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On the whole, the election of Tuesday, 4 November 2003 was a major net victory for public transportation and rail transit in the USA. Here's a quick summary:
In a tremendous victory for rail transit, voters approved by 52% the Metro Solutions plan – including an immediate $640 million revenue bond measure for Metro, the transit agency, to undertake construction of 22 miles of rail transit, with both light rail (LRT) and regional "commuter"-type rail. The vote also authorizes 44 new bus routes, doubles HOV lanes, and extends Houston Metro's participation in local road projects. As we report in our article As Houston's Light Rail Project Nears Finish, Major Vote Looms Nov. 4th, the bonding program is part of a $7.5 billion regional transit plan which will build eventually 73 miles of rail transit. Metro will now seek federal matching funds for the new rail projects.
The Houston vote is particularly significant since it demonstrates that a rail initiative can indeed overcome daunting odds. Passing a rail transit initiative is difficult enough – a steep uphill struggle in any conditions. Efforts like Houston's have failed even when the top power structure has been united behind a plan and its political campaign is well-funded. Such projects are usually "sight unseen" and unfamiliar to the voting public, acclimated to dependency on private motor vehicles. Typically, all opponents have to do is sow enough "seeds of doubt" about such a project in order to defeat it.
In Houston's case, a number of very powerful players (such as US Congressional Rep. John Culberson) effectively led the effort to try to defeat the rail plan, wielding immense political clout to that end. In addition to that, the rail opposition apparently had more funds for conducting their campaign than the pro-transit side. This all also came in a context where the initial starter line was still under construction – which Chronicle columnist Rick Casey likened to an "urban root canal", or asking a woman in labor if she wanted more babies.
Houston's Metro Solutions campaign was beset with even more disadvantages beyond those, but obviously a majority of the voting public of Houston were weary of worsening traffic congestion, and skeptical of the well-worn promises and assurances of local Road Warriors that they could "build their way out of congestion". Thus most voters appeared willing to take a leap of faith for rail transit as a truly viable solution to the region's future mobility needs.
This election victory means that Houston will make a quantum leap into crafting a far more livable, human-scaled community with far better mobility choices in the future (starting with the opening of the Main St. LRT line). it also should have major positive repercussions for similar rail initiatives elsewhere. It undoubtedly will give a healthy boost to the efforts to achieve more livable communities with better, transit-based mobility systems, throughout the nation.
in another vote of confidence in rail transit,
voters in the Denver suburb of Lone Tree, Colorado overwhelming approved joining
the Denver area's Regional Transportation District ( RTD), passing ballot question 5A
by an amazing 73%! By joining RTD, Lone Tree residents effectively implemented an agreement reached
approximately a year ago with the RTD, to "extend a light-rail line
from Lincoln Avenue into Lone Tree under a revised $5 billion transit expansion plan."
While LRT is being extended to the suburb and its into the RidgeGate development (via Denver's T-REX LRT project as part of the FasTracks package), Lone Tree will receive improved transit service, including on-demand "Call-n-Ride" shuttle van service and enhanced traditional bus service (with service to the Denver Tech Center and Sky Ridge Hospital). While Park Meadows Mall (a major potential source of additional sales tax revenue which could support the transit improvements) was not part of the annexation vote, the vote likely paves the way for Park Meadows Mall to be annexed into RTD, as it is now an enclave totally surrounded by the transit district.
Voters in Tucson defeated by 63% a general sales tax increase of 3/10th percent and a construction sales tax increase of 3% that would have funded an LRT starter line and massively expanded bus service (see Tucson: Grassroots Campaign Sparks Nov. 4th Vote on Light Rail + Other Mobility Options). The grassroots citizens' movement backing the transit proposal was able to raise only $40,000 for their campaign, which was heavily outspent by opponents (mainly car dealerships, sprawl developers, and local construction firms).
While the plan was opposed by major elements of Tucson's power structure, nevertheless, the LRT/mobility improvements proposal was able to win an astonishing 37% of the total vote. The rail propositions won in 39 precincts, and got over 70% "Yes" in 8 of them. In no precinct did it receive less than 23% support – obviously an indication of strong residual support for major transit improvements in the Tucson community. Proponents are regrouping and indicate they expect to continue pursuing rail transit for Tucson.
(Suggestion: Step up the community outreach and education effort, and negotiate a unified mobility plan incorporating the concerns of major players in the transit agency and Tucson's top community echelons.)
A grassroots-sponsored LRT proposal was defeated. The measure, placed on the ballot by an activist, but lacking the endorsement of the local transit authority and power structure, would have authorized a half-cent sales tax to fund light rail, bike lanes, and a transit hub. This was the 6th time an LRT measure failed in Kansas City. Nevertheless, the measure managed to garner nearly 40% of the vote even without a viable, fully organized and funded campaign – indicating strong residual support for rail in Kansas City.
Meanwhile, Kansas City voters approved by 69% a 3/8th cent increase to the city's current half-cent transportation sales tax, an "official" measure proposed by the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) . The 5-year tax increase will provide $22 million annually to shore up a projected KCATA) budget shortfall, due to declining tax revenue, that would have meant the elimination of more than 1/3 of the ATA's current bus routes. instead, the extra revenue will allow ATA to add 12 new bus routes and increase service on 13 existing routes.
(Suggestion: Find a way to meld community grassroots support for light rail with top-level support for a viable transit alternative, mix well with a vigorous and intensive community outreach and education effort ... and maybe Kansas City will muster the votes needed for a real public transportation breakthrough.)
While the defeats in Tucson and Kansas City were setbacks, we believe they're more than compensated for by the enormous victory in the Houston Metro service area and the overwhelming endorsement of Denver's LRT system by the Lone Tree suburban community. Bottom line: A "Major Net Victory for US Rail Transit".
For further analysis of these and other transit-related ballot issues, including links to news articles, please visit:
NOTE: This report relied on adaptations of material from the Center for Transportation Excellence, the Minneapolis Hiawatha LRT project, the Public Transport Progress online news distribution list, and the Light Rail Progress Professional online discussion list.
Light Rail Now! website