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September 20, 2016 2:00 PM, EDT
Nearly Twice as Many Transportation Initiatives on 2016 Ballots as 2012
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While presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump dominate the election coverage, from Baldwin County, Alabama, to Los Angeles County, California, at least 57 transportation-related initiatives will appear on state and local ballots Nov. 8. That compares with 31 measures that went before the voters, 21 of which were approved, in the 2012 presidential election.

Aside from the proposals that will be decided in 14 counties apiece in California and Nevada, voters in Illinois, Maine — a $100 million bond issue, $80 million of which would go to roads and bridges — and New Jersey will weigh in on statewide transportation initiatives.

“We’ve seen initiatives transform the market in California over the last 15 years,” said Alison Premo Black, chief economist for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. “We’ve had a lot of concerns with the state funding, including budget cuts at Caltrans, so the county governments have continued to step up and fill that gap.”

The $120 billion, 40-year ballot measure in overwhelmingly Democratic Los Angeles to improve freeway traffic flow and safety, repair streets and potholes, and synchronize traffic signals is funded by a half-cent sales tax and the continuation of the half-cent traffic relief tax.

“The challenge in California is that you have to get a super-majority [two-thirds] of the vote,” Black noted.

Meanwhile, in deeply red Alabama, voters will decide whether to approve Amendment 12, which would establish a governing body that could issue bonds for the construction of toll roads such as one that would connect Interstate 10 and I-65 on the western side of the state's largest and fastest-growing county, Baldwin County. No county in Alabama currently manages its own roads.

Baldwin County, which abuts the western part of Florida’s panhandle, is larger than Rhode Island and over the last 30 years has transformed from a largely rural economy to one based on visitors to its beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.

“We need this road because Baldwin County is by far the largest generator of tourism dollars in Alabama,” said Republican State Representative Steve McMillan, the author of Amendment 12. “We have a Beach Express [highway] that runs from I-10 to the intercoastal canal. We want to extend it north to I-65. There’s also a 3,000-acre industrial site about a mile-and-a-half from the Bay Minette exit on I-65, so this would be important for commerce and freight.”

So despite the likely tolls, the Alabama Trucking Association doesn’t oppose Amendment 12 because the tolls would be placed on a new road, not an existing one.

“They’ve got a lot of congestion in that area, so they need to do something,” said association President Frank Filgo, who noted that I-10 and I-65 are major freight corridors that would benefit from the construction of a connector highway.

In Illinois and New Jersey, where transportation funding has been waylaid by partisan budget battles, voters finally will have their say.

Illinois’ House voted 98-4-2 and the Senate 55-0 in favor of transportation funding. If Constitutional Amendment 36, termed the Safe Roads Amendment by its backers, receives 60% of the vote, all transportation-derived revenues will be required to be spent on transportation projects. 

“That’s an important step for transportation funding in Illinois,” Black said.

New Jersey’s transportation lockbox only needs the support of a majority of voters. Public Question 2 would devote all fuel tax revenue to transportation even as Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, and State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, remain at odds over the financially bereft Transportation Trust Fund, which prompted the July 8 shutdown of all nonessential projects in the state.

“We are a corridor state,” Speaker Vincent Prieto said before the Assembly voted 75-0 and the Senate 35-2 to put the measure before the voters. “Transportation is our No. 1 key in fixing our infrastructure and investing in our infrastructure.”

In another indication that the public favors spending money on transportation, 98% of the 671 legislators in the eight states that passed fuel tax hikes in 2015 — Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah and Washington — who voted in favor of fuel tax hikes won their primary races this year.

Black also noted that Clinton and Trump have been talking about infrastructure more than President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney did in 2012.

“It’s good when the presidential candidates are talking about infrastructure, but a lot depends on Congress finding those revenues,” said Black, who credited Clinton for having one of the most detailed infrastructure plans of any candidate in memory.