Victory for commuters

November 29, 2006

Democrats weren't the only winners on Election Day this year. From Hawaii to Minnesota, voters approved a number of local ballot measures to finance and expand mass transit operations across the country. The trend demonstrates what advocates have been saying for years: People are willing to pay higher taxes in return for better transportation.

In ultra-conservative Utah, for instance, nearly two-thirds of voters in Salt Lake and Utah counties approved Proposition 3 raising the sales tax in order to double the region's light rail and commuter rail systems. Local officials believe the measure will give Salt Lake City a better chance to compete for new businesses with other Western cities.

Kansas City, Mo., voters surprised many political observers when they approved what some are calling the city's largest-ever capital project: a 27-mile-long light rail line that's expected to cost $975 million. California voters approved a sizable $4 billion in bonds to finance public transportation and passed a proposition to make it harder to divert gasoline sales tax revenues away from transportation projects.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial that appeared Wednesday incorrectly referred to Honolulu's light rail project. Members of the city council, not the general public, voted to approve the proposal. The Sun regrets the error.

Voters in Seattle, Fort Worth, Texas, and Minnesota also approved tax increases that will go to transit projects of one kind or another. Light rail plans will move forward in Honolulu thanks to a voter-approved resolution. Altogether, 32 transportation measures of all types worth more than $55 billion were approved on Nov. 7, according to the nonpartisan Center for Transportation Excellence.

Maryland's next governor would be wise to take note. The Baltimore area needs a major investment in transit infrastructure (and is supposed to receive one in the form of a Woodlawn-to-Canton light rail line) but the state doesn't have the money to pay for it. The Washington area has its transit needs, too, as do the state's rural counties.

Today, a legislative committee is scheduled to meet in Annapolis to discuss ways to raise the needed revenue. The election results suggest an obvious way to get the matter on the fast track: Whatever tax or fee is ultimately proposed, let voters have the final say.

Chances are, the voters will say yes. Growing traffic congestion, rising fuel prices, and concern over pollution have made the case for transit too difficult to ignore. Maryland's highways are among the nation's best. The same can't be said of Baltimore's transit lines. What works in Seattle, Denver and soon Salt Lake City and Kansas City, too, can work here - if it's given a chance.

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