Transportation at the Ballot Box – 2023 Edition

Tuesday, November 7 marked Election Day 2023, with millions of Americans casting their votes during the off-year election. To recap from last week’s ETW preview of the election, Eno is tracking around 70 transportation-related ballot measures across the United States, with the most (at around 46 percent) in the Western region.  

The majority of measures focused on roads as the primary mode of transportation, with a handful of measures focused on public transit, school transportation, aviation, and rail. Additionally, many measures included a bundle of modes, suggesting a push towards multimodal transportation, although driving remains the primary mode. 

Transportation measures were mostly authorizing bonds or new/expanded taxes to fund transportation projects including capital improvements, maintenance, or expanded services.  

In the days following the election, results will continue to update. Here are results from several notable elections on Tuesday.  

Survey says… 

Railroad sale in Ohio 

Arguably the biggest transportation-related election in Ohio was Issue No. 22, the proposed sale of the Cincinnati Southern Railway (CRS) to Norfolk Southern (NS) for $1.6 billion. The revenue from the sale will go towards infrastructure improvements for roads, bridges, municipal buildings, parking, and parks/recreation. The city will receive around $25 million annually.  

Issue No. 22 passed with 51.56 percent of the vote. With a slim majority, Norfolk Southern and the Cincinnati Southern Railway board of trustees will begin the process of selling the railroad, with NS hoping to close the deal by March of 2024. The Cincinnati Southern Railway spans 337 miles from Cincinnati, Ohio to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was previously owned by the city of Cincinnati, through a five-member board appointed by the Cincinnati mayor. The sale marks the beginning of the end of municipal ownership of the railway, which Cincinnati has maintained since the railway’s beginning in the late 19th-century. The CRS was the only municipally owned railroad in the United States. 

Supporters of the sale hail the vote as a victory and opportunity to provide funds for infrastructure improvements. Opponents are concerned about selling public assets off to a private company and using the money for infrastructure investments that neglect communities of color in Cincinnati.  

The acquisition of a railroad by a larger railroad is nothing new. In recent years, the Kansas City Southern railroad merged into the Canadian Pacific Railway. The 1980s and 1990s saw multiple private railroad mergers and acquisitions including the Southern Pacific into the Union Pacific or the Seaboard System into CSX. However, the transformation of the Cincinnati Southern from a public asset into a private corporation has relevance for discussions about public versus private control of assets. As the owner of the asset, the city of Cincinnati had power to control, oversee, and make decisions about the railroad. With the sale of the railroad, the city will have to go through Norfolk Southern for any  projects it would like to pursue, such as  establishing passenger service between Cincinnati and Chattanooga via Lexington or Louisville.  

Similar decisions about public ownership of assets were made in Maine on Tuesday. Voters decided against a ballot measure that would have replaced the two largest power companies in Maine with a nonprofit utility. 

Public transit issues in Colorado, Kansas, and New Jersey 

Several localities in Colorado included ballot measures focused on public transit, and results were mixed. In Boulder County, the Nederland EcoPass Public Improvement District measure passed with 77 percent of the vote. The measure will extend an existing property tax to provide an EcoPass for trips on Regional Transit District services to residents in the Nederland area. The program will also be expanded to non-resident employees in the district. Voters in Fort Collins approved a sales tax increase that will go towards infrastructure improvements, equipment purchases, and upgraded transit services for the local transit system.  

Voters in the City of Fountain, Colorado decided against ballot measure 2B. The measure would have increased the sales and use tax by one percent and expanded the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority to include the City of Fountain.  

In Kansas City, Missouri, a 3/8 cent sales tax increase was approved with over 70 percent of the vote. Revenue from the sales tax is one of the largest sources of funding for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, and the tax is estimated to bring in around $421 million over the next 10 years, boosting the agency’s ability to provide high quality transit services to residents who want them. 

Expansion of public transit did not fare well in parts of southern New Jersey with voters rejecting the proposal to operate the proposed Glassboro-Camden light rail through Woodbury Heights. The proposed line is an 18-mile passenger line from Camden, NJ, to Glassboro, linking residents of southern New Jersey to the larger region and a direct line to Philadelphia. Voters in Mantua Township also rejected the proposal, with 68 percent voting against the light rail expansion.  

School Transportation and Governance in Texas 

Four school districts in Harris and Denton counties proposed over $3.5 billion in school improvements, including new school buses and transportation facilities. All four bond measures passed, each increasing property taxes to repay the bond. Bond measures to support schools are common across the country, but the Texas bonds were noteworthy for their focus on investment in providing increased accessibility to schools. 

Voters in the city of Houston approved Proposition B, a measure to change the selection process of city council governments or metropolitan planning organization members to proportional representation based on population. For the Houston area, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) is the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) which serves the 13-county region. The board of the HGAC has 37 members who make decisions on how the MPO doles out state and federal project funding. While the organization serves 13-counties, there are only two members directly representing Harris County (Harris County contains portions of many cities who have representation on the Board of Directors). The approval of this proposition will amend the City of Houston’s charter to allow the city to retract membership on a council of government (COG) or MPO if the requirement for proportional representation is not met.  

Special Purpose Taxes in Georgia 

Voters in DeKalb and Floyd counties approved a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), which will provide funds for capital improvements and road maintenance. 

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