Voters Approve Transportation Spending, AASHTO's New President and More

With the passing a handful of ballot measures on Election Day and the surface transportation bill this spring, 2013 will be a busy year for infrastructure and transportation projects.
by | November 15, 2012

While infrastructure netted hardly a mention in this year's presidential campaign, dozens of state, city and county governments held elections related to highway, transit and water infrastructure. By and large, voters supported these efforts.

The narrative, infrastructure advocates say, is a familiar one, and the results aren’t unusual. Historically, state and local voters have more often than not supported funding local transportation projects.

The trend also illustrates a stark contrast to the state of affairs at the federal level. Congressional lawmakers have been wary of approving solutions that would generate new revenue for transportation projects. "I think the initiatives we saw that were successful [in states and localities] showed again that when people know what they're going to get, they're more likely to support it," said Kerry O'Hare, vice president and director of Building America's Future Educational Fund.

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Roughly 68 percent of measures that would extend funding for highways, bridges and transit were approved, according to The American Road & Transportation Builders Association. The projects tracked are valued at $2.4 billion. The American Public Transportation Association found a similar rate of success with the batch of transit ballot initiatives it tracked on Election Night.

Successful campaigns tend to have clear project lists, broad coalitions that grassroots activists along with the business community support, and an easily identifiable benefit to voters, said Jason Jordan of the Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks transit votes.

"When you make a specific request of people -- 'do you want this kind of project, this set of transportation options in your community and are you willing to pay for it?' -- the data is pretty unambiguous," Jordan said. "Most of the time the answer to the question is yes."

Some of the most significant, successful campaigns are highlighted below:

  • By a 57 percent margin, Alaska voters approved a $453.5 million bond measure that will pay for a slew of major projects, including $50 million for the port in Anchorage and $30 million for a rail extension. The future of these two projects, however, is unclear amidst legal disputes. The bond will also help pay for several congestion-relieving highway projects. "We're a young state," said Acting Transportation Commissioner Pat Kemp. "We're trying to get our unique problems taken care of."
  • In Honolulu, the number one issue in the mayoral election was the fate of the city's elevated rail line, which has been viewed as integral to reducing congestion in the island city. The $5.1 billion project, which has been praised by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, is projected to generate 116,000 trips each weekday. Kirk Caldwell, a supporter of the project, defeated former Gov. Ben Cayetano, who had pledged to stop it if elected and replace it with a less expensive plan that included bus rapid transit and other elements.
  • Michigan voters proved that money doesn't always win elections, defeating a proposed amendment backed by the state's wealthy Moroun family, which controls Detroit's privately-owned Ambassador Bridge. The family was threatened with increased competition -- and potentially a loss in revenue -- due to a new crossing backed by Gov. Rick Snyder. Canada is poised to front the costs of the toll road bridge project. About $28 million was raised to fight the project, nearly all of  which came from the Moroun's businesses. The ballot measure pushed for an amendment that would require a statewide vote on any new international bridge. Observers, including many of the state's major newspapers, said the campaign blatantly mischaracterized the international project. "People made clear in Tuesday’s election that they believe in Michigan’s future and support the governor’s vision of moving forward so we can grow our economy and create jobs," Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven said.
  • Other infrastructure wins: Arkansas voters approved a half-cent sales tax for highways, bridges and roads that would be used to fund a $1.3 billion highway improvement bond. Maine voters said yes to Question 4, a $51 million transportation bond primarily for road and bridge repairs, and Question 5, a $7.9 million bond for the state's water and wastewater revolving loan fund. Oklahoma voters approved up to $300 million in bonds that would give the state's Water Resources Board a reserve fund. Arlington County, Va., voters approved bonds of $14.6 million to help fund the D.C. regional transit agency, and $17.3 million for bike and pedestrian improvements along with road repaving. And Rhode Island voters approved bonds of $12 million for the state's wastewater infrastructure fund and $8 million for the drinking water fund. "The product we're promoting here is improvement ... caused by groundwater and wastewater pollution," said Anthony Simeone, executive director of the Rhode Island Clean Water Finance Agency. "So it's something that makes perfect sense to our voters when they look at it, and there's a job creation aspect of it."

Below are highlighted some of the most significant ballot losses:

  • Memphis voters opted against a one-cent per gallon gas tax that would have been used to provide a dedicated funding stream to the area's transit agency. Supporters had hoped for a win, since the cost per driver wasn't particularly high -- less than $7 per year for an average motorist getting 20 mpg. But supporters also noted that voters in the area faced other tax hikes on the ballot, which might have hurt their cause. Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., an ardent supporter of the tax, says he views a strong transit system as an economic driver since it would help people get to work. "This is one tax that no one should have speculation over where the money will go," Ford said.
  • Voters in Los Angeles County overwhelmingly supported Measure J, which would have extended an existing half-cent sales tax for transportation projects for another 30 years beyond 2039, when the existing tax is set to expire. In the end, it wasn't enough. State law requires a two-thirds majority of votes to enact the tax, and the ballot only got 64.7 percent. Officials had hoped that by passing Measure J, the timetable for the expansion of subways, bus service and light rail would have been dramatically accelerated. The measure would have allowed the transportation authority to borrow more money now and pay it back with the future tax revenues
  • Arizona voters shot down Proposition 204, which would have renewed a one-cent sales tax set to expire next year. In its first year, the tax would have generated a projected $971 million, 10 percent of which would have gone towards transportation projects, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Opponents characterized the tax hike as unnecessary.
  • Other infrastructure losses: Hawaii voters said no to a constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to issue revenue bonds to help dam and reservoir owners pay for safety improvements. Virginia voters passed a constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the use of eminent domain. Some observers believe it could spell trouble for infrastructure, since governments would now be on the hook not just for the value of the property they take, but for lost profits that result from it.

Q&A with Rhode Island Department of Transportation Director (RIDOT) Michael P. Lewis

The debut of this newsletter happens to come at the same time the country's state DOT directors are convening in Pittsburgh for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) annual conference. I caught up with RIDOT Director Michael P. Lewis, AASHTO's new president.

What are your priorities for your new term?

We're coming up on the 100th anniversary of AASHTO in 2014. It's time to take stock of where we've been for the last 100 years. We're all collectively trying to figure out how we implement MAP-21. There are some obvious, groundbreaking new elements in the surface transportation bill, particularly as it relates to performance measurement and more discretion from states on how they spend federal money. But it's only a two-year bill. So while we're thinking about how to implement MAP-21, we're immediately thinking about MAP-22, and what the next bill should look like.

Our entire senior executive leadership is moving on. [Executive Director John Horsley, Director of Program Finance and Management Jack Basso, and Director of Engineering and Technical Services Tony Kane are all retiring in early 2013]. We're clearly in a transition year. I want to be very careful not to bring too many things in. I want to carry forward (outgoing AASHTO President and Michigan DOT Director) Kirk Steudle's emphasis on technology and ITS [Intelligent Transportation Systems].

What are your members going to be discussing in Pittsburgh this weekend?

A big effort is going to be the implementation of MAP-21 and ensuring we're all understanding what the goals are of the performance measures and the timing of it. As much as MAP-21 is great -- we have two years of commitment from the federal government -- it is level funded. Many of us look at that as a victory compared to the alternative. But we can't forget the fact that that's very much below what we need to be investing in transportation infrastructure in this country. So as much as we cheer the fact that we have MAP-21, we need to figure out how to best utilize our resources to cover as much as we need to cover with such a deficit in investment.

How soon are you going to start making your case and lobbying for the successor to MAP-21, which expires in two years?

We absolutely need to start talking about it. It takes that long to coordinate with the administration, the House and the Senate. It looks like we're going to have a new secretary of transportation, and there's going to be a new set of priorities. The House and Senate makeup will be different. All of that we're going to have to learn. We at AASHTO will have to step back and say, "Now that we have MAP-21 in place, what do we want to build on for the future?" I don't think it's ever too early to begin that discussion.

What do you like about MAP-21? What are your biggest concerns with implementation?

I'm a glass half-full kind of guy and look at this as a positive. I think some of the concerns that have been expressed about additional reporting are legitimate. But we also need to continue to learn to work smarter. When times are tough, it often produces more innovation. If it's not hard and things are coming easily, there's less incentive to innovate. I don't think we're every going to be in a position that we're flush with so much cash that we become lazy. I think that's a good thing.

Must Reads

  • Transportation Nation: A self-reported survey by the leaders of Denver's bikeshare program reveals that its members are nearly 90 percent white, and less than 1 percent are black.
  • Washington Examiner: The regional authority overseeing a $6 billion rail extension to Dulles airport -- one of the largest transportation projects in the country -- is rife with nepotism and mismanagement, according to a new report.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek: Meet Chris Couri, the man behind the cheekily named company, "We Do Lines," which specializes in the unusual field of parking lot painting.
  • Eno Center for Transportation: AASHTO finance guru Joung Lee explains five myths about TIFIA, the federal credit program that received a huge boost in funding under the new highway bill.
  • FastCoExist.com: See a slideshow of how workers removed hundreds of millions of gallons of salt water from the New York subway system in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
  • The Hill: President Obama's victory means Amtrak is unlikely to be privatized and transportation funding probably won’t be gutted.
  • Popular Mechanics: TSA could be more effective -- and less frustrating -- if it switched to a system that relied more on background checks and intelligence gathering.

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