States Seek Their Own Paths in Transportation Investment

The election of Donald J. Trump in November left some state transportation advocates scratching their heads about the role states and localities will need to play in the years ahead to ensure that progress on transportation continues, that priorities are maintained and that future investments reflect those priorities.

Darrell Steinberg, who as a longtime state legislator and state Senate president in California led the charge for innovative land use planning, transportation planning and cap-and-trade legislation, took office as mayor of Sacramento in December.

“Do we play defense and prevent bad things from happening when it comes to transportation infrastructure, or do we take the offense and try to control our own destinies when it comes to infrastructure and our transportation future?” Steinberg asked at Transportation for America’s Capital Ideas II Conference in November.

Steinberg believes many states and localities are well positioned to do the latter even if early indications about the Trump administration’s agenda come to pass.

“Donald Trump has talked about investing in infrastructure, but I don’t know what that means,” Steinberg said. “I’m not sure he knows what that means. …. But I think it’s fair to say with all of the uncertainty about where the administration will go on these sets of issues that as states, as cities, as counties and regions, we may hope for the best but we ought to prepare to control our own destinies. And we ought to not be afraid to be creative and to push the envelope in ways that seek to achieve that balance between current needs and where the future lies.”

Utah Speaker of the House Greg Hughes also has concerns about how a big infrastructure investment might go. Hughes, a Republican, helped lead efforts to pass a gas tax increase in Utah in 2015 and, seeing the population growth that was on the way in the Beehive State, became a reluctant champion for the expansion of public transit. Last year he was mentioned as a possible candidate for U.S. Secretary of Transportation in Trump’s cabinet before the president nominated Elaine Chao for the post. 

“What we have to be careful about and what I hope happens in this coming administration is that it’s not an economic stimulus where we just start throwing federal dollars at any (transportation) project that seems to be shovel-ready,” Hughes told the Transportation for America conference. “We better be bringing those projects that we know are multimodal, that we know are going to take full advantage of the infrastructure we can create.”

Hughes said he’s optimistic the years ahead will bring significant investments in transportation but states and localities shouldn’t wait on Congress, the administration or anyone else when it comes to envisioning transportation’s future.

“We are the laboratories of things like this, not the federal government,” he said. “It will be your respective communities that come up with these ideas and start working together.”

A number of states appear poised to move ahead with plans of their own to invest in and expand transportation in the years ahead. Among them:

  • California, where voters in Los Angeles passed a major ballot measure in 2016 to fund transit but where legislators in Sacramento are still searching for a permanent source of transportation revenue to supplement the declining gas tax. 

  • Seattle, Atlanta and Indianapolis also passed notable transit expansion measures in 2016. In all, 24 states approved transportation ballot initiatives in 2016 that are expected to generate more than $200 billion in funding.

  • States like Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin are among those expected to have prolonged discussions about transportation revenues during 2017 legislative sessions.

  • California, Delaware, Hawaii, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon and Washington are among the states that have received the first round of federal grant funding to test alternative transportation revenue options including mileage-based user fees.

Infrastructure Funding

State transportation funding efforts could be back in the spotlight in 2017. The list of those that could tackle transportation revenues includes as many as 16 states. Some have had a task force or special commission in place in 2016 to come up with funding ideas. Plenty of old ideas (gas taxes, registration fees, tolls) are likely to be considered, but mileage-based user fees and other innovations are likely to get a look as well.

Reshaping Communities

The 2016 election saw the passage of ballot measures to enable new transit investments in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Seattle. But in Washington, D.C., and other cities, years of neglect of transit systems are burdening public officials with funding, safety and service challenges. Meanwhile, ride-hailing services are continuing to evolve to fill increasingly essential roles. As governments look to provide and enable all these mobility options, how do they ensure that successful communities are built around transit, that housing remains affordable and that those communities work for all their residents?

The Future is Now

After years of saying they were still years away, autonomous vehicles and other technologies are here or nearly here. Uber has a fleet of autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. Uber’s self-driving truck company, Otto, recently delivered a truck full of beer in Colorado. So now the question becomes how will state governments respond and how will they need to respond? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued guidelines last summer for states to consider in drafting autonomous vehicle legislation. But in trying to encourage the development of these technologies and perhaps reap an economic windfall, states will need to guard against doing more harm than good through legislation and regulation.

Transportation Project Selection

States are seeking to change how transportation projects are selected by making project selection less political, determining which ones could have the best return on investment, factoring in long-term costs and reconsidering some long-planned projects that may no longer make sense in the modern age. States likely will need to do more of that in the future. What are states’ freight infrastructure needs going forward and how will that change in the face of automated truck platoons, carrier drones and the Panama Canal expansion? What are the transportation challenges for rural areas, particularly when it comes to serving seniors and individuals with disabilities?