Smart Growth at the Ballot Box: Fall 2009 Edition

It’s amazing how fast things can change. Even just a few years ago, when the economy was humming along, communities across the country were struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of sprawling growth. They worked hard just to inject some sense and foresight into the planning process as they tried to ensure that their communities would still be great places to live for years to come.

Fast forward a few years, through several gas price spikes and an economy in the tank — especially out in many exurban areas that were the most booming five years ago — and the picture is very different. Capital is harder to come by, good (and bad) projects have been put on hold, and a lot of people are holding their breath and hoping that things return to “normal” soon, whatever that may turn out to be.

With a lot of cities and states in dire budgetary straits, the tendency is often to focus on what they consider “the basics” — meaning that a lot of necessary projects to fix dangerous intersections, build pedestrian facilities, finance a new transit line, or preserve green space might be on the chopping block.

So how did these sorts of projects in communities across the country fare in the November elections a few weeks back?

Via the Trust for Public Land, voters approved $448 million in protecting open space, approving the majority of ballot measures related to open space. Though the total number of ballot measures and money approved was unsurprisingly lower than in years past, the success rate for these measures was still high:

Voters in 11 states across the nation approved spending more than $448 million to protect open space, The Trust for Public Land announced today.  Of the 25 measures on the ballot yesterday, 16 passed, for an approval rate of 64 percent. The largest was a $400 million statewide bond in New Jersey. The other 24 measures were local elections.

One of the ballot measures that the TPL release highlighted is from Metro Atlanta, where Marietta successfully passed a $30 million bond measure to pay for parks and to purchase more parkland. Understandably, the local government was worried about putting up a bond measure for parks during such tough economic times:

But council member Philip Goldstein doesn’t even want the question on the ballot. “While I support the concept of a parks bond, given the state of the economy and the [possibility] of many of the city’s taxpayers being negatively affected by the economy, I cannot support something that will result in a tax increase at this time,” Goldstein said in an e-mail.

The residents disagreed, voting to tax themselves to improve and expand their park system.

In Cincinnati, a ballot measure targeted primarily at delaying plans for a proposed streetcar program would have made any transportation project in the future subject to a straight ballot vote. Proponents (who were outspoken about not wanting the streetcar) said this would curb wasteful government spending, but opponents said it would make any transportation measure far more difficult to approve if it served only a segment of the city.  The measure failed, 56 to 44 percent.

Read The Transport Politic for some more analysis on the outcome.

With the Republican party sweeping Virginia, many national pundits were declaring it a referendum on Democratic policies and President Obama, who was the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Virginia in decades last year.  But did honest talk about the need for money to pay for transportation improvements hurt the chances of one candidate?

Governor-elect Bob McDonnell simultaneously refused to raise taxes while promising a collection of transportation investments. Though he defeated a rural Democrat, local politics are often just local, no matter how much outside observers want to attach national significance to a race.

Determining the “why” of an outcome is no exact science, but one thing is certain: Democrat Creigh Deeds admitted he was going to raise taxes to pay for needed transportation improvements, something no candidates (including Democrats) have done in Virginia in recent history, while Bob McDonnell was promising no tax increases paired with transportation improvements. As Ryan Avent says about Virginia’s transportation funding dilemma that has been going on for years,

As Matt [Yglesias] notes, he’s basically walking into the situation with no plan. He wants to cut taxes in a low-tax state that has struggled mightily over the last decade to find revenue to fund the infrastructure improvements it desperately needs. What’s going to give?

Difficult economic times or no, people across the country still care about making their communities great places to live, and it showed at the ballot box again in 2009.