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What Midterm Election Results Mean for Transportation

Several victorious governors promised to find more money for transportation, while the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate may slow progress on a federal surface transportation bill.

Changes in state and federal leadership, along with voter-approved ballot measures, in Tuesday’s elections are almost certain to affect highway funding and transit service all around the country.

Ten new governors will take office as a result of Tuesday’s contests; half of them will take over from predecessors of different parties. Republicans had a net gain of three governorships, while taking outright control of nine legislative chambers and the U.S. Senate.

The first year of governors’ terms tend to be their most ambitious, as they come off the campaign trail with plenty of promises to keep and the next election only a distant glimmer on the horizon.

Meanwhile, Congress will be under pressure to produce a new, long-term surface transportation bill, a goal that has eluded federal lawmakers since 2009. The current temporary measure extended funding to states until May 2015. States, which rely on federal money for more than half of their road money, would love for even earlier action to help with planning for their summer construction season.

Local measures passed Tuesday will expand transit in Atlanta and Seattle and authorize more transportation spending in places such as Rhode Island; Boulder, Colo.; and Flagstaff, Ariz.

New state transportation money

Several gubernatorial candidates -- including incumbents -- indicated they would make transportation funding one of their top priorities in next year’s legislative session.

In Texas, traffic congestion has increasingly become a political issue, because existing infrastructure has not kept up with the state’s growing population. Gov-elect Greg Abbott, a Republican, aired a TV commercial in a traffic jam complaining that he could move faster in his wheelchair on the road than cars and trucks could go.

Voters approved a new source of revenue to boost transportation projects, as they passed a constitutional amendment directing some oil and gas tax revenue for road building. The measure would initially bring in $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion a year, but researchers at Texas A&M University say the state needs $5 billion more a year just to keep congestion at current levels.

Abbott has proposed changes to the state budget to direct more money toward transportation. He would put stricter rules on how money in the State Highway Fund is spent, which he estimates would bring in an additional $400 million a year.

Abbott also wants to reroute more money from the state’s sales tax on motor vehicles -- which brought in $3.9 billion last year -- from general funds to the highway account. Top transportation lawmakers have proposed a similar approach, phased in over a decade.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who just won his third gubernatorial election in four years, also has indicated he would like to revisit the way his state pays for transportation projects. Walker suggested the state could introduce high-occupancy toll lanes on existing interstates and even broached the possibility of raising the state’s sales tax and eliminating its gas tax.

Walker’s neighbors in Minnesota and Michigan mentioned transportation when discussing their priorities.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, said during the campaign he wanted to raise the state’s gas tax to address the $6.5 billion state analysts say will be required to meet the state’s infrastructure needs in the coming decade. That prospect may be more difficult than he had anticipated, though, now that Republicans have taken over the Minnesota House.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan told reporters early Wednesday morning that he hoped he could shepherd through a road-funding bill in a lame-duck session of the legislature, before his second term even begins. “Why spend hundreds of dollars on those repairs when we can have just have better roads?” he asked, according to The Detroit News.

Federal surface transportation money

The main reason Congress has not been able to agree to a long-term surface transportation law is the fact that it's hard to find a politically palatable way to raise the money to support the law. The gas tax, which traditionally funded the Highway Trust Fund, has not been raised since 1993, and neither Congress nor President Barack Obama have wanted to hike it again to keep up with rising costs.

That won’t change now that Republicans are set to take control of the U.S. Senate. But the fact that both the House and Senate are under Republican control could increase pressure on the chambers to find some solution, said Rod Diridon, the executive director emeritus of the Mineta Transportation Institute (speaking on his own behalf and not for the institute).

“If there is a silver lining in this process, it is that now the Republican Party can no longer stonewall. It’s got to deliver. It may not deliver precisely what some of the strongest transit advocates would like, but it’s got to deliver some kind of product,” he said.

But Diridon said one of the downsides to the party switch in the Senate is it could take longer to put together that legislation. Republican leaders will likely want their caucus to draft a bill from scratch, rather than using a proposal already drafted by Democrats, and that will make it difficult to have something in place before the current spending law expires in May.

“We’re about to approach another crisis moment in May,” added Beth McGinn of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “State transportation departments are going to start planning in January for the construction season with this question mark looming. It makes planning very hard, so it really could start impacting the market earlier than May.”

She was encouraged, though, that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have both mentioned transportation as an area the parties could work together on.

Of course, what’s in any transportation package that comes out of Congress would be shaped by the fact that Republicans will soon control both chambers. Republicans in the U.S. House, for example, have been highlighting the potential for promoting more public-private partnerships in transportation and infrastructure.

David Goldberg, the communications director for Transportation for America, said that even within the Republican caucuses, though, many lawmakers support funding many modes of transportation. That became apparent a few years ago, when a proposal surfaced to cut transit out of the Highway Trust Fund. Republican transit supporters helped kill that idea.

“Are we going to see some big debates over competitive, flexible grants? Probably. Will we see the usual calls for an end to bicycle and pedestrian safety projects? Yes, we probably will,” he said. “But, again, both of those actually have pretty strong constituencies and have had Republican support in the past.”

Public transit

Local transit systems continued to do well at the ballot box this year, with more than 70 percent of measures getting voter approval, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Atlanta’s transit system, MARTA, will expand to a third county, marking the first time a county has joined the system since its founding. Voters in Seattle and San Francisco also passed measures to support public transit. The biggest disappointment for transit advocates came in Florida, where voters in Pinellas and Polk counties overwhelmingly rejected tax increases to support transit.

Backers of light-rail projects in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C., are also concerned about the surprise victory of Republican Larry Hogan in the Maryland governor’s race. Hogan said in September he would cancel both Baltimore’s Red Line and the Washington area’s Purple Line projects, which have been in the works for years. At his first post-election press conference, though, Hogan declined to say whether he still wanted to pull the plug on the projects.

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