Michigan communities overwhelmingly support public transit ballot measures

As municipalities across the country feel the crunch of tightening budgets, voters are choosing to prioritize public transportation at the ballot box. Transit agencies large and small are feeling enormous fiscal pressures and many are being forced to cut service, lay off workers, and, in some cases, stop operating altogether. According to the American Public Transportation Association, 84% of U.S. transit agencies are being forced to make these choices. However, in the great state of Michigan, voters are choosing to save local transit through property tax levies. Eleven communities held ballot elections on transit funding in 2011, and ten of these were approved.

A ballot measure (sometimes referred to as initiative, proposition, or referendum) is a form of direct democracy where voters decide to approve or reject a policy proposal that is presented on Election Day. The proposal could enact a new law, create or direct a funding source, change the local or state constitution, or even recall an elected leader. Each year, states bring dozens of ballot measures about transportation funding to a vote, particularly about public transit. Often these measures propose creating or renewing a source of funding by enacting a fee or tax, and they can include project lists and designate specific receiving jurisdictions or transit agencies. Transportation ballot measures tend to pass at twice the rate of funding measures for things like arts, education, and open space. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, transit funding ballots have had a 70% approval rate over the last ten years. They win in both red and blue districts, indicating voters’ willingness to prioritize transportation choices in their communities.

On August 2, Michigan voters passed five of the six public transit ballot measures up for a vote in that state. These approvals come in the wake of a similar vote on May 3, when five other Michigan communities also voted “yes” on transit – approving every measure proposed. Visit the Center for Transportation Excellence’s 2011 ballot page to see the results of more 2011 transit ballot measures.

These measures will keep buses running in rural and suburban communities throughout the state. Here’s some more information about the new initiatives that have passed this year in Michigan.

August 2, 2011 measures

Crawford County, Mich. – 78% YES
Voters said yes to a ballot measure that will raise about $400,000 annually for operating costs for the Crawford County Public Transportation System (“Dial a Ride” buses) with a 0.7 mill increase in the property tax levy (i.e., increasing the transportation levy by a rate of $.70 per $1,000 of assessed property value for five years).

Escabana, Mich. – 67% YES; Gladstone, Mich. – 62% YES; Maple Ridge, Mich. – NO 68%
Voters in Escabana and Gladstone renewed the 0.6 mill property tax levy for five-years, which will support operations of the Delta Area Transit Authority (DATA). Voters in Maple Ridge said no to a five-year renewal of a 0.5 mill property tax levy that would have funded the same transit system.

Port Huron Township, Mich. – 58% YES
Voters approved a four-year property tax levy increase. The new 0.875 mill rate will generate $220,450 in the first year for the Blue Water Area Transit service.

Iosco County – 79% YES
Voters supported a five-year renewal of a 0.0967 mill property tax levy to fund operations of the Iosco Transit Corporation. It will generate $109,704 the first year.

May 3, 2011 measures

Grand Haven Township, Mich. – 59% YES
Voters approved a five-year 0.95 mill renewal of the property tax levy for streets and transit. It will generate about $250,000 for Harbor Transit and $350,000 for road maintenance, annually.

Kent County, Mich. – 50.2% YES
Voters agreed to a 0.35 mill property tax levy increase, raising it to 1.47 mills for seven years. (The increase originally failed at the ballot box in 2009.) The millage will support the Grand Rapids Transit System which serves six cities (East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming). It is expected to raise $15,596,497 its first year which will support bus expansion and improvements based on the Transit Master Plan which includes downtown and brownfield redevelopment initiatives.

Benzie County, Mich. – 75% YES
Voters restored a 0.5 mill property tax levy for Benzie Bus for 5 years. It will raise about $541,000 in its first year. Without the measure, service would have stopped indefinitely.

Holland, Mich. – 76% YES
Voters renewed a 0.4 mill property tax levy for five years to operate the Macatawa Area Express bus system. It will generate about $890,000 a year.

Kalkaska County, Mich. – 72% YES
Voters’ decision to renew a 0.25 mill property tax levy for five years will raise about $164,438 in 2011 alone to support the county’s public transit authority.

Neha Bhatt is Deputy Director of Policy and Research for Smart Growth America.

Photo: Jeremy Roof/Flickr