States Turn to Crowdsourcing for Ideas on Transportation Priorities, Funding Solutions

State governments this fall are assessing their transportation needs and priorities with an eye toward what the public thinks is most important and what they would be likely to support. Some are also asking the citizenry to weigh in on how to fund transportation projects in the future. Here’s a rundown of what’s happening around the country.

  • The Chicago Tribune reported this week that the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) is using a series of community meetings this fall to seek input from residents and business owners that will help shape the state’s next six-year transportation improvement program as well as a broader 20-to-30 year vision for transportation. IDOT is asking the public’s help in mapping out priorities for improvements in roads and highways, passenger and freight rail, aviation, river and Great Lake ports and bike facilities. The 2014-19 state transportation plan is expected to be released next spring. The most recent six-year plan (covering 2013-18) totaled $9.2 billion (down from $11.5 billion for 2012-17) and focused mostly on repairs and maintenance for existing roads and bridges with little new funding for congestion relief or expanding transportation systems. Pension obligations, state Medicaid reform efforts and bond ratings could result in a further drop in program funding levels in the next plan. No increases in the state gas tax or vehicle registration fees are expected, officials said. Illinois Transportation Secretary Ann Schneider said public-private partnerships will be a key to advancing big-ticket projects, including construction of the proposed Illiana Expressway, capacity expansions on the Kennedy and Stevenson expressways, and freight rail infrastructure modernization efforts. The Chicago-area public meetings run through October 16.
  • The Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) is surveying local government and community leaders at regional “local consult” meetings around the state about what they think the state should do to maintain funding for highway improvements, The Hutchinson News reported. KDOT is asking attendees to weigh in on nine specific short- or long-term solutions and inviting additional suggestions. The solutions ranked highest so far include increasing the motor fuels tax, levying a tax on alternative fuels, and adding an annual extra registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles. Other options presented include a dedicated sales tax on auto sales, an increase in vehicle registration fees, indexing future fuel tax rates to the Consumer Price Index or other measure of inflation, local option taxes, toll roads, and a tax on vehicle miles traveled. The local consult meetings wrap up next week. KDOT will analyze the results and present the findings and other research to the legislature in 2013.
  • It looks like public input played a significant role in North Carolina’s decision to put the brakes on a $4.4 billion plan to widen and toll I-95, The News and Observer reported. The state department of transportation at the behest of the state legislature will pay Cambridge Systematics $1.6 million to conduct a six-month study to assess the economic impacts of the proposal. The tolling proposal reportedly came under attack from truckers, local drivers, businesses and politicians of all stripes. The study will consider four things: the economic impact of tolling the present road on the residents and businesses along the corridor; the impact of tolling the present road on the alternative routes to I-95, including expected increased traffic on those routes, any safety issues created by any increased traffic on those routes, and expected travel time delays for drivers using the alternate routes; new or existing alternative routes for I-95; and options for funding to make critical repairs and lane mile expansions to I-95 without the use of tolls.
  • Two Maryland state legislators plan to re-introduce legislation early next year that could have their state taking a page out of the Georgia playbook, The (Gaithersburg) Gazette reported. Sen. James Rosapepe and Del. Brian Feldman have proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow voter referenda on specific plans to fund transportation projects that would be proposed by state officials. The lawmakers introduced their amendment during the August special session but it did not advance. While regional referenda in places like Denver and Seattle have seen success in recent years (both cities approved sales tax increases to fund rail systems), a statewide referendum vote in Georgia this summer did not fare quite as well. Only three out of 12 regions in the state voted to approve a 1 cent sales tax increase to fund specially selected regional transportation projects. Maryland might also want to someday follow in the footsteps of Maine, where residents routinely vote on bond packages to fund highway improvements (a $51 million one will be on the ballot there in November). But the constitutional amendment would be required to allow for referenda to issue bonds or create new revenue sources. Rosapepe and Feldman’s proposal would also restrict transfers from the state’s Transportation Trust Fund to balance the budget. Such transfers have occurred frequently since 1984 and contributed to a mistrust of government among the Maryland public. As I wrote about in a Capitol Research policy brief earlier this year, members of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation Funding identified “putting the trust back in the trust fund” as a priority in their 2011 report. “In my opinion, there is no way you can get the public to agree to higher fees and taxes on transportation-related activities such as pumping gasoline without a guarantee that the money will then be used for transportation purposes by the state,” the commission’s chairman Gus Bauman told me in March.
  • That concept of “reform before revenue” has been the battle cry in a number of states in recent years as they try to win public support for infrastructure investment. For example, in Iowa (as my brief also details), Gov. Terry Branstad asked state legislators to explore efficiencies in the state department of transportation budget before taking up the issue of revenue options to help fill a transportation funding shortfall. In a recent piece for Governing, Charles Chieppo argues that states seeking to restore public trust in government before asking them to pay more for transportation should look to Washington State and The Gray Notebook. First created in 2001 (and now published quarterly), The Gray Notebook was an effort by the Washington State Department of Transportation to demonstrate performance, talking up what the department was doing well and being transparent about what needed to improve in a format that is accessible to the public and policy makers alike. Included in the book is data on things like average commute times, the condition of roads and bridges, and whether transportation projects are on time and on budget. Armed with the information contained in the notebook, state legislators were able to approve gas tax hikes in 2003 and 2005 to help fund transportation projects. Washington State transportation officials say they’re currently working with academics and economists on the next frontier for The Gray Notebook: developing and incorporating performance measures on the economic impact of transportation decisions. That could go a long way toward convincing a skeptical public their tax dollars are being well spent.         
  • A proposed 8-mile interstate extension near Charleston, South Carolina is prompting a debate over transportation priorities and how projects are selected for financing by the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, The Greenville News reported. The extension of I-526, which could cost $550 million in borrowed money (including $138 million from future revenues), was set to be funded through the infrastructure bank, which is overseen by a seven-member board that selects projects to finance, none of which have to be on the state ranking system used for projects funded through the state department of transportation. But some questioned the fairness of how the bank has distributed funding over the years. Just 11 of the state’s 46 counties have benefited from $4 billion in local project investment by the bank since 1997. The counties with the ability to raise matching funds through local option sales taxes have been the most successful. “I just think there needs to be some equity in geography when you are looking at projects and make sure you are treating the whole state fairly,” state Sen. Wes Hayes told the newspaper. Hayes and a group of his fellow lawmakers recently signed a letter to the state DOT and bank board opposing the I-526 project. “The I-526 extension is not a state or regional priority,” the letter said. “If funding is allowed for this one project, then future funding capacity for critical road and bridge projects in South Carolina will be locked out and unfunded for the next decade.” The Department of Transportation Commission voted last week against taking on the project, The Post and Courier reported. The action puts the fate of the project back in the hands of the Charleston County Council, which in January voted against completing the project when members learned the county could be on the hook for $11.6 million already spent.
  • Tennessee lawmakers and leaders of the state department of transportation are also pondering the issue of how to pay for future road projects, Nashville’s NewsChannel 5 reported recently. The state has $9.5 billion of projects under development but current revenues allow only about 10 percent of projects to be built annually. Due to declining gas tax revenues, the state DOT will have $100 million less to spend this year. Governor Bill Haslam has ruled out an increase in the state’s 21.4 cents per gallon gas tax. Haslam also said he was against toll roads when he campaigned for governor. The lack of viable options has left state lawmakers concerned for the future. “We’re going to have to start thinking outside the box, because we’ve got these really important road projects that we need to address,” state Sen. Jack Johnson told the TV station.