2008 at the Ballot Box: Continuing the Trend

The results of November’s Presidential election may have represented a change of direction for our country, but at least one trend at the ballot box remained unchanged from the past few elections: Taxpayers across the country again approved a bevy of ballot measures to conserve land, protect farmland, promote smart growth; and expand public transportation, commuter rail, and bike and pedestrian access.

According to the New York Times‘ op-ed on/summary of the measures, voters across the country approved $7.3 billion in new spending on parks and open space preservation – including farmland protection. “California and Florida said yes to more than $700 million in new spending on open space. In Minnesota, voters increased the sales tax by three-eights of a cent to generate $5.5 billion over the next 25 years for land preservation and environmental protection. It was the largest open-space state referendum in the nation’s history.” Hit the jump for more.

Rhode Island approved $11 million in bonds for open space preservation, California approved no less than three ballot initiatives to protect farmland, build trails, and restore ecological areas and watersheds, and New Jersey voters “approved 14 of 22 county and municipal referendums to increase or extend property taxes dedicated to acquiring or preserving open space.”

According to our partners at the American Farmland Trust, Americans approved

ballot measures to fund more than $525 million worth of state and local measures that include farm and ranch land protection. According to the Trust for Public Land, 74 percent of incentive-based initiatives (34 out of 46) passed. …Thirteen cities and towns in Massachusetts authorized property tax surcharges through the Community Preservation Act, and the Clean Ohio Renewal Bond passed in every single Ohio county with approval by more than 70 percent of voters. In these challenging times, voters demonstrated they understand that farmland protection supports local jobs and economies while providing the food that sustains us.

A notable measure related to accommodating future growth was on the ballot in Santa Monica, California. It would have essentially placed a cap on future commercial growth, giving the anti-any-and-all-development types a victory by locking things in place, thereby steering all growth — good or bad — elsewhere. It would have made new transit-oriented or mixed-use projects difficult due to even slight increases in traffic. Thankfully, the residents of Santa Monica sent it packing.

While their decision doesn’t guarantee that smart growth will be the norm, they understand that simply saying “no growth” does not solve the problem of growth — it just pushes the responsibility off on someone else, and can even result in unaffordable housing as rising demand goes unmet. People from coast to coast are beginning to realize that having a plan to welcome growth in such a way that doesn’t result in overwhelming traffic or paved over farmland is the most reasonable option.

Transportation at the Ballot Box
(prepared in cooperation with Transportation For America)

It’s perhaps most telling that even in a time of brutal economic crises and expensive gas, taxpayers voted for 14 transportation initiatives that will raise their taxes. We seem to be collectively tired of business-as-usual – more highways, all the time, resulting in only more congestion, with no coherent vision for world-class transportation in our cities and communities – and we are willing to pay out of our own pockets for solutions that can get us out of traffic and keep us moving.

At least 23 transportation-related initiatives were approved nationwide, meaning that more than $75 billion will soon be flowing into our transportation networks. There were big victories in California with Measure R in Los Angeles and Proposition 1A statewide that will provide the initial financing for a high-speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

In 2007, Seattle voters gave a collective “thumbs down” to a transit funding package that would have expanded rail and bus service – but also included funding for roads and highways. This year, Sound Transit brought a new proposal to the ballot box that stripped out the road and highway provisions, but added 34 additional miles of light rail, expanded bus service and a 15 year timeline for construction. This time, Seattle voters approved the $17.8 billion sales tax package 58 to 42 percent.

Bill Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, told the Wall Street Journal that this year was perhaps even more telling than the past few elections with transportation ballot measures: “Before the election, we wondered what was going to weigh most on voters,” he said. “…the recent memory of $4 per gallon gas or concerns about the economy. It was pretty clear people voted for the future. The page has turned on transportation in America.”

View the detailed list of ballot measures from the Center for Transportation Excellence.