Transpo answer: Regional ballot initiatives

Tackling issues locally offers major advantages

YEARS AGO, Denny Zane was stuck on a Red Line train that stalled over the frozen Charles River. Without thinking, he began to hum “people get ready, there’s a train a comin’.” The tune spread from one passenger to another, growing louder and louder until the entire car was chanting along. After a few years in Boston, Denny went home to his native California, but the memory of the humming train car stayed with him.

Fed up with LA’s infamous traffic, Denny became a transit advocate and formed Move LA in 2007, a nonprofit empowering citizens to fight back against soul-shattering congestion. Their secret weapon is regional ballot initiatives, sometimes called RBIs. In California, county voters can opt to raise local taxes to fund transportation projects and services. In 2008, voters approved Move LA’s “Measure R,” raising $38 billion with 67 percent of the vote. Excited by the progress, voters doubled-down in 2016, passing a measure that added an additional $120 billion over 40 years. LA County now has funding for more than three dozen projects, including new subway and light rail lines that will make LA the nation’s second-largest transit system.

Contrast this transformative investment with where things stand in Massachusetts: everyone knows our transportation system is broken, but leaders can’t reach consensus. Also, our voters lack confidence that state government will ever fix it, in large part because major transportation spending decisions are made with no transparency and voter input.

Members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives deserve credit for sticking their necks out and trying to find a way out of this quagmire. Last week, House lawmakers unveiled two transportation funding bills. One would bring in approximately $600 million a year to improve roads, bridges, and public transit; the second would authorize up to $18 billion in borrowing to upgrade the state’s aging transportation infrastructure.

This is a solid first step, but it’s not nearly enough to build and maintain a transportation system that is up to the task of alleviating today’s woes and accommodating future growth. Let’s compare the 7 million people of Massachusetts with the 10 million in LA County. If we were as bold as LA, we would find a way to raise $112 billion, which is proportional (70 percent) to the $160 billion raised in LA.

As large as these figures sound, experts agree that Massachusetts will need much greater investment to support all of the new development in the Boston area and increase rail connectivity throughout the state so that future growth is more evenly distributed. But we already have decent infrastructure in place: the cost to repair and upgrade will be less than creating new systems from scratch. But it will take more than what we’ve authorized today.

The obvious solution is to follow California’s lead and authorize the use of regional ballot initiatives. The regional ballot approach has at least three major advantages:

First, RBIs produce more equity by definition. RBIs give voters in every region equal footing to make the investments they believe are necessary. And the funding packages approved by voters must be well-balanced between modes and within regions to get majority support.

Second, RBIs create much-needed discipline. When voters know the projects they approved, agencies are far more accountable to deliver them on-time and on-budget.

Third, RBIs give the private sector more certainty so they can plan accordingly. Certainty is critical to ensuring that firms staff up so we can construct new infrastructure in a timely manner, and real estate developers build appropriately around transit hubs and along transportation corridors to maximize return on our public investment.

Meet the Author

Tracy Corley

Transit-oriented development fellow, MassINC's Gateway Cities Innovation Institute
Los Angeles isn’t the only region to take these lessons to heart. Other metro areas, including Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City, and Seattle are building legitimate 21st-century transportation systems with RBIs. Even Burlington, Vermont, has implemented voter-approved transit funding. Thirty-four states offer some form of voter-approved funding, but not Massachusetts. Until the Legislature empowers voters, we’ll remain stalled, singing to distract us from the train that’s not a comin’.

Dr. Tracy A. Corley is a transit-oriented development fellow at MassINC’s Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. MassINC is the publisher of CommonWealth.