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Transit plans often hard sell to voters

By LUCAS WALL
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Convincing American voters to approve a transit-expansion referendum is no easy task.

At least 28 governments held elections within the past year that involved extra funding for mass transit. Only 12 of those measures passed -- and one of those was later struck down by a court.

While polls in Houston show support for the Metropolitan Transit Authority's Nov. 4 transit-expansion proposition, transit officials realize they have a tough sell. The "Metro Solutions" plan includes a $640 million bond issue to accelerate construction of the next 22 miles of light rail, a 73-mile rail system blueprint, 44 new bus routes, expanded HOV lanes and $774 million in new roadwork.

Voters in Orange County, Fla., rejected a similar multimodal referendum Oct. 7. The proposed 1/2-cent sales-tax increase would have raised $2.6 billion over 20 years to start a light rail system, widen highways and build bike paths and sidewalks. Pre-Election Day polls had indicated the "Mobility 20/20" plan would pass.

But many Orlando voters refused to swallow what they considered a poison pill -- Mobility 20/20 would have used some of the new sales-tax revenue to add four express toll lanes to Interstate 4 next to the current eight free lanes. Many voters also expressed disapproval of light rail, which they had rejected in 1997.

Nine transit referendums took place in North Texas last month. Voters in three Denton County cities approved a 1/2-cent sales tax to help fund light rail to Dallas. Five cities rejected the proposal, however, and voters in Lake Worth decided to pull out of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.

Metro has one big advantage over other entities: It is not asking voters to raise taxes. The authority already has a full penny sales tax, the envy of most transit agencies, which get by with a quarter- or half-cent. Metro says it can fund the proposed $4.6 billion expansion using bonds, federal grants and existing tax revenue.

Nearly every other transit referendum during the past year has included a tax hike, a tough sell to voters in tough economic times.