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In Governors’ Races, Potholes and Pipes Become Major Issues

Both Democrats and Republicans are talking about infrastructure investment on the campaign trail, but only one party tends to have more detailed and ambitious plans.

For a full summary of November's most important ballot measures, click here.

Candidates for governor don’t usually get into details about their plans for improving their states’ roads, railways and other infrastructure. But this year is different.

The exact topics may vary state to state, but many candidates are offering specific, and sometimes ambitious, proposals. 

Georgia’s major party candidates, for example, are squabbling over how to find money for transit improvements in the Atlanta metropolitan region. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, is touting his work to improve transit service in Boston and floating the idea of starting high-speed rail service to the western part of the state. Ohio's Democratic candidate Richard Cordray is pushing a $1.8 billion bond package for infrastructure improvements. And Democrat Tim Walz of Minnesota is backing a 10-cent-per-gallon increase in the gas tax, which his opponent is against.

“We found that infrastructure is playing a role in nearly every gubernatorial election,” wrote Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane of the Brookings Institution in a report released last week.

But Democrats in particular, they noted, "appear poised to advance specific proposals. If a ‘blue wave’ does in fact reach governors mansions, it could project a more forceful and expansive approach to statewide infrastructure over the coming four years.”

Below is a quick rundown of how infrastructure is playing in these key governors' races.



The most immediate issue for the state, as far as infrastructure goes, is whether voters will keep or repeal a 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike in November.

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox has made the repeal a central part of his campaign, while Democratic nominee Gavin Newsom, the state’s current lieutenant governor, dismisses Cox’s argument that the state could pay for transportation projects with the same amount of revenue it had before the tax hike.

“[Cox is] talking about taking away over $5 billion every single year for road improvements, public safety improvements, addressing the issue of traffic and congestion, which, in and of itself, is a hidden tax,” Newsom said at a recent debate.

Beyond the gas tax, the race carries other implications for infrastructure spending. Newsom supports the continued construction of a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco. However, he's likely to slow down construction. He hopes that private investors can help pay for the later stages of construction after the first segment between San Jose and the Central Valley opens and proves to be financially sustainable. Cox has called the project a “train to nowhere.”

Cox has similarly called a massive tunnel project proposed by current Gov. Jerry Brown to bring water from Northern California to the southern part of the state a “boondoggle.” Newsom supports it, but would scale it back.



Like their counterparts in California, Colorado voters will weigh in directly on transportation funding.

If the voters fail to approve new money, candidate Jared Polis says he’ll try to get the legislature to use general funds to pay for transportation improvements if elected. The Democrat supports the creation of a passenger rail line between Fort Collins in the north, through Denver, to Pueblo in the south. And he would also push for greater broadband access, in part, by encouraging the use of municipal broadband systems.

Stapleton, on the other hand, would prioritize highway funding over mass transit. He hopes that the state can use new money through legalized sports betting and windfalls related to the federal tax changes passed last year to help improve roads and other transportation projects. He says the state Transportation Department can reduce costs to free up more money for transportation.



Other issues have overshadowed transportation in the contest between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. Still, there are important differences among the two candidates on the issue.

Abrams, for example, would support using general funds or gas tax funds to pay for transit improvements. Kemp, meanwhile, says successful transit funding should come through public-private partnerships.



Incumbent Gov. Baker has had little choice but to make transportation a top issue of his administration: In his first months in office, a series of blizzards crippled the Boston area’s transportation systems, particularly its commuter rail lines. Baker has touted the improvements the state has made with those systems as he campaigns for reelection.

His Democratic opponent, Jay Gonzalez, is calling for more sweeping changes. He favors a millionaire's tax, which would, among other things, provide more money for Boston’s transit system and its commuter rail lines. Gonzalez also says he would immediately fire Keolis, the private contractor who runs the beleaguered commuter rail service.



Between the Flint water crisis and roads that seem to deteriorate with every spring thaw, Michigan’s gubernatorial candidates have plenty to talk about when it comes to infrastructure.

Democrat Gretchen Whitmer argues that the state ought to be spending more -- $2 billion a year more -- on infrastructure projects. She'd use the money to fund a statewide infrastructure bank, which would provide low-interest loans to agencies seeking to fix roads or upgrade their water systems. To pay for it, she wants lawmakers to raise “user fees” like the gas tax or vehicle registration fees. The new state money would also be able to attract $1 billion more a year in federal matching funds, Whitmer says.

For his part, Republican Bill Schuette, the state’s attorney general, hopes to raise more transportation money by finding savings in Michigan’s current transportation budget, and by reprioritizing existing state spending. He also wants to get more money from the federal government. All told, Schuette hopes to find $1.2 billion a year for more infrastructure spending.



A big part of Democrat Tim Walz’s gubernatorial campaign is a proposal to raise gas taxes by 10 cents a gallon, an idea Republican Jeff Johnson flatly opposes.

Gov. Mark Dayton has already tried unsuccessfully to pass the dime-a-gallon increase. But Walz argues doing so will ensure funding for all regions. “We have to stop fighting over how to divide the pie and start working together to grow the pie,” his campaign website says. Walz wants to expand transit in both urban and rural communities as well.

Johnson, on the other hand, has taken a no-new-taxes pledge. He suggests cutting funding for transit projects including “hundreds of millions of dollars on trolleys and streetcars.” (The Pioneer Press points out that most of the money raised for those purposes in the Twin Cities area comes from local, not state, sources.) Johnson also backs more bonding for transportation projects.


New Mexico

Steve Pearce, the Republican nominee, has floated the idea of building toll roads for oil trucks and other heavy machinery in the southeastern part of the state, an area he says has been too often overlooked. Creating separate toll roads, he argues, would also improve safety for motorists on both tolled and untolled roads.

Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham wants to use part of the state’s surplus revenues for infrastructure projects. She also wants to expand use of the state’s infrastructure bank.



Democrat Richard Cordray plans, if elected, to ask voters to approve a $1.8 billion infrastructure bond that would cover not only roads and bridges, but also transit and rural broadband initiatives -- two areas Cordray’s campaign say have been “ignored” under previous bonding programs. Cordray says his bond package would not require any new taxes. He is also pushing for cities to develop more walkable neighborhoods, and he wants to develop a statewide plan for addressing Ohio’s water needs.

Cordray’s opponent is Republican Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general. DeWine says he’ll appoint a commission to study transportation funding needs. He hasn't ruled out a gas tax or other revenue sources, but says that state officials first need to have a candid conversation with Ohioans about the state’s infrastructure needs.



Republican Gov. Scott Walker has wrestled with various plans to improve the state’s roads for the better part of eight years. But whenever it comes time to figure out how to pay for it, he’s repeatedly grown skittish. Walker has ruled out gas tax hikes and tolls, even when the ideas are floated by fellow Republicans in the legislature. Disagreements over transportation funding led to a three-month budget standoff last year that ended with a small increase, but not enough to prevent the state from backing out of a major interstate expansion in the heart of Milwaukee.

Now that he’s running for a third term, Walker has promised to drastically increase the amount of money the state gives counties for road projects. He hasn’t specified how he would come up with the money, but has vowed not to raise gas taxes.

Walker’s opponent, Democrat Tony Evers, wants to increase transportation spending, but hasn’t provided a detailed plan of how he would do it. He has said he would support raising the gas tax, something Walker has seized on, running ads on TV and on gas station consoles that claim Evers would raise gas taxes by as much as $1 a gallon. Evers denies that he would raise fuel taxes by that much.

This appears in the Infrastructure newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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