A Matter of Democracy

On November 4th, Americans in every state (and the District of Columbia!) will vote in the Presidential election. But in California, Hawaii, Washington (state), Missouri, and New Mexico, at least some voters will be able to have their say about something even more exciting – whether or not to invest in major transit improvements! Alright, alright, I degrees, transit referenda may not be as interesting or important as this Presidential election-of-elections. But as we’ve shown already on our This Fall page (which includes the list as well as helpful links to referendum supporters and opponents), there are 10 separate votes on November 4th that will shape transportation policy in the five states mentioned above. This post will provide a more detailed look into these  referendums.

The ten votes fall into three basic groups that we’ll describe separately:

1. The development of a high speed rail network

  • California High-Speed Rail, Proposition 1a

2. The development of new rail networks

  • Honolulu Mayor’s Vote and Rail Referendum
  • Kansas City Light Rail Referendum
  • West Sacramento Measures U and V
  • Sonoma-Marin Measure Q

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

  • Seattle Proposition 1
  • St. Louis Measure M
  • Los Angeles Measure R
  • Santa Clara Measure B
  • New Mexico Tax Initiatives

1. The development of a high speed rail network

California’s Proposition 1a will start the development of the biggest infrastructure project in the nation since the Eisenhower Interstate Highway program. The $10 billion bond that would be released upon the approval of voters of this referendum would allow for the commencement of a highly ambitious project that would bring the first true high speed rail to the shores of the Western Hemisphere (if Argentina doesn’t come first). The project’s first goal is to connect Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the state-run California High-Speed Rail Authority argues would make for a 2h40 trip on a brand-new right-of-way running through San Jose, Fresno, and Bakersfield, among other cities. The newest of the high-speed trains – those that run up to 220-mph in commercial runs – would be used to connect these cities.

The project must be provided additional funds from the federal government if it is to be built, and private-sector partners are being considered for involvement as well. The entire system – 800 miles long and projected to cost $45 billion to construct in 2008 dollars – would include branches from Fresno to Sacramento, from Los Angeles to Irvine, and from Los Angeles to San Diego, but those sections are being delayed until the central section from L.A. to the Bay Area is completed. The argument is that this first, central element is essential because its route through the Central Valley, with few stations, would allow for trains to achieve their highest speeds and therefore legitimize the network as a whole.

California has been considering developing a high-speed rail network for years now – the state authority was founded in 1996. Increasing road and air congestion has made train development a more exciting possibility. But the primary cause for concern was and has always been the project’s enormous cost. Project proponents have rightly pointed out that highway and airport expansion would cost significantly more than the $45 billion being proposed here, but the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Governorship in 2003 put the project into peril. Though a “moderate,” the Republican saw the state’s ballooning, always-late budget as a major problem and immediately began looking for ways to cut it. The Authority was originally planning to release its bond in the 2004 election, but the Governor moved it to 2006, and then again to 2008, funding the Authority with only a few million dollars in the intervening years, allowing it to begin engineering work, but little else. But the Governor’s rhetoric in favor of climate protection (electric rail is far more efficient than either automobiles or airplanes) and his work with Michael Bloomberg and Ed Rendell on the infrastructure-promoting Building America’s Future campaign made it difficult for him to delay the project again. He allowed the bill to be put to the voters even though the proposed budget remains $3 billion in the red and he has allowed no other proposals for new programs. So high speed rail looks like it might just squeak through.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been controversy on the project development side, though. Though there’s virtual unanimity in the conclusion that the Bay Area-L.A. corridor is the top priority, the development of that line could have taken multiple forms. Between San Jose and San Francisco, the wealthy town of Menlo Park, which already sees dozens of Caltrain commuter trains go through every day, is strongly opposed to the project. And a long period was devoted to deciding which route to take between Fresno and San Francisco – two alignments, the Altamont and Pacheco passes, were considered, before the later was picked.

But these controversies are relatively minor compared to the massive public works project that will begin if this referendum passes. California, though it has big expenses ahead (in a form I ranted against in another post), is likely to produce a successful project if it follows through on its goal of 220-mph trains and a fully separated right-of-way. As has been pointed out, California’s situation closely mirrors that of Spain, which is in the process of developing a massive high speed rail system whose initial routes have been wildly popular.

(Important note: about $1 billion of the bond is to be devoted to improvement of local rail services that will connect to the high-speed project.)

Read more about the project at the excellent California High Speed Rail Blog.

2. The development of new rail networks

Honolulu is more than just a tourist center. It’s a bustling, dense city with most of Hawaii’s population, all concentrated along a twenty-mile strip on the south edge of Oahu. Since the 1970s, a rail system has been considered to handle the increasing levels of congestion along the city’s major highways, which have no room to expand because of the proliferation of high rises and natural features like dormant volcanoes and the Pacific Ocean. Mayor Frank Fasi proposed the “HART” system and had virtually guaranteed funding from the Federal Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA; precursor to the FTA), but facing the new economics of the Reagan Administration, his successor Eileen Anderson decided to pull out, citing an unwillingness to look for local matching funds for the project. By the mid-1980s, Mayor Fasi was back in office and got pretty far in his proposal to build a new multi-billion dollar subway through downtown Honolulu, but limited government funds, the destruction of the UMTA made the project impossible to implement.

But with the revival of New Starts funding for major transit investments from the FTA at the conclusion of the Clinton Administration, Honolulu again began thinking about building a rail system. Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who became mayor in 2005, immediately began promoting rail. This year, after prolonged debate on the City Council over whether to implement a BRT system instead, the Council endorsed the project, and it’s well on its way to acheiving New Starts funding, because of high expected ridership. The automated 20-mile light rail line will be elevated, running from the University of Hawaii (Manoa), through downtown Honolulu, and west past the airport and Pearl Harbor (an extension to Waikiki Beach is planned as well) It will probably operate similarly to Vancouver’s Sky Train.

In order for it to be completed, however, the public must endorse the plan in the light rail vote on November 4th. A recent poll gives a slight lead to the proponents, but you never know. Mayor Hannemann must also be able to win his simultaneous reelection bid. He faces Ann Kobayashi, who favors a poorly developed BRT plan, and he’s likely to win based on polling.

Another city that has been planning for years for a rail project is Kansas City, which has fallen far behind its eastern competitor, St. Louis, which also has a referendum this year on transit. In 2001, voters in the city were offered a project to build a major line but opponents successfully portrayed the project as too expensive and likely to attract too few riders. But in 2006, local rail supporter Clay Chastain organized a referendum on his 27-mile plan for the city (which would require electric light rail trains without overhead catenaries, such as in Bordeaux, France), and he won an endorsement from the public at the polls – but there was no money to back up his idea. After his success, Chastain went as far to argue that the system should in fact be a subway, way too expensive for a city the size of Kansas City.

But the City Council finally agreed on a plan for a $1 billion 14-mile North-South light rail starter plan that will provide the backbone for further lines going east and west out of the city. This year’s election is over whether the city should implement a 3/8-cent sales tax to sponsor the construction of the system. A recent poll shows increasing (but not yet majority) support for the tax, so we’ll have to see what happens on November 4th.

This page on the Kansas City Star’s website provides a nice overview of what’s happened over the past year.

The other two systems being considered for transit line creation are in Northern California, and though neither are in cities with current service, both would connect with major transit systems. In West Sacramento, a small city just adjacent to the state capital, a new streetcar line would run along the city’s waterfront and then connect with the big city’s large light rail system. Voters are being asked in Measure V to extend the existence of what is today a 1/4-cent transit sales tax – this would be eliminated otherwise. Measure U asks whether voters agree with the creation of the streetcar system. Though the route has not yet been finalized, it would make the connection between the neighboring cities more simple and encourage the development of what are now abandoned industrial brownfields. Politicians in West Sacramento see this as a good way to encourage densification of their city.

In Sonoma and Marin Counties north of San Francisco, a commuter rail plan is being put in front of voters in the form of a 1/4-cent sales tax increase. It, like all California sales tax increases, requires a 2/3 majority in order to pass. This diesel-multiple-unit service, nicknamed SMART, would travel from Cloverdale in the north to Larkspur in the south on a $450 million upgrade of 70 miles of track; an estimated 5,300 people a day will use the service starting in 2013. A ferry at Larkspur would connect riders to San Francisco and the BART metro system. This sales tax increase was also in the ballot in 2006, when it received 65% of the vote, just 1% less than it needed in order to be implemented… so look for this as a likely passage in a transit-friendly year.

3. Extensions to existing rail networks

The five final plans provide extensions to existing networks, and we won’t discuss them in as much detail as the others above, though we’ll have special features on Los Angeles to describe that city’s particular insanities and on BART to describe its oft-delayed extensions later this week.

Seattle hasn’t yet completed the first stage of its new “Link” light rail system, which is a 15.5-mile central line between downtown and the airport. The system is expected to be so popular that the agency is already underway on the engineering of a second phase, which will connect downtown to the University of Washington, and which is likely to attract one hundred thousand riders a day. The plan being offered to voters this fall is more of the same, and voters, at least in recent surveys, seem to be excited by the prospect, even though they haven’t tried the light rail under construction yet! If passed, the sales tax increase would fund 36 more miles of light rail, going south, north, and east of the central section currently under construction, as well as the possibility for more inner-city streetcar lines (other than the S.L.U.T.). It would also bring a lot more bus service and significant increases in commuter rail service between Tacoma and Seattle. Interestingly, a similar Proposition 1 in 2007 failed at the polls because of opposition from environmental groups that didn’t want more money for roads, so this year’s proposition includes no money for roads. Only in Seattle does support grow when you decrease provisions for highway funding.

St. Louis, whose 46-mile light rail system first opened in 1993, has been successful in attracting riders, with an average of 70,000 passengers a day. This year’s Proposition M will work to significantly expand the popular system, which has been slightly blemished this year by random attacks on passengers (we’ll see if that changes anything at the polls). The measure will ensure the continued funding of the system, which otherwise will face budget cuts, and also some expansion.

New Mexico’s measure, which will affect voters in two counties, will continue the development of the New Mexico Rail Runner Express, a commuter rail system that currently serves the suburbs of Albuquerque but which will be extended to Santa Fe starting in December. The service is not well-used, but an extension between the state’s two biggest cities might make a difference. That said, the vote occurs before the extension opens…

As I already pointed out, we’ll discuss Los Angeles County’s Measure R and Santa Clara County’s Measure B in posts later this week. Both will add a 1/2-cent sales tax to finance significant transit expansions. L.A.’s will mean the implementation of several new rail and busway corridors, including the forever-promised “Subway to the Sea” (in other words, to Santa Monica). Santa Clara’s measure will extend BART from Warm Springs (East Bay) to San Jose and Santa Clara, allowing people to take either BART or Caltrain from San Francisco to San Jose, choosing which side of the bay they’d like to travel on. Again, we’ll talk about these measures, too complicated to discuss here, independently.

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