(Graphic: LRN file)
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Charlotte Transit Wins By 70%; Seattle Transit Expansion Loses
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 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,
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.
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:
Moreover, said Westneat,
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."
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).
As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article suggests,
However, the article warns, "it's unclear what a follow-up measure might look like."
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:
Light Rail Now! website