ELECTION 2016: Voters in eight states to decide on transportation issues

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 11/3/2016

The race for the Oval Office continues to dominate election news, but are there transportation-specific issues you’ll need to know about when you get to the booth? The answer is yes. Ballots in eight states will include questions next week on transportation issues that include the protection of available funds, bond authorization and tolling authority.

A question on the New Jersey ballot will ask voters whether to ensure that all revenue from the state’s fuel taxes permanently goes toward improving transportation infrastructure.

Public Question 2 was placed on the ballot before Gov. Chris Christie signed into law a bill increasing the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax rate and 17.5-cent diesel rate by 23 cents and 27 cents, respectively.

The proposed constitutional amendment also protects any future fuel tax rate increases with the state’s Transportation Trust Fund receiving the new revenue. All the revenue from the petroleum products gross receipts tax that is added to the state’s fuel rates would also be dedicated to the trust fund.

Advocates say the ballot question is a commonsense first step to ensure that every penny of the state’s 37.5-cent gas tax and soon-to-be 44.5-cent diesel tax are not diverted from transportation.

Illinois could become the fourth state in recent years to enact a transportation “lockbox.”

Voters will decide whether to prevent revenues from the state’s road fund from being used for purposes not related to transportation.

Diverting revenue from fuel taxes and other driver fees is a common practice in Illinois. Since fiscal year 2003 a reported $6.8 billion in state transportation-related tax revenue has been raided for other purposes.

The diversions are contributing to the state’s projected $43 billion transportation funding shortfall over the next decade.

If approved, state lawmakers and the governor’s office would be prevented from tapping into the funding source for other uses.

The protection would not apply to state and local sales taxes. The taxes are often added to the fuel tax collected at the pump.

Wisconsin, Maryland and California voters have approved their own lockbox measures since 2010. Passage in Illinois requires a 60 percent margin.

The Alabama ballot includes a question to authorize a first-of-its-kind tolling authority in the state.

Passage of Amendment 12 would authorize the Alabama Legislature to allow cities in Baldwin County to build and operate toll roads and bridges.

Toll road authorities in the southwest Alabama locale where Interstates 10 and 65 pass through would be permitted to sell bonds to finance the projects.

Existing roads and bridges would be exempt from tolling.

Amendment 12 is in conjunction with Local Amendment 3 to enable tolls to pay for projects. Passage of the local question would permit the Baldwin County Commission – rather than municipalities – to create a toll road and bridge authority.

Supporters say the toll option could be used to extend the Beach Express at I-10, to I-65. They say the 22-mile extension of the Beach Express is vital for the county’s growth.

The toll authority would also be authorized to partner with other municipalities for road and bridge projects.

Washington state voters will decide whether to implement the nation’s first carbon emission tax. In an effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, the tax would be applied on the sale or use of certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

Initiative 732 would set the carbon emission tax at $15 per metric ton in July 2017. The tax would increase to $25 one year later. Each year thereafter the tax would increase by 3.5 percent plus inflation until the tax reaches $100 per metric ton.

To ease the financial hit to voters the initiative would reduce the state sales tax by 1 percent, increase a low-income exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes.

Among the concerns voiced by opponents is that the carbon tax would almost immediately increase the price of fuel by 25 cents per gallon. By the time the carbon tax is fully implemented, they say the tax rates for gas and diesel would increase by 90 cents and $1, respectively.

Critics note the increases would be on top of the recent 12-cent rate hike approved by state lawmakers that put the tax rates at 49.4 cents.

Opponents add that the initiative would offset some of the savings for average families by generating increased energy costs.

In Rhode Island, the statewide ballot includes a question to issue $70 million in general obligation bonds to fund port infrastructure projects.

Question 5 would allot $50 million for improvements at the Port of Davisville in Quonset. Specifically, the money would be used to modernize Pier 2, which handles heavy cargo and automobile imports.

The other $20 million would pay for an expansion at the Port of Providence.

Advocates say the investments are necessary for the state’s ports to accommodate shipments that include those using the widened Panama Canal. They say many of the bigger ships are expected to make their way through the canal and unload their cargo into deep-water ports along the East Coast.

Currently, the only two deep-water ports in New England are located in Providence and Boston.

Another transportation bond question is on the Maine ballot. Voters will decide whether to approve $100 million in bonds.

Question 6 would result in $80 million designated for construction and maintenance of state highways and local bridges. The remaining $20 million would be used for the state’s ports, harbors, transit and freight rail, and bicycle and pedestrian trails.

Supporters say the bonds are needed to secure an estimated $137 million in federal matching funds for transportation work in the state.

Opponents say it’s not good business to rely on borrowing to pay for projects. Instead, they say the state would be better served to increase the tax rates on gas and diesel to pay for needed work and to match federal funds. They say the tried-and-true method of raising revenue is fairer, cheaper and more efficient.

Missouri voters will decide whether to boost tax revenue via tobacco purchases to benefit transportation work.

Proposition A is a proposed state constitutional amendment. If approved, taxes on cigarettes would increase by 23 cents per pack of 20 by 2021. An additional 5 percent sales tax would be applied for other tobacco products.

Tax revenue is estimated to generate between $95 million and $103 million once the taxes are fully implemented.

The per-pack tax would increase by 13 cents in January 2017. Another 5-cent increase would be imposed two years later. An identical 5-cent boost would be applied in January 2021.

Missouri officials in recent years have tried unsuccessfully to come up with a funding plan to address the state’s shrinking budget for transportation purposes.

In 2014, the Missouri General Assembly fell just short of approving a three-fourths-cent general sales tax for roads and other transportation programs.

Earlier this year legislation died to authorize public-private partnerships to get road and bridge work done. A separate effort that met the same fate sought to raise the state’s gas tax by 7 cents and the diesel tax by 8 cents.

The state now charges a 17.3-cent-per-gallon fuel tax rate. The tax rate has remained unchanged since 1996.

The legislative efforts called for giving voters the final say.

A California ballot question would let voters decide on the state’s biggest projects. Specifically, Proposition 53 would require a public vote before the state could issue more than $2 billion in revenue bonds.

Unlike general obligation bonds, existing California law does not require a public vote to sell revenue bonds for projects. The bonds are repaid via revenue collected from people who use them, such as people who pay to access a toll road.

The proposition would also prohibit dividing projects into multiple separate projects to avoid a statewide voter approval requirement. In addition, the rule would apply to previously approved projects if the remaining bond amount exceeds $2 billion.

One project that could be affected is the high-speed rail, or “bullet train,” project approved by voters in 2009. The project is billed as being able to provide transport from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than three hours.

Cost estimates for the massive project were initially pegged at nearly $10 billion when voters approved general obligation bonds for the work. Revenue bonds are now being considered to cover cost estimates that have increased to nearly $70 billion.

For more 2016 election coverage from Land Line, click here.

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