New Report Shows How to Create Successful Bike Initiatives at the Ballot Box


By Charles Pekow

Bike and Pedestrian Measures on the Ballot – New Report Shows How to be Successful

So Congress shut down most of the federal government, closed parks and delayed transportation funding last fall. It sure inconvenienced recreational cyclists among many other people. But bicycle advocates don’t have to depend on such a dysfunctional national legislature. In fact, they don’t even have to rely on legislators at all to get funding for local bike projects. Advocates around the country have put ballot initiatives to voters to raise money and earmarking it for local transit projects.

Advocacy Advance (AA), a joint project of the League of American Bicyclists and the Alliance for Biking & Walking, has just documented how bicyclists across the country have gone over the heads of elected officials with ballot initiatives.

The advance doesn’t stand as a neutral observer of these initiatives – it supports them financially thorough advocacy advance grants and scholarships to attend its National Walking Summit. The project passed along $60,000 in advance grants in 2012.

Initiatives can take several forms. And they don’t always work. One way is to seek a sales tax increase or earmark. “In a metropolitan county, a sales tax rate of one percent could generate $50 to $75 per person, an amount sufficient to fund transportation infrastructure investment,” says the report, Success at the Ballot Box: Winning Bicycle-Pedestrian Ballot Measures. But it cautions that sales tax revenues will fluctuate with the economy.

Then you can try state and local property taxes. Most states don’t earmark property tax money for transportation, considering it general revenue. But “(a)lmost every municipality uses some portion of the property tax revenue in its general fund to pay for transportation projects,” the report states.

Since people don’t like taxes, communities can also try a bond referendum – fewer communities use them for transportation, though, as they comprised only 11 percent of transportation funding finance measures between 2000 and 2012, according to the study. And perhaps the most relevant method for funding transportation – vehicle fees – accounted for the smallest number of earmarks, only three percent of them. (The percentages reflect the number of funding streams, not the amount of funding). Almost every state collects fees annually or biennially from motorists. Some local governments do too specifically to fund transportation projects.

If you can get a transportation funding measure on the ballot, it’s got a good chance of success, though bicycling infrastructure probably will play a small role in it, if any (a point not emphasized in AA’s report). In 2012, voters approved 79 percent of transportation ballot measures, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence (CTE). The annual national rate has fluctuated between 46 percent and 83 percent since 2000, according to CTE statistics. Few focused on bicycling. “Advocates for ballot measures that failed noted that bad timing, bad messaging and the wrong spokesperson where the primary reasons for failure,” AA concludes.

According to the website of Citizens in Charge, a group that advocates for ballot initiatives, in Utah and Idaho people “can pass laws they write or suspend a statute passed by the legislature by collecting enough petition signatures to place the statute on the statewide ballot for a decision by the voters.”

In Utah since 2002, one statewide transportation referendum failed but six of seven county ones, mainly dealing with sales taxes, passed. None specifically focused on bicycling, according to CTE. Voters in Ponderay, ID in 2010 approved a referendum to fund bus service and tourism – but it was easy for voters to approve as only tourists pay the hotel room tax.

The AA report discusses some recent initiatives that it supported. It tries to paint a smiling face on those that failed. Opponents included environmentalists opposed to road construction and those objecting to regressive taxes – or taxes and tax increases at all. In 2012, for instance, in Alameda County, CA, voters rejected a sales tax referendum that would have earmarked 11 percent of funding for bike/ped projects. Actually, the majority didn’t reject it. It didn’t get enough votes – a two/thirds majority was required and it lost by 600 ballots. Likewise, a special sales tax proposed in Atlanta failed last year despite the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition’s push to show that it would have funded specific bicycle projects.

And in St. Louis city and county, though voters approved a referendum this year increasing the percentage of revenue earmarked for bike trails, it won’t get cyclists around the entire county because the county banned bike facilities except 14-foot wide outer lanes.

But defeat doesn’t mean cyclists have to give up. It took five tries before voters in Pima County, AZ approved a $2.1 billion .5 percent sales tax to fund a 20-year transportation plan with $80 million specifically for bike/ped (in addition to bike/ped elements of other projects). The key: “There is wide agreement locally that the ballot passed because there was something for everyone: regional roadway corridor expansions, transit, bike/ped, wildlife linkages and Main Street assistance. No matter how you move around the community, you were personally invested in wanting the funding to pass,” AA’s report concludes.

The report includes guidance on how to start and win a referendum.

You can find the report at


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