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Ballot measures look to raise billions for transportation

Voters will consider dozens of tax increases to fund transportation projects on next week’s ballots as cities, counties and states hope to generate fresh funds to leverage federal infrastructure dollars.

The ballot measures come as advocates say they expect a flurry of projects over the next few years.

The transportation questions would fund capital projects ranging from light rail and bus extensions to roads, bridges and bike paths.

With federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, “cities are taking their plans and moving forward with them at a faster clip than we’ve seen before,” said Josh Cohen, who leads the American Public Transportation Association’s Center for Transportation Excellence.

Josh Cohen

“It’s not just the questions that have been asked this year but it’s the flurry of activity that has come from cities and communities,” said Josh Cohen, who leads the American Public Transportation Association’s Center for Transportation Excellence.

“There’s a lot of cities that have been thinking about public transit measures for a while, mostly because they weren’t getting the investment from the federal and state governments, but now there is a pot of money made possible the [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act], so cities are taking their plans and moving forward with them at a faster clip than we’ve seen before.”

Transit measures have a strong track record of approval, Cohen said.

In 2021, all 11 measures were approved, and in 2020, 93% of the questions won passage, he said. In the last midterm elections in 2018, the approval rate was around 85%.

“If it makes it to the ballot, voters overwhelmingly support public transit – we’ve seen this over and over again,” Cohen said. “We think in 2023 and 2024 we’re going to get a lot more cities” that move forward with transportation-related infrastructure.

There are 31 transit-related tax increases appearing on ballots around the country next week.

In the only statewide measure, Massachusetts would amend the state constitution to create a higher tax on income over $1 million, adding a 4% rate on top of the current flat 5% tax. The money would go to public education, roads, bridges and public transportation. The move revives an earlier effort that the state’s top court rejected in 2018.

If approved, it would generate $2.7 billion in its first year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

“It’s a good idea that, if approved, would boost Massachusetts’ position as an economic leader among states,” said Michael Mazerov, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a blog post supporting the measure.

In California, voters will be asked to weigh in on Proposition 30, which would levy a 1.75% tax on Californians who earn more than $2 million. The funding would go to climate-change efforts, with about 80% going to subsidize the purchase of zero-emission vehicles and to build more charging stations.

Sacramento voters will decide on a measure that marks the first citizen-led effort for transportation in the state: a 0.5% sales tax increase for 40 years. As a citizen-led initiative, the measure only needs a simple majority, rather than two-thirds, to pass.

If approved, it would fund an extension of the Sacramento Regional Transit District’s light rail to the Sacramento International Airport and the Southeast Connector Expressway project, a long-planned new freeway opposed by many environmentalists, who argue the citizen-led effort was funded by developers. It would bring in $8.5 billion over 40 years, of which 40% would go to the light rail district.

Orange County, Florida officials are asking voters to consider a one-cent sales tax increase, boosting it to 7.5% from 6.5% on retail goods and services. The measure would raise $600 million a year, or $12 billion over 20 years. The money would be deposited into a trust fund dedicated to roads, bridges, bicycle improvement projects and transit. The money would double the current transit system, according to the advocate group Move Orange County Forward.

Transit would get 45% of the revenue, while county roads would get another 45% and municipalities 10%.

A ballot question in Hillsborough County, Florida that’s tangled in court drama would raise the county sales tax to 8.5% from 7.5% for 30 years. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would get 45% of the money and local jurisdictions the remainder. On Oct. 10, a circuit court judge struck down the question as “ambiguous and misleading,” but last week, an appellate court stayed the judge’s decision. For now, the question remains on the ballot while the court dispute plays out. The drama echoes a Hillsborough County transportation tax in 2018, which was passed by voters and raised more than $500 million but was later struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court.

In Michigan, voters in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties will be asked to renew property tax initiatives to raise money for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation service. The counties generally ask for, and win, renewals every four years to fund the SMART system. This year, the Oakland County board voted to set the rate countywide, ending a controversial opt-out provision for communities and extending the service throughout the county.

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