Supporters of additional funding for transportation have plenty of reasons to smile after last week’s elections, but that doesn’t mean they can stop worrying.
Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer filled potholes at a campaign event in August. She ran on a pledge to "Fix the Damn Roads," but it's unclear where the money to do that will come from. (AP/Paul Sancya)
Last week’s elections had enough good news to keep up the spirits of transportation advocates -- an effort to roll back a California gas tax hike failed, candidates promising to fix roads were elected as governors and dozens of local transportation ballot measures passed.
But there are still reasons for advocates to be concerned.
Voters in Colorado and Missouri defeated efforts to increase funding for road building, despite years of debate on how to pay for transportation improvements in both states. Republicans still have the power, if they choose to use it, to block transportation legislation proposed by incoming governors in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. And Congress will be divided, with a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, as a major transportation funding law expires in 2020.
The biggest transportation battle of the election took place in California, where congressional Republicans backed a measure to repeal the state’s year-old gas tax hike as a way to increase turnout of GOP voters. But Californians soundly defeated the measure, at the same time that they ousted at least three Republican members of Congress.
Outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown pushed the gas tax hike through the legislature last year. After four terms in office, he spent most of this year’s election season on the sidelines. But he made an exception a week before voters headed to the polls to bash the repeal effort.
“Proposition 6 is a scheme and a scam,” Brown said, referring to the title of the ballot measure. “It’s a bad idea. It’s dangerous. And it was cooked up by some shady politicians who used their campaign funds, because they thought they could fool the people. Well, the people aren’t fooled.”
Marcia Hale, the president of Building America’s Future, a national transportation advocacy group, credits the governor for making the case for the $54 billion infrastructure package both with the legislature last year and with the public this year. “Voters in California know their roads and bridges and infrastructure needed to be improved," she says. "Those trying to get rid of it were trying to take California backwards."
Many of the projects funded by California’s infrastructure package were already under construction by the time voters decided whether to keep the law in place. The state even posted signs near projects funded by the gas tax that stated: “Your Tax Dollars at Work. Rebuilding California.”
Those signs proved to be controversial. Gas tax opponents said they were a misuse of taxpayer money. More important, the federal government said they didn’t comply with federal rules on sign designs, which the state promised to fix. But they still gave voters a firm idea of what the new tax money was being spent on.
Transportation measures tend to fare well at the local level, Hale says, because voters have a better sense of how the new taxes will improve their day-to-day lives. That’s one reason why voters last week approved nearly $31 billion in new state and local spending on transportation, according to the Eno Center for Transportation.
“State and local officials have done very good job of making sure people know what they’re going to get and what their money is going to be spent on,” she says. “That’s contrary to what happens in Washington. People in the Midwest don’t understand how a federal transportation bill is going to affect them.”
Alexander Laska, who tracks local transportation ballot measures for Eno, notes that most of the new local money approved for transportation on Election Day came from two Florida counties that had previously rejected transportation spending measures: Broward, the home of Fort Lauderdale, and Hillsborough, which includes Tampa. Taken together, the two measures, which both rely on sales tax hikes, will bring in nearly $24 billion over the next 30 years.
But other large efforts failed. The largest was in San Mateo County, Calif., where voters were asked to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to raise $2.4 billion. It garnered 65.7 percent of the vote, just shy of the 66.7 percent required for approval.
At the state level, roughly three of every five Colorado voters turned down both of two competing transportation funding measures. One effort, pushed by the business community, would have raised about $20 billion over the next two decades with a higher sales tax.
A libertarian group countered with a separate plan, which relied on no explicit new taxes, to sell $3.5 billion in bonds. Even though the Independence Institute’s ballot measure failed, its president, John Caldara, told the Denver Post that the overall goal of the measure succeeded. “The goal of ‘Fix Our Damn Roads’ was to make sure a tax increase for mystery transit projects failed,” he said. “In that regard, mission accomplished.”
The other big setback for transportation advocates came in Missouri, where lawmakers have debated for a decade how to improve its vast state road network. Lawmakers asked voters to approve a gas tax hike to cover the costs. Unlike previous efforts, this year’s measure had support from both Democrats and Republicans. Nonetheless, 54 percent of Missourians rejected the idea.
Setting the Stage for 2019
Beyond specific transportation questions, last week’s election sets up debates in several state capitols over new transportation spending. For example:
Incoming Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, used the cry of “Fix Our Damn Roads” as a central part of her campaign. She hasn’t specified where, exactly, the state would get the money to do that. But she’ll face a Republican-led legislature that will likely be difficult to persuade of the need to raise taxes for road funding. “I will say that no one in the House Republican chamber ran on raising taxes,” the incoming House speaker told Michigan Public Radio.
Similarly, Democrat Tim Walz of Minnesota campaigned on raising the state’s gas taxes by 10 cents a gallon to fund transportation improvements. He said he would “absolutely” include that proposal in his first budget. “You can’t just say you’re not going to do anything in terms of revenue or budgets and you’re magically going to get roads, bridges and transit,” he told reporters. But Republicans hold a one-seat majority in the state Senate, and the majority leader there said the gas tax “may be one of the issues we [he and the governor] disagree on.”
Gov.-elect Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, promised to set up a commission to study transportation funding in the state. But transit officials are skeptical that DeWine will deliver for them, even though they say state support for transit has fallen to its lowest levels since the 1970s.
In Illinois, outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is pushing the incoming Democratic governor, J.B. Pritzker, to back a gas tax hike to improve transit in the city. “It’s been a decade since they had a transportation bill. It’s been 30 years since they’ve come up with additional resources for it,” Emanuel said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Democrats took complete control of Connecticut state government, where incoming governor Ned Lamont wants to raise truck tolls and use more federal money to improve transit and encourage transit-oriented development. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers would even go along with reinstituting tolls in Connecticut for the first time in decades and, if they do, whether the new tolls would bring in enough money to pay for all of the projects Lamont has touted.
It will be back to the drawing board in Colorado on transportation funding. Lawmakers had agreed this year that, if neither of the ballot measures passed in November, they would fashion their own next year. But now Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship. Incoming Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t specified how he wants lawmakers to respond to the double defeat, but he did campaign on the creation of a passenger rail line between Fort Collins in the north, through Denver, to Pueblo in the south.
The same group that pushed for the repeal of California’s gas tax hikenow wants to specify that gas tax revenues could only be used for road projects, instead of other modes of transportation. The group’s planned 2020 ballot measure would also cut off funding for the state’s high-speed rail project.
At the federal level, the fact that Democrats retook control of the U.S. House of Representatives could clear the way for a long-stalled federal infrastructure package, but that’s still a long-shot.
“I had a conversation with President Trump about how we could work together, one of the issues that came up was ... building infrastructure for America, and I hope that we can achieve that,” said U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat who is set to become the speaker of the House next year, after the election. “Those initiatives will create good paying jobs and will also generate other economic growth in their regions. Hopefully, we can work in a bipartisan way.”
Trump has floated the idea of a major transportation package since he ran for president in 2016, but the president has never put it at the top of his legislative agenda. When his administration finally released a plan earlier this year, the proposal relied heavily on states and local governments to increase spending for a relatively small federal match. The plan never made headway, even in a Republican-controlled Congress.
Even without a new program, though, surface transportation spending will likely become an issue under the new Democratically led House, because a keyfive-year infrastructure spending bill is set to expire in 2020. Last time the so-called highway bill expired though, Congress extended it three dozen times over five years before coming up with a replacement.