Hold your nose and head to the polls, America!
Like it or not, the AEC industry has much riding on votes that will be cast all across the U.S. on Tuesday, Nov. 8. In a year dominated by a U.S. presidential race like no other — one that has left much of the country tired, angry, and even depressed — there are still other vital matters in play regarding public infrastructure investment that could trigger billions of dollars worth of potential construction projects in 2017 and beyond.
As we all know, the two major political parties can agree on little at the national level. But cities, counties, and states on the front lines of the U.S. infrastructure crisis this fall are asking taxpayers to fund massive public works repairs and a raft of varied new projects — from transit and schools to sports stadia and all aimed at spurring needed economic growth among competing cities.
This fall, local legislators and public interest groups have seized the development reins, placing countless measures on ballots nationally that promote infrastructure growth. In particular, the current election cycle comes with special emphasis on mass transit. All told, some $200 billion in transit initiatives, many relying on new taxes and fees, are up for a vote in 31 counties, states, and cities, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).
Should they win approval, the initiatives “would mark a real game change for people, and the communities they live in,” said APTA CEO Richard White. Of course, they would also mark a boon for the construction industry. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, he added, “The scope and level of potential investment in transit through these measures is unprecedented.”
Some $200 billion in transit-related initiatives are on ballots in 31 counties, states, and cities
Ranging from Puget Sound WA to Ft. Lauderdale FL, and points in between, noteworthy measures are already greeting voters on ballots in Atlanta GA, San Francisco CA, Indianapolis IN, Raleigh NC, and Detroit MI, among other locales. The West Coast, in particular has several mega-projects in the balance next week. Among the more prominent:
Los Angeles County, Measure M: Assuming county voters support a half-cent sales tax, the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority hopes to generate $860 million in annual revenues, sufficient to fund $120 billion transit improvements that would include finally connecting an existing rail system to LAX International Airport;
San Diego CA, Measure A: Another half-cent tax hike, this one to support $18.2 billion in infrastructure spending, including $7.5 billion for public transit. Additional revenues would fund long-term highway improvements and bicycle and pedestrian paths, among other projects. Should the measure pass, it could mean 15 years of related construction employment, proponents say. (Below, see their PR video.)
Seattle WA, Proposition 1, Sound Transit 3: If approved, the measure would generate $54 billion in funds, derived from across-the-board increases to local sales tax, property tax, and motor excise tax. As planned, they would bankroll and expedite the much-needed expansion of light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit required to meet heightened public demand caused by the area’s rapid growth.
And those are just the biggest-ticket transit items. Smaller but sizable ballot initiatives involve Detroit ($4.6 bil.); San Francisco ($3.5 bil.); Santa Clarita County CA ($3 bil.); and Atlanta ($2.5 bil).
Public schools, playgrounds
Other construction-related ballot measures deal with schools, sports facilities, carbon emissions, solar energy subsidies, and more. Here is BuiltWorlds’ unscientific roundup of measures worth watching.
- California’s Proposition 51, Public School Facility Bonds, seeks no fewer than $9 billion in funding for construction and modernization projects for both community colleges and K-12 schools. One third of the spending would go to building new schools and another third for modernization programs. Voter approval is not a slam dunk, however. Earlier this year, the L.A. Daily News editorialized “We’ve come to see bonds as an inefficient and financially burdensome way to fund school districts”;
- San Diego Stadium and Convention Center, Measures C and D. The NFL’s San Diego Chargers want to relocate to Los Angeles, and have a chance to do so. But the team must first comply with a league mandate to make one last attempt to build a new stadium in San Diego. Voters actually have two options to consider, Measures C and D. The Chargers reportedly prefer Measure C, which calls for raising hotel taxes from 10.5% to 16.5%. An additional $650 million from the NFL would result in a $1.8-billion stadium and convention center. Measure D would raise hotel taxes but prohibit spending public money on a stadium. Instead, tourist tax funds would be put to other uses, including parks and roads. The San Diego Union-Tribune opposes both measures.
- Las Vegas Stadium bets ‘on spec’? While this project is NOT on the ballot next week, it is worth noting because Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval just last week signed legislation to raise the hotel bed tax in Clark County to help fund a $1.9-billion football stadium and convention center in hopes of luring the NFL Raiders from Oakland to Las Vegas. The governor acted after state legislators had given him the needed two-thirds vote to pass the measure. It clears the way for $750 million in bonds to build the 65,000-seat domed stadium and convention center. Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is kicking in $650 million, and the Raiders, themselves, would add $500 million.
Taking public policy to the polls
What would an election night be without a few initiatives involving policy? Next week, voters will make decisions on issues ranging from carbon emissions to solar regulations from coast to coast. Here are a few key projects to watch…
- Washington State Initiative 732, Taxing Carbon Emissions. This measure would allow voters to decide if the state can impose the nation’s first direct tax on carbon emissions generated by gas, coal and other fossil fuels. As proposed, the rule would impose a fee of $15 per metric ton in 2017, then $25 in 2018, and continue gradually to rise over a period of decades, with fees accrued earmarked for sales tax and business tax reductions, plus tax credits for low-income residents. Surprisingly, not all environmental groups support ‘732’. Some contend that funds raised should be directed into education, transportation, and clean energy efforts, not just to cut taxes;
- Illinois Safe Roads Amendment. Also known as the state’s Transportation Taxes and Fees Lockbox Amendment, this initiative would prohibit state lawmakers from reallocating transportation funds, including motor fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, and other taxes and user fees for non-transportation projects. If it passes, it will follow in the footsteps of similar measures adopted in Maryland. However, the issue remains divisive. “Over the past 10 years alone, $6 billion has been swept from the Illinois Roads Fund because of waste and mismanagement in Springfield,” claims Citizens to Protect Transportation Funding on its web site. Others argue that adoption of a roads “lockbox” might cause education, health care, and public safety lobbyists to seek similar protections for their annual funding, thereby straitjacketing the state and limiting its ability to respond to future emergencies. For those reasons and more, the Chicago Tribune calls the measure “diabolical”, arguing, “Contractors and the unions whose members they employ would have constitutionally guaranteed dibs on future billions of state and local revenue dollars.”
- Florida Amendment 1 > Solar Energy. In a nutshell, this allows “consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use.” That provision already is state law. But a second provision would “ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the cost of backup power and the electric grid for those who do.” The objective is to protect businesses and residents who don’t want, or can’t afford, solar energy. However, opponents contend the amendment will invariably lead to fees and policies that make solar energy cost-prohibitive. They cite studies suggesting solar energy reduces electrical costs by diminishing the need for power plants. The Orlando-Sentinel’s advice? “Vote no!”
No election night is without losers, of course. And this year’s momentous national exercise promises to be emotional, hotly contested, and perhaps even unending, should legal challenges proliferate across the U.S. But, should the Republic survive, when the dust settles, we do hope that voters will have passed those initiatives that advanced not just the interests of the AEC industry, but those of the general public, as well. Indeed, democracy can only survive so long as its citizenry can see it exists to serve all of us.
- Rob McManamy also contributed reporting to this story.