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States, Look to the Ballot Box

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Voters fill out ballots in 2013. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

If states expect to make any infrastructure improvements anytime soon, they're going to have to find their own ways to make it happen. Just last week, the Congressional Budget Office said the highway trust fund would be short $13 billion by the end of September and likely have to cut back some payments in the summer months to maintain a balance in the account.

States are going to have to step up, but they can't do it unilaterally. Increasingly, states' residents are proving that they are in the best position to dictate how to move forward. Through ballot initiatives, voters are telling their state and local authorities 'yay' or 'nay' about whether to spend taxpayer money on bridges, roads, and transit.

 

Voter initiatives may be a pretty good gauge of what the public is willing to take on in terms of its own infrastructure. "The public is a lot more sophisticated and understanding of the choices that have to make when you explain it to them," said David Parkhurst, who deals with infrastructure issues for the National Governors Association. "If you want A, you can pay for it, or it's going to come at the expense of B."

Los Angeles is mulling a ballot measure to increase sales taxes by half a cent for commuter trains after a successful request to city residents in 2008.

Colorado officials have decided not to seek additional money from taxpayers to fund a rail and rapid transit bus route from Denver to Boulder, reading polling numbers that suggested the initiative wouldn't fly.

 

And of course there was Atlanta in 2012, when voters rejected a proposed one-cent sales tax hike that would have paid for roads, bike paths, public transit, and sidewalks.

In all of those cases, Parkhurst says the public keeps state and local transportation officials honest and open, even if the outcome isn't always what the transportation officials want. "Denver was able to read conditions. They could read the field," he said. "If you don't have the right people in play that understand the field and understand the social environment, you're not going to get what you want."

Even though Atlanta's experience was embarrassing for proponents, it is not the norm. Last year, 86 percent of ballot initiatives were approved to raise taxes or otherwise increase funding for infrastructure, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. The year before, 68 percent of such initiatives were approved.

In other words, ballot initiatives aren't always a slam dunk. But the public is certainly willing to step up if they believe the state is giving them something worth paying for.

 

For our insiders: How do ballot initiatives change the public dialogue about infrastructure? What are some of the common mistakes that state or local governments can avoid in seeking public support for infrastructure money? Is it true that appealing to voters makes the process more transparent? Or does it just dumb down the conversation? What other options do states have to finance their infrastructure, other than begging the federal government not to let them down?

(Note: This is a moderated blog on transporation issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be a regular contributor, contact me.)

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