanders voted to let the state issue $35 million in bonds for enhancements to mass transit hubs. Seattle increased transit funding through a $60 car tab and a modest sales tax increase. Fairfax County, Virginia, easily approved a $100 million bond for pedestrian, bicycle, and road improvements in Tysons along the new Metro Silver Line—a ballot that CTFE didn't count as a win but that certainly seems like one for an area trying to transform itself from a car-first edge city into a transit-first livable one.

For sure, transit suffered local losses, and some bad ones at that. Alachua County and Gainesville, Florida, rejected a penny sales tax with a strong multi-modal component. Pinellas and Polk counties, in metro Tampa, also defeated a sales tax to improve regional transit in the form of improved bus service and a proposed light rail line through St. Petersburg. Wichita, desperately in need of dedicated transit funding, nevertheless voted down a ballot to use part of a local sales tax for bus service. Austin beat back an urban rail project, albeit one that many transit supporters also opposed.

The biggest loss of the day—and in many ways the vote with the widest potential impact—came in Massachusetts, where voters passed a measure (53-47 at last look) that repeals a 2013 law tying the gas tax to inflation. Federal and state gas taxes are still the primary funding sources for America's transportation projects, yet they have lost purchasing power for decades (in some cases) because lawmakers generally refuse to keep the tax in line with inflation, let alone raise it. The outcome here will only confirm official fears that touching the gas tax at all—even in the most rational possible way, even in a rather progressive state—is political poison. That's indeed a big defeat for transit, though it's arguably a bigger one for common sense.

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