By Ed Rendell/Co-Chair, Building America’s Future
December 18, 2019
Now that the votes from November’s off-year elections have been tallied and the results analyzed, one thing is clear: It happened again.
Voters from Maine to Texas spoke loud and clear: They are sick and tired of endless car repair bills from driving on roads littered with potholes, exasperated at being stuck in endless traffic jams and frustrated at not having enough transit options. So at the polls, they approved a whopping 89 percent of the 305 state and local ballot initiatives seeking to generate revenue for transportation.
In many respects, this result is not surprising. These types of ballot initiatives have been wildly popular in recent years. According to data compiled by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, 81 percent of almost 2,000 ballot initiatives since 2010 have won the approval of voters.
This year, Mainers said yes to a $105 million bond measure that will inject life into projects ranging from roads to ports to transit to bike and pedestrian infrastructure. In Illinois, voters in Springfield agreed to a 20-year extension of a sales tax for transportation projects. And in Houston, a $3.5 billion bond measure for the area’s MetroNext transit improvement plan got the green light.
Action has not been limited to the ballot box. Governors and state legislators have stepped up in the face of growing citizen aggravation with the inadequate, aging condition of the nation’s transportation systems. Since 2013, 30 states have increased their gas tax — including five this year. These actions have been across the political spectrum, including reliably red states such as Alabama and blue states such as California.
What policymakers and voters across America understand is that improving and modernizing our infrastructure spans the political divide and is further proof that there are no Democratic bridges or Republican roads.
However, this message continues to fall on deaf ears in Washington. Despite starting the year in a partial government shutdown, 2019 began with optimism that a robust infrastructure package could finally move through Congress and onto President Trump’s desk. Talks between congressional Democrats and the president at first seemed promising, as Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan was boosted to $2 trillion. But as the reality of how to pay for such a measure took hold, negotiations collapsed.
As a result, attention has turned to the looming expiration of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, on Sept. 30, 2020. The multi-year FAST Act provides funding for roads, bridges and transit. The process has gotten off to a slow start. In the Senate, only the Environment and Public Works Committee has approved the road and bridge titles of the reauthorization; the Banking, Commerce and Finance committees still must draft their titles. In the House, the Transportation Committee has yet to unveil its reauthorization proposal.
The clock is ticking. September is less than one year away.
As Congress gets to work on this, I strongly encourage them to study successes at the state and local levels when it comes to addressing transportation challenges and paying for them. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Whether it’s updating decades-old user fees, exploring the feasibility of charging motorists by how much they drive, as opposed to how much fuel they consume, bonding, or leveraging public funds with private investment — potential solutions are staring us in the face.
At a time when the divisions between the parties are deeper than ever, modernizing America’s infrastructure is the perfect issue on which to find common ground. Yes, the challenges seem daunting, but they are not impossible.
Our state and local colleagues and voters alike have shown that it can be done. Now it’s Washington’s turn. Are they up to the challenge?
Edward G. Rendell, the 45th governor of Pennsylvania, is co-chair of the bipartisan advocacy group Building America’s Future.