Supporters of more transportation finance dollars examined campaigns in six cities

By Michael Norton and Andy Metzger | State House News Service | February 5, 2013

Massachusetts taxpayers appear on the verge of being asked to invest substantially more for the state’s public transportation network and those doing the asking, mindful of potential pitfalls, have been preparing by studying similar campaigns in other states.

As Patrick administration officials weighed the pros and cons of different ways to generate more money, researchers affiliated with two local interest groups and Northeastern University in 2012 examined efforts in six U.S. cities where campaigns were launched to raise billions of dollars for transportation.

Researchers at Northeastern, aided by funding from the Barr Foundation, formed a collaborative with the business-backed A Better City and the Conservation Law Foundation that studied campaigns to boost transportation funding in Atlanta, Kansas, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and St. Louis.

According to Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, campaigns in those regions were chosen for study “based on their relevance to Massachusetts,” where Gov. Deval Patrick has laid out a dramatic shifting in the tax code, which would send an extra $1 billion per year to transportation.

According to the center, key people involved in financing campaigns across the country visited Boston over the fall and participated in “learning conversations” with Massachusetts stakeholders.

Patrick’s proposal diverges from many of the transportation financing methods used by the states and metropolitan areas, raising revenues primarily with an income tax increase and the elimination of tax incentives while also reducing the sales tax and sending more sales tax revenue toward transportation. Many other areas relied on a new sales tax increase to fund transit.

While plan in other areas required approval of voters, Patrick, while trying to build grassroots support for his proposal, is appealing to the 200-person Legislature for passage of his plan, which is tied to increases in funding for education, along with regular increases of the gas tax and MBTA fares.

Legislative leaders have approached Patrick’s plan with caution, and on Monday both Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Robert DeLeo disclosed that most of the feedback from constituents has been opposed to the taxes.

“We got three pro’s, and 159 no’s, so far,” Murray told the News Service. She said, “I think as we get closer to doing something I think we’ll hear more,” and said she has not heard back about the increased funding for education and transportation. She said, “Nobody’s talking about any of that.”

“The very first day, I’d say it was close to 50/50, actually. Once the second day came, it seemed to swing to the no area,” DeLeo told the News Service.

MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott, prior to formally joining the T, and Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials also traveled to St. Louis to learn more about transportation financing efforts there, according to Stephanie Pollack, associate director of research at the Dukakis Center.

Pollack said researchers were able to discover strategies that worked and those that did not. She said tying investments in transportation to the push to create jobs and economic growth was a strategy that resonates with voters. A potential impediment, she said, is convincing people that transportation funds are well spent and will be well spent if policymakers agree to deliver more transportation funds.

Specifically, researchers have examined aspects of campaigns that accomplished the following:

— A ten-year Transportation Works for Kansas program approved by the Kansas Legislature in May 2010 to raise $13.2 billion in state funding, including $131 million in registration fees for trucks, $1.5 billion from a 0.4-cent sales tax increase, and $1 billion in bonds. The election that followed the transportation law’s passage swept in a more conservative government, including Gov. Sam Brownback, which has so far left in place the transportation financing. “Gov. Brownback has said on several occasions that he’s committed to completing the T-Works program,” Steve Swartz, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Transportation, told the News Service. Efforts have been made to do away with a new 1-cent sales tax, 0.6 cents of which will sunset in July, but they have not yet succeeded, Swartz said. “Last year, that came up in the Legislature, whether that sales tax should be continued,” Swartz said. He said, “There was not enough support for that last year to eliminate the sales tax altogether.” Swartz said a tax increase in the midst of a bad economy was “sort of an unusual step for a state legislature to take probably at that time,” and said that “in November, there was quite a sea change in the makeup of the State House,” though he cautioned that the reason for the shift might not have been the tax increase. According to the Dukakis Center’s study, KDOT laid the “necessary groundwork” for passing a financing bill by engaging in a “multi-year process to achieve greater public support for infrastructure investments.”

— A mostly unsuccessful campaign to raise $7.2 billion over ten years for the ten-county Metro Atlanta region through a 1 percent sales tax referendum. In October 2011, a transportation project list for the referendum was approved that included $3.2 billion in transit projects, $2.9 billion in road projects, $24 million in standalone bike/pedestrian projects, and $3.2 million in aviation projects. The project list was a “subgoal” of the campaign. But Metro Atlanta voters in July 2012 rejected the referendum, with 37 percent in support and 63 percent against. Similar referendums were approved in only three of the 11 other regions of Georgia where they were presented. The former general manager of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, Scott was part of that debate and said despite the inability “to get to the expanded regional system,” the effort was “very successful” because of the amount of transit included in the ballot measure. Scott said other funding sources were accessed, as well. “MARTA also, the agency that I was heading, has some legacy financial restrictions that go back since its creation, and we were at least successful in being able to get interim relief from those for the three-year period when I was there,” Scott told the News Service shortly after starting her job in Boston, last December. Scott said her role in the current debate would be as a “resource,” about transit funding issues in the MBTA and beyond, and as someone who will “make sure that we garner as much public confidence in the work that we’re doing, that the dollars are being well spent.” The Dukakis Center said the ballot measure was defeated for a range of reasons, including distrust in government, the belief that the proposal was top-down, the vote occurring concurrent with the Georgia state primary, the bad economy, the size of the region and its divergent transportation needs, and the lack of “regional decision making.” The region encompassed predominantly white, anti-tax, Cobb County, as well as the predominantly black DeKalb County, which had sought a heavy rail extension but was instead granted rapid bus as part of the referendum. The body that drafted the project list was all white, until Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed became a part of it. The regional NAACP opposed the ballot measure, as did the Georgia Sierra Club because of “sprawl inducing road expansion.” The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, trade and civic organizations supported the measure, and the campaign touted the reduced travel times that would result from a transportation investment, raising $8 million in support of the transportation spending.

— A half-cent sales tax increase in Los Angeles County, passed by voters in November 2008 with a 67 percent majority, to provide funds for expanding subways, highway projects and local money for road repairs. Over 30 years, the project is expected to generate $40 billion in sales tax revenue at an average cost of $25 per person annually. Known as Measure R, the referendum gained support despite the bad economy and rode the wave of voters that helped elect President Barack Obama to his first term. At the time, transportation revenues from the state sales tax were being used for non-transportation uses because of budgetary shortfalls. The 67 percent support just cleared the required 66.6 percent supermajority required. The referendum had three backers, a business-labor-environmentalists coalition, a public information campaign by Metro, and a political campaign run by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s allies. Metro’s campaign involved developing a specific list of projects, which it then communicated to county residents through a 16-page informational mailer. TV ads in favor of the referendum focused on closely contested areas, and the opposition had no advertising budget. The business community believed it was important for the plan to include expansion not just funding current operations in a state of good repair, and supporters of the plan included road and highway projects along with rail and bus, to give it broad-based support.

— A half-cent sales tax increase passed by Saint Louis voters in 2010 that added $75 million to public transportation, staving off cuts and allowing for service expansion. Voters had rejected a similar proposal in 2008, and in response to that the Metro had cut service by one third. When the question was up again, supporters used an aggressive political campaign that enlisted respected “champions” to deliver a pro-transit message, marketing strategy headlined in a presentation as “get our message out first and more often,” and which included a get-out-the-vote operation. The 2008 vote resulted in tangible evidence of the funding shortfall, as well, as 550 workers were laid off, one third of the bus routes were eliminated and other cuts. Transit proponents were hampered by the bad economy and a distrust of government that was fostered in part by the previous Metro rail project, which ran $100 million over budget. In 2009, Metro engaged the public – the majority of whom don’t use public transit – on a 30-year visioning plan. Ahead of the vote, African American pastors incorporated the vote into their sermons. The vote was held in April, and 63 percent of voters approved the new funding.

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