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Sept. 13 — State and local voters are poised to fill a vacuum left by Congress this Election Day, when they vote on ballot measures that would raise revenue for transportation projects, and specifically increase dedicated funding for public transit.
Measures that could raise as much as $200 billion for public transit and traffic improvements will be on ballots in states, counties and cities across the U.S. on Nov. 8.
Industry groups following the ballot initiatives closely say they expect the majority of them to pass. The number of ballot measures nationwide specifically aimed at raising revenue for public transit is uncommon in state and local referenda, American Public Transportation Association (APTA) CEO Richard White said during a Sept. 12 press call highlighting the ballot measures.
“I think this is certainly close to being unprecedented,” he said.
An APTA spokesman told Bloomberg BNA that historically, public transit was woven into ballot measures for road funding. To see this many ballot initiatives broken out for public transit is unusual, he said.
APTA, which is based in Washington, said the increase in ballot initiatives probably reflects years of flat federal funding for transportation.
Many of the measures would address an $86 billion shortfall in funding for upgrades to public transit systems, White said. Keeping the nation's public transit systems in what is called a “state of good repair” would require a $43 billion annual investment; however, public transit only receives about $18 billion in dedicated funding each year from all levels of government, he said.
An initiative in Los Angeles County that would raise $100 billion over the next 40 years by raising the sales tax by .5 percent would pay for rail, bus transit and highway projects and also set aside funding to repair existing transportation infrastructure.
“We believe that we will settle once and for all, if you will, the transportation challenges with this measure on the highway, the transit, the bus operation side,” Phillip Washington, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Country Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said during the APTA press call.
APTA's White said that if public transit measures are “properly crafted,” they have a greater than 70 percent chance of being approved by voters—a point echoed by other industry groups.
Transportation-related ballot measures typically do well with voters, passing at about twice the rate of all other ballot measures, Stephen Davis, director of communications for Washington-based Transportation for America (T4A), said in a recent blog post on the group's site. Davis said U.S. voters have been especially keen on multimodal and transit measures, which have passed 71 percent of the time since 2009.
Transportation for America created a short list of key transportation-related ballot measures that will be considered on Nov. 8. They include a number of proposals to increase sales taxes to offset road, highway and public transit repairs. For example, Fulton County, Ga., (with the exception of Atlanta) proposes to raise $655 million over five years for road and highway widening and repair by raising its sales tax by .75 percent. Meanwhile, Atlantans will vote on two transit-related measures including one that would raise the city's sales tax by .5 percent for 40 years to pay for upgrades to its metro and bus services and help convert unused railway tracks into biking and walking trails that would loop around the city.
On the other side of the country, Sacramento County, Calif., is proposing to boost funding for road and transit projects by $3.6 billion over the next 30 years by raising its sales tax by .5 percent.
Proposals to raise fuel taxes also will be weighed.
The 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax hasn't increased in more than a decade. Several states—such as Idaho, Georgia, Maryland, Rhode Island, Nebraska and Vermont—raised their gas taxes last year. This year, gas tax hike proposals have been taken up in parts of Oregon. In May, Portland, Ore., approved a four-year, 10 cent gas tax increase that will go toward street paving and transportation safety. And on Nov. 8, Clackamas County, Ore., will vote on whether to raise its gas tax by 6 cents for the next seven years to pay for road maintenance.
Davis said once Election Day is over, he expects industry lobbyists to shift their attention to state legislative sessions and efforts to pass bills that would raise revenue for transportation projects.
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