Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
High voter turnout meant lots of wins for transit- and transportation-related ballot measures on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Democrats won a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in eight years. In an era of declining federal support for transportation, the so-called Blue Wave of more liberal lawmakers may lift the spirits of beleaguered commuters and road users, particularly those who depend on urban transit. So is the clutch of new governors’ seats that Democrats picked up.
But perhaps more likely to result in meaningful change in how Americans get around were hundreds of state and local measures on Tuesday’s ballots approving new and continuing investments in streets, bridges, ports, and transit systems. As of Wednesday morning, a large majority appear to have passed from Maine to California. The high turnout among Democratic voters in particular probably helped. “Running infrastructure campaigns in an election year dramatically improves their chances of passing,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
Still, there may also be warning signs in Tuesday’s transportation victories. Read on.
Who controls Congress matters for transportation
And although the Blue Wave didn’t surge into the Senate, House Democrats may now have additional power to press the DOT towards their priorities. Left-leaning leaders tend to have more affinity for urban transportation projects, especially transit, and infrastructure is a top priority on their House agenda, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told the New York Times last week.
In many ways, federal support for transportation has been stalled over the past two years, despite President Donald Trump’s talk on the campaign trail. The $1 trillion infrastructure package he touted regularly while running for president never materialized in Congress, and the Federal Transit Administration has been withholding capital grants from public transit projects already well underway around the country. According to a recent report from the advocacy group Transportation For America, the FTA has failed to allocate a total of $1.8 billion, leaving cities from Seattle to St. Petersburg that had been counting on federal assistance for rail and rapid bus construction in a lurch.
It’s not clear what is animating FTA’s failure to administrate, but like so much else in this political moment, it sure looks ideological. (Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is an alumnus of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that essentially opposes federal support for local transportation projects.) Meanwhile, the DOT’s grant program for new construction starts, called BUILD, tends to favor rural areas over cities, as transportation consultant and researcher Yonah Freemark noted on his blog.
With Republicans still in control of the Senate, shifting federal transportation priorities will continue to be an uphill slog for Democrats. But it doesn’t hurt to have the House, especially in areas they’ve also made gains in other elected offices. “Dems have a **major** opportunity to promote equity & sustainability through better transportation policy at the state level,” Freemark tweeted on Wednesday. “The key states to do this are where Dems have ‘trifecta’ of House, Sen, Gov: CA, CT, DE, HI, NJ, OR, RI, WA + now CO, IL, ME, NV, NM, NY.”
State and local voters are increasingly willing to tax themselves
Federal support for transportation has certainly suffered under Trump. But funding began drying up long before he arrived, thanks in part to declining revenues from the federal gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993. As a result, states and cities have been stepping up to pay for more themselves. Local ballot measures that ask voters to tax themselves are an increasingly popular means of getting transportation projects off the ground, said Alison Black, a senior vice president and chief economist at the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. And, despite some recent high-profile losses, voters usually say yes. “Over the past 10 years, about 82 percent of these measures have passed,” Black said.
Tuesday’s results fit that trend. Nationwide, at least 314 transportation-related measures appeared on ballots, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Most of them were quite small—a few million dollars here or there for repaving projects and the like—and about two-thirds of the total came from Michigan and Ohio, where routine property tax measures to pay for such improvements have to be approved by voters. Taken together, these measures represented more than $50 billion in transportation investments in dozens of states, including roads and bridges, public transit, cycling and pedestrian paths, airports, seaports, and more.
And most major measures passed, according to Eno. Some of the biggest wins were in Florida. Broward County said yes on a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for road, bus, and rail upgrades. The measure is expected to raise $16 billion over the next 30 years for South Florida’s mobility needs. Hillsborough County said yes on a one-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation investments. Forty-five percent of the measure, which will generate $9 billion over the next three decades, will support the local transit authority. The rest will go to roads. And Collier County and St. Lucie County both approved multi-million-dollar tax increases to better move residents.
There were smaller victories, too. Voters in Arlington County, Virginia, said yes on a $74.6 million bond measure that will sign checks on a variety of transportation efforts, including $44 million for capital improvements on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. And nearly 81 percent of voters in Austin, Texas, said yes to a $160 million bond measure for a grab-bag of multimodal transportation investments, including street, signal, and sidewalk upgrades.
A big regional effort in New Mexico appears to have succeeded. A majority of voters in Los Alamos County, Rio Arriba County, Santa Fe County, and Taos County said yes to renewing on an indefinite basis a one-eighth of a penny gross receipts tax that funds the region’s commuter rail and bus systems. And it’s too close to call what voters in California’s San Mateo County said to a half-cent sales tax for improvements to new and existing public transit services around the region.
Then there were the statewide issues. California fended off an attack on its transportation funding with Proposition 6, which asked voters to roll back a gas tax and vehicle fee increase from 2017 that raised about $5 billion per year for road and bridge improvements and other mobility measures, failing to pass. (More on that later.) Colorado voters were split on two separate and competing transportation bonds: One would have ticked up the sales tax and funded transit upgrades, while the other promised to “fix our damn roads,” the official title of the proposition. Both failed to pass.
In Missouri, voters also rebuffed a 10-cent gas tax boost, the country’s only such proposal this election. With the federal gas tax untouched since 1993, Missouri would have joined a number of states that have successfully raised fees at the pump in recent years. But Maine voters said yes on selling $106 million in bonds for transportation infrastructure. Some proceeds will go to public transit. And two lockbox measures passed in Connecticut and Louisiana, keeping transportation funds set aside specifically for transportation.
There were also a few high-profile, out-of-the-box ideas from states to raise revenue for a variety of needs, including mobility. That included the carbon tax in Washington State, which did not pass. It would have been the first such tax in the country if it had. Michigan’s proposal to legalize recreational cannabis passed comfortably, making it the first state in the Midwest to give weed the green light. It includes a 10 percent excise tax on weed purchases, some of which will pay into the state’s transportation fund. Smoke up, Michiganders: It’s going to fix potholes.
Governors’ races went in all directions
With 36 governor’s seats up for grabs on Tuesday, state legislatures were primed for a shake-up. And infrastructure played a surprisingly central role in bids around the country. Last month, researchers at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program analyzed how much gubernatorial candidates discussed roads, bridges, and ports, as well as water, energy, and telecoms, leading up to the ballots. In total, they found that 50 in 73 candidates at least discussed transportation, with a fairly even party split.
Democrats tended to be more detailed in their proposals, though, and more oriented towards transit in particular. In one of the highest-profile races, Georgia’s Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams promised to make urban bus and rail investments a top priority. (As of early Wednesday, she was trailing Republican Brian Kemp, but the race has not been called.)
Democrats picked up seven other governor’s seats across the country. That includes governors-elect Gavin Newsom in California, a supporter of the state’s embattled high-speed rail project, and Jared Polis in Colorado, whose victory will make him the first openly gay governor in U.S. history and who promises to push forward two major rail projects.
Transit did not cruise to victory in every race for the governor’s mansion. In Maryland, Democratic candidate Ben Jealous, who promised to re-animate Baltimore’s cancelled Red Line light rail, lost to incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan, who killed the project two years ago. In Massachusetts, the incumbent Republican governor Charlie Baker prevailed over Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez, who had big dreams for urban and commuter rail investments in the Boston area and beyond.
And does the return of Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who was elected to a third term as New York Governor, mean that the struggling New York City subway can get back on track? That remains to be seen.
Warning signs ahead
On Tuesday, 55 percent of California voters said no on Proposition 6, which proposed to roll back the gas tax and vehicle fee increase that state legislators passed in 2017 to generate $5 billion for road repairs and improvements every year, including a substantial apportionment for transit. Backed by leading congressional Republicans, the ballot measure was designed to fire up right-leaning voters and drive them to the polls in a super-blue state. But opponents, which included the state’s construction industry, major labor groups, and Democrats, out-fundraised the effort by more than $40 million.
California’s roads are in some of the worst shape in the country, and commuters there should breathe a sigh of relief over the measure’s defeat. So should transportation advocates around the country who worried that a gas tax repeal in the vanguard state of progressive causes could doom similar efforts in less-progressive locales. For the same reason, Proposition 6 could have made it “almost impossible to have a substantive discussion about raising the federal gas tax,” said Scott Bogren, the executive director of the Community Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based transit advocacy group.
But even with its defeat, Black sees Proposition 6 as a harbinger of another barrier to good mobility: hyper-politicization. Transportation once enjoyed more bipartisan participation than other realms of policy, but that could be ending. “Using transportation as a political football to increase turnout seems like bad precedent,” Black said. By attempting to repeal a statute, “it carries the debate beyond something that was already settled, and puts badly needed investment at risk, especially if others take up this approach.”
In an era when just about anything from athletic shoes to coffee cups can become a wedge issue, that’s not too hard to imagine.