STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now when Americans cast their ballots this fall, they can vote for more than candidates. They can also vote for new trains and buses. We have a report this morning on ballot measures from NPR's David Schaper.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Think this morning's commute is bad? Well, it's likely to get worse, according to traffic projections. Take Seattle, for example.
PETER ROGOFF: Congestion delays on the region's freeways increased more than 95 percent, just in the last five years.
SCHAPER: Peter Rogoff is CEO of Sound Transit in the Seattle area, where he says the average commuter wasted 63 hours sitting in traffic last year.
ROGOFF: And folks are very much fed up.
SCHAPER: So Rogoff is pushing a plan to expand the area's transit options. Ballot Measure ST3 would increase sales and motor vehicle taxes to raise $54 billion over 25 years to build and expand light rail, commuter rail and bus rapid transit.
And Seattle isn't alone in asking taxpayers for big bucks to fund transit. There are similar ballot initiatives in Atlanta, Columbus, Detroit, San Diego and even car-crazy Los Angeles, which has the nation's biggest infrastructure referendum.
L.A. Transit CEO Phillip Washington says Measure M would hike the sales tax a half a percent to raise $120 billion over 40 years.
PHILLIP WASHINGTON: We believe that we will settle once and for all, if you will, the transportation challenges with this measure.
SCHAPER: In Atlanta, the Transit Authority is going back to voters after a referendum failed four years ago. MARTA CEO Keith Parker says public attitudes about buses and trains are changing.
KEITH PARKER: Transit has really become cool.
SCHAPER: Parker says many millennials now prefer transit over driving.
PARKER: We are seeing public transit being used as the incentive to bring in new jobs, new investments, new opportunities and just overall improving the quality of life.
SCHAPER: But not all of the ballot measure seek to fund shiny new trains and buses.
GRACE CRUNICAN: Because we are 44 years old, it's time to upgrade the house. It's time to replace some things.
SCHAPER: Grace Crunican heads BART in San Francisco, which is looking to raise $3.5 billion to fix up a crumbling system.
CRUNICAN: It's as unsexy a measure as I've ever seen.
SCHAPER: Many transit agencies are hoping to take advantage of relatively low interest rates on municipal bonds with this year's ballot measures. And there's another reason so many are seeking local tax increases.
CRUNICAN: There isn't any hope on the horizon at the federal level. Our federal funding has been flat for a very long time. And the state level has gone down a little bit.
SCHAPER: Several of the ballot measures have local taxpayer opposition. Some fear they'll be boondoggles because of where the routes would go, or because of potential cost overruns.
Robert Poole heads transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. And he says those are legitimate concerns.
ROBERT POOLE: People should really look hard at what is supposed to be delivered if they approve the tax, and whether those projects appear to make sense.
SCHAPER: Poole says not all transit projects deliver the congestion relief they promise. But he likes the shift to local taxes over state and federal funds. That means those who want more buses and trains in their cities should get ready to pay higher local taxes in the years ahead.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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