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Never a Smooth Ride With Voters
By Floyd Ciruli

Starting or expanding a community's transit infrastructure is expensive, and seldom easy when voter support is required. Denver voters joined those in St. Louis on November 4 in defeating major transit proposals. But a single election defeat is not the end. Seattle passed a nearly $4 billion package in 1996, only one year after a major defeat.

The following is a Ciruli Associates analysis of the St. Louis and Seattle experiences and lessons to be considered in fashioning the next phase of transit progress in Denver.

St. Louis Loses Expansion
November 1997

While Denver's Guide the Ride proposal was suffering a humbling 42 percent to 58 percent defeat, St. Louis area voters were rejecting "Proposition M," a major expansion of their system by a similar percentage.

Voters in St. Louis County and Madison County rejected two separate proposals that would have financed expansion of "MetroLink." Both were called "Proposition M." The issue in St. Louis would have added a quarter-cent tax to the existing quarter-cent for public transit. The Madison County issue would have added a half-cent to the sales tax to bring light rail into the county.

There were many similarities between the Denver and St. Louis elections. Voter turnout was light in all three St. Louis area districts (between 13 to 22 percent). Metro Denver turnout averaged 30 percent of all registered voters. The Denver metro transit proposal received 42 percent total, but carried the City of Denver with 50.4 percent. The St. Louis proposal lost, receiving only 42 percent county-wide, but carried the City of St. Louis coincidentally with 50.4 percent. Like Denver, early polls showed support. A poll in Madison County said the tax was favored by 64 percent of the public.

The St. Louis tax would have raised about $43 million a year for 13 years, two-thirds of which was earmarked for light rail, and one-third for existing transit operations. The amount would have doubled existing tax revenue from a 1994 election in which 60 percent of St. Louis voters approved a quarter-cent for rail. The Madison tax would have raised up to $19 million a year for 15 years.

Similar to Denver, opponents in St. Louis won on a slim budget compared to the $750,000 spent by supporters (including $250,000 on television, radio and newspaper ads).

Factors influencing the demise:

  • The plan was attacked as too vague. Opponents argued it didn't have a detailed plan as to where light rail would go and when. They claimed the proposal was a "blank check."

  • Proponents "promised" to spend two-thirds on new light rail, but opponents said the ballot language wasn't clear enough to guarantee that would happen. That ambiguity was a major factor.

  • St. Louis voters felt cheated after their 1994 passage of a quarter-cent tax for light rail when no rail was added to the system because federal matching funds failed to come through. That left $40 million in the bank, which some argued should be used for rail expansion before taxes were raised.

  • The St. Louis Post Dispatch, which editorialized in favor of the issue, called the campaign "an 11th-hour stealth campaign" that didn't inform voters.

  • Suburbs strongly opposed the initiative largely based on their areas not being included in light rail lines, which were clearly shown on campaign maps.

  • Mayors and environmentalists supported the proposal. It was opposed by a number of Republican legislators and anti-tax groups. GOP leaders made the issue partisan.

  • The usual arguments against transit were mounted and worked: Too few people ride it to make a difference, transit only helps the poor, and riders should pay for it.

Seattle Second Try Wins
November 1996

Voters in Puget Sound approved a mass transit plan that had failed three times before. The successful version, a $3.9 billion tax lasting 10 years, gained a surprising 58 percent of registered voters. The cost is estimated at about $125 a year in sales and vehicle use taxes (0.04 percent increase in sales tax and about $30 more per year on a $10,000 car).

A more expensive $6.7 billion proposal failed in 1995 (overwhelming passage in the city of Seattle couldn't overcome nearly 2-to-1 failure in suburban counties). Before that, Puget Sound region voters said no to mass transit in 1968 and 1970.

The 1995 defeat was attributed to criticism over the size of the tax package and suspicion that costs would escalate. Also, many suburban politicians claimed their areas would not benefit.

This time, suburban Snohomish and Pierce counties narrowly voted in favor.

The plan combines 81 miles of commuter rail, 25 miles of electric light rail and 20 express-bus routes with more suburb-to-suburb connections.

A light rail line will be built from the "University District" to Seattle-Tacoma airport.Success factors include:

  • Rewrite of the 1995 proposal, including reductions in scope and time to build projects with less rail and more suburban express bus routes. The latest effort gained credibility as voters saw a more modest proposal reflecting earlier concerns.

  • Support from the Seattle Times, which called it "The first step in dealing with a mobility problem," and "a consolidation and rethinking of two earlier versions ... that benefits from a more focused Regional Transportation Authority mission and the public's acceptance that a start must be made toward a solution."

  • Opposition arguments made in an underfunded campaign were a tough sell in the increasingly congested basin: There is more money (federal or state), road space and public acceptance for major new highways and freeways.

  • Heavy Democratic turnout in Seattle, and narrow, but critical, Republican support in the suburbs.

  • Suburban support was key to passage, as was tailoring a plan that benefited suburban commuters, especially with suburban-to-suburban express bus service. Slogan: "Regional Express - Its about Time."

  • Suburban officials campaigned "feverishly" for passage, compared to 1995 when one suburban mayor was the primary opponent. Suburban and other civic leaders sensed the time was now, or delay for a decade or more. Only two transit elections had been authorized by the Legislature, and this was the last chance. Failure meant suburban cities and counties would have to bring forth their own plans.

Related Link: Ride On


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