Transportation on the Ballot: 2017 Election Edition

While 2017 is considered an off-year in most state election cycles, Election Day this year still will find transportation on the ballot in a variety of ways. From two key gubernatorial contests to state and local ballot measures, here’s a preview of what to look for on November 7 as well as updates on a few transportation-related matters already decided by voters.

Gubernatorial Elections

New Jersey and Virginia voters will head to the polls on November 7 to elect new governors. Two-term New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie and one-term Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe are both term-limited.

In New Jersey, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, a Democrat, will face Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno as well as Green Party, Libertarian Party and Constitution Party nominees and two independent candidates. Transportation was one of the issues that factored into the final debate featuring Murphy and Guadagno, The New York Times reported.

Guadagno expressed her support for Christie’s decision to offer $7 billion in state tax breaks to try to convince Amazon to build their second headquarters in Newark. Murphy agreed with the idea of luring Amazon to the state but said he wanted to be sure it would be on terms that work for New Jersey. Murphy also suggested that the state should invest in improvements at Newark Liberty International Airport, an expanded light rail network and improved public education in order to persuade the Amazons of the world to come to New Jersey.

In Virginia, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam faces former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie and a Libertarian Party candidate. The House of Delegates is also up for election.

The Washington Post noted earlier this month that the gubernatorial candidates have said “little of substance” on transportation so far despite it being a top issue for voters, particularly in the Washington, D.C. suburbs of Northern Virginia, where concerns about the future of the region’s Metro public transit system and traffic congestion challenges dominate the conversation.

Metro officials have said the safety-and-reliability-challenged system needs an infusion of $500 million in additional funding to prevent further decline. The Post also noted that INRIX, a traffic data firm, named a segment of Northern Virginia highway the worst traffic “hot spot” in the country.

Gillespie has laid out a transportation platform on his website. It expresses his opposition to any effort to roll back the fuel tax swap approved by McAuliffe’s predecessor, Gov. Bob McDonnell, in 2013. Facing criticism from fellow Republicans earlier in the campaign, Gillespie had to backtrack from his previous statements referring to the $6 billion funding package as “the largest tax increase in Virginia history,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted.

Gillespie said he would look at limited commercialization of highway rest stops, push for a Constitutional “lockbox” amendment to prevent the use of transportation tax and fee revenues for other state programs, and support legislation requiring Virginia to maintain permanent, separate transportation funds, The Daily Press reported. Gillespie’s plan calls for the use of public-private partnerships to replace aging and deficient small bridges and proposes a rural infrastructure coordinating committee to tackle rural roads in poor condition.

As for Metro, Gillespie has said the transit provider must get a handle on labor costs and reform its governance structure before he would consider new funding. He calls for a “major reform roadmap” at Metro that includes improving on-time performance, creating a capital investment plan that ties funding directly to performance metrics, and developing a plan to determine where competitive bidding on contracts can be helpful, The Post reported.

While Northam has not outlined a transportation plan of his own, his staffers told The Post he supports dedicated funding for Metro but he too seeks improvements in governance, safety and reliability. Both candidates have expressed support for restructuring the board that oversees Metro.

Northam, like Gillespie, is said to support public-private investment and efforts in the commonwealth to prioritize projects that provide the most congestion relief.

The politics of road funding in Virginia did receive some attention recently when Republican lawmakers exchanged letters with Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne, a Republican in the Democratic administration who is supporting Northam, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. The lawmakers were blasting McAuliffe and Northam for not seeking a new federal infrastructure grant to help finance the 49-mile, four-lane Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia. Layne’s response defended the state’s funding of transportation projects in that part of the state, including $140 million for the expressway.

“As secretary of transportation, I have a responsibility to make decisions considering the needs of the commonwealth as a whole,” Layne wrote.    

Layne in recent weeks has challenged the gubernatorial nominees and other candidates to talk to voters about how they would pay for transportation projects they want.

“If you want to focus on I-81, tell me which projects are you going to cancel,” he reportedly said in a recent interview. “If you’re not going to cancel projects, then tell me how you’re going to pay for it.”  

Statewide Ballot Measures

This year will see the fewest number of statewide measures—27—on the ballot around the country in any year since 1947, Ballotpedia reports. Of those ballot measures related to transportation, a couple have already been decided:

  • West Virginia voters approved a measure October 7 that allows the state to issue $1.6 billion in bonds for roads and bridges. The voter referendum was authorized by a transportation funding legislative package that also increased the state’s gas tax, vehicle sales tax and tolls this year.
  • Louisiana voters approved a legislatively referred constitutional amendment on October 14 that would dedicate any future new taxes on fuel to transportation construction.

November 7 will see voters in Maine consider the question of whether $105 million in bonds should be issued to fund highways, bridges, ports, railroads, aviation, transit and trails.

Local Ballot Measures

More activity can be found at the local level this year, where voters either have already considered or will consider several ballot measures on transportation. Among them:

  • Tucson, Arizona voters approved a ½ percent sales tax increase in May to provide funding for public safety and road improvements.
  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma voters on September 12 said yes to a 27-month extension of a 1 percent sales tax to fund capital improvements, including street resurfacing, streetscape, trail, sidewalk, and bicycle infrastructure projects.
  • Voters in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 3 approved the issuance of general obligations bonds for street improvements and public transportation facilities.
  • Voters in Raleigh, North Carolina approved a measure October 10 that will increase property taxes by $13 annually for each $100,000 in assessed property value. That will allow the city to borrow $206.7 million in order to widen roads, build new sidewalks and bike lanes and support other projects.
  • A 3.75-mile streetcar expansion in Kansas City, Missouri is the subject of a series of 2017 and 2018 votes. First came a mail-in election in August in which residents approved the boundaries of the expanded streetcar district. Then in October, voters approved a slate of expansion supporters for the new district’s board of directors in a special election. A third election planned for early 2018 will decide whether specific sales and property taxes will be approved to help fund the expansion.
  • Voters in Kansas City on November 7 will also consider whether the city should construct a new terminal at the Kansas City International Airport.
  • Denver, Colorado voters will consider the issuance of $431 million in general obligation bonds to fund street, sidewalk, public transit, and other transportation improvements.
  • Athens-Clarke County, Georgia will vote November 7 on a 1 percent sales tax increase, which would raise an estimated $104 million over five years to go towards roads, bridges, sidewalks, bike lanes and paths and public transit. Local officials have approved a final list of projects that the new revenues would go toward.
  • Voters in Lawrence, Kansas will consider whether to renew a city-wide sales tax for 10 years to fund infrastructure improvements, transit operations and affordable housing projects.
  • Grand Rapids, Michigan’s regional bus system, The Rapid, is the subject of another ballot measure in which voters will decide whether to extend the property tax that supports its operations for another 12 years.
  • Voters in Allen County, Ohio will consider a quarter-cent sales tax measure to help maintain the Allen County Regional Transit Authority’s current levels of operation after the agency lost $1 million in grant funding. Mahoning, Ohio will consider the permanent renewal of a .25 percent sales tax, which raises $8.5 million annually for the Western Reserve Transit Authority.
  • Travis County, Texas (Austin) will consider whether $93.4 million in bonds should be issued for transportation and road safety projects. The borrowing will be made possible by five years of property taxes. Galveston County will decide on whether to authorize $56 million in bonds for the construction, maintenance and operation of county roads. Fort Bend County will consider $218.6 million in mobility bonds to go toward 63 road projects around the county.