Transportation at the Ballot Box: More Votes that Matter this Year

September 22, 2016

This November, the power of the state and local governments in the American electoral process will be forcefully demonstrated. But in addition to the presidential drama, another election story, with dramatic lessons about state and local influence, will play out as Americans in nearly half the states vote on important questions related to transportation investments in their regions.

The American Public Transportation Association reported last week that voters will decide on over $200 billion in investments on Election Day. This includes a whopping $120 billion in Los Angeles County, $54 billion in Seattle, and $7.5 billion in San Diego for trolley, commuter rail, and bus projects. These ballot-driven financing mechanisms carry important consequences and have the ability to dramatically shape these metropolitan areas.

All this matters especially in the context of the discussion on the federal level in Washington. While Congress bickers over Zika funding and threatens once again to shut down the federal government, leaders in states and metropolitan areas are actually working to figure out ways to invest in their communities. This is not necessarily a new trend. Research from the Brookings Institution shows that the use of legislative referenda has increased in recent decades. Some regions—like the growing Phoenix, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, and Denver metropolitan areas—have a long history of this kind of self-help, going to their voters to approve transportation investment decisions.

The Eno Center for Transportation is eagerly tracking and cataloguing these measures. We expect to understand better what kind of projects voters are willing to support and what kind of funding mechanisms are the most palatable. In the meantime we are already seeing key trends emerge:

While states and metropolitan areas in the West have the culture of voter referendum, mostly because the ability to do so is written in to state constitutions, the phenomenon is spreading across the country. Maine residents will be voting on $100 million in general bond revenues for roads and bridges. Broward County, Florida voters will weigh-in on a sales tax increase to spend money to address traffic congestion. And voters in Arlington County, Virginia will consider spending $60 million for the region’s beleaguered subway system.

But while the nearly quarter-trillion in transportation dollars presented to voters will certainly get its share of attention, it’s not just about raising money. Alabamans will choose whether or not establish special districts to manage toll roads. Virginia Beach is asking the public whether it should be allowed to spend money to extend the region’s light rail lines to the city. Voters in Hawaii may decide whether to amend that state’s constitution to change the agency that oversees Honolulu’s $5.2 billion transit build-out.

And while referenda for public transit seem to dominate this year—including a $2.5 billion question in Atlanta—there’s more on the ballot than just rail and buses. Officials in the San Francisco region are seeking approval for investing in bicycle and pedestrian projects. Rhode Island is seeking to expand two seaports to accommodate new ship traffic resulting from the expansion of the Panama Canal. In Washington State, the people will decide whether to extend an existing tax break for customers who buy clean energy cars.

Of course, our nation’s transportation challenges will not be resolved with a simple flip of a lever in the voting booth. But we are paying close attention to the message voters will send this November. The results may mean a future of more citizen involvement in the decisions that shape their communities and regions. Others should pay attention too.

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