Election 2011: Transportation Ballot Measures Roundup

Transportation was the focus of about a dozen state or local ballot measures voted on in Tuesday’s elections around the country. Here’s a look at how some of them fared.

One of the most closely watched was in Washington State, where Initiative 1125 was on the ballot. The initiative, proposed by conservative political activist and author of numerous ballot measures in Washington since 1998 Tim Eyman, was aimed at restricting the use of highway tolls and blocking light rail from a bridge on Interstate 90. It would:

  • Require the legislature and not the state Transportation Commission to set toll rates;
  • Mandate that a toll on a particular road or bridge be used only to build, operate or maintain that project; and
  • Prevent light-rail from running on the I-90 floating bridge.

Although the vote was still too close to call this morning, the initiative appeared headed for defeat thanks to a big no vote in Seattle’s King County, The Seattle Times reported.

I-1125 asked voters to decide eight key questions, which in many ways reflect the ongoing debate around the country about the future of tolling:

  1. Should toll revenue collected from motorists be used for non-transportation purposes?
  2. Should road lanes funded by gas taxes and tolls be used for non-highway purposes?
  3. Should toll revenue collected from motorists be restricted to highway purposes only?
  4. Should tolls only be used for construction of a new road, or may tolls be used for ongoing maintenance and operations?
  5. Should toll revenue be restricted to the roadway from which it was collected, or may toll revenue be used for other roads in other areas across the state?
  6. Should elected legislators set toll rates, or may they delegate that authority to an unelected commission?
  7. Should toll rates be constant, or may they change based on certain criteria like time-of-day or traffic volumes?
  8. Should toll revenue collected from the I-90 bridge across Lake Washington be restricted to funding improvements to I-90, or may the new revenue be used to fund other roads, like the proposed SR-520 bridge replacement?

The use of tolling is becoming more prevalent around the country as states face budget shortfalls and declining gas tax revenues. Toll revenues are being used not only to inject much needed funds into depleted state coffers but also to try to change commuter behaviors and in the process decrease congestion around major cities. States like Virginia and Florida are looking to expand the use of High Occupancy Toll lanes (which allow carpoolers free access to less congested lanes and allow others to pay premium rates to drive in them) and variable or congestion pricing (which allows for different toll rates based on time of day and level of traffic congestion). While supporters of the Washington initiative contend that variable toll rates benefit only toll payers and are thus discriminatory, opponents say variable pricing can help manage limited road supply and create revenue to fund additional transportation projects.

The issue of whether the legislature or an unelected commission should set toll rates is an important one as well. Opponents of the initiative say toll rate decisions should be made by transportation experts and not by politicians. They argue that the indecision and volatility caused by constant political pressures on lawmakers could impact the state’s ability to sell debt with competitive interest rates and kill the potential for using public-private partnerships to fund transportation projects.

The Washington Policy Center has a further examination of the issues that were at stake in I-1125 here.

By the way, the debate over tolling is likely to continue. A coalition of highway construction groups in nearly a dozen states launched a national campaign last week to urge Congress to provide increased flexibility to states to add tolls to any portion of their interstate or federal highways to help pay for long-overdue highway reconstruction and rehabilitation.

In a letter to leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works Committees, members of the U.S. Tolling Coalition write that:

“States throughout the country are coping with the same revenue challenges facing the Highway Trust Fund: The emergence of a new fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles is undermining the ability of fuel tax revenues to keep up with travel demand. As a result, pavement deficiencies, safety problems and congestion are on the rise.”

The letter continues:

“Tolls are gaining public acceptance as motorists see the benefits of electronic collection systems, as well as the negative impacts of the lost buying power of fuel tax revenues. Nevertheless, even with fewer federal restrictions on tolling, state Legislatures will still need to debate this issue and develop proposals that are acceptable to their citizens.”

Seattle Rejects Car Tab Fee

Also in Washington State, Seattle voters rejected Proposition 1, a measure to install a $60 car-tab fee to fund transportation projects in the city. As The Seattle Times reports today, Mayor Mike McGinn had championed the measure as a progressive way to fund transit, bike and pedestrian projects. But some said the taxing mechanism was too regressive as it would have taxed the owners of clunkers and luxury cars equally. Others complained that none of the $204 million the fee would have raised over 10 years was set aside to repair the city’s aging bridges, 60 of which are in poor condition, and none would have been spent on new bus routes or hours. Instead, it would have directed $18 million to fund a new streetcar. Bicycle parking spots would also have been funded. Perhaps another factor in Proposition 1’s demise was the fact that it came on top of a $20 license-tab fee already imposed by the city in May and a two-year, $20 fee approved by the Metropolitan King County Council to preserve existing bus service.

Arkansas Approves Highway Bond Plan

The other statewide transportation-related ballot measure was in Arkansas, where voters approved a measure authorizing $575 million in debt to fund highway repairs. It would let the state highway commission borrow money that would be repaid with federal funds and an existing four-cent levy on each gallon of diesel fuel sold in the state. The tax generates about $13.5 million a year.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe argued in favor of the measure during his weekly radio address last month:

“The upkeep of our interstate system is an ongoing expense, and bond proposals like this one have proven to be an effective and cost-efficient solution … Continuing the bond program will save the State money in two primary ways. First, the cost of road construction continues to rise, so the sooner we get to work modernizing these roads, the more we can avoid inflation. Second, the longer we wait, the further our roads will deteriorate. Roads that become increasingly worse become increasingly expensive to repair. Approval of this measure will create about 28,000 construction jobs. In the long-term, the economic potential is even greater. Part of Arkansas’s attractiveness to businesses is the lower shipping costs accommodated by our central geography. But our location is a selling point only if we have the infrastructure required to support companies and their transportation networks. As one of our state’s most important economic-development and job-creation tools, modern highways will allow us to effectively compete with our surrounding states.”

Local Transportation Initiatives

The states of Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Washington also had a number of local ballot measures to consider in certain jurisdictions.

In Michigan, voters in Montcalm County said no to a measure that would have increased property taxes to fund a countywide bus system.

In North Carolina, voters in Durham County approved a half-cent sales tax that is expected to generate $18.3 million annually to support a 25 percent increase in bus service within the first three years and help launch commuter trains by 2018 and light rail by 2025. In a lengthy article on The Transport Politic blog today, Yonah Freemark (a Durham native) writes about how Research Triangle civic leaders are learning from the success of Charlotte.

In Ohio, Trumbull County voters did not support a five-year transit levy that would have raised $1.7 million annually to support a county transit system. Without the revenue, the system is expected to cease operations entirely. Lorain County voters meanwhile didn’t show favor on a measure that would have increased the sales tax to fund county services. Defeat is expected to result in a 50 percent reduction in funding for the county transit system there.

Cincinnati voters had a different kind of measure to consider. Voters there were asked in a city charter amendment whether to deny funding for transit, not provide it. The measure would have prohibited the city from spending or borrowing money to move forward on a streetcar project planned for downtown until 2020. The measure was defeated, clearing the way for construction on the Downtown-to-Over the Rhine line to begin early next year. The Cincinnati Enquirer has more here.

Finally, back in Washington State where we began, voters in Clark County approved a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to prevent a 35 percent service reduction on C-TRAN, the county transit system. The increase is expected to provide an additional $8 to $9 million in revenue.

More Information

The Center for Transportation Excellence has a roundup of all the 2011 Transportation Ballot Measures, including some considered earlier this year. You can find it here.

Streetsblog DC also had this analysis of the ballot measures before yesterday’s vote.