New Brief: State Transportation Finance 2010 and Local & State Transportation Ballot Measures

We have a new Capitol Facts & Figures policy brief out today that attempts to survey this year’s State Transportation Finance Legislation and Trends. As mentioned in the brief, Georgia was one state that managed to make a name for itself this year in transportation finance. It did so with a plan that at first glance seemed to both kick the can down the road and pass the buck. But the plan could be the path many cash-strapped and tax increase-averse states choose to follow in the years ahead. And, although their plan isn’t designed to come to fruition until after the 2012 election, Georgia may be able to learn some things from transportation-related ballot measures other states will consider this November.

In May, Georgia lawmakers passed House Bill 277, the Georgia 2020 Transportation Act. The measure divides the state into a dozen regions. Voters in those regions will go to the polls in 2012 to decide if they want to fund transportation projects proposed for their area with a penny hike in the sales tax.

“It gradually has become clear that it’s very difficult to get people who don’t see a direct stake in what’s proposed to vote for (transportation funding) on a statewide basis,” David Goldberg, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based coalition Transportation for America, told Stateline earlier this year. 

Goldberg said a regional approach like Georgia’s can be easier politically because it doesn’t require people who live in rural areas to fund urban transit systems they never use, for example.

Representatives from each county in Georgia’s twelve regions will form a regional transportation roundtable that will begin meeting after November 15th to decide on a final project list by October 15th of next year. They will then have a year to sell the voters on the merits of the projects and convince them to vote in favor of the tax increase—never an easy task even in the best of economic times.

Georgia officials are clearly hoping the plan will work. The state relies mainly on gas taxes as its main transportation funding source.

“Our motor fuel (tax) revenue… was $1.027 billion in 2007,” Georgia Transportation Commissioner Vance Smith said at this summer’s Southern Legislative Conference meeting in South Carolina. “This year, June 30th, (it was) $833 million… It’s pretty much a diminishing return as far as motor fuel revenues in Georgia.”

“(The regional plan) is all we have,” Georgia Department of Transportation Planning Director Todd Long told city and county leaders in Oakwood, Ga. last month. “If this does not pass, the only pot we’re going to have is that old pot that is shrinking every year…That’s going to drag projects out for years.”

Oakwood Mayor Lamar Scroggs said voters who are thinking “a tax increase is a tax increase” may require significant convincing. But he believes it should not come down to partisanship.

“What’s this got to do with Republicans or Democrats? It’s got to do with fixing our roads,” said Scroggs, The Gainesville (GA) Timesreported.

By the time it comes time for Georgia officials to start trying to sell the regional tax increases to voters, they and other states who choose to follow their lead may have a few examples of successful (and perhaps unsuccessful) campaigns to study and learn from. Next month, voters in many states will have the opportunity to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to city and county level ballot measures aimed at addressing transportation funding needs. Among the communities considering such measures, according to Land Line Magazine:

  • Hillsborough County, Florida, where voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax by a penny. Seventy-five percent of the revenue would be used to increase bus service in the Tampa area and pay for a new light rail system. The other 25 percent would go to road improvements. Opponents of the ballot question say it requires too much of a “leap of faith” from voters that the plans will materialize as promised. The campaign in support of the referendum has a website to educate voters.
  • Polk County, Florida, where a proposed half-cent sales tax to benefit local transit is on the ballot. The estimated $32 million a year that would be generated would be used to fund a countywide public bus system.
  • Tucson, Arizona, where an estimated $40 million in revenues from a one-half percent city sales tax would go toward core city services such as police, fire, transit and parks and recreation in addition to transportation.
  • Clayton County, Georgia, where a nonbinding referendum is on the ballot to authorize a penny sales tax to revive the county’s bus service, which was lost this spring due to budget cuts.
  • Bellingham, Washington, where voters will decide a question about raising the sales tax by up to 0.2 percent to generate $3.8 million annually for street repaving, sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes, and extra bus service.
  • Richland County, South Carolina, where it’s estimated that a proposed penny sales tax increase could bring in more than a billion dollars over 25 years. Roads would get $627 million with $337 million going to transit projects. Other projects, such as bike and walking trails, would get the rest.
  • East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, where voters will decide whether to pay more in property tax to fund improvements to the bus system. Voters in Northwest Acadia, Tangipahoa and St. Landry parishes will vote on whether to continue an existing 10-year property tax to benefit road and bridge construction and maintenance.
  • Austin, Texas, where voters will consider Proposition 1 to authorize the city to borrow money for road, bike and rail projects. The bond program is not expected to require an increase in city taxes.
  • San Francisco County, California, where voters will decide whether to add $10 to their vehicle registration fee in order to raise $5 million annually to improve congestion, tackle road repairs, improve transit and upgrade walking and biking routes. Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and Sonoma counties along with the city of Santa Clara will also consider fee increases that would raise anywhere from $2 million to $14 million annually for road and transit needs. Marin County would reserve 25 percent to address projects related to climate change and pollution. Meanwhile, a statewide proposition in California (Proposition 21) asks voters whether to apply a vehicle license fee increase for improvements at state parks.

While we’re on the subject of ballot measures, it’s important to note that there are a number of statewide transportation funding-related measures voters will consider November 2nd as well:

  • Rhode Island voters will decide whether to authorize the issuance of general obligation bonds to match federal funds to improve roads, bridges and transit buses.
  • Alabama voters will consider a ballot measure that would allow the state to tap an investment account to spend as much as $100 million a year for 10 years on transportation projects. Supporters of Amendment 3 say such a move would allow the state to improve infrastructure without raising fuel taxes and without racking up interest costs from issuing bonds. Critics question the prudence of dipping into an account that supports the state’s General Fund budget and helps pay for state troopers, prisons and other programs.
  • Wisconsin voters will consider an advisory referendum on whether or not to amend the state constitution to prohibit the transfer of money in the state’s transportation trust fund for purposes not related to transportation. Some voters in Kenosha County will also consider a non-binding referendum question about a new tax to help fund a commuter rail line extension.
  • And Georgia, where we began this blog post, will vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the state department of transportation to pay for projects as they are under construction instead of being required to pay the entire dollar amount of contracts at the outset. Supporters believe the amendment would help reduce long-term construction costs paid by the state.

As our latest policy brief points out, state governments following the election may also become more willing to seek new revenues for transportation by considering gas tax increases and the like, after a year of political uncertainty (which translated into lots of borrowing and bonding). They will also be looking to Washington for signs of life on a new federal highway program reauthorization bill. Combined with all that may happen at the local level over the next few years, these efforts and actions will determine the shape of the nation’s transportation system for decades to come.