Transportation & the 2012 Election Results

The 2012 election offered plenty to digest on the transportation front. From state and local ballot measures to the balance of power in Washington, here’s a rundown of what happened and where you can read more about what it all might mean for the nation’s transportation system.

Status Quo in Washington

While a few of the faces may change next year, the balance of power in Washington will remain the same with a Democrat in the White House and a divided Congress. This is virtually the same Congress that required nearly three years to pass MAP-21, the surface transportation authorization bill signed into law this summer, and the two-year bill did nothing to resolve the underlying fiscal and structural challenges faced by the federal transportation program. So this crew will have an even steeper hill to climb as 2014 looms large on the horizon and as states try to deal with continuing long-term uncertainty about the federal program and growing infrastructure needs that may require much more than MAP-21’s status quo investment levels.

Politico’s Kathryn Wolfe wrote last week in an article headlined “More gridlock for transportation?”: “With a Congress that’s likely to be even more polarized, transportation stakeholders will be looking for the White House to play a leadership role in pushing forward a plan to shore up the ailing Highway Trust Fund—a task in which, so far, the White House hasn’t engaged.”

Wolfe writes that the House could have a more conservative tilt, which could complicate efforts to get the next authorization bill done. The House Transportation and Infrastructure could be under new leadership, since Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is term-limited as chairman (though he has expressed interest in seeking a waiver, which would allow him to continue to serve). Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) appears poised to get the job if the waiver doesn’t come Mica’s way. On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is expected to remain the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) will likely replace the term-limited Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) as ranking member.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is the subject of speculation as to whether he’ll move on or stick around for some of the President’s second term. Jeff Plungis of Bloomberg wrote last week about LaHood’s tenure and the major challenge the next DOT chief will face, namely trying to move towards a more sustainable transportation revenue source. Plungis offers this quote from Emil Frankel, visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center (and frequent contributor to CSG Transportation Policy Academies): “The president will try to find some sort of funding to finance some increase in investment,” Frankel said. “I don’t see any indication the president is prepared to propose a federal gas tax increase.”

A post-election analysis from the D.C.-based law firm Patton Boggs (the transportation section of which begins on page 109) defines the choices ahead like this: “While MAP-21 serves as a bridge, it ends at a crossroads. The Obama Administration and 113th Congress face three fundamental choices for the future of the program: (1) increasing the gas tax or raising dedicated new revenue from other sources; (2) reducing spending to align with available revenue; or (3) continuing the General Fund transfers and short-term policies that have sustained the program since 2008. These choices of how to finance and how much revenue to generate are in turn intertwined with questions of what to finance and what the federal role in transportation investment should be.”

Sean Kilcarr in Fleet Owner magazine writes about the impending transportation funding quandary in terms of a second fiscal cliff the nation faces in 2014 if we make it past the first one in the next couple of months. Kilcarr talked with Jack Basso, director of program finance and management at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), who told him state governments are now stepping in to try to fill transportation revenue gaps and he expects that activity to increase in the years ahead.

“By (Basso’s) count, eight states have already raised fuel taxes to provide transportation funding, while several others have either added or are trying to add tolls to the highway system to fund new construction,” Kilcarr reported.

But Basso cautions that relying on states to fill the revenue gap for transportation infrastructure is unlikely to work across the country since many rural states don’t have large enough populations or highway traffic to generate sufficient funds.

State and Local Ballot Measures

Transportation was the focus of many state and local ballot measures across the country last week. Several states considered state-level initiatives that could have some bearing on transportation and its funding, including:

  • Alaska, which approved the issuance of $450 million in general obligation bonds to fund transportation projects.
  • Arkansas approved a legislatively referred constitutional amendment that implemented a half-percent sales tax, the revenues from which will be used to fund a statewide four-lane highway system.
  • Maine voted to allow a $51 million transportation bond to pay for road and bridge repairs.
  • Michigan considered a measure that would have required voters to approve any new bridge or tunnel from Michigan to Canada. It was defeated, paving the way for a new international crossing between Detroit and Windsor to move forward.
  • Virginia voted to approve a measure to prohibit eminent domain from being used for private enterprise, job creation, tax revenue generation or economic development and restricting it to only being invoked to take private land for public use.
  • Washington voted to reimpose a law requiring a two-thirds vote in the state legislature or voter approval to raise taxes.  

Overall, between state and local measures, transportation referenda saw a nearly 70 percent success rate in last week’s elections, The Hill newspaper reported, quoting officials from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). ARTBA said 25 out of 31 road spending measures won favor, while APTA said 13 out of 19 public transit funding initiatives were approved.

For transit advocates, there were notable local initiative failures in Los Angeles, Memphis and Houston, Streetsblog reported. In L.A., Measure J barely failed to muster the two-thirds vote required to pass. It would have continued a half-cent sales tax for transit in Los Angeles County until 2069. Memphis rejected a one-cent gas tax hike to fund transit improvements. In Houston, voters upheld the diversion of one quarter of transit revenues to road projects.

Elsewhere, Virginia Beach residents voted to urge the city council to fund a light rail expansion. Orange County, North Carolina voted to approve a half-cent sales tax for transit. Four communities in Ohio, Maine and Michigan rejected attempts by anti-transit activists to withdraw from regional transit districts (see these reports from Streetsblog and the American Planning Association Policy News for Planners blog). A transit sales tax was renewed in Mahoning County, Ohio and the residents of Richland County, South Carolina voted to approve a 0.8 cent sales tax for bus service, greenways, bike lanes and road improvements.

Further Reading on Transportation Ballot Results

More Post-Election Reading

  • Emily Bader and Sommer Mathis on The Atlantic Cities blog offer “8 Urban Policy Ideas for Obama’s 2nd Term.” Among the transportation-related ideas: raising the gas tax by 15 cents a gallon and creating a national infrastructure bank.
  • Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council argued in a recent post that the President should continue the interagency cooperation to assist communities that has occurred in recent years as a result of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. “It really shouldn’t be all that innovative that HUD, EPA and the Department of Transportation now talk to each other and coordinate when they respond to local proposals for federal support,” he writes. “One would think the government would routinely make sure that funds are appropriately leveraged and being spent in complementary, rather than discordant ways.”