Election 2010 & Transportation: Oberstar Out, Authorization Uncertain, High-Speed Rail at Risk, Ballot Measure Results Mixed

There were lots of transportation-related headlines to take away from Tuesday’s election: The chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee going down to defeat and what it might mean for authorization legislation… The future of high-speed rail put in doubt by the election of three new Republican governors opposed to rail projects… And a somewhat mixed message from voters on revenues for transportation. Although it will likely take a long time to sort it all out, here are some initial thoughts.

Oberstar’s Defeat & the Next Authorization

U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, the current Democratic chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, was defeated in his bid for re-election in Minnesota. The 18-term Congressman is the author of the only transportation authorization bill that has emerged so far in Congress. SAFETEA-LU, the previous legislation authorizing federal surface transportation programs, officially expired more than a year ago and state governments have been anxiously waiting to see what Congress might put together as a successor. Now, Oberstar’s long experience on transportation issues will be gone along with presumably his bill. In addition, the defeat or retirement of other committee members means there will likely be 21 to 24 new members on the transportation panel in the new Congress, who will all need to be educated about the intricacies of transportation funding and policy. With the House going Republican, John Mica, the current ranking Republican on the committee, is in line for the committee chairmanship (Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio is expected to become the Ranking Democrat). Although Mica like Oberstar has been a supporter of infrastructure investment, he may have priorities of his own for the authorization bill. Increased fiscal austerity will certainly be on the menu in the new Congress. Republicans are expected to oppose any effort to raise taxes to fund infrastructure improvements. Analysts also expect a Republican House to not favor Democrat-supported initiatives such as biking and walking trails, livability initiatives, transit and high-speed rail (though Mica, who is from Florida, has been a champion of the latter in the past). Combined with the expected gridlock between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate, the end result will likely be more delay for a new authorization regime—more bad news for state governments.

Future of High-Speed Rail

Speaking of high-speed rail, three of the four Republican gubernatorial candidates who have said they might cancel high-speed rail projects won last night: John Kasich in Ohio, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and Rick Scott in Florida. Kasich’s win over incumbent Ted Strickland puts in question the construction of a rail line to connect Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. In Wisconsin, Walker’s win means the Milwaukee-Madison rail line may be on insecure footing. But perhaps foreseeing the loss by Democratic candidate Tom Barrett, departing Gov. Jim Doyle and state officials quietly signed a deal last weekend with federal officials committing Wisconsin to spending $810 million in federal stimulus money on the project. Florida’s newly elected governor opposed a high-speed rail project to link Tampa and Orlando during his campaign. But after the state received $800 million in federal funding for the project last month, Rick Scott said he might be open to having it go forward if the state would not have to contribute anything additional to the project.

The news wasn’t all bad for high-speed rail advocates though. Democrats won governorships in California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York, which means that rail projects in those states will likely move forward. The biggest of those is California, where Democrat former Gov. Jerry Brown won and where a $45 billion high-speed rail project is proposed to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco. His opponent, Meg Whitman, had opposed the project.

Maryland Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley won reelection as well. He has been a supporter of proposed new light rail lines for suburban Washington, D.C. and inner city Baltimore. His opponent, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, had wanted to replace those projects with cheaper bus rapid transit lines.

In addition, John Hickenlooper, who won the governorship in Colorado, has been an advocate of light rail lines, bike sharing and other alternative transportation programs during his tenure as mayor of Denver.

Revenues for Transportation

There were measures on the ballot Tuesday in several states that have a direct bearing on transportation spending as well.

  • Three ballot measures in Colorado that would have severely limited how much the state had to spend to build and maintain roads went down to defeat. The measures would have cut vehicle registration fees, property and income taxes and would have prohibited or limited state and local governments from borrowing money. Although there was a significant anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-borrowing movement in much of the country this fall, it did not play out in the Centennial State, as some opponents of the measures warned they could set the state’s progress back by decades.
  • While it appears Colorado voters weren’t willing to take a scorched earth approach to government and infrastructure spending, elsewhere voters weren’t necessarily willing to put up additional tax money for transportation improvements either. On the ballot in Hillsborough County, Florida was a referendum to add one cent to the county sales tax to fund light rail, improved bus systems and provide hundreds of millions for road projects. While voters in the city of Tampa and along I-275 supported it, those in the county’s more rural areas voted against it and it was defeated. Supporters of the measure, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, said the defeat is only a temporary setback and it will likely be back after further efforts to educate voters. One state that may want to study the defeat and that education process closely is Georgia, where lawmakers passed legislation this year to allow voters to decide on a regional basis in 2012 if they want to increase their sales tax by a penny to fund transportation projects.
  • Voters in Alabama turned down a proposed constitutional amendment to spend $1 billion over a decade to pay for road construction projects. Under the measure, up to $100 million each year would have been transferred from the Alabama Trust Fund, which collects royalties from coastal natural gas wells and which supports the state’s General Fund, beginning in FY 2011.
  • Rhode Island voters on the other hand approved a measure that will give the state permission to issue $80 million in bonds and notes for highways, roads and bridges. Some of it will be used to match federal funding and some will go directly to infrastructure upgrades.
  • Voters in Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Virginia approved $34 million and $120 million bond issues respectively for the Washington, D.C.-area Metro system.
  • Six counties and the city of San Francisco in California considered ballot measures that would increase vehicle registration fees to fund roads, congestion relief measures, bike and pedestrian improvements, transit and safety programs. The measures won approval in Alameda, Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, along with San Francisco. They were defeated in Contra Costa and Sonoma counties. A complete list of 2010 Transportation Ballot Measures is available on the Center for Transportation Excellence website.