Promises and Projects: Examining Accountability and Equity in County Sales Tax Measures for Transportation in California

Since the 1970s, the growing gap between transportation program needs and revenue has been narrowed in many places across the U.S. by Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) measures for transportation. LOSTs for transportation have proven to be popular among voters; since 1976, California residents have voted to fund transportation in 30 of the state’s 58 counties. As of 2017, active LOST measures in 24 counties, home to 88 percent of the state’s population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2015), produce over $4 billion per year for transportation construction and maintenance (Wachs, 2010). Voters in some counties have approved LOST measures as many as five separate times (Albrecht et al., 2017).

These transportation measures are part of a small but growing collection of voter-approved multi-year tax measures that include expenditure plans dedicating the revenue to specific projects on a specific schedule. By contrast, legislatively-approved taxes typically do not specify how the revenue will be spent at the project level. Research shows that specific expenditure plans engender voter trust (Beale, Bishop, & Marley, 1996; Werbel & Haas, 2002; Crabbe, et al, 2005), but they also tie the hands of public officials grappling with rigid expenditure plans amidst changing conditions (Goldman & Wachs, 2003). Indeed the presence of the expenditure list is often cited by researchers as contributing to the increasing popularity of LOSTs as a local transportation finance measure (Crabbe et al., 2005; Hamideh et al., 2008; Beale, Bishop, & Marley, 1996), and these measures are sometimes referred to as “ballot-box planning” (Hannay & Wachs, 2010; Goldman & Wachs, 2003; Calavita 1992; Lowe et al., 2014).

This research analyzes the use of flexible local return funding provided by Local Option Sales Taxes (LOSTs) in California by municipalities.


Mineta Consortium for Transportation Mobility
San José State University

Principal Investigator: 

Jaimee Lederman, Ph.D.

PI Contact Information: 

Mineta Transportation Institute
San José State University
210 N. 4th St., 4th Floor
San Jose, CA 95112

Funding Source(s) and Amounts Provided (by each agency or organization): 

U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology – $69,290

Total Project Cost: 


Agency ID or Contract Number: 



October 2018 to December 2019

Project Number: