Another big winner in Tuesday’s elections: Transportation

Former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bud Shuster secured nearly $1 billion in earmarked funds in the 1980s and 1990s to build an 84-mile highway through his hometown of Altoona, Pa. The road is seen here at the Scotia Road interchange, June 18, 2002.
Former Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Bud Shuster secured nearly $1 billion in earmarked funds in the 1980s and 1990s to build an 84-mile highway through his hometown of Altoona, Pa. The road is seen here at the Scotia Road interchange, June 18, 2002. MCT

Besides voting for senators, House members and governors, nearly half the country cast ballots on transportation measures Tuesday, continuing a trend in recent years that’s partially driven by Washington gridlock.

A long-term federal funding solution for the nation’s highways and transit systems has been elusive. While some lawmakers have pressed for an immediate fix, it’s not clear whether the Obama administration can reach an agreement with the newly bolstered Republican majorities in Congress before a temporary funding bill expires in May.

As federal efforts have stalled, the power to solve transportation problems has been put in the hands of governors, state legislatures and voters. According to a post-election analysis by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, a trade group, voters approved two-thirds of the transportation-related initiatives on the ballot Tuesday.

“All levels of government have to lift some of the weight,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president for policy at the American Public Transportation Association.

Beth Osborne, a former acting assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, said that transportation performs better than most issues on the ballot.

“People can’t rely on the feds to come up with new money,” said Osborne, who joined Transportation for America, a coalition of transportation advocates, earlier this year. “States are the ones that are making it their priority.”

Texas voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, which will set aside billions of dollars of the state’s “rainy day” fund for the State Highway Fund. It is expected to raise $1.7 billion in the first year.

Like many states, Texas has not raised its gasoline tax in more than two decades. But the newly dedicated highway money will come from existing taxes and fees on the state’s oil and gas industry, which is booming.

Wisconsin and Maryland voted for similar measures that would make it harder for those states to shift transportation funds to non-transportation purposes, such as balancing budgets.

Not every statewide measure to raise transportation money succeeded. Massachusetts voters narrowly repealed a law that indexed the state’s gasoline tax to inflation, meaning it would go up every year.

And Louisiana voters resoundingly defeated a proposal to establish a state infrastructure bank. The measure was one of 16 constitutional amendments the state’s voters were asked to consider. Osborne said the infrastructure proposal may have been one too many.

“When you’re slogging through 16,” she said, “it makes voters cranky.”

Overall, though, voters appeared to be willing to tax themselves to pay for transportation. According to the road and transportation builders group, voters approved 20 of 32 measures increasing gasoline or general sales taxes. They also voted for 13 of 14 bond measures and approved 23 of 35 measures increasing property taxes for transportation.

In Atlanta, where voters just two years ago rejected a package of transportation projects, suburban Clayton County voted 74 percent to 26 percent for a one-cent sales tax increase that would pay for bus service, and perhaps eventually an extension of Atlanta’s MARTA rail line.

Several California cities and counties voted to increase taxes for mass transit. Raising taxes for transportation requires a two-thirds majority for approval in California, but such efforts succeeded in Monterey and Alameda counties.

San Francisco approved a $500 million bond for transit, while Seattle voted for an annual $60 vehicle licensing fee and a tenth-of-a-cent sales tax increase to pay mainly for bus service.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, 15 out of 25 transit-related measures were approved nationwide, or 60 percent.

Transit didn’t prevail everywhere. Voters in Austin, Texas, rejected a bond measure to fund rail transit. Wichita, Kan., voted down a one-cent sales tax increase that would have funded transportation and other projects. Pinellas County, Fla., rejected a one-cent sales tax to pay for light rail and expanded bus service.

But counting other votes on transit measures this year with Tuesday’s, 71 percent of pro-transit measures passed, a rate consistent with how the issue has fared over time, Guzzetti said.

“This year was not an over-the-top year, but a good, solid year,” he said.

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