Election Day Shows the Need for Transit Tax Reform in California

Tuesday seems not have been a great day for local transit advocates in California.  Measures to increase or extend tax measures for public transit failed in Los Angeles County (Measure J) and currently trail in Alameda County (Measure B1), with mail-in ballots still being counted.  But when I say “failed,” what I mean is they had overwhelming majority support.  Such is the nature of democracy in California when Measure J, with 64.7% support, and Measure B1, currently with 65.5% support, cannot meet the two-thirds hurdle for new taxes required by Proposition 13, approved by voters in 1978.

Given the proliferation of sales tax measures to fund everything from transit to schools, this super-majority bar will only become more daunting in the years to come. Transit advocates should focus their efforts on a statewide initiative to lower the voter approval threshold for taxes, fees, and bonds for transit to 55 percent.  Legislation along these lines has not been successful, but voters approved a similar initiative for school bonds in 2000.

Transit is chronically underfunded in California and elsewhere, given its relatively powerless constituency compared to the highway lobby and a federal government disproportionately governed by rural interests more concerned with funding roads. Yet the benefits to the economy and environment of a robust transit network are significant and well-documented, as All Aboard from Berkeley and UCLA Schools of Law highlights. Given these benefits and the entrenched interests thwarting funding efforts, transit advocates should make lowering the voter approval threshold a top priority in both the legislature (to allow local jurisdictions to hold majority votes on fee-based transit revenue) and on the statewide ballot.

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