Transportation funding gets a boost at the ballot box

WASHINGTON – While most of the focus on Election Day was on the presidential race, voters in a number of states and cities decided on ballot measures that in total would provide billions of dollars to finance design and construction projects across the country.

The news was mostly good for firms working in the transportation market, which faced funding concerns caused by the 14-month delay in reauthorizing the federal-aid transportation program. According to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), Washington, D.C., the measures approved will generate at least $28 billion in new revenue for transportation infrastructure work. The Center for Transportation Excellence (CTE), a Washington-based transportation research organization, reports that voters approved a record number of ballot initiatives to fund transit this year. Of the 28 measures on the ballot that included public transportation funding, 22 initiatives were approved.

This has been a record year for transit initiatives,” said Stephanie Vance, program manger for the CTE. We’ve seen a significant jump in the number of transit initiatives on the ballot and in how many passed. This clearly is not a partisan issue. Of the states that passed initiatives yesterday, seven went for President Bush and four went for Senator Kerry.” In one of the largest ballot measures, Denver voters passed a sales-tax increase that will provide $4.7 billion for the Regional Transportation District to expand light rail and commuter rail lines.

Voters in Maricopa County, Ariz., including Phoenix and its suburbs, approved a 20-year extension of the half-cent transportation tax, which was due to expire in 2005.

The extension will help fund a $15.8-billion regional transportation plan that includes transit and road projects. The measure calls for 344 miles of new or improved freeways, 275 miles of new or improved arterial streets, an expanded regional bus system, and 27 miles of additional light-rail routes to expand a yet-to-be-built, 20-mile rail system.

Voters across California faced the largest number of transportation ballots, and many of those measures passed, authorizing billions of dollars for projects for the coming years. Voters in San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa counties gave approval to the Bay Area Rapid Transit District to issue up to $980 million in bonds for seismic upgrades.

Sales tax extensions to fund transportation projects received more than the necessary two-thirds approval in San Bernardino, Sacramento, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Marin counties. A $14-billion transportation measure in San Diego County was too close to call, but appeared to be winning. However, voters in Santa Cruz, Ventura, and Solano counties rejected transportation measures.

California voters also rejected two propositions covering Indian tribe gambling casinos. As a result of an agreement between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the casinos, the defeat will result in a $1-billion contribution by tribes to replenish transportation funds diverted by the state to cover the state budget gap.

In Missouri, a measure to limit the transfer of highway funds to other state agencies was approved. The constitutional amendment will phase out the transfer of money over four years, providing an average increase of about $30 million a year to highway projects. Half of the highway user fees are expected to go into a fund to repay state highway bonds, which supporters said will allow transportation officials to issue about $300 million a year in bonds for road projects.

In one of the few defeats for transportation, the Florida electorate reversed its decision from 2000 and voted to repeal an amendment to the state constitution requiring the state to build a high-speed rail connecting five cities.

Following are some of the other transportation measures that passed: Charleston County, S.C., voters approved a half-cent tax to raise $1.3 billion for projects and transit.

Voters in Fairfax County, Va., approved $300 million in transportation projects, including a subway link to the District of Columbia.

Rhode Island voters passed a measure to issue up to $66.5 million in general obligation bonds for improvements to the state’s roads, bridges, and transportation maintenance facilities, or to purchase buses.

Spokane County, Wash., voters approved $117 million in bonds for road repair.

In Texas, voters in metropolitan Austin approved a $60-million commuter rail starter line from Leander to downtown Austin.

Other construction measures Two ballot measures authorizing sports facilities were passed on Election Day. Voters in Sedgwick County, Kan., approved a 30-month, one-cent sales tax increase to fund an arena in Wichita, while voters in Arlington, Texas, approved a plan to sell bonds to pay approximately half the cost of a new, $650-million stadium for the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League.

While rejecting the property tax increase, Arkansas voters granted the General Assembly the power to authorize general obligation bond sales up to 5 percent of state general revenues for economic development projects that invest at least $500 million and create at least 500 jobs in the state. Bonds could be used for a variety of infrastructure needs.

In Miami-Dade County, Fla., voters approved eight proposals to issue $2.9 billion in general obligation bonds over the next 10 years. The bonds would pay for projects including sewers, water works, parks, bridges, public safety facilities, elderly housing, and cultural institutions.

Voters in Detroit approved $215 million worth of general obligation bond authorization for economic development, cultural, public safety, and transportation projects.

Voters in Columbus, Ohio, passed eight bond sales totaling $605 million to pay for capital improvement projects over the next five years.

It includes $184 million for roads, $104 million for storm sewers, $100 million for drinking water, and $95 million for sanitary sewers.

Of course, the results from the presidential and Congressional elections will have a national impact on design and environmental consulting firms in the coming years as well. But the state and local initiatives that passed on Election Day likely could end up having a more direct impact on those firms that will benefit from the increased infrastructure funding.

By Christopher Klein, a principal with ZweigWhite in Natick, Mass. He can be contacted at cklein@zweigwhite.com.