CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 10: Larry Ehl, Transportation Issues Daily Publisher

The final panel at the CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon focused on the future of the federal-state-local partnership in transportation. Among the speakers was Larry Ehl, the founder and publisher of Transportation Issues Daily, a nationally recognized blog on federal transportation issues. Ehl draws on more than 20 years as a government affairs and transportation professional including as Federal Relations Manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, Chief of Staff to U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) and Director of Corporate and Government Relations for the construction services company Fisher Companies, Inc. He talked about rural transportation concerns, complete streets policies and the search for new transportation revenues at the state and local levels.

“I’m really concerned about our rural communities across the country,” Ehl told policy academy participants. “When you think of things like transit, I could arguably make the case that transit is even more important in rural communities because you have a lot of folks who, for whatever reason, really depend on transit to get into town, to get to the grocery story, to get to the doctor’s appointment and they have fewer options available than a lot of folks in cities do. And they’re a lot of people talking about the importance of our cities in particular—our biggest metropolitan cities—and how important they are to the economy, how many jobs they provide and all of that is true. But when it comes to focusing state and federal resources on those big metropolitan areas for their transportation needs, I worry that we’re sort of leaving out of the conversation the rural transportation needs as well.”

As Jennifer Dill of Portland State University had noted earlier in the policy academy, Portland was one of the first cities in the country to adopt a complete streets law in the 1970s. Ehl said that while such laws have since become prevalent and popular in communities around the country, they’ve proven less so in the Nation’s Capital.

“You hear … at the federal level that Congress shouldn’t be funding complete streets and bike/ped facilities. You hear this to a certain degree at the state level as well. But it’s interesting, complete streets are really popular in communities across the country. They’re popular in liberal communities. They’re popular in conservative communities, urban communities and rural communities and there’s a disconnect, particularly at the federal level, with a lot of members of Congress who don’t yet realize that these communities want these policies.”

Ehl noted that there has been significant activity in 2013 in state governments seeking additional funding for transportation.

“There were investment proposals in 30 states this year in all regions of the country. At least three Republican governors proposed plans or said they were agreeable to tax increases or some type of a financing plan. In some states, it’s ending the gas tax and replacing it with something else. In some places, it was a gas tax (increase). Some of these states acted for the first time in decades.”

A number of states also considered measures aimed at trying to capture transportation revenues from the drivers of hybrid and electric cars.

“That’s kind of a flashpoint in many states across the country and probably will continue to be for quite a while. It’s sort of an interesting two sides of the coin. Some people feel that hybrids need to pay their fair share. They’re using the highways and so they should contribute to the upkeep of the roads. You have folks on the other side of the fence who say we want to encourage adoption of hybrids and electric vehicles because that’s good for the environment and it reduces our reliance on foreign and domestic oil, helps provide cleaner air in our communities and so we should be providing incentives for people to adopt these vehicles and at the very least we shouldn’t be providing a disincentive, which is charging them the equivalent of a gas tax.”

But the action hasn’t all been at the state level, Ehl noted. Local governments have also moved forward in recent years to seek additional dollars for transportation.

“At the local level we’re seeing a lot of movement that we haven’t seen before. A lot of cities and counties are raising taxes. They’re bonding in order to pay for transportation. Sixty-eight percent of the ballot measures in 2012 that would extend or increase funding (passed). If you look at just the transit ballot measures, the number is close to 90 percent. If you go back and look at each of the last several years when the economy has not been very good, transit ballot measures still passed.”

Ehl said he has a theory about why the measures have seen such success.

“The lower down in government jurisdiction you go, the higher the passage rate for transportation ballot measures. My theory is that the smaller the package, the easier it is to explain it. If I try to explain to you the Washington State investment package (or) MAP-21 and the difference it’s going to make in your life, that’s a really difficult argument for me to make. But if I talk to you about my city where I live—the city of Edmonds—and I talk about a .2 percent property tax increase, I’m probably going to be able to tell you in just a few seconds the exact projects that are going to get done, the roads that are going to get re-paved and you’re going to recognize those roads. … It’s easier for people to have a connection with what they’re going to get for what they’re going to pay.”

Additional Resources

“Lead or Get Out of the Way: The Future of Moving People and Goods, and Improving Our Communities,” PowerPoint presentation by Larry Ehl

Transportation Issues Daily website

“The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2012,” Smart Growth America

“State Transportation Funding Proposals Late 2012-2013,” AASHTO Center for Excellence in Project Finance

“Tracking State Transportation Funding Plans,” Transportation for America