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Light Rail Progress

Learning From 2002 Bruises: Lessons for Future Light Rail Campaigns

By Light Rail Progress • November 2002

It is fairly clear that public transportation in the United States took quite a beating in recent 2002 elections – particularly in the November election. The aftermath has not been a pretty sight. Selected examples:

  • Spokane – in September, voters rejected a 0.3% addition to the sales tax for transit revenue, thus exacerbating the Spokane Transit Authority's financial crisis (brought on by previous statewide cuts in transit funding).

  • Cincinnati – Ambitious MetroMoves plan with expanded bus service, plus light rail transit (LRT) and regional (commuter) rail was defeated, 68% against to 31% in favor.

  • US Congress – Forces of opponents of urban transit and Amtrak intercity rail passenger service were strengthened.

  • Minnesota – Anti-transit, anti-rail, pro-automobile state officials and legislators now threaten to stymie the new Minneapolis LRT project and block further transit improvements.

  • Washington state – initiative 776 passed, slashing public transit revenues with a $30 cap on motor vehicle license fees.

  • Little Rock – Quarter-cent sales tax to fund transit was voted down.

  • Maryland – New governor has proclaimed opposition to Purple Line LRT.

Despite setbacks like these, there have been a few bright spots. Foremost among these:

  • Miami – Voters okayed an additional half-cent sales tax to fund a vast expansion of transit, including up to 90 miles of rail transit and a doubling of the bus fleet.

  • Denton – County north of Dallas voted to create its own transit authority, with a 1/4 to 1/2-cent sales tax to fund a plan for bus transit and regional (commuter) rail to connect with Dallas's famed DART LRT and regional rail system.

Meanwhile, there were murky results in both the Washington, DC-Northern Virginia area and the Norfolk-Hampton Roads, Virginia area, where "transportation" tax measures, focused on highways but with some transit elements, were defeated. Both measures were opposed by many traditional transit supporters because of their strong emphasis on highway development.

All in all, the electoral results leaned more toward a victory for Road Warriors – possibly because the peculiar conditions of this election (e.g., "terrorism" hysteria, drumbeat for war, etc.), plus the apparent confusion and disarray among the Democratic Party, seemed to result in a rather high proportion of a "Yahoo" element in the electorate.

Thus, for transit issues, this was a particularly hard hill to climb. Nevertheless, some transit proposals (such as those in Miami and Denton) managed to climb it. it should be noted that Miami and Denton in particular are areas where (or near where) rail transit has demonstrated it can work well, and where it has a strong base of public support.

So, what lessons can be learned from the setbacks (and few granules of success) of the 2002 election?

  • Despite nearly 40 years of pretty solid progress, it would appear that US public transportation, including Amtrak, needs a harder and more vigorous "sell" than ever. For urban transit, this seems to imply a more determined effort to foster grassroots support, especially for big projects like rail.

  • Grassroots organizing of all segments of the community is critical. The groundwork for this can and should be laid at least a year or more in advance of a vote campaign.

  • Relying on polls might be hazardous. With errors often in the double-digit range in 2002, polls seem increasingly unreliable (especially because of changes in telecommunications technology). Campaigners for future LRT ballot measures might be better advised to place less reliance on polling and more on strong grassroots organizing and Get Out the Vote efforts.

  • Transit supporters may also need to marshall a more determined effort to rechannel currently available transportation funds – i.e., road-expansion funds – into public transportation. in context, the requirement for public votes for mass transit projects is an extraordinary hurdle, and one which highway projects by and large don't have to face. For about the next two years, at least, the outlook for changing transportation priorities at the federal level is probably not propitious; however, some groundwork could be laid in the meantime, and there may be opportunities at local levels to restructure mobility priorities.

  • It is worthwhile noting that "packaging" transit issues with road-expansion issues (as in Virginia and Washington) seemed no guarantor of success. Instead, this strategem seemed to provoke strong opposition from environmentally conscious voters whom one would otherwise expect to favor transit.

  • Having rail transit already operating in the area (as in Miami and Denton, near Dallas), and demonstrating it can work well, seems to be a major success factor in winning public support for important transit ballot measures.

  • If at all possible, installing a small, even tiny, "starter" system, with available local resources (a la Denver) might be a fruitful initial strategy. Having an operating system, even very small, for the public to see could make the critical difference in the next vote campaign.

  • Transit opponents clearly and effectively exploit the gullibility of the public – for example, transmutating LRT successes in other cities into supposedly miserable "failures". LRT proponents need to find better ways of bringing "LRT reality" to their cities, and establishing their own superior credibility in terms of facts.

Rev. 2002/11/08


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