Did you know that you can fight to get safer transportation infrastructure in your community without the help of your local government and elected officials? Ballot initiatives are a great tool of a democratic society that put important decisions right in the hands of everyday citizens. If your community demands bike and pedestrian infrastructure, but you’re having a difficult time convincing your local officials to get on board, you may want to consider developing an initiative to put on the ballot in the next election.
What is a Ballot Initiative?
A ballot initiative, which is also known as a measure or proposition, is a democratic tool that allows citizens to demand a public vote on an issue that is important to a community. Approximately half of all states allow citizens to participate in government using ballot initiatives. While rules and regulations will vary by state, initiatives can be used to amend a state constitution, approve tax initiatives or expenditures, or even devise statutory law.
There are two primary types of initiatives: direct and indirect. Direct initiatives bypass lawmakers and issues are sent directly to the voters. Indirect initiatives start out in the legislature and are only up for public vote if the measure is not enacted by the government.
Initiatives start out as simple petitions. These petitions can be generated by a single citizen, a group of concerned citizens, or even larger organizations. Once a petition is finalized, it must secure a specific number of signatures, as mandated by state law, before it can earn a place on the ballot in the next election. Voters then have the opportunity to decide whether the initiative will pass or fail.
Ballot Initiatives and Safe Transportation
For years, concerned citizens and advocacy groups have used ballot measures as a way to bring safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to their local communities. Most initiatives focus on generating and/or allocating funding to safe infrastructure projects. In the past, initiatives have focused on:
- Dedicated funding: issuing bonds to directly fund bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects; or
- Eligible funding: issuing bonds for transportation projects, for which bicycle and pedestrian programs would be eligible for funds.
Most ballot initiatives focus on the issuance of bonds for dedicated or eligible funding measures. It’s not enough to say that you want to have money allocated to safe transportation projects; you also have to explain where those funds will come from.
Ballot initiatives for bicycle and pedestrian projects have successfully gained funding through:
- Proposed increases in property taxes
- Proposed increases in local or state sales taxes
- Proposed increases in the gas tax; and/or
- Allocations of federal transportation funding.
In most cases, the tax increases on everyday citizens would be negligible, especially when compared to the tremendous benefits that bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure would provide for the community.
Successful Campaigns for Dedicated Bike and Pedestrian Infrastructure
Many advocacy groups have been successful in developing ballot measures and securing funding that is vital to the construction of safe transportation infrastructure in their local communities and states.
Here are some of the most recent and successful campaigns:
Pinellas County, Florida: Since 1989, cities in Pinellas County, Florida have voted to hike their sales tax by one-percent to secure funding for approved projects. Safe transportation initiatives, including dedicated bike lanes and segregated pedestrian walkways, are among these projects. Most recently, voters approved the Pennys for Pinellas program for the years 2020-2030. The money raised through the increased sales tax will be used to support infrastructure projects.
Athens-Clarke County, Georgia: A ballot measure proposing $109 million in funding for local transportation projects, 60 percent of which focus on plans for walking, biking, and transit initiatives, passed by an overwhelming majority of voters. Approximately $11 million of the funding has been earmarked for sidewalks, while an additional $6 million has been set aside for bike lanes. A small hike in the local sales tax will fund the projects. While a sales tax is regressive, voters hope that the local tourist economy and university will help to balance things out.
Travis County, Texas: Voters recently passed a $93.44 million ballot proposition known as “More Parks, Safer Roads.” Funding, which is secured by a modest hike in property taxes (costing the average citizen $24/year), will be split evenly between road and park projects. Road projects are slated to include both bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.
Denver, Colorado: Voters overwhelmingly voted to pass a $937 million bond package which will help to fund several repair and improvement projects. Plans include constructing 33 miles of sidewalks, 17 miles of protected bike lanes, 32 miles of neighborhood bike paths, as well as a $9 million pedestrian bridge.
Dallas, Texas: Voters apparently supported funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in response to declining health in the city. Funding will help to “improve walking and bicycling routes in neighborhoods throughout the city that will make it easier for community members…to get the physical activity they need to live healthy, active lives.”
How Can I Start a Safe Transportation Ballot Initiative?
Getting an issue on your local ballot will take hard work, dedication, and perseverance. You may not succeed on the first try, but it is important to fight for what you believe is right. Here are the steps you should take to get your issue on the next ballot.
- Research the Issue. Knowledge is power. The more information and data you have to support your argument, the more successful you will be. Try to answer the following questions:
- How would dedicated bike lanes and safe pedestrian infrastructure help my community?
- What are the benefits of embracing safe infrastructure? (e.g., health, transit, accidents, environmental)
- How much will alternative infrastructure cost?
- How much will the community/city/state save by embracing safe infrastructure?
- Gather Local Support. Start by getting your friends and family members on board. Expand by going out and speaking to the community at local events and meetings. Contact local advocacy groups. Show up to town hall meetings and begin to address your local boards and elected officials. The more support you have for your issue, the greater your chances of getting the number of signatures you need.
- Petition Local Officials. If your local lawmakers are on board you may not have to go through the process of getting your issue on the next ballot. See where they stand on the issue, present your argument in support of bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and try to secure their support.
- Draft Your Petition. Check local and state laws to determine if there are any special guidelines or regulations you must follow. Work with grassroots advocates and resources like Advocacy Advance to make your petition persuasive and easy-to-understand.
- Get the Signatures You Need. The biggest hurdle in putting your issue to a vote is getting the minimum number of signatures as required by law. Some states require that a certain percentage of voters sign on, while others set an arbitrary number. Find out how many signatures you need, hit the pavement, and get supporters to sign off.
Do you need help with your safe transportation ballot initiative? Groups like Advocacy Advance can help. We have resources, experience, and skills that can help to take your proposal to the next level.