Checking the Blind Spots: States and Localities Turning to Voters for Transportation Investment

April 27, 2017

For all of the focus on the issue of infrastructure presidential election last year, the road, rail, air, and transit networks that Americans use every day were condensed into sound bites as a parade of presidential hopefuls made their quadrennial journey across the U.S.

In the season finale of that great race, President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton attempted to outbid each other on rebuilding America’s infrastructure (President Trump appeared to be the highest bidder with $1 trillion from somewhere).

Yet the federal government’s share of total transportation investments by all levels of government has been shrinking in recent years (and is not likely to improve so long as the Budget Control Act stays in place), leading cash-strapped state and local governments to look for new sources of funding.

On Election Day, voters considered 436 state and local ballot measures to advise on future transportation projects as well as funding new and existing transportation options through taxes, bonds, and other mechanisms.

Small towns chose whether to increase property taxes to pay for local roads; growing cities decided whether to invest in streetcars; and sprawling metropolises voted on multimillion-dollar projects to revolutionize local mobility.

And many of those voters chose to tax themselves in order to do it, raising over $213 billion with their votes on Election Day.

Although this information is tremendously valuable for identifying the gaps in transportation funding and understanding changing roles across each level of government, a comprehensive database of transportation ballot measures across all modes and in every state did not exist before the 2016 election.

To help fill this knowledge gap, the Eno Center for Transportation started a project to catalog every transportation ballot measure in the 2016 election. The result was Eno’s comprehensive database of the transportation measures on the ballot in 34 states.

Since a comprehensive public database does not yet exist of all ballot measures in the United States, the process involved compiling the fragmented lists of measures from state and county boards of elections, local newspapers, press releases, and word-of-mouth.

Complicating matters further, the details of the measures were not always published online. This necessitated direct outreach to city, county, and state officials to track down the language, minimum votes required to pass, and exact funding amounts.

Immediately after the election, Eno worked to compile the voting results – which presented an entirely new challenge. While the result of the presidential race was announced on Election Night, votes for state and local measures took days –sometimes weeks – to be counted and published by election boards and local newspapers.

Even then, some county election boards used outdated websites that were not only difficult to navigate, but used inconsistent names and file formats.

Once the database was completed, Eno found that the election was a boon for state and local transportation investment: voters approved 307 out of the 436 proposed measures across the U.S.

The sheer amount of measures demonstrates that voters are immensely concerned with their local transportation options. Whether urban or rural, heartland or coastal, rich or poor, 70.4 percent of the Americans in these cases saw the importance of investing resources and funds into their communities’ mobility.

With the Trump Administration touting a yet-unveiled $1 trillion infrastructure plan, it is more important than ever to understand communities’ transportation needs and identify where the federal government can invest funds to have the greatest impact.

The University of Oregon’s Sustainable City Initiative (SCI) and the Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE) have undertaken similar efforts to research transportation ballot measures and understand how – and why – measures at the ballot box can be successful.
On April 20, Eno partnered with Rebecca Lewis of SCI and Kirsten Holland of CFTE to host a joint webinar exploring the importance of transportation ballot measures in the 2016 election and their role in the future. The webinar can be viewed here.



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