2012 Election: State and Local Transportation Measures on the Ballot

Although it may not be readily apparent from the political discourse so far this year, transportation will be one of the major issues on the ballot when Americans head to the polls next month. In numerous state and local ballot measures, voters will decide on bond issues, tax increases, and registration fees to fund infrastructure improvements. They will also be asked to weigh in on specific transportation projects, broader transportation priorities and even the ease with which government may be able to raise future revenues for transportation. It all adds up to an election that could have a profound impact on the mobility of millions of Americans for decades to come.

State Ballot Measures on Transportation

Ballotpedia cites six states with statewide ballot measures related to transportation:

  • Alaska is asking whether voters support the state issuing up to $450 million in general obligation bonds to pay for state transportation projects.
  • Arkansas will decide on a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment that would implement a half-percent sales tax, which would be used to pay for a statewide four-lane highway system. Revenues would also be used to add capacity to existing four-lane highways. According to The Arkansas News, state Rep. Jonathan Barnett (who attended the CSG Transportation Policy Academy this summer) said recently that the sales tax increase is needed because the current highway funding system, which relies on increasingly flat fuel tax revenues, is inadequate. Arkansas transportation officials anticipate revenues of just $4 billion over the next decade. But the state faces nearly $20 billion in highway needs over that period. Officials predict projects funded by the tax increase could generate more than 40,000 jobs.
  • Maine will consider a $51.5 million bond issue to help pay for improvements to highways and bridges, local roads, airports, port facilities, rail access and transit buses. The borrowed funds would make the state eligible for at least $105.6 million in federal and other matching funds. The Bangor Daily News reported last week on the potential for improvements of the port facilities at Searsport and Eastport.
  • Michigan could amend the state constitution to require the approval of a majority of voters for any new bridge or tunnel between Michigan and Canada. The measure is opposed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who supports construction of a new international bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor. The Detroit News had an update this week on the politics involved.
  • Virginia considers a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment that would prohibit eminent domain from being used for private enterprise, job creation, tax revenue generation or economic development, thereby restricting it to only being invoked to take private land for public use. The measure would prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use and would define what is included in just compensation for property owners. A 2007 law currently on the books in Virginia states that private property can be taken only when the public interest dominates the private gain.
  • Washington will decide on a ballot initiative that would require either two-thirds legislative approval or a vote of the people in order to raise taxes. As a result, a one third minority in either house of the legislature could prevent the passage of any measure to raise revenue or repeal existing tax exemptions. Repealing a tax exemption is considered raising revenue under the measure. McClatchy Newspapers had more on the initiative in an article last month.  

Local Ballot Measures on Transportation

The Center for Transportation Excellence identifies 11 communities in seven states that will consider sales tax initiatives to fund transportation projects on November 6th:

  • Lynden, Washington has a 10-year, 0.2 cent sales tax on the ballot that’s estimated to generate $300,000 annually to fund road improvements, pedestrian trails and bridges.
  • Houston, Texas considers whether to extend the diversion of 25 percent of the city’s one cent sales tax for construction and maintenance of streets, bridges, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, traffic signals and streetlamps. Voters first approved the diversion in 2003 and could extend it through 2025.
  • Alachua County, Florida will vote on a ¾ cent sales tax for transportation projects, excluding public transit. The county commission decided not to move forward with a companion measure for a transit tax.
  • Alameda County, California considers a ½ cent sales tax increase to raise $7.8 billion over 30 years for transit, road, bicycle and pedestrian projects. A 66.67 percent supermajority vote is required to pass the increase, which would have no expiration deadline.
  • Los Angeles County, California will decide whether to extend a half-cent sales tax for another 30 years. The tax, which was first approved by voters in 2008, could be extended through 2069. That would give county officials more guaranteed revenue to finish current transportation projects more quickly, they say. The Transport Politic blog had more on the measure in an article last month.
  • Napa County, California will consider a 25-year, half-cent sales tax to be used for street and sidewalk repair and maintenance. A vote in favor would renew a sales tax currently used for flood control projects.
  • Orange County, North Carolina will vote on a 0.5 percent sales tax increase for regional transportation investment.
  • Mahoning County, Ohio considers whether to renew a 0.25 percent sales tax for another five years. The sales tax, which brought in $7.5 million in 2011, goes to the Western Reserve Transit Authority, which provides bus service to the residents of Youngstown and the region.
  • Richland County, South Carolina votes on a 0.8 cent sales tax increase to support road improvements, bus service, greenways and bike lanes, with about 25 percent of revenues earmarked for bus service provided by the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority.
  • Clark County, Washington considers a 0.1 cent sales tax increase to fund light rail operations and bus rapid transit in Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor. If approved, the tax is expected to generate $4.5 million to $5.5 million.
  • Pierce County, Washington will vote on a 0.3 cent sales tax increase to generate approximately $28 million to restore transit service on routes cut in recent years in the Tacoma area.  

Other communities will consider other revenue options to fund transportation:

  • Perrysburg, Ohio considers a five-year, 1.45-mill property tax levy to support new public transit service. In March, the community voted to end its participation in the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority and establish a separate transit system.
  • Memphis, Tennessee votes on a one cent per gallon gas tax increase, which proponents hope will generate between $3 million and $6 million annually to support the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
  • Santa Cruz County, California voters will decide whether to approve a new $10 vehicle registration fee, which could raise $2 million annually for repairs to county roads.  
  • Arlington County, Virginia considers a $31.9 million bond issue to support capital projects for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and other transit, pedestrian and road projects.

And still other communities will vote on ballot measures that allow them to weigh in on other transportation policy matters, many of them related to transit service:

  • Falmouth, Maine will consider an ordinance to withdraw from transit services at the end of their current contract in 2013. The town would save $117,000 annually by eliminating service.
  • Virginia Beach, Virginia will weigh in on whether the city council should support extending a light rail line into the city, though the council will have final say in the matter.
  • Stephenson County, Illinois voters will decide whether they support a countywide transportation system supported by federal, state and local funds.
  • Walker, Michigan considers a measure to end the town’s participation with The Rapid, the Grand Rapids-area transit authority, when a millage expires in six years.
  • Tigard, Oregon will vote on an amendment to the town charter that would require a public vote prior to increasing local taxes or fees or imposing new ones to fund light-rail construction and expansion. The amendment would expire after 10 years.
  • Sylvania Township, Ohio considers whether to withdraw from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority. Unlike Perrysburg above, the community has no plan to provide alternative public transportation.
  • Spencer Township, Ohio will also consider withdrawal from the TARTA. They too have no alternative transit plan.

Additional Resources

  • Center for Transportation Excellence Director Jason Jordan spoke recently with Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog Capitol Hill about 2012 transportation ballot measures. He tells Snyder the gas tax measure in Memphis is the most unique initiative on the ballot next month. Jordan also says the city of Denver should provide a cautionary tale for municipalities that may want to put their faith in sales tax revenues to fund transit projects. When the recession drove down sales, Denver ended up with less revenue than anticipated for its FasTracks program, delaying the transit expansion significantly.