In six big cities across the country — Atlanta, Charlotte, Houston, Miami, New York, and Seattle — transportation is playing a role in the mayoral race being decided today. With the economic crisis front and center, however, transit isn’t anyone’s biggest priority.
Mayor of Atlanta, GA
Update: Mary Norwood, with 46%, and Kasim Reed, with 36%, have moved on to a runoff on December 1st.
Atlanta’s dramatic growth over the past twenty years — it has increased in population from 394,000 in 1990 to an estimated 538,000 today — has brought with it a panoply of benefits, including increased density and better services. Much of the population increase has been due to an increase in the number of white people, who now make up 38% of the population, compared to 31% just nine years ago. Those changes are producing a vastly different political environment, one in which a white candidate may take office for the first time since 1973.
Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has served since 2001, was a relatively competent manager of the city’s finances and livability, pushing proposals like the Beltline and Peachtree Corridor streetcar. But during her time, the city has suffered from a spike in crime, coming in opposition to the experience of other major U.S. cities, which have seen steady declines. That issue is tops in today’s mayoral race, though transportation proposals are also getting their day in the sun.
Current polls put white candidate Mary Norwood, currently a city counselor, on top. She has been strident in her statements against crime, and she has convincingly pulled off a characterization of herself as an “outsider” — good for a city sick of eight years of the same person. But she is facing strong competition from State Senator Kasim Reed and City Council President Lisa Borders, as well as three other candidates. If no one person wins a majority of votes, there will be a runoff on December 1st.
In a series of candidate forums, the three front-runners have made their positions known on transit issues, and Ms. Norwood doesn’t seem as appealing as her poll numbers suggest. Unlike the other two candidates, Norwood lives in a huge house in an unwalkable part of the city, whereas Ms. Borders has a residence downtown. Mr. Reed is a frequent user of the city’s MARTA rapid transit network, while Ms. Norwood appears to use it simply to get to the airport.
On their websites, both Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed highlight their respective records on transportation, which Ms. Norwood fails to do. As a state senator, Mr. Reed has been pushing for a new revenue source for transit, something the state has to approve before the city can implement it. Ms. Borders, meanwhile, has suggested that she would continue the Franklin legacy of encouraging investment in the Beltline, though at the candidate forum, she admitted that “it’s not going to be soon” — a response that shows either a taste for the realistic or a lack of ambition, depending on one’s perspective.
Unfortunately, none of the candidates has made a strong claim to being the supporter of transit; while Ms. Norwood’s lackluster responses on the subject knock her down a few points, her opponents aren’t much better. No one’s proposing the sort of long-range plan Atlanta needs. Nor is it clear that any of the candidates understand how and why transit should be implemented. Disappointing for such a promising city.
Mayor of Charlotte, NC
Update: Anthony Foxx, with 51% of the vote, has won the mayor’s race in Charlotte; the first for Democrats in 22 years; Democrats also take huge majority on City Council
Mayor Pat McCrory, who made a name for himself as a Republican in favor of transit, has spent the last fourteen years in Charlotte’s City Hall, but he declined to run for reelection this year after loosing last year’s governor’s race to Democrat Beverly Perdue. Attempting to take his place are contenders Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, and John Lassiter, a Republican; both are currently city council members.
Though Charlotte once had some of the country’s biggest transit ambitions, with five separate rail lines planned, it was humbled by the financial crisis and the sudden decrease in sales tax revenue that hit virtually every municipality. The city is planning a streetcar to run through the downtown area and some of inner-city neighborhoods, and it has already put some tracks in place. Yet with no money on tap, the project is on hold — and that’s where the mayoral race became interesting.
Whereas Mr. Foxx voted in favor of allocating funds for studying the streetcar’s alignment and conducting some preliminary engineering, Mr. Lassiter voted against those studies, arguing that it was a waste of money to plan for a project that would not get built. Mr. Foxx continues to uphold his vote, arguing that the research was necessary to evaluate what the city could or could not build.
All that said, Mr. Lassiter remains a supporter of light rail expansion, though it is unclear whether he would suggest implementing a new revenue source to pay for its construction. Mr. Foxx seems more clear in his unambiguous interest in such investments.
Mayor of Houston, TX
Update: Annise Parker, with 30.5%, and Gene Locke, with 25.9%, have moved on to the runoff December 12th.
Of all of the races today, Houston’s may be the one where voters have no real possibility of going wrong when it comes to transportation issues. All three of the front-runners, including City Controller Annise Parker, Former City Attorney Gene Locke, and City Planner/Architect Peter Brown, are seriously in favor of transit investment. This marks quite a shift for a city that for almost a decade was unable to receive any federal funding for new rail lines because of the intervention of Congressman Tom Delay (R).
Yet times have changed. The city’s citizenry sees current Mayor Bill White as having had a successful career at City Hall, and that’s especially true for his work on light rail, which has been moved forward dramatically in the last few months, with approval from the Federal Transit Administration for the construction of two new lines. Houston’s single rail line has the highest ridership per route mile of any such system in the country.
This consensus, which generally includes an acknowledgment that transportation only functions effectively when growth is appropriately planned around stations, suggests a promising next four years for this fast-growing city.
Mayor of Miami, FL
Update: Tomás Regalado, with 72% of the vote, cruises to easy win over Joe Sanchez.
With Mayor Manny Diaz being forced out of office after eight years because of term limits, Miami voters will choose between Joe Sanchez, a supporter of Mr. Diaz’s work, and Tomás Regalado, who has been a regular opponent of the current mayor’s philosophy on development.
Both candidates are members of the City Commission, and they’ve had very different voting records. Whereas Mr. Sanchez has come out wholeheartedly in favor of Mr. Diaz’s big development schemes, including a new tunnel to the port, a new baseball stadium, and a big condo building boom, Mr. Regalado has been a proponent of improving conditions in the city’s neighborhoods. That position, which has favored the majority of Miami residents who do not live in the areas affected by recent development trends, has given Mr. Regalado a serious lead in the polls. That probably means no major investments in transit over the next four years.
That’s because while Mr. Sanchez sees public transit as a core element of developing the future city, Mr. Regalado is more interested in fiscal austerity — despite the fact that Mr. Diaz, even with all his promotion of big new projects, shored up the city’s finances dramatically during his time in office. That stance means that Mr. Regalado will probably do little to improve the conditions of the city’s Metrorail network, which is already cashless.
Nor will Mr. Regalado stand firm in promoting more pedestrian-oriented spaces. In the vote on Miami 21, a strong decision about making the city a more walkable, livable place, he placed himself in the opposition. Mr. Sanchez was in favor. Mr. Regalado’s insistence that the city go “back to basics” ultimately means he won’t do much to help it improve.
Mayor of New York City, NY
Update: Defying all odds, Bill Thompson gets 46% of the vote, despite being outspent 14 to 1 and having been left for dead by basically the entire Democratic establishment. Michael Bloomberg, however, moves in for his third term as mayor.
New York may be the only city in the country where the Republican-endorsed candidate has a significantly more pro-transit platform than the Democrat. In many ways, that’s terrible, because Independent-former-but-maybe-still-Republican billionaire Michael Bloomberg has basically bought himself the next four years, spending $35,000 an hour to do so throughout the campaign. All this after forcing the city council to alter its term limit rules to allow him to run for a third term. Democratic opponent Bill Thompson has had no chance.
Perhaps that’s why, despite his reasonable record as City Controller, Mr. Thompson has staked himself as the anti-Bloomberg on livability issues such as bike lanes, bus rapid transit, and pedestrian plazas. While Mr. Bloomberg has given his chief of Transportation Janette Sadik-Kahn basically full reign in implementing an excellent streets reform project, Mr. Thompson has held rallies decrying BRT on some of the city’s most-trafficked corridors. Maybe he sees that as the only way to get votes. If so, it says something terrible about New York’s citizenry. If not, Mr. Thompson’s priorities are woefully misguided.
Mr. Bloomberg, meanwhile, for all his investment in nice streetscapes, has reduced the city’s commitment to sponsoring the state-run MTA, which runs the Subway system. His claims that he’ll invest in a new streetcar along the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront seem exaggerated, especially when he can’t seem to get off his obsession with the less-than-useful extension of the 7 Subway into West Midtown.
It’s not a particularly good day for transportation advocates in America’s biggest transit city. Here’s to a better choice in four years…
Mayor of Seattle, WA
Update: In early results, Mike McGinn has a 910-vote lead over his opponent; with a large number of votes yet to be counted, the lead could switch hands. However, pro-transit Dow Constantine wins big over conservative Susan Hutchinson in the King County Executive race, with 57% of the vote.
In this runoff race, it’s quite clear who thinks what. In the first round, incumbent Mayor Greg Nickels found himself cornered from the left (environmentalist Mike McGinn) and from the right (businessman Joe Mallahan) and he dropped to last in a three-way race. If some transit proponents were disappointed — Mr. Nickels had staked his legacy on transportation investments — Mr. McGinn is attempting to pick up the mantle today, though with a spin.
Mr. McGinn’s primary campaign was mostly premised on his opposition to the construction of a full-bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the moribund Alaskan Way Viaduct, which sits on the waterfront. Unlike Mr. Nickels, who promoted the project, the candidate suggested simply replacing the Viaduct with a surface level road and using the remaining funds for better transit. Mr. Mallahan found himself rigorously opposed to that position; he’s made himself into the candidate of the drivers, so to speak.
Nonetheless, the Viaduct has become a bit of a non-issue in the meantime because of the fact that state financing has come through and the city has approved work, making its completion a virtual certainly. But there are still major transportation issues to be resolved in the Puget Sound. Will light rail run on I-90 or SR520? Will there be a streetcar network? Will there be a West Seattle line?
Mr. McGinn, a staunch defender of transit, is the right man for this job. Mr. Mallahan’s car-driving mentality won’t privilege the kind of long-term investments Seattle needs.