Connecting state and local government leaders
Incoming governors will have big decisions to make about roads and transit and how projects are paid for.
The candidates for governor in Tuesday’s election could reshape transportation policy in state capitols around the country, affecting the future of gas tax rates, transit service, highway expansion and the roll-out of the federal infrastructure law.
That’s particularly true in states where incumbents are on the way out. Take Massachusetts, where outgoing Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, made fixing the Boston area’s transit woes a top priority, only to see problems for the system keep piling up. Those difficulties will now largely be left to his successor, likely Democrat Maura Healey.
Meanwhile, a Republican candidate who leads the polling in Oregon, promises to “tear up” a cap-and-trade executive order issued by term-limited Democratic Gov. Kate Brown. GOP contender Christine Drazan says the order will drive up already high gas prices.
In Pennsylvania, the race to replace Gov. Tom Wolf is an unorthodox one, as Republican nominee Doug Mastriano pushes far-right stances on social issues and the 2020 election. But Mastriano has also railed against tolls and environmental regulations in his campaign, while Democrat Josh Shapiro plans to search for more money for the state’s roads and has voiced support for transitioning to cleaner energy.
The funding of New York City’s subway, station safety and congestion pricing are all in play as the Empire State faces an unexpectedly close gubernatorial race. There, incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul is running. But she only stepped into the job last year after Andrew Cuomo was driven from office by sexual harassment allegations.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Republican, who voted against President Biden’s signature infrastructure law, is mounting a stronger than expected campaign in New York. Zeldin has criticized Hochul for high-profile crimes that occurred in the subway system and for wanting to charge tolls to drivers who enter Manhattan.
Crossroads in the Old Line State
Perhaps the biggest shake-up, though, will be the bid to replace Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican who will turn the reins over to the next governor without finishing many of his marquee infrastructure projects.
The Maryland governor has exceptionally broad power in transportation, from overseeing Baltimore’s transit system to running the airports and helping select highway projects. Hogan has used his authority extensively, both to burnish his conservative credentials at home and to help him draw national attention.
Before the pandemic, Hogan seized on his position as head of the National Governors Association to promote infrastructure improvements. He held meetings around the country where he and fellow governors pushed states to streamline approvals, tap private funding and explore new technologies to alleviate congestion.
At home, Hogan’s record on delivering those priorities was much more checkered.
Transit advocates in the state, dominated by Democrats, are still upset by Hogan’s 2015 decision to pull the plug on a light rail project in Baltimore. Construction for another light rail project in the D.C. suburbs came to a halt for a year and a half because of a dispute with the private consortium charged with building it.
Hogan at one point promoted the idea of Elon Musk’s Boring Co. building a “hyperloop” in the state, but Musk pulled the plug. The governor also championed a maglev line between Washington and Baltimore that is now on hold indefinitely. Hogan kicked off the process for finding a new crossing for the Chesapeake Bay, but it will be years before a project is selected, much less built.
Meanwhile, the Republican is pushing to expand highways such as the Beltway around Washington, D.C., using a public-private partnership, despite local opposition. It’s unclear whether the governor will try to push the project through before leaving office or leave its fate to his successor.
Paul Sturm, chair of the Downtown Residents Advocacy Network in Baltimore, sees the election as a chance to reverse course, especially when it comes to transit service like buses and rail. Baltimore’s lack of a robust transit system sets it apart from other major East Coast cities, he said, and could be a factor in the city’s economic troubles.
“Larry Hogan’s legacy, as governor of Maryland, is eight years of underfunding, neglect and mismanagement of public transportation,” Sturm said. “The [light rail] cancellation set the city back a generation.”
Hogan’s likely successor is Democrat Wes Moore, who led Republican candidate Dan Cox by a 2-to-1 margin in an October Washington Post poll. Moore has voiced support for reviving the Red Line light rail project in Baltimore and criticized Hogan’s expansion plans for the Beltway.
“We anticipate that if Wes Moore becomes the new governor, we will have a supporter and an ally in the governor's office in a way that we haven’t had for the past eight years,” Sturm said.
Eric Norton, the director of policy and programs for the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance in Baltimore, said it’s unclear exactly how much the state could pick up where it left off from the Red Line project, but that it would be the “first order of business” for a new governor to figure out how much could be reused and how much work needs to be updated. The opportunity would be especially ripe, because the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act contains a provision that would prioritize projects like the Red Line that were approved but never funded.
Gas Tax Debates Still Burning
Although prices at the pump have receded from their highs earlier this year, gas taxes are still a factor in several gubernatorial contests.
The discussions come even as states look to roll out infrastructure projects that are largely funded with federal dollars, but require state or local contributions (often supported with gas tax revenue).
Revenues from gas taxes may also begin dwindling, as automakers shift production from vehicles powered by fossil fuels to those that run on electricity.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers passed a gas tax suspension earlier this year funded by federal aid. But it took effect in October, just a month before the election. DeSantis’ Democratic opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist, originally championed the idea last year.
Likewise, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has suspended his state’s gas taxes multiple times, most recently through Election Day, when he faces a rematch with Stacey Abrams, a voting rights activist and former Democratic state lawmaker.
Heidi Ganahl, the Republican challenger to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, wants to cut the state’s gas tax in half as part of a larger tax-cutting plan. Polis is heavily favored to win another term.
The longshot Democratic candidate in Arkansas, Chris Jones, suggested in June that the state suspend its gas tax, something that Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a term-limited Republican, says is not feasible. Jones faces former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican widely expected to prevail in that race.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is not expected to face serious opposition in his bid for a second term, has indicated he will call a special session of the Legislature in December to consider taxing oil industry profits because of what he calls “price gouging” on their part.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.