Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voters And Transit Funding: Why Is This Region So Skittish?

The notion of asking voters in the six county area to approve a regional tax increase to fund public transit seems anathema to transit supporters in this region. Presumably, transit supporters fear that voters will turn down such a tax increase and believe that public transit will fare better in Springfield in the General Assembly. The doomsday cycles of the last few years and the success of transit funding referenda across the country should prompt a re-evaluation of that assumption.

The Center for Transportation Excellence tracks the success of transit funding ballot measures and has found an approval rate of over 50 percent nationwide. The elections earlier this week were no exception. Of the 19 transit funding measures on the ballot 13 were approved by the voters.

The biggest wins for transit came in San Francisco, where voters approved a measure that will increase funding and allow reforms of Muni, and in Charlotte, North Carolina, where voters rejected a repeal of the existing sales tax for transit.

The biggest loss came in Seattle, where voters rejected a measure that would have increased taxes to fund 50 miles of new rail transit and 186 miles of new road lanes. According to this article, however, the defeat might have been because the measure was insufficiently supportive of public transit and thus did not do enough to address global warning. Indeed, the Sierra Club opposed the measure.

Given the tough sledding in Springfield and the national success rate for transit funding referenda, why are transit officials and regional leaders here reluctant to proceed with a transit funding referendum to provide additional funds to the RTA and the three service boards, Chicago Transit Authority, Metra and Pace? After all, public transit has a larger market share here than in most if not all of the areas that have approved transit funding referenda over the past decade.

I suspect that there are two answers. First, transit supporters fear that voters won't agree that the additional funding necessary to stave off doomsday and provide sufficient capital is worth the congestion relief and other benefits from public transit. Second, they fear that the State would not increase its Public Transportation Fund match of the new revenue generated regionally if the referendum did pass.

What would be the result if SB 572 were packaged into a regional referendum? How would you vote?


Anonymous said...

Didn't the governor veto allowing Will County to put a referendum on the ballot TO TAX THEMSELVES? Would the region be able to put this referendum on the ballot?

Jennifer said...

I wonder if it's because of the antagonism (perceived or otherwise) between the city and the suburbs: Since neither side trusts the other to vote "correctly," both feel compelled to drag the state into it.

If we were allowed to vote on a regional referendum... I don't know what would happen. I can't even guess whether or not we would have avoided the big mess we're in now. Any mention lately of anything that any city or any county has spent any amount of money on results in people screaming that money's being wasted that could have fixed public transit. But since Chicago and Cook Co. are looking to tax everything in sight, voters here might see such a referendum as the only proposed tax increase they actually have any control over.

Rick Powell said...

The Will County referendum was for a specific change to state law allowing the county to collect an additional gas tax, which cannot be tinkered with without legislative approval, largely because of the collection mechanism involved w/ dedicated state and federal gas taxes. However, Will could easily have a referendum on an additional "general" sales tax to be used toward transportation, and the governor would have no say-so in the matter. This option is still available to Will.

For example, Kendall County passed a general sales tax increase of 1/2% last spring to fund transportation projects after 2 unsuccessful tries. Lake County has had a few runs at one, but they have been unsuccessful so far.

Getting a regional question on the ballot would be much more difficult than a county by county approach. Kendall was successful only after a public relations campaign in which specific projects were identified and prioritized. Voters want to know what is being delivered, and how it will benefit the general welfare, before they part with their hard-earned dollars.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jennifer, and think you have over analyzed it. If you look back to the RTA referendum in the early 70s, Chicago had the votes to outvote all of the suburban areas, and I would not be surprised if that was the source of the current McHenry County dissatisfaction that you recently noted. It is questionable whether Chicago would have that kind of voting balance today.

Second, suburban voters are tired into pouring money into the Chicago patronage machine, of which the CTA is a part. We see that Chicago Democrats run everything in this state, and not well. Also, what chance would the supposedly "minimal" RTA sales tax increase have when Stroger wants to raise the sales tax by 2% (although he now says he can come down to 1-1/2%), despite it being documented that Cook County is a patronage pit that does not function (with recommendations that the Health System and Juvenile Detention be taken away from the County Board, for instance), being run by someone who cannot say "effectuate" without his cousin Donna's assistance.

Add to that, on the state level, one governor going to jail yesterday, and another one who would be recalled if the state constitution allowed that.

Does anyone, in that climate, seriously think that a tax referendum would pass, for anything?

Anonymous said...

As Dennis Byrne suggests, promote telecommuting. Works for me. An if downtown employers don't embrace that, impose a transit benefits property tax, no matter how abhorrent Davey finds that concept.