Despite fresh talk on infrastructure, ballot-measure failures show it's an uphill battle

Even before all the ballots across the country are counted, talk of a possible bipartisan infrastructure bill has became a popular topic.

President Trump spoke of the possibility of working with the new Democratic majority in the House, and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the likely chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he believes Trump's comment was sincere.

Talking up infrastructure has become commonplace after national elections. That goes back multiple presidents. Two years ago, there was much optimism in infrastructure circles following Trump’s victory, combined with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress.

While tax legislation was approved in 2017, there was no significant progress on infrastructure, and experts at the Eno Center of Transportation said it could be an uphill battle to get it done ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

File photo

Rep. Peter DeFazio is likely to become chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Jeff Davis, senior fellow at Eno, said while everyone is saying the right things, “when it comes down to it you have to pay for it.”

There remains little support for raising federal fuel taxes, and Davis said House Democrats are likely to seek some rollbacks to the tax legislation to fund the bill. That could lead to push back from Republicans on Capitol Hill, and certainly from Trump.

Davis and Eno President Robert Puentes said ballot measures across the country found little support for “user fees” to pay for local or states infrastructure projects.

Two separate measures failed in Colorado, a carbon tax was voted down in Washington state, and Missouri rejected an increase to the state’s fuel tax. These could be cautionary signs to lawmakers as they consider infrastructure funding options moving forward. 

On the flip side, a proposition in California that would have reversed a 2017 law imposing a 20-cent-a-gallon tax on diesel and 12 cents on gasoline was defeated. However, voters were not deciding whether to raise taxes beyond what they have already been paying. 

In addition, several localized measures involving a small boost in sales taxes for specific projects did garner enough support to pass.


A look at a few of the larger ballot measures on election night. The ones crossed out were voted down.

Overall, the Eno experts said these ballot measures are gaining in popularity at the state and local level to overcome the constant federal gridlock, which is likely to continue. 

There were 314 measures across the country, with many of them localized and required by law (especially in Michigan and Ohio). Of the estimated $50 billion in transport-related measures on ballots, about 59% focused on roads, 22% focused on transit and 9% involved bicycle/pedestrian projects.

There is also a growing emphasis on multimodal projects, and those are also finding more support by voters across the country, Davis said. 

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