My latest for Next American City, on how to get more funding to the Delaware Valley’s struggling transit system:
What is needed, quite simply, is more money. Unlike many other transit authorities, SEPTA relies largely on federal and state funding, while Philadelphia and the six other counties that benefit from its services don’t offer much support at all.
“We have been looking into the idea of more local funding for mass transit, a region-wide tax to support SEPTA,” says Andy Sharpe, communications director for the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers (DVARP). “You see other metro areas that are actually constructing new stations and expanding their system with local funding. You just don’t see that here in the Delaware Valley, but it is a dialogue that we have begun.”
Regional taxing initiatives to pay for expanding and modernizing public transit have been gaining momentum across the United States over the last decade. The Center for Transportation Excellence is dedicated to championing such initiatives, usually by means of ballot measures which they consider more reliable than simple legislative action. Since the CTEbegan tracking transit investment ballot initiatives in 2000, 71 percent have passed. That’s more than twice the standard win rate for ballot measures overall.
The typical model includes a small increase in the property or sales tax, spread out over many years, to fund specific projects. Los Angeles’ Measure R was a 2008 ballot initiative that raised sales taxes by a half cent until 2039, generating $40 billion in revenue. Measure R passed by a stunning 68 percent, clearing the two-thirds supermajority that is needed to pass most tax increases in California. The initiative’s architects carefully laid out exactly what the revenue would be spent on: Designating the rail lines that would be expanded, where new bus routes would be placed, and which roads would be broadened.
This specificity proved popular. Precise earmarking allows voters to know exactly what they are voting for.
“We see a split in the success rate between measures that are more general and fairly ill-defined — they tend not to do as well as something that is very specific,” says Jason Jordan, director of the Center for Transportation Excellence. “[It helps to have] A very clear proposition and a lot of accountability baked in so people can know exactly what the project is, exactly how much it will cost and exactly how long it will take to pay for it, [with no funds] siphoned off due to legislative decisions.”
Photo credit: SeanMarshall on Flickr