Guest Op-Ed: Accelerating Local Infrastructure

What a time to be a leader of a city struggling to secure needed funding for transportation improvements. While Washington struggles to find the secret sauce for a compromise on an infrastructure package, it is easy to forget the bipartisan self-help that is taking place at the local level.

Across the country, cities and counties are increasingly crafting local or regional solutions to funding their transportation infrastructure needs. In the most significant of these initiatives, in 2016, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure M, a no-sunset transportation sales tax estimated to raise $120 billion dollars over 40 years. The no-sunset provision of the tax, which voters passed by over 71 percent, is a critical acknowledgement by the largest county in the country that it will always have transportation infrastructure needs.

Elsewhere, voters in Phoenix and Cincinnati passed more modest measures to build out their transit systems and maintain their roads and bridges. Over the last decade, MetroNow, a coalition of business groups, environmentalists, labor, transit, and smart growth advocates and others came together to lobby the legislatures of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia to commit $500 million a year to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). The public didn’t need to vote on anything. Instead, MetroNow needed to convince the two state legislatures and the District to sign into law a new dedicated funding model.

Local and regional infrastructure initiatives help localities get close to the funding finish line through the issuance of bonds secured by transportation sales tax revenues. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to infrastructure funding, these initiatives represent an important bipartisan trend in an otherwise polarized political era. They are helping cities and counties build for themselves what Congress can’t seem to agree upon.

In the case of WMATA, it was crucial to the campaign to make the case that the Washington region needed safe transit to continue to be the economic engine it had become. It helped that both Maryland and Virginia get the lion’s share of their tax revenue from the region. Northern Virginia, which encompasses just seven percent of the state’s land area, accounts for almost half the state’s economic growth, more than half its new jobs and nearly half its income-tax revenues.

In 2015, Phoenix residents approved the $31.5 billion sales tax measure known as Transportation 2050. Advocates there found that patiently explaining the program’s benefit to voters and taking the time to expose the motivations and national financial muscle behind an anti-transit organization helped win the day. Cincinnati Reinventing Metro Plan showed that to win funding for transit, it may be necessary to compromise and develop alliances with voters who are equally, if not more, concerned about roads and bridges than with what can be done to expedite the next bus arrival.

The lessons these disparate approaches offer about transportation funding can inspire and instruct other jurisdictions contemplating their own campaign for better transportation.

Critical to all campaigns is the importance of validating the need for the initiative with research on local community needs. Campaigns may find it constructive to lean toward more ambitious projects that demonstrate that the community is taking the need or problem seriously. Voters do not like to be asked to “fix” something more than once. Tactics matter. Finding the balance between transit versus roads and bridges that works for a particular campaign is essential. Likewise, finding a balance between new transportation improvements versus adequate funding to maintain a state of good repair for existing transportation infrastructure and equipment is also critical.

Other lessons from successful ballot measures:

  • Continuous outreach and education are often more cost effective than launching a crunch-time campaign in the face of opposition.
  • Winning votes is different from building ridership and keeping the trains running on time.
  • Polling and doing research about voter attitudes are critical and once done, it is important to trust and rely on data.
  • It may make sense to stay away from a “Christmas tree approach” where everyone gets something. Instead, consider what the Cincinnati campaign told voters: “There are projects in every community, including projects that look like this.”

These initiatives inspire others to recognize the importance of dreaming big and working strategically to realize a desired civic venture. With walls going up all around us, it is encouraging to know that there are places in this country where safe, collective means of transportation and bridges are being built to connect us to one another, rather than to keep us apart.

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Joel Epstein is a transportation writer and policy analyst and the author of Accelerating Transportation: A Tale of Five Cities and How to Pass a Mega Transportation Measure – LA County’s Measure M Lessons Learned.

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