It is often said in American society that money talks, and this statement often seems doubly true when applied to politics. So what does it mean, then, when big campaign spending is defeated in the political arena? The failure of 2019’s two most expensive ballot measures, Initiative 976 in Washington State and Proposition CC in Colorado, to either preserve or increase funding for transportation raises questions about how to succeed in convincing voters that investment in transportation, particularly funding earmarked toward mass transit and active transportation, is worth the expense.
In both cases, the side of the campaign aimed that preserving or increasing funding for transportation was soundly defeated despite having raised millions of dollars more in revenue than their opposition, creating a notable trend in an election year where more conservative-leaning metro areas like Houston and Phoenix gained national attention when voters approved plans to expand light rail in both cities.
However, a different post-election narrative emerged from Washington State and Colorado, both states known for their natural beauty and liberal-leaning metro areas. In Washington State, Tim Eyman-sponsored I-976, passed with 53% approval, despite warnings from local officials about how capping car tab fees at $30 could have potentially devastating impacts on the state’s transportation system, including Sound Transit’s Link light rail expansion in King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties.
Funding for transportation expenses fared no better in Colorado where 53% of voters opposed Prop CC, which would have retained revenue normally refunded to taxpayers and invested those funds in education and transportation improvements. Like I-976, Prop CC had strong endorsements from high ranking government officials, including Governor Jared Polis, who in an editorial for the Denver Post wrote that funding from the measure would allow the state to take “real steps to manage growth better and to keep Colorado affordable.”
What made I-976 and Prop CC such expensive ballot measures was that in each case, the cause of preserving or increasing funding for transportation, including for mass transit, was supported by the local business community.
A closer look at financial contributions
Total campaign contributions for both sides of the I-976 campaign added up to roughly $5.3 million dollars, making I-976 the third most expensive ballot measure in the United States during the last election. The vast majority of financial contributions were donated to opposition campaign, which received considerable support from large corporate donors like Amazon, Vulcan Real Estate, and Microsoft. According to Ballotpedia, one opposition committee, Keep WA Rolling, received $650,000 from Microsoft in the campaign’s largest single campaign contribution.
Meanwhile, financial support for the I-976 campaign came from two committees, Voters Want More Choices (VWMC) and Permanent Offense, which Crosscut reported as having raised about $250,000. Both of pro-I-976 committees were managed by Tim Eyman, the initiative’s sponsor who has often bragged of having personally loaned $500,000 in support of the measure, most of which was spent on signature gathering to ensure the measure went to ballot.
Eyman might have received a “Sammie” award for his role in shrinking the size of Washington State’s government back in 2011 by the billionaire Koch brothers-funded libertarian group Sam Adams Alliance, but no big money donors–Koch or otherwise–appeared to have taken on the I-976 cause in 2019, perhaps because they felt there were more contentious ballot races to invest in, notably Colorado’s Prop CC. Or perhaps they feared their involvement would cost more votes than it bought.
Nearly all of the funding for opposition campaign against Prop CC came from Americans for Prosperity Colorado Issue Committee, a group affiliated with the larger organization founded by the Koch brothers.
But similar to I-976, the transit supporters out-fundraised the ballot measure’s critics by a notable margin. While opposition campaign raised about $1.8 million, a whopping $4.3 million was raised by supporters, which included the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Dan Ritchie, a former communications CEO and chancellor emeritus of the University of Denver.
How will transportation advocates move forward?
In both Washington State and Colorado, however, statewide voters sided with lower taxes and fees over transportation investments, disappointing active transportation and mass transit activists, who have vowed to continue the fight to secure funding.
“We will be on the ground in Olympia working to reform our broken tax system and find sustainable, progressive ways to fund transportation,” said Alex Hudson, Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition (TCC) in the organization’s official statement on the passage of I-976. TCC has identified Washington State’s gas tax, which is currently restricted to funding highways, as a possible revenue source that can be tapped into in the future. Moreover, Move All Seattle Sustainably (MASS) coalition advocates launched a letter-writing campaign to urge state legislature to address the funding crisis, and there’s also high hopes that a bevy of lawsuits will succeed in blocking I-976’s transportation cuts.
“We may have lost this battle, but the issues of underfunded roads and schools remain,” said Colorado House Speaker KC Becker (D-Boulder) in her official statement on Prop CC’s loss. A prominent Prop CC supporter, Becker went on to express the frustration shared many Coloradans who believe the rapidly growing state is not doing enough to invest in infrastructure and other improvements to keep up with that growth. “A broad, bipartisan coalition couldn’t convince voters that the state should be able to invest with the taxes it already collects,” Becker said. “We hope that those who voted ‘no’ will work together with Prop CC supporters to help us find real solutions to these real challenges for all Coloradans.”
While Prop CC would have only secured about $103 million annually for transportation, the voting down of the measure comes one year after the loss of Prop 110, the “Let’s Go Colorado,” transportation bond and sales tax ballot measure that received support from only about 30% of voters in 2018.
Jack Todd, Communications And Policy Manager at Bicycle Colorado, said after these past two failures, advocates for increasing investment in transportation are acknowledging that Colorado voters are more inclined to support local tax increases than statewide tax increases. “In Denver a tax increase was approved for parks, at the same time that statewide Prop 110 was shut down. There is something to be said for voting locally,” Todd said.
Todd, who first became engaged with active transportation advocacy while living in Seattle, believes that in order for voting patterns to change, a cultural shift needs to occur. “People have to stop thinking about cars as the only way to get around. It will be a slow, arduous process, but some of these discussions are already happening,” Todd said.
Similar to Hudson, Todd expressed that Bicycle Colorado and partner organization Walk Denver will continue to fight for bicycle and pedestrian facilities despite a statewide anti-tax climate.
There is evidence to suggest that on both the national and state level, the fight to fund active transportation and mass transit investments will continue to be uphill. When United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao recently released information on what infrastructure projects had gained funding through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program, care was taken to emphasize that 50% of the grant funding was allocated to projects located in rural areas as part of the Trump Administration’s “ongoing effort to rebalance historic underinvestment in rural America.”
The vast majority of BUILD grant recipients were highway and car infrastructure projects, although somehow in Honolulu a pedestrian bridge in Ala Moana, the neighborhood adjacent to the famous Wakiki beach where the Trump International Wakiki Hotel is located, received $20 million in BUILD grant funding.