While 2015 may be an off-year for elections in most states, it has the potential to be an important one for transportation in a variety of places. Here’s a roundup of how transportation is factoring into this year’s key state contests and ballot measures.

In case you missed it, I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week on the role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in transportation planning. That makes it as good a time as any to catch up on a number of recent stories at the intersection of planning and project selection (project selection was one of my Top 5 Issues for 2015, regular readers will recall). I have items on a recent report on congestion and mobility around the nation’s cities, light rail and streetcar projects around the country, the ongoing debate about building new roads versus fixing old ones, how one state is seeking to prioritize transportation projects based on return on investment, and how the preferences of millennials are likely to shape transportation in the years ahead. 

Metropolitan Planning Organizations play an important role in transportation planning, including producing a series of influential planning documents. But not all MPOs are created equal. Their geographic and population representation can vary widely and analysts contend that some MPOs lack the expertise or authority to be able to adequately judge the merits of transportation projects and shape a regional approach to transportation. While the 2012 federal surface transportation authorization bill known as MAP-21 included some modifications to the metropolitan planning process, some believe additional reforms are needed.

The city of Denver and state of Colorado have seen their share of transportation successes in recent years thanks in large measure to regional cooperation, federal investment, a 2004 tax increase, partnerships with the private sector and some innovative thinking. But the city and state face numerous challenges in the years ahead that will severely test the transportation system, notably a burgeoning population, stagnant federal investment and limits to increasing taxes at the state level. Those were some of the messages state and local officials delivered to a group of state legislators from eight states at the CSG West Transportation Forum last month in Denver.

In the March/April issue of Capitol Ideas, I wrote about how the state of Utah has used transportation investment to drive the state’s economic growth. Among those I talked with were two legislators—one a civil engineer, the other an economist—as well as a planning official for the Utah Department of Transportation. But there is plenty more to the story of Utah’s success as I learned in this February interview with Abby Albrecht of the Utah Transportation Coalition, which arrived too late to be included in the published article. The coalition is an organization formed by the Utah League of Cities and Towns, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Association of Counties.

Earlier this year, I named “project selection” one of my top 5 issues in transportation for 2015. From light rail and streetcar projects to efforts to reform planning processes to the costs of highway construction to the potential impacts of such factors as millennial preferences and autonomous vehicles, project selection is being pondered and debated in every state and community around the country. I have updates on what’s been happening this year in 21 states and the District of Columbia as well as links to recent reports on transportation spending limitations, performance measurement, Complete Streets policies, commuter and job growth trends and the future of cars.

We got a look this week at the Obama administration’s vision for transportation with the release of the President’s budget and authorization proposal and a new report looking at trends impacting the nation’s transportation system and the implications of those trends over the next 30 years. Meanwhile, Congress has begun looking at options for how to fund a longer term transportation bill with the debate appearing to coalesce around three possibilities. Nevertheless, state officials around the country remain concerned about the impact ongoing federal uncertainty is having on their ability to plan for the all-important transportation project construction season.

Earlier this month, I named “project selection” as one of my Top 5 Transportation Issues for 2015. Just in the first month of this year, we’ve already seen a variety of developments in a number of areas that stand to influence project selection in the years ahead. New governors are already putting their stamp on project selection by reviewing projects approved by their predecessors and by nominating new (or in some cases old) leaders to head state departments of transportation. I also have updates on ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, public transportation projects, autonomous vehicles and state transportation planning processes.

Sean Slone, Program Manager for Transportation Policy, outlines the top five issues in transportation policy for 2015, including uncertain federal funding, alternative funding mechanisms such as public-private partnerships and tolling, and the ways infrastructure spending contribute to workforce development and growing the nation's economy.

A new Congress this year could decide the long-term future of federal surface transportation programs after years of uncertainty that have had a huge impact for states and their planning processes. Meanwhile, 2015 could bring significant activity in state capitals on transportation funding initiatives. Public-private partnerships and tolling seem likely to continue their evolution after what was a pivotal year in 2014. With transportation funding scarce, the process of planning and approving transportation projects is under new scrutiny as well and appears likely to be influenced by a growing number of new metrics and methodologies, technological, demographic and lifestyle changes, and other factors. The struggles to increase transportation investment at the federal and state levels continue despite what appears to be solid evidence of the job creation and economic growth potential of investment, as evidenced by the actions of some of America’s biggest economic competitors. Here’s my expanded article on the top 5 issues in transportation for 2015 and a selection of additional CSG and non-CSG resources where you can read more.