I love voting on Election Day. Not early voting, not absentee voting, but waiting in line with my friends and neighbors, going into a semi-private booth and pressing a button, pulling a lever or using whatever modern voting technology I find. I proudly wear my “I Voted” sticker.
This week, as I scrolled through countless uncontested “races” for various Maryland county judges, sheriff, and the Register of Wills, I noticed a ballot initiative that would prohibit taking money from the state’s transportation fund, except in very limited, emergency circumstances. (I voted “yes” on that one.)
I’ll admit to being surprised by that initiative, and by definition, to not having reviewed carefully the sample ballot I received in the mail. After all, while most Americans support the concept of safe and reliable infrastructure, it rarely cracks the top ten issues of concern in any particular election season. Ebola, ISIS, and immigration may have been on people’s minds this year, in part because that’s what the endless TV ads told us to worry about. Infrastructure? Not so much.
Even though politicians weren’t speaking about public infrastructure, more than a handful of referenda or initiatives appeared on ballots across the country addressing infrastructure funding and priorities.
What did the voters say?
According to the Center for Transportation Excellence scorecard, it was a decidedly mixed bag.
- The idea of a transportation “lock box,” like the Maryland initiative, also won handily in Wisconsin. Both measures passed with over 80 percent “for” votes. That’s what I’d call a mandate.
- Sales tax initiatives in a couple of Florida counties for devoted transportation funding or dividing up funding between road and transit projects crashed and burned.
- By contrast, in conservative-leaning Georgia, Cobb and Clayton Counties approved one cent sales taxes devoted to transportation projects and to join the MARTA transit system, respectively. This may go to prove that traditional political predilections may not hold true when it comes to infrastructure.
- Further proof that politics and infrastructure spending are unpredictable? A Massachusetts ballot measure passed to repeal a recently passed law that would increase the state gasoline tax annually to match any increase in the consumer price index. That measure had a good catch phrase: “Tank the Automatic Gas Tax Hike.” Given that price indexing has been a fix advocated by national transportation organizations, the Massachusetts result may be sobering.
- A proposed constitutional amendment to establish an infrastructure bank in Louisiana lost by a 2-1 margin. (Anyone think that Senator Landrieu has a chance in the upcoming run-off?) Given the new conservative majority in the U.S. Senate and a larger majority in the House, this result does not bode well for the idea of a federal infrastructure bank.
- Texas approved a statewide constitutional amendment that diverts half of the general revenue derived from oil and gas taxes from the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF, aka, the Rainy Day Fund) to the State Highway Fund for the purpose of providing transportation funding for repairs and maintenance of public roads.
- Perhaps the biggest election result with respect to infrastructure investment was the loss of Congressman Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the ranking member of the House T&I Committee. Even far-right conservative colleagues issued statements of regret over losing such a pragmatic transportation advocate.
Overall, trends for infrastructure policy as a result of the 2014 election may be hard to discern, but some states and localities spoke clearly (and across party lines). As we move ahead into the final Congress of the Obama Presidency with a Highway Bill yet to pass, consider first this cartoon from political satirist Tom Toles in the Washington Post, which sums up the views of many when it comes to the current political atmosphere and infrastructure.
And this – the 2016 Presidential campaign has begun! (Oy.)