By Cameron McWhirter and Alejandro Lazo

At least 38 local ballot measures, totaling about $200 billion worth of projected spending on public transportation and infrastructure improvement, are up for votes Tuesday across the U.S., from Los Angeles to Atlanta.

Local ballot proposals for transit have never totaled so big a sum of money during an election cycle, according to Mantill Williams, director of advocacy communications at the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington-based association of mass transit agencies.

In California, where chronic underfunding, suburban sprawl and state budget battles have left transit authorities starved for cash and far behind on maintenance, at least 18 counties and cities have sales tax measures on local ballots for transportation, transit or road repair projects, according to a tally by Michael Coleman, a fiscal policy adviser to the League of California Cities.

Restoring U.S. transit systems to a state of good repair would require at least $85.9 billion, according to a 2013 estimate by the Federal Transit Administration, the latest figure available.

President Barack Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion highway and transit bill in 2015 that provides about $49 billion for transit, increasing such funding each year to 2020, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

But Jeff Brown, who researches public-transit system finances and is chairman of Florida State University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning, said the federal funding doesn't mean a substantial increase for public transit.

Many communities, including large cities in California, are trying to fill a perceived gap between what funding is available, and what is needed to grow and maintain transit systems. "One key factor behind the proliferation of these initiatives really is the financial situation of the country with the federal government really not increasing revenue" for transportation programs, he said.

Ballot proposals that ask for too much money might find voters "vehemently opposed," he said.

Most of the measures are for sales tax increases, but others include property taxes, income taxes or bond measures. Big votes on transit measures will be held in Seattle, metro Detroit, Charleston, S.C., Atlanta and elsewhere.

Los Angeles County is hoping to raise about $120 billion over the next 40 years through a half-cent sales tax measure with no sunset clause, known as Measure M. The massive expenditure plan includes projects such as extending a rail connection to the airport, expanding the highways leading out from the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports and expanding the region's metro rail lines.

"It used to be the federal government was mom and dad, and all the cities in the country were kids who go to Washington, D.C., and get the full amount paid for," said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has made passing Measure M a priority. "But the era of going to Washington with an empty hat in hand and coming back with anything is over."

Opponents see the proposal as extravagant and oppose spending so much on new rail, when increased bus service would do, according to Eric Mann, a member of the No on Measure M campaign.

Most of the California measures need two-thirds of the vote to pass, including the Los Angeles sales-tax increase. John Fairbank, a pollster who has worked for a number of California's transit-oriented campaigns this year, said tax increases can be sold to voters if they are tied to a tangible need.

Write to Cameron McWhirter at cameron.mcwhirter@wsj.com and Alejandro Lazo at alejandro.lazo@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 07, 2016 16:36 ET (21:36 GMT)

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