On Election Day in November, voters in Los Angeles and Seattle will weigh in on funding major transit expansions. With high gas prices and a heavy voter turnout expected, especially among young and urban voters more supportive of such measures than older suburbanites, transit advocates are hoping this will be their year. Yet even with favorable conditions, convincing the public to approve tax increases remains an uphill battle.
LA’s measure calls for a half-cent per dollar sales tax increase, which could garner between $30 and $40 billion for road and transit projects over a 30-year period. The Metro Gold and Green lines would be extended, a rail link to LAX added, and capacity would be added to I-5 and I-605, among other improvements. The bundling of road and transit projects means that both drivers and public transportation riders would see results. “We have the worst traffic in the nation,” said Marc Litmann, spokesman for LA’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as Metro. “If we do not act, with projected population growth, our average highway speeds could dip below 20 miles per hour.”
The proposal in Seattle would raise funds for transit alone, $17.6 billion over 15 years. The funds would be used to extend the city’s light rail lines by 34 miles, add commuter trains, and improve bus service.
The initiatives come at a time of reports of ridership spikes from transportation authorities across the country. At the same time, increased fuel costs and declining revenue streams from a sagging economy have put a strain on many systems. “Rising gas prices are a double-edged sword,” said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “We’re seeing a modern record increase in riders, but at the same time many systems are still financially strapped.”
According to Miller, riders are demanding better service, and politicians are listening. She cites the speedy passage of a House bill that would provide $1.7 billion in additional funding to transit authorities to help stave off fare hikes and service cuts. The Senate is expected to take up the bill when it reconvenes in September. According to a recent report by APTA, city, state, and federal governments combined contribute approximately $13 billion to transit funding annually, but APTA estimates that number should be tripled to adequately meet current and future demand.
Time will tell if voters are willing to pay slightly higher taxes in order to fund broader, more efficient transit systems. Miller, for one, is optimistic. “The people are speaking very loudly,” she said. “The demand is there.” In Los Angeles, however, Metro’s Litmann points out that even though polls show strong support for the measure, California requires a two-thirds majority for tax increases—setting a very high bar for much-needed investment.