Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
What are the biggest ballot questions on transit, energy, housing, and other urban issues?
This post has been updated with election results. Look for more CityLab coverage on the future of key urban ballot initiatives soon.
This U.S. election season has often been described as historic, for reasons both inspiring and alarming. But there’s a lot more at stake beyond the presidency and the House and Senate seats up for grabs. At the state and local level, voters will be deciding on hundreds of ballot initiatives that speak to urban issues. It’s a particularly big year for public transit: According to the Center For Transportation Excellence, some 77 ballot measures nationwide are transit-related—“the largest we’ve seen since we’ve been counting measures,” CFTE director Jason Jordon said at a press briefing last week. “This is truly a historic figure.”
A total of 154 state ballot measures are slated to go before voters, according to the tireless folks at Ballotpedia, including 17 in California alone, plus a slew of local measures. The initiatives cover everything from climate change and energy policy to marijuana legalization and charter schools. Here’s CityLab’s look at some highlights of the many questions Americans will answer on Tuesday.
A transit bonanza
With some $200 billion on the table for buses, rail, bike infrastructure and traffic management, 2017 stands to be a watershed year for America’s transit-ambitious cities—especially those out West trying to deal with the effects of decades of sprawl. On the must-watch list is L.A.’s Measure M, a permanent ½ cent sales tax that would generate $120 billion over four decades for smoother bus operations, freeway improvements, and nearly a dozen major transit projects, including a rail connection through the famously clogged Sepulveda Pass and extensions to disconnected locales in southeast L.A. [PASSED]. Northern neighbor San Francisco is eyeing a $3.5 billion BART bond that would shine up the train network’s 90 miles of aging tracks to improve efficiency and keep up its safety record [PASSED]. Heading up the coast, a proposal to levy $54 billion in sales, property, and vehicle taxes for 10 rail extensions and three bus-rapid transit corridors could change the face of Seattle transit [LIKELY PASSED].
To the east, Indianapolis voters will decide if they’re willing to raise their income taxes to pay for a major bus system revamp and other upgrades [PASSED], while Columbus, Ohio, will consider renewing a .25 percent sales tax increase to keep up transit expansions it started a decade ago [PASSED]. Atlanta’s another big contender: A half-cent sales tax increase there would generate $2.5 billion over 40 years, helping the Southern megalopolis undertake major bus upgrades and expand its rail network by as much as 30 miles [PASSED]. Detroit, San Diego, Kansas City, and others are eyeing bus and rail jumpstarts, too [NONE PASSED]—no wonder, given how federal and state transit funds have flattened in recent years.
- Bus and rail lovers have reasons for celebration—and caution — with this year’s historic spate of transit measures
- L.A. needs more than trains to ease traffic
- The high stakes of Seattle’s proposed transit commitment
- Why Columbus is planning transit for new moms
- Streetcars won’t save your city
Reining in infrastructure budgets
Plenty of proposals around the country would divert more cash into road and bridge budgets, but more interesting are the few states deliberating about how to control such spending. California voters love their direct democracy, and they may tighten their grip over state-level infrastructure plans with a proposal that requires their approval of state-issued public infrastructure bonds upwards of $2 billion. California Governor Jerry Brown’s thumbs are way, way down on this measure, which could threaten the $68 billion high-speed rail project he’s championed for years, as well a $17 billion “twin tunnels” project that would ferry river water throughout the state from northern California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta [DID NOT PASS].
On the ballots in New Jersey and Illinois are “transportation lockbox” measures, which are designed to seal off the transportation cookie jar from legislators dipping in for purposes other than mobility improvements. Both states have gone decades without so much as flicking at their fuel taxes (the main source of transportation revenues), and political logjams have blocked other ideas to dredge up cash. Lots of states have such lockboxes, but in Illinois controversy over whether the measure will actually guarantee road funding has been fierce: State highways need “a budget, not a shell game,” wrote the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times. Amateur traffic engineer Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, supports the measure in his state: “[If] you leave an unguarded pot of money in Trenton—bad move, everybody. Bad move,” he told a local radio station. He would know. [PASSED IN BOTH STATES.]
- Meet the wealthy farmer funding the fight for voter approval over California mega-bonds
- Picking open New Jersey and Illinois’ proposed transportation lockboxes
Earth to voters: pay attention to me or I will kill you
Mother Earth was largely ignored by the presidential candidates this election season, unless you count Trump’s assertion that climate change was an elaborate Chinese ruse. But some states are talking about reducing carbon emissions, even if some of the talk is disingenuous.
The biggest battle is over Washington State’s Initiative 732, which would be the first carbon tax in the U.S. if it passes. Taking a cue from a successful tax in adjacent British Columbia, the proposal would impose a fee of $15 (to start) per metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions from fossils fuels like coal, petroleum, and natural gas. But many major enviro groups like the Sierra Club don’t back the measure, in part because the proceeds would not go toward investing in renewable energy. Many economists, however, say it’s a “no duh” mechanism towards effectively reducing carbon consumption—and could be a model for the rest of the country [DID NOT PASS].
Elsewhere, voters will be grappling with energy regulations. Nevada’s Question 3 would allow the state’s utility market to be opened to competition and eliminate NV Energy’s monopoly on electricity: Backers like electric carmaker and solar-roof vendor Tesla are betting that deregulation would encourage more investment in renewables; the union-backed opposition suggests it could cut jobs and raise customer rates [PASSED]. Florida’s Amendment 1 is trickier: It claims to “promote solar in the Sunshine state” by protecting the “constitutional right to place solar panels” on homes. But the deceptively-worded measure is a bit of “political jiu-jitsu,” according to one conservative think-tanker: It would actually help utilities ramp up fees on solar customers and discourage net metering. Supported by the state’s largest utilities, the measure stands a good chance of passing (despite the efforts of celebrity foes like Jimmy Buffett), representing a new frontier in the utilities-led backlash against renewable energy that other states are also witnessing [DID NOT PASS].
- The epic battle over Washington’s proposed carbon tax
- Florida’s “sinister” solar initiative could seriously dupe voters
- The uncertain future of energy in Nevada
California’s housing showdown
Ranking 49th in homeownership rates nationwide, California is ground zero for a national housing crisis. No wonder—renters are already spending a whopping 36 percent of their incomes on shelter, and the pace of construction is glacial. A variety of local-level solutions aimed at more, and more affordable, housing have popped up ballots around the state: San Diego voters are considering more than tripling the number of authorized units the city can subsidize, which could go a long way to support very poor and homeless locals [LIKELY PASSED]. A separate measure to promote denser development in parts of San Diego has also sparked fierce debate about the “character” of America’s Finest City [LIKELY DID NOT PASS]. Moving north, L.A.’s Measure JJJ would ramp up affordable housing requirements and protect union construction workers for certain developments—but could also make housing even harder to build in what might be the nation’s bleakest market [PASSED]. A separate proposition in that city also promises to build 10,000 units of permanent supportive housing for the homeless using a $1.2 billion property-tax-backed bond [PASSED].
Measures across Bay Area ballots signal an unprecedented amount of interest in stemming the region’s rampant homelessness, with $3 billion for affordable housing and homelessness services at stake between proposals in San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties [ALL FOUR PASSED]. San Francisco voters will also consider four separate measures aimed at securing and producing more below-market-rate housing in San Francisco, as well as increasing transparency around the development process [THREE PASSED, ONE DID NOT]. As in Los Angeles, these measures are accompanied by the concern that requiring builders to include more affordable units, or jump though other regulatory hurdles, will only stymie development.
- A look at how bad the housing crisis has become in the Bay Area.
- A brief history of sheltering homeless women in L.A. County..
- How S.F.’s housing measures could transform the city’s development process
Guns and weed
Nine states are mulling marijuana measures, and five of these would permit recreational toking. California, long a pot-reform pioneer, has a re-do of their 2010 full-legalization measure that was narrowly defeated [PASSED]. Nevada, Arizona, Maine, and Massachusetts have similar questions on their ballot, and the Bay State’s effort also seems likely to win, despite the opposition of Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston mayor Marty Walsh [ALL BUT ARIZONA’S PASSED]. Most would levy a 10 to 15 percent sales tax. Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota are contemplating legalization for medical use only [ALL PASSED].
Gun control measures make four appearances on ballots. Maine and Nevada’s call for beefed-up “universal” background checks that close the gun-show loophole, while California’s would extend background checks to cover ammo purchases [PASSED IN NEVADA AND CALIFORNIA, DID NOT PASS IN MAINE]. Washington’s Initiative 1491, meanwhile, would allow authorities to seize firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others [PASSED]. All are expected to pass, despite the usual resistance from the National Rifle Association.
Issues of economic inequality are upfront nationwide, with five states voting on minimum wage measures. Four of those—Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington—propose to raise them [ALL PASSED]. (Maine’s famously outspoken governor, Paul LePage, compared support for this idea to “attempted murder.”) South Dakota is heading the other way, with a measure that would lower the minimum wage to $7.50 an hour for workers under age 18 (who, of course, can’t vote on this) [DID NOT PASS]. South Dakota is also picking a fight with the payday lending industry, a powerful lobby in a state that has nearly 100 storefront lenders charging an average annual interest rate of 652 percent. One ballot measure would cap that rate at 36 percent [PASSED]; another one that’s backed by the payday loan industry would have an 18 percent cap—which sounds even better, except that the lender can have the customer sign a waiver and then charge them a much-higher rate [DID NOT PASS]. Predatory lending practices, which are common in low-income urban areas that lack access to traditional banks, are increasingly the focus of national regulation efforts from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and 14 other states currently also have rate caps.
Another question with implications for low-income urban America is New Mexico’s Constitutional Amendment 1, which addresses bail reform: It would prevent judges from imposing bail amounts that defendants can’t afford and incarcerating low-income arrestees for minor infractions because they don’t have enough cash to post bail. Critics (including the bail-bond industry) decry it as a “get-out-jail-free card.” And the state’s ACLU, which was initially a supporter, later withdrew that support because of their concerns that changes to the amendment gave judges too much power to hold defendants without bail [PASSED].
- Payday lending: will anything better replace it?
- Can't afford bail? In New Mexico, that may not matter anymore
This year’s California ballot boasts 17 statewide measure, which is somehow not a record—every year Golden State citizens make significant, and often sweeping, decisions regarding all corners of government. Another biggie this year: Voters will decide whether local school districts can choose to offer bilingual instruction to students who are still learning English—an estimated 1.4 million public school pupils (roughly 23 percent) statewide. Districts would make the decision based on family needs and preferences. If it passes, the measure would overturn a 1998 ban on bilingual education, and it could set a new standard of parental control over instruction. [PASSED]
Meanwhile, Massachusetts will make a call on expanding the state’s charter school system, which ranks among the best in the country. Proponents say that charter schools help close racial achievement gaps, while opponents say they siphon too many funds away from neighborhood schools without the same level of oversight. The debate over Question 2 has been heated in the Bay State, and a certain senator from neighboring Vermont has even put in his (predictable) two cents: “This is Wall Street’s attempt to line their own pockets while draining resources away from public education at the expense of low-income, special education students and English language learners,” Bernie Sanders has stated [DID NOT PASS].
- The best way to teach English-language learners is hardly settled
- Massachussets dukes it out over charter schools
- Even more education ballot initiatives
Did we miss the big local questions in your area? Let CityLab readers know in the comments!