This summer, as controversy raged over how the state portion of the $1.9 billion Southwest light-rail project was going to be funded, I wrote a story about the way other cities used ballot initiatives to fund mass transit.

These referendums have asked voters in Dallas, Denver, Seattle and beyond whether they wanted to pay more for transit services. Not in Minnesota, where such a measure would need approval by the Legislature.

But on Nov. 8, voters in 31 communities, counties and states nationwide will vote on public transit ballot initiatives totaling $200 billion, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington, D.C.-based industry group. Many of these measures go beyond mass transit and devote funds to improving highways, as well.

APTA Acting President and CEO Richard White said on a recent conference call that the "historic" initiatives, if approved, will prove to be "a game changer for the people and the communities they live in."

High stakes in L.A.

One of the most ambitious — and expensive — votes will be held in car-clogged Los Angeles, where voters will decide whether to increase the sales tax by a half-cent, raising $120 billion over the next 40 years for trains, buses and highways.

The money would be spread among three dozen mass transit and highway improvements and expansions, and allot billions of dollars for street improvements.

"It's very significant — we're allowing local cities to do their own projects, whether it's sidewalks, potholes, local streets," said Phillip Washington, CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Light-rail projects spread

Other cities are also asking voters to up the transportation ante. Seattle wants to raise $54 billion through new sales and property taxes that would, among other things, expand the light rail network by 62 miles. (The Twin Cities now has 23 miles of LRT service with the Blue and Green lines. If the Southwest and Bottineau lines are built, the network would more than double to 50.5 miles.)

Santa Clara County, Calif. — that's the Silicon Valley — is asking voters to approve Measure B, a half-cent sales tax projected to raise $6 billion over 30 years. This would include four new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations, and local governments would get to keep a portion of the money for their own transportation projects.

And BART in San Francisco wants voters to approve $3.5 billion just to repair its existing rail system.

Lure for big employers

Atlanta — home to the MARTA transit system — has a $2.5 billion ballot measure in November asking whether voters want to increase the sales tax a half-cent to expand the rail system and bus service over the next four years. Keith Parker, MARTA's general manager and CEO, said big companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, NCR and State Farm, locate offices near transit because employees want alternatives to commuting by car.

However, a similar measure in Atlanta failed in 2012. White said that "when properly crafted," 70 percent of the ballot initiatives have been approved over the past 15 years.

Several of the APTA officials said more mass transit was needed to keep up with a burgeoning population base. L.A., for example, is expected to grow by 2.3 million people in the next 40 years. Here in the Twin Cities, the Metropolitan Council has repeatedly stated the region will add an additional 750,000 people by 2040.