While the future of federal funding looks to be uncertain at best given the rhetoric of the presidential campaigns and party platforms that emerged during the summer, the record levels of spending being contemplated by cities, states and regions across the country could shift the balance of power in transportation policy. Those whose jobs depend on future planning — that means most of us — are well advised to watch what happens this fall.

Record funding to be decided

A record number of such measures are on ballots across the country, reflecting an increased interest in meeting the growing demand for public transportation by local and state action. According to the Center for Public Transportation Excellence, a Washington, D.C. group that tracks ballot measures, as much as $200 billion to be spent over the next several decades could be decided by voters this year. 

This trend may grow in future years, because more states are allowing such measures to be placed on the ballot. They also tend to be one of the most successful kinds of initiatives, rivaling, or even succeeding in some cases those for schools and public safety.

The trend also matches actions by traditional state legislatures and city and county governments for more public transportation investments. Even in states where legislatures are controlled by conservative Republicans, elected officials are voting for more rail and bus investments.

As with many trends, though, one state to watch this fall is California. Aside from the big ballot measures to be decided in San Diego, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Sacramento, the state government will decide on a $7.4 billion annual expansion of surface transportation spending, to be paid for with increases in fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and earmarking of the revenues from state’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gases. Were that not enough, this bill also seeks to lower the threshold for passing transportation ballot measures to 55%, from the two-thirds needed currently.

What it could mean for public transportation

These referenda have enormous implications for the industry. First, as each state and region is able to control its fiscal destiny better, planning could become much better for both public agencies and private sector companies alike, enabling them to do much more sustainable hiring and research, which will help the long-term outlook of the industry. Secondly, as power shifts to lower levels of government, the ability of the federal government to impose national policies becomes diluted when threats of withholding money are less important. Some cities are already thinking how their own economic policy planning changes when only local money is involved.

In short, 2016 could be a bellwether. To say that all of this bears watching come November is the height of understatement.

While the future of federal funding looks to be uncertain at best given the rhetoric of the presidential campaigns and party platforms that emerged during the summer, the record levels of spending being contemplated by cities, states and regions across the country could shift the balance of power in transportation policy. Those whose jobs depend on future planning — that means most of us — are well advised to watch what happens this fall.

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