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Vol. 13, No. 7- Special Post-Election Issue, November 2002

The Impact of the November Elections
The November elections have wrought major changes in the political landscape. Defying past mid-term election results, the Republicans gained control of the Senate and strengthened their hold on the House. A total of 40 Governorships changed hands, with the Republicans retaining a slim majority of them. Voters have sent mixed signals on whether they want to tax themselves for transportation improvements. Of the more than 40 transportation referenda on the ballot across the nation, half failed, including hard-fought transportation initiatives in Northern Virginia, Cincinnati and Washington State. In this Special Post Election issue, Innovation Briefs speculates how these and other election-night developments will affect the transportation sector in the years ahead.

The Congress
The Republican victory will mean a turnover in key Senate committee chairmanships in the 108th Congress. Although definitive changes may not become known until the new Congress reconvenes in January, congressional sources speculate that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) will take over as chairman of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, replacing Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), while Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) will assume leadership of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee replacing Sen. James Jeffords (I-VT). With Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH), currently ranking minority member, not returning to the Senate next year, the chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Transportation, Infrastructure and Nuclear Safety may pass to Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO). Sen. John McCain (R-AR) is expected to take over as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee from Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC).

The Senate realignment is bound to lead to shifts in legislative priorities. Sen. Inhofe’s ascendancy to the chairmanship of the Senate EPW Committee means a more sympathetic consideration of environmental streamlining. A bill to expedite environmental reviews (S.3031), co-sponsored late in the 107th session by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and John Warner (R-VA), is likely to be re-introduced during the next session. With Rep. Don Young (R-AK), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also in favor of expedited project delivery, prospects for congressional passage of a streamlining bill appear bright. Sen. Inhofe may also be expected to put a damper on various environmental initiatives favored by the Democrats, such as regulation of carbon dioxide emissions and higher vehicle fuel efficiency standards. Sen. McCain, a vocal critic of Amtrak, will probably press for serious reforms of the nation’s intercity rail, an attitude shared in the House by Rep. Don Young.

The consequences of the Republican takeover of the Senate Appropriations Committee are less clear. Most vulnerable appears the Seattle light rail project (Link), currently under review by the US DOT’s Inspector General and also awaiting congressional scrutiny. The project’s prospects for federal funding are likely to suffer from the diminished clout of its chief booster, the outgoing chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). There may be other changes in the Committee’s funding priorities, although overall support for transit under Sen. Shelby’s chairmanship is not expected to diminish.

The November elections have had little effect on the makeup of the House transportation leadership. Representatives Don Young (R-AK), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Thomas Petri (R-WI), chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, and Harold Rogers (R-KY) , chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, all easily won reelection and are expected to remain at the helm of their respective committees.

The States
Republicans made a surprisingly strong showing not only in Congress but also in state legislatures. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Republicans gained control of 21 legislatures, up from 17, picking up Texas (for the first time since 1870), Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Wisconsin. Democrats will control 17 legislatures, down from 18. Eleven states will have split party control. Changes in the legislative makeup are likely to have minimal effect on state transportation policies. However, with new governors taking office in 40 state capitals, there will be many new faces among state DOT directors and possible organizational changes within some state DOTs.

Transportation Referenda
Voters sent mixed signals concerning their willingness to tax themselves for transportation improvements. Of the more than 40 transportation initiatives on the November ballot across the nation, about half failed, despite support by the business community and politicians of both parties. Among the defeated proposals were hard fought initiatives to raise local sales taxes for programs of road and transit improvements in Virginia’s Washington suburbs and the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area (the former losing by 55-to-45); and in Fresno County, CA. In Washington State, voters dealt transportation a double blow by rejecting a proposal for a statewide 9-cent increase in the gasoline tax to finance highway construction and transit by nearly a 2 to 1 margin; and by approving a measure (Initiative 776) that would reduce vehicle license fees thereby slashing 20 percent from the Seattle transit agency’s budget. In Ohio’s Hamilton County (which includes Cincinnati), voters rejected by a 2-to-1 margin a proposed sales tax increase that would finance a $2.7 billion transportation plan whose centerpiece was to be a 60-mile light rail system.

However, the November mid-term elections were not an unmitigated debacle for transportation. Miami-Dade County voters approved a half-cent sales tax hike for expansion of their mass transit system, including a 90-mile extension of the rail system. In Las Vegas, voters agreed to pay an extra one-quarter cent in sales tax, much of which will be devoted to transportation improvements. And, in a development that surprised many local officials, Seattle voters agreed by a margin of a few hundred votes to tax themselves to the tune of $1.7 billion to build a 14-mile monorail line.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, Democrat County Executive Doug Duncan, campaigning for a third term, proposed a one-billion program of highway and transit improvements, including a controversial suburban "Intercounty Connector," to be financed by an increase in the property tax. Duncan not only won handily, but also helped to elect a slate of County council members favorable to his ambitious transportation plan, while helping to defeat Council incumbents who opposed the plan.

Why did transportation come out ahead in Montgomery County while it went down to defeat in the equally congested neighboring counties of Northern Virginia? It’s a question that is provoking much thoughtful debate throughout the region.

The Smart Growth Movement
The Northern Virginia and Washington State transportation tax initiatives were defeated by coalitions of anti-tax conservatives and environmentalists with the latter opposing the initiatives partly because new transportation infrastructure, in their view, would exacerbate sprawl. However, on the whole, the smart growth forces had mixed success in promoting anti-sprawl measures in local elections. In California, the bellwether of land use reform, 19 of 32 local land use ballot measures were won by the pro-growth forces, according to the California Planning and Development Report. Smart growth advocates lost in some surprising places, such as Sonoma and Marin counties, both places where anti-development sentiments held strong in the past. In Maryland, whose Governor Glendening was one of the most fervent advocates of "smart growth," voters defeated Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the democratic candidate who sought to succeed Glendening and who championed smart growth policy as part of her election campaign. "Opposition to sprawl does not energize the base nor does it resonate with the electorate at large," a Montgomery County, MD official told us.

Implications for the Reauthorization
Will the November elections have a significant effect on the upcoming surface transportation reauthorization? The odds are against it. To be sure, a Republican-controlled Senate may be inclined to be somewhat less generous in funding programs favored by the urban and environmental constituencies, but any partisan differences about specific programs are likely to be overshadowed by the perennial "donor-donee" issue and by the challenge of increasing the overall size of the surface transportation program.

 



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