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February 13, 2017 3:30 AM, EST

Transport ‘Lockbox’ Advocates Say Success Requires Simplicity

This story appears in the Feb. 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Advocates who helped transportation lockboxes receive approvals from voters in Maryland, Illinois and New Jersey in 2014 and 2016 said that keeping the proposals simple is critical to their success at the polls.

“It was pretty clear that voters prioritized safety, accountability … and the positive impact on the economy that transportation has,” said Michael Sturino, president of the Illinois Road and Transportation Builders Association, about that state’s Safe Roads Amendment of 2016. Sturino spearheaded that effort with the support of local governments, the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions as well as transportation stakeholders.

Sturino was one of several experts who spoke about lockboxes during a Feb. 7 webinar presented by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Representatives from 28 states listened to the webinar, which ARTBA’s Carolyn Kramer said was intended as a tool to help other states create lockbox legislation.

The Illinois amendment mandated that any money raised for transportation purposes by any government entity in Illinois — which hasn’t raised fuel taxes since 1990 — must be spent on transportation activities. It needed 60% approval by the voters to become law; it received 79%.

“The voters were angry,” Sturino said. He noted that although Illinois governors and legislators diverted $6.8 billion of transportation-derived dollars to other uses from 2003-2016, a state court ruled that “nothing that could stop them short of a constitutional amendment.”

James Russ, president of the Maryland Transportation Builders and Materials Association, said his state’s lockbox amendment in 2014 culminated a long-standing effort that began in frustration with governors committing similar “raids” on transportation- derived revenue to balance budgets.

Russ said support from Senate President Mike Miller and the passage of a transportation bill in neighboring Virginia in 2013 helped forge a broad coalition of stakeholders that got the attention of reluctant legislators who eventually voted to put the lockbox on the ballot. Eighty-two percent of Marylanders approved devoting all money from fuel taxes, registration, license and transit fees for transportation.

The situation was more complicated in New Jersey, whose transportation funding woes weren’t caused by revenue diversion but by the state’s low fuel taxes — second-lowest in the nation behind oil-rich Alaska. The Garden State’s Transportation Trust Fund ran dry last July, prompting a shutdown of all but emergency road work.

An ad that ran in New Jersey last fall reminded voters that tax hikes of 27 cents on diesel and 23 cents on gas had just become law and said the lockbox would ensure that all money from those increases would go to the TTF. The pro-lockbox ads urged voters to prevent the state from pilfering dedicated road funds with the slogan: “Don’t Trust Trenton? Vote Yes on Question 2.”

Anthony Attanasio, executive director of the Utility & Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey, led the campaign to pass the lockbox initiative. He said “the wording of your [amendment] really matters. The greatest of intentions can lead to unintended consequences. Illinois had it right. Keep it simple.”

New Jersey’s lockbox amendment, which was passed by the Legislature there in December 2015, well in advance of the fuel tax hikes, referenced borrowing and offsetting tax cuts that had yet to be decided upon. Attanasio said that poor wording and strong opposition from Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and a leading talk show host sank polling support for the lockbox. However, after the pro-lockbox media blitz, the amendment was approved, albeit by just a 55-45 margin.

Attanasio said having a list of projects that can be accomplished with the increased funding — which Gov. Chris Christie’s administration refused to provide — is the top suggestion he can give to states such as Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Virginia that are mulling lockbox amendments.

“Show people what they’re going to get and then explain how you’re going to pay for it,” Attanasio said. “We didn’t have that in New Jersey, which made it very difficult for us.”