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Vote 2007 Vote 2007
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Election 2007:
Charlotte Transit Wins By 70%; Seattle Transit Expansion Loses

Light Rail Now Project Team – November 2007

As the smoke from the USA's 2007 Nov. 6th elections clears, the results from the two most contentious urban area campaigns involving rail transit programs – Charlotte, North Carolina and Seattle, Washington – indicate two very different outcomes to these fierce debates: a big win in Charlotte, and a sad loss in Seattle.

Charlotte: 70% of voters back transit

Via a margin of 70% to 30%, Charlotte-area voters resoundingly endorsed public transportation by defeating an initiative to repeal the region's public transit funding that had been mounted by transit opponents and advocates of further dependency on private motor vehicles. (See Charlotte: Anti-Transit Tax Repeal Measure Opposed by Rail Advocates.)

In a rousing editorial applauding the vote, "Green light for transit" (7 Nov. 2007), the Charlotte Observer summarized the forces behind the measure:

The proposed repeal was put on the ballot by petition by a combination of critics: some had opposed the transit tax at the outset; some dislike taxes and government planning; and some hold a different vision of our region's transportation needs – one that relies much more on automobiles and much less on mass transit.

"The margin of victory stunned even transit supporters" related a separate story in the Observer (Nov. 7th). Indeed, poll results released in mid-October had indicated a much closer margin: 54% pro-transit (against transit tax repeal), 39% anti-transit (favoring repeal). Usually, that kind of differential spells trouble, because (1) support of a transit measure typically tends to erode as actual voting approaches, and (2) a positive poll number tends to make transit supporters over-confident, and thus vulnerable to making mistakes and losing momentum.

Fortunately, the opposite seems to have happened in the Charlotte case. As the Observer editorial has summarized the outcome,

Voters made an emphatic statement Tuesday about how they view the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and its public transportation. The overwhelming majority believe an urban region needs transportation choices, and that a half- penny sales tax remains a satisfactory way to pay for them. The unofficial 70-30 margin far exceeded the 58-42 approval voters first gave the tax in 1998.

That's a strong vote of confidence for an urban transportation system that will rely mostly on automobiles and roads but also offer an expanded bus service plus some rail and streetcars.

Charlotte LRT Indeed, some transit advocates are now suggesting that the vote "should be seen as a mandate for rail" – and perhaps Charlotte Area Transit System planners and decisionmakers should consider moving forward with more focus on rail, particularly in areas where it is strongly favored by the community such as the Southeast (independence) corridor.
[Photo of Charlotte LRT: C. Patriarca]

Seattle: Roads & Transit package rejected

In a starkly different outcome compared with the Charlotte victory, the Roads & Transit proposal (Proposition 1) in the Seattle area was solidly rejected by about 55% of voters. (For a summary of this measure, see Seattle, Charlotte: Light Rail Future Depends on Nov. 2007 Vote.)

"Well, voters, you just blew a hole in this region's transportation planning big enough for a semi to drive through" was the wry observation (Nov. 7th) of Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, who had backed the Roads & Transit measure.

Tallying the magnitude of the defeat, Westneat pointed out that years of efforts to forge a political consensus had just been washed down the tubes:

It took two governors, a few dozen state legislators, 22 County Council members and a passel of city leaders five years to come up with Proposition 1, the $17.8 billion roads and light-rail plan. So much for all that.

Moreover, said Westneat,

You didn't reject this plan with a polite: "Hey, that was close, try again." You drubbed it. It was more like: "This plan is more of a mess than I-405 through the S-curves."

And even another article (Nov. 7th) in the Times – which had vigorously opposed the measure and backed the position of its anti-transit, pro-highways opponents – seemed to perceive the grim outcome from the vote, with an article noting that the defeat was "likely leaving state lawmakers with a transportation mess that could take years to sort out."

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which had backed the Roads & Transit measure) pointed out (Nov. 7th) that, even if the highway + transit package had beem approved, "highway congestion is projected to worsen significantly in the next 20 years as the region's population swells; if nothing replaces the proposal, the traffic jams will get worse still."

Seattle LRT Because the longterm mobility outlook for the region is so bleak, public transit supporters may regroup and present another, more politically acceptable plan to voters – perhaps after electric rail transit is up and running in Seattle (e.g., either the Link regional light rail transit, or the South Lake Union Streetcar system).
[Photo of Link LRT: Mac-Photography]

As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article suggests,

Given that situation [of worsening mobility crisis], it's possible that another transportation proposal will show up on the ballot within a couple of years – much as in 1996, when voters approved a scaled-back Sound Transit plan after rejecting a grander one in 1995.

However, the article warns, "it's unclear what a follow-up measure might look like."

A key question is whether highway building and mass-transit proposals would be yoked together as they were in Proposition 1, which sought $31 billion for Sound Transit and $16 billion for the road- planning Regional Transportation investment District (the figures are adjusted for projected inflation and include construction, financing and, for light rail, operations expenses).

One thing is once again abundantly clear from the Seattle defeat: Bundling a transit development program with a highway-expansion program is not necessarily a shoo-in for securing voters' support – and particularly not in Seattle, whose population has tended to be strongly pro-transit. As Light Rail Now has noted, the lash-up of both transit and highway investment in a single package (combining projects from Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, and the highway-focused Regional Transportation investment District) tended to alienate many Seattle-area pro-transit voters.

This includes key environmental organizations such as the state chapter of the Sierra Club, whose chairman, Mike O'Brien, has suggested (according to the Post-Intelligencer article) that Sound Transit could return to voters with a separate, purely transit-expansion package on the ballot. "King County, he said, might propose its own roads program that includes tolls or other tactics to discourage driving."

Other options suggested by the Post-Intelligencer include, for example, each of the three Puget Sound counties proceeding to "establish its own transportation improvement district and put a tax-and-spend plan on the ballot." Alternatively, "King [Seattle] and either Pierce [Tacoma] or Snohomish [Everett] counties could form a two-county district and go to the voters."

In any case, O'Brien emphasized that the political divisions over Proposition 1 must be healed. "We need to mend those relationships fast, and come back with a plan that addresses the public's need to improve our transportation system and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions" he said.

Conclusion: Lessons for transit advocacy

On the basis of this experience of Charlotte and Seattle in the 2007 elections, the Light Rail Now Project team suggests that the following conclusions might be considered:

· Public support for transit may be stronger when an actual transit program is in place, as in Charlotte – particularly with a major rail transit project (even if it has encountered budget and timing problems).

· Charlotte's strong pro-transit vote suggests momentum of public support that might translate into further funding for transit in another, pro-transit, ballot measure in the near future – but preferably after the Lynx light rail transit system has had a chance to prove itself in operation.

· Bundling transit development with highway expansion propositions, as in Seattle, seems to have mixed results, and can alienate transit supporters and environmental allies.

· in Seattle, a transit measure presented on its own merits might have a better chance of passage in future – especially after the public have a chance to experience modern electric rail transit, such as the South Lake Union Streetcar.

Light Rail Now! website
Updated 2007/11/08

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