Let’s Help Communities Pass Transportation Funding Measures: Lower the Voter Threshold to 55%

California is in a world of hurt when it comes to transportation, and we need to step up now to avoid a future of widespread, perpetual, crippling congestion and gridlock. Given the federal government’s AWOL status on transportation investment — the federal gas tax hasn’t even increased by inflation since 1993, meaning it’s declined in value by nearly half — combined with the state’s tepid and inadequate transportation investments due to Sacramento politics, we need to give local communities every possible tool to fund their own transportation needs.

That means removing barriers to local communities’ ability to fund their local and regional transportation systems. In that spirit, I’m introducing a California constitutional amendment, for statewide consideration by the voters in 2018, to make it easier for local communities to adopt transportation funding measures such as dedicated transportation revenue measures and bonds. Currently, these measures require a massive 2/3 vote of the people, meaning 34% of voters can tank even the most critical funding measures to fix our transit systems, roads, and bridges. Our proposal will lower the threshold to 55%, aligning transportation with the threshold for education funding measures.

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(Photo: Los Angeles’s Red Line)

As our state grows from 40 million residents today to a projected 50 or 60 million in coming decades, we can’t just do it the old way: fail to invest in public transportation, let our roads fall apart, and watch as the congestion gets worse and worse. California’s transportation failings are having a deeply negative impact on our economy, environment, and quality of life.

We must course-correct on transportation in order to dig out of our transportation hole and fund the massive transportation investments we need. All of our major metropolitan regions will grow significantly in coming decades, some in the multi-millions. Without investment — and particularly aggressive investment in public transportation to reduce explosive congestion — Californians’ health and prosperity will suffer.

The current 2/3 threshold for transportation funding measures makes it exceedingly difficult for local communities to fund even the most basic needs. Communities are often hesitant to go to the ballot, given the high 2/3 barrier, and although local communities do sometimes pass these measures, our state is littered with measures that receive strong majority support but fail to achieve a 2/3 majority, for example: Contra Costa County (63.5%), Los Angeles County (65%), Alameda County (66.5%), Sacramento (66%), San Diego (57%), and Placer County (65%). (Alameda and Los Angeles Counties tried again a few years later and were ultimately able to squeak out victories.)

California’s obsession with requiring 2/3 votes for basic government services is severely undermining our state’s ability to cope with the growth we are experiencing. For years, a 2/3 vote was required in the Legislature even to pass a budget without tax increases, thus causing an annual meltdown ritual as Republicans in the minority held the budget hostage. Fortunately, the voters reduced that threshold to a majority vote. California’s schools have been systematically under-funded for decades, and 15 years ago, the voters reduced the threshold for local education funding measures from 2/3 to 55%.

It’s time to make it easier for communities to fund their local and regional transportation needs, and our proposal to reduce the transportation vote threshold from 2/3 to 55% will help. We have a tough road even to get this constitutional amendment on the ballot, since (you guessed it!) our constitution requires a 2/3 vote of the Legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Fortunately, if we can get the measure out of the Legislature and before the voters, a simple majority vote of the people will enact it.

Until our federal and state governments step up on transportation in a very significant way, we are forcing local communities to take the laboring oar to fund many of our transportation needs. Let’s at least make it easier for them to row that boat.

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