highway tangleOregon policymakers are now developing a very large transportation package that may go before voters this fall. As they design the package, officials should heed a recent cautionary tale: Puget Sound’s big roads-and-transit ballot measure that was defeated in 2007. As far as we know, it was the first time in US history that concerns about climate change played a pivotal role in a public vote on transportation development.

There’s every reason to believe that there is a growing segment of Pacific Northwest voters that is aware of the connection between climate and transportation. And Northwest voters are willing to vote against transportation investments that could increase climate-warming emissions. In fact, independent polls suggest that this voting dynamic contributed to the defeat of Proposition 1.

There is a straightforward solution, however. Including highway transportation fuels in a comprehensive cap and trade program could largely inoculate transportation packages from this voting dynamic. If cap-and-trade policies effectively guarantee reductions in climate-warming emissions, then proponents of transportation measures can convincingly argue that new transportation projects won’t, in fact, lead to higher global-warming emissions. But leaving transportation fuels out of a cap could subject future transportation mega-packages to the same political dynamic that sank Puget Sound’s transportation measure.

Details are below the jump.

  • ** In November 2007 Puget Sound’s Proposition 1, a $17 billion dollar roads and transit package, was defeated by a margin of 55 to 45.

    ** Although the package included major transit investments and garnered some environmental support, the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club and several other environmental advocates opposed the package on climate grounds. King County Executive Ron Sims, a leading pro-transit politician, also opposed the package, in large part because of potential climate impacts.

    ** Some transit advocates argued that the roads-and-transit package could have significant climate benefits. But the lack of firm guarantees or careful analysis undermined this argument, particularly given the substantial concerns raised by environmental advocates about the roads projects.

    ** After the vote, public opinion firm RT Strategies found that a key group of “Pro-Transit Defectors”—comprising about 6 percent of voters—would have voted yes on the Transit-only elements of the package, but voted no based on their concerns over the environment and global warming. If these “Pro-Transit Defectors” had voted for the package, it would have narrowly passed.

    ** Two public opinion polls (see Figure 1 of this analysis by Moore Information/EMC Research and Question 3 of this RT Strategies exit poll) independently found that roughly 1 in 5 “no” voters cited environment/climate as a top concern in voting against the package.

    ** A comprehensive cap on climate-warming emissions—a cap that included highway fuels—could have nullified climate arguments against the package. A firm and effective cap would guarantee emissions reductions, regardless of what kind of transportation infrastructure investments are made.