Congress Elections Infrastructure President

The Vote 2012

» A change in power in Washington will affect federal commitment to sustainable transportation, but so will local ballot measures.

The first two years of the Obama Administration, accompanied by Democratic Party control of the U.S. House and Senate, produced significant new investments in transportation projects nationwide. Over $10 billion was distributed to intercity rail projects across the country, new funds were devoted to streetcar and bus rapid transit lines, and the government began an unprecedented period of cooperation between the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Since early 2011, however, much of this progress has been stalled thanks to a stingy U.S. House newly controlled by the Republican Party. Their leadership, both in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Budget Committee, has promoted a significant decrease in funding for alternative transportation. A House committee voted in favor of legislation that would eliminate the guaranteed distribution of gas tax revenues for transit; the full body repeatedly voted against high-speed rail investment; and previous requirements for states and localities to invest in pedestrian-oriented projects have been scoffed at.

Mitt Romney’s decision to select Paul Ryan, head of the House Budget Committee, suggests that, if he were elected, he would pursue a similar significant reduction in spending on transportation. Barack Obama has campaigned, on the other hand, in favor of transferring funds currently being spent on the war in Afghanistan on “nation building at home,” or improved infrastructure in the U.S.

But President Obama’s advocacy of a large transportation bill in 2011 and 2012 was ignored by Congress. Only in the summer of 2012 were Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate able to compromise on a two-year transportation bill that maintained previous levels of investment, largely on the back of deficit spending. There is little evidence that there is any source of new funding for transportation projects that will acquire bipartisan support.

Polls indicate that President Obama is likely to win reelection, Democrats will keep the Senate, and Republicans will keep the House. These conditions will probably prevent the federal government from increasing investment in alternative transportation over the next two years. We’ll likely be at a stalemate.

Fortunately, measures also on the ballot in many cities will play a big role in determining the future of America’s transportation investments. Below is a summary of the major measures up for vote. It is not an exhaustive list, only including transit spending in major metropolitan areas; it does not include proposals to expand investment in highway infrastructure, such as Arkansas’ Issue 1, which would distribute about $1.3 billion to new four-lane roadways across the state. For a full list, see the Center for Transportation Excellence.

Follow me @ttpolitic for live coverage. On another topic, you may also be interested in the op-ed on the home mortgage deduction I co-authored with Professor Lawrence Vale in last Wednesday’s New York Times.

Round-up of local ballot measures (and one mayoral election) that will affect transit projects nationwide. Updated with results 9 AM Wednesday

1. Alameda County (California) Measure B1 : Failed with 65.5% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

This county, across the Bay from San Francisco and incorporating the cities of Oakland and Berkeley, among others, is proposing a 30-year extension of its existing transportation sales tax. The $7.7 billion expected to be collected over the period will be distributed to transportation improvement projects, with about half going to public transportation and 39% to roads. 24% of overall funding will be distributed to transit operations and maintenance and a significant amount diverted to transit capital projects, such as the long-sought-after Dumbarton Rail project, BRT corridors, and infill stations along BART.

About $400 million in tax revenues will be distributed to the BART to Livermore expansion project, which is likely to increase sprawl in the eastern sections of the Bay Area as it improves transit access to the Livermore Lab, for better or worse.

2. Arlington County (Virginia) Bond : Passed

This (increasingly urban) suburb of Washington, D.C. is asking voters to approve a $32 million bond to be spent on transit, roads, bike, and pedestrian projects. About half will be spent on fleet and capital improvements for the region’s Metrorail network. Over the past five decades, the County has been a very responsible custodian of its transportation network and invested in projects that have encouraged transportation alternatives.

3. Clark County (Washington) Sales Tax : Failed

Vancouver, Washington is just adjacent to Portland, Oregon and is expected to welcome an expansion of the latter city’s light rail network in the next few decades thanks to a new crossing over the Columbia River. A 0.1% increase in the existing sales tax will provide funding for light rail and bus rapid transit operations in the Fourth Plain Corridor, which extends from Vancouver’s downtown.

4. Honolulu (Hawaii) Mayor’s Race : Caldwell (pro-rail) Wins

More than any other city in the country, Honolulu’s transit future depends on this mayoral election. The city has a more than $5 billion elevated metro rail line under construction that is expected to carry more than 100,000 riders a day thanks to a corridor that serves most of the city’s major destinations. The project has been under development for a decade, has assurances of federal funding, and has the support of locals thanks to previous approvals of a dedicated tax to pay for the line. Candidate Kirk Caldwell, who has previously served as acting mayor, is supporting the project.

But opponent Ben Cayetano argues the rail line is a waste of money and that funds could be better spent on bus rapid transit corridors that would be less visually intrusive than the rail line. He claims (without much evidence) that the city could reorient federal funding into such a project and serve as many people. He has promised to shut down the line’s construction if he is elected.

5. Houston (Texas) Sales Tax Diversion : Passed (Diversion continues)

Since 2003, a quarter of Houston’s 1% transit sales tax is redistributed to local communities under the General Mobility Program. This effectively allows cities to build roads ith  money that was originally supposed to be directed to bus operations and light rail expansion. The diversion of funds was initially supposed to end in 2014, but voters are being asked whether they want to extend the diversion until 2025.

While transit advocates argue the policy is depriving the city’s public transportation network of desperately needed funds, local mayors argue they need the money to continue their normal operations.

6. Kansas City (Missouri) Streetcar

Kansas City is planning a $100 million streetcar line that will connect destinations downtown. Unlike many other cities, locals here are planning to pay for the project mostly out of local funds. Specifically, about 700 downtown residents are being asked whether they are willing to pay special assessments and a 1¢ sales tax for the privilege of funding the streetcar.

The mail-in ballot is not due back until December 11, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to hear back about these results.

7. Los Angeles (California) Streetcar

Like Kansas City, L.A. also expects local residents to consider paying a dedicated tax to construct a streetcar line. The mail-in ballot will fund a project that connects with the region’s subway and light rail networks and serves the biggest destinations in downtown L.A. There is some question as to whether the project is duplicative of existing services.

Citing Portland’s experience, many proponents of investments in streetcar lines argue that the systems can play an important role in encouraging economic development and improving property values. The local taxes proposed in L.A. and Kansas City are a test of whether property owners in those cities are willing to bet on that concept.

8. Los Angeles (California) Measure J : Failed with 64.7% voting in favor (needs 2/3)

Fresh off the passage of Measure R in 2008, L.A.’s Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is proposing extending that half-cent sales tax from 2039 (when it was supposed to expire) to 2069. This extension will allow L.A. County to use projected revenues far into the future to pay for transit and highway investment projects today. If passed, the measure will make it possible to complete many of the region’s major mass transit projects, including a subway to UCLA, an airport link, and a downtown connector, far more quickly than originally planned.

9. Memphis (Tennessee) Gas Tax : Failed

This city’s leadership is promoting a unique approach to improving funding for the area’s public transportation system, MATA. By implementing a local tax on gasoline equivalent to 1¢ per gallon sold, the city will be able to raise between $3 to $6 million for transit. Specifically, funds will go to expanding service on 8 bus routes and the downtown trolley.

10. Orange County (North Carolina) Sales Tax : Passed

Last year, voters of Durham County, Orange County’s neighbor to the east, approved a half-cent sales tax, dedicated to funding transit. The two counties, part of the broader Research Triangle region, plan to significantly improve bus services and construct new light and commuter rail lines. If Orange County’s residents approve the tax, about $661 million will be collected over the next thirty years, about $418 million of which will be devoted to a light rail line connecting the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill and downtown Durham.

11. Richland County (South Carolina) Sales Tax

This county, whose seat is Columbia, the state’s capital, is asking its voters to consider the imposition of a one-cent sales tax that will fund roads, greenways, and bike lanes. The tax is expected to raise about $1.1 billion over 22 years, of which $301 million, or about one quarter, will be spent on improving bus service on the region’s Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. About $656 million will be spent on local roads.

12. Virginia Beach (Virginia) Light Rail Advisory Vote : Passed

Fresh off the success of the new light rail line in neighboring Norfolk, Virginia Beach is considering whether to extend that line into the city and perhaps all the way to the waterfront. Citizens are being asked whether they approve of the idea or not, but the city council, advised by this citizen input, will make the final decision on whether to pursue the project or not.

Image at top: Rendering of proposed Kansas City Streetcar, from KC Smart Moves