Wins for Rail, Bus Measures Signal Increased Focus on Infrastructure

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By Stephanie Beasley

Nov. 9 — U.S. voters approved 74 percent of transportation ballot initiatives during a divisive election season, and transportation groups hope infrastructure investment is one area where Americans will largely continue to agree on as the country transitions to a new Congress and administration.

Voters in more than two-dozen states approved 33 of 48 local and statewide public transit measures, among other transportation initiatives. The number of transit ballot measures proposed this year collectively totaled $200 billion.

“We sort of expected a historic year going into election day for transit measures and we certainly got it with the greatest number of races we’ve seen,” Jason Jordan, executive director of the Center for Transportation Excellence, said.

Los Angeles County voters approved an initiative that would raise more than $100 billion over the next 40 years for rail, bus transit and highway projects by raising the sales tax by half a percent. Two proposed sales tax hikes for upgrades to Atlanta’s metro and bus services passed with approximately 70 percent of the vote. And Charleston County, S.C., approved a 0.5 percent sales tax increase that, among other things, would go toward developing the region’s first rapid transit line.

Voters in Illinois and New Jersey passed “lockbox” measures that would prevent state lawmakers from diverting transportation user fee revenue to non-transportation uses.

But there were also some notable failures. Voters in Southeast Michigan, including Detroit, rejected a $1.2 million property tax that would have helped expand transit and bus services. Clackamas County, Ore., rebuffed a measure that would have raised the gas tax by 6 cents.

Still, the overall success rate of the initiatives bodes well for infrastructure investments not only at the state and local level, but potentially at the federal level where lawmakers and the next administration could take cues on where to apply federal dollars based on projects approved on this year’s ballot initiatives.

The American Public Transportation Association already is pressing President-elect Donald Trump to prioritize public transportation in any infrastructure proposal he puts forth.

“As nearly 60 percent of the trips taken on public transportation are for work commutes, we believe that a significant portion of his infrastructure proposal should be dedicated to public transportation,” the group said in a statement Nov. 9.

Trump has indicated plans to release a $1 trillion infrastructure plan within the first 100 days of his presidency that would rely on giving private investors tax breaks when they lend money to states and municipalities for projects. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Nov. 9 that Democrats were willing to work with Trump on a “robust” infrastructure package.

Other transportation funding advocates also said that infrastructure investments might be one area where Republicans and Democrats at the local, state and federal levels might be able to agree on during what might otherwise be a testy few years.

“In an election that was pretty divisive in a lot of respects, one of the themes I think that emerges is what’s the pathway to renew economic growth, steady economic growth,” Jordan said. “And clearly on these ballot measures, which are virtually all tax-related measures, people seem to draw the connection between making these sorts of transit, infrastructure investments and economic prosperity of the future of their regions, and that cuts across big cities and small towns.”

Robert Puentes, president and CEO at the Eno Center for Transportation, also said the success of the ballot measures shows infrastructure continues to be an interest that spans across partisan divides.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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