Smart growth on the ballot, 2018 edition

(Image: Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, Flickr)

Voting is one of the most fundamental rights (and obligations) that U.S. citizens have and a number of ballot measures across the country this year could have big implications for smart growth. Here’s a brief roundup of some of the nation’s biggest ballot questions that voters considered.

Every election is important.

But local elections are often even more important than the big, headline-grabbing national races, especially when it comes to smart growth issues. The candidates that win and ballot issues decided can have a big impact on efforts to fund and build transit, make streets safer and more complete, update zoning to allow more housing options and affordability, preserve farmland and open spaces, and improve lives by improving communities.

While we won’t delve into all the local races here, this is a look at some of the biggest state and local ballot questions that will have big implications for smart growth around the country. Click on the measures below to read more about each one.

(Note: this is not an exhaustive list. Let us know if we missed a measure—and why you think it’s important—by tweeting at us @smartgrowthUSA!)

Land Use

Smart land use is critical in creating environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and financially viable communities. Allowing greater housing choices and a mix of uses allows people to cluster in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods where their needs a wants are easily satisfied and expensive infrastructure can serve more people over less area. Unfortunately, most zoning codes which control local land use were written decades ago as new suburban development served by sprawling car infrastructure were coming into vogue. And many codes haven’t been meaningfully update since then.

Require public vote for zoning reform

While the legality of this proposition is an open question, Prop J would subject all future “comprehensive revisions” of the city’s zoning code to a mandatory waiting period and a popular vote (which cannot exceed three years combined) before taking effect. While zoning should always reflect a community’s vision and be developed with community input, subjecting every attempt to rewrite city zoning to a popular vote is overly onerous and runs against the purposes of a representative democracy.

Setbacks for new oil & gas developments

While we generally support mixed-use development, that doesn’t apply to every use. Prop 112 would require new oil & gas projects, including fracking, be at least 2500 feet (almost a half mile) from occupied building and other “vulnerable areas” like playgrounds, amphitheaters, irrigation canals, and drinking/open water.

Term limits for community board members

In New York City, 59 community boards “act as key advisors to borough and city officials, particularly on land use and zoning. Community board members are unpaid and appointed every two years by City Council members and borough presidents.” (amnewyork) This proposal would limit community board members to four consecutive two year terms, though they could be reappointed after a two-year (one-term) hiatus.

Energy and Environment

The United Nation’s most recent report on climate change made it clear that playing ostrich and sticking our heads in the sand is no longer a viable option. “Rapid and far-reaching” action is required today to avoid catastrophic climate change. The good news is that we know what changes are needed: we’ll have to use more renewable generate energy, build more efficient homes and office spaces, and electrify transportation while increasing the share of trips taken by low- or zero-emission options like transit, biking, and walking. Here’s a few ballot initiatives that deal with energy and the impacts we’re already seeing from climate change.

Tax big business to support clean energy programs

One of the most innovative measures on the ballot this November, the Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative will levy a small tax on about 130 big corporations (defined as those with over $1 billion in national revenue and $500,000 in local revenue). The estimated $30 million that will be raised from this business surcharge will go to support clean energy projects and job training with an explicit focus on those who are hardest hit by climate change and environmental issues: low-income people and people of color.

Property tax exemption for flood mitigation

This amendment will allow localities to permit a partial property tax exemption for property owners that take flood mitigation measures in areas prone to recurring flooding. Each locality would decide what measure would qualify for the tax break.

Raise renewable energy standards

This constitutional amendment would have increased the amount of renewable energy that electric utilities must generate to 50 percent in 2030. Current law mandates 15 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Raise renewable energy standards

Like Arizona, this amendment will increase the amount of renewable energy electric utilities must generate to 50 percent by 2030; current law requires 25 percent by 2030.

Carbon emissions fee

This measure would have charged $15 per ton of carbon pollution from large emitters (like fossil fuel power plants and oil refineries) beginning in 2020, with the fee rising by $2 annually until pollution reduction goals were met. Revenues would have supported clean energy job trainings, transit and electric vehicle infrastructure, building efficiency, and efforts to restore and protect aquatic habitats.


Housing affordability isn’t just a big city problem. Smaller cities like Boise, ID are also increasingly finding themselves saddled with unaffordable housing costs. Last year, nearly half of U.S. renters—some 20 million people—were cost-burdened, spending more than the recommended 30 percent of income on rent. While rising housing costs are due in part to structural issues that should be addressed—like restrictive laws and zoning codes and a lack of new supply as communities grow—many cities and states are working to address the affordability crisis with greater public funding that can at least help ease some of the burden.
(Note: there are nearly a dozen other city and county initiatives in California that are not profiled individually below)

Regional affordable housing bonds

This measure authorizes $652.8 million in bonds to construct new affordable housing, buy and renovate existing housing, buy land for future housing, and help prevent displacement in the greater Portland, OR region. Alone, this measure will create 2,400 affordable homes for low-income families, veterans, seniors, and people with disabilities.

Authorize local government bonds for private affordable housing

This measure will amend the constitution to allow local jurisdictions to use bonded money to finance non-government owned affordable housing. While local jurisdictions will have to approve the use of bonds in this way, it’s estimated that this constitutional amendment will increase the amount of affordable housing created in the Portland region (via Measure 26-199) to 3,900 permanently affordable homes.

Affordable housing bond

Proposition A, the largest of several bond proposals on the Austin ballot this November, authorizes $250 million in bonds to buy land, create affordable housing for renters, the homeless, and low-income home buyers, and fund home repairs for low-income homeowners.

Bonds for affordable housing and homelessness

Proposal 1 authorizes $4 billion in state bonds to build and renovate multi-unit housing around the state, with $1 billion reserved for home loans for military veterans. Proposition 2 authorizes $2 billion in revenue bonds to build and rehabilitate housing for homeless Californians with mental health needs; money will come from California’s “millionaire’s tax,” which is already earmarked for mental health care, instead of debt.

Both measures passed.

Repeal rent control

Prop 10 would have repealed a 1995 law that limits the ability of localities to impose rent control. A yes vote would have allowed counties and cities to limit how much landlords could charge for rent. However, legally, localities would have to balance those limits on rent with “a landlord’s right to a fair rate of return on a property.” (California Office of Attorney General)

Affordable housing taxes & bonds

Telluride had three separate questions that would each help fund and finance affordable housing in different but complementary ways. 2A would increase property taxes by $2 per $1000 of assessed value raising an estimated $554,000. 2B would increase sales tax by a half-cent raising an estimated $900,000. 2C would allow the town to increase its debt (bond) on the money it raises from 2A.

2A passed, 2B failed, and 2C passed.

Increase affordable housing trust fund

This bond will more than triple the size of the booming city’s affordable housing trust fund from $15 million to $50 million. The trust fund is capitalized with bonds every two years and “largely subsidizes construction of housing for low-income renters by private developers.” (Charlotte Observer)


It’s increasingly clear that how we fund transportation infrastructure isn’t working. Most states opt to spend money on new roads while letting their existing roads crumble (which costs them more in the long run). The Trump administration has made every effort to limit federal funding going to transit. And walking and biking around the country is still too dangerous in many places where people have taken a back seat to car-oriented infrastructure. This year, there were multiple ballot questions asking voters to approve new taxes and bonds for transportation infrastructure but making necessary structural changes like adopting Complete Streets policies and moving to prioritize repair will need to happen beyond election day to truly address our transportation problems.

Transportation for America tracked many of the transportation initiatives around the country and you can check their tracker for a complete list and a forthcoming summary. But here are a few of the biggest:

Repeal gas tax increase

Proposition 6 sought to repeal the increases to the gasoline tax and motor vehicle fees signed into law in 2017 that are expected to produce $54 billion over the next 10 years. That money pays for transportation infrastructure across the state, including public transit projects, road resurfacing, and repairs of bridges and freeways. Proposition 6 would have reversed the 12- and 20-cent increases for gas and diesel fuels, respectively, and made it much harder to create new taxes in the future.

Two competing measures in Colorado were on the ballot. Proposition 109 (known as
“Fix Our Damn Roads”) would have raised $3.5 billion in bonds for a portion of 66 specific bridge expansion, construction, maintenance, and repair projects, and prohibit that money for being used for multi-modal improvements. Bonds would be repaid from the general fund without raising taxes.

Proposition 110 on the other hand (known as “Let’s Go Colorado”) would have raised some $6 billion in bonds for a mix of highway, multimodal projects. Most revenue—45 percent—would go to the state highway fund, 15 percent to the multi-modal transportation options fund, and 40 percent to local governments which could use the funds however they saw fit. Prop 110 would also increase the sales tax to repay the bonds.

Both measures failed.

This proposal will levy a one percent sales tax for 30 years and is expected to raise about $15.6 billion. $9 billion of the raised revenue will be for new light rail lines, while the rest of the revenue will go toward other projects, including new and enhanced local bus routes, expanded para-transit and community shuttle service, bike lanes, smart signal technology for traffic lights to adapt in real time, and roadway drainage to prevent flooding.

Like the Broward County, Hillsborough County’s referendum will levy a one percent sales tax for 30 years and is expected to raise about $8.28 billion. Most of the money—54 percent—will be earmarked for roads, sidewalks, and trails. About 45 percent will go to bus and transit. Highlights include: resurface Tampa’s roads every 25 years instead of every 75 years; build a mass-transit system linking the university, downtown Tampa, and the Tampa airport area; round out a planned network of 400 miles of bike and pedestrian trails; and plug roughly 500 miles of sidewalk gaps on roads in unincorporated Hillsborough.

This post was last updated at 4:20 p.m. ET on Wednesday, November 7, 2018.