The Site / The Fight

  • by Yonah Freemark
  • Twitter: @yfreemark
  • yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com
  • MoveChicago.net
  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.
  • Obéir c'est trahir; Désobéir c'est servir.

Email newsletter

On the ballot in 2018, a clear contrast among those who would move into Governors’ mansions

» On the gubernatorial ballot, Democratic and Republican nominees have vastly differing views when it comes to transportation. And voters across the country will be making important choices about referenda.

November’s U.S. elections will determine the control of the Congress, and as such may play an important role in impacting the nation’s transportation policy. Over the past two years, the Trump Administration has put dozens of transit projects in limbo. Even as the Congress has reaffirmed its funding for new investments in rail and dedicated bus lines throughout the country, the executive branch has put most grant-making on hold. As a result, long-planned projects in places like Dallas, Minneapolis, and Seattle are simply not being funded.

Keep track of key elections at thetransportpolitic.com/elections

If Democrats retake the House of Representatives or the Senate, they may gain more power to force the Department of Transportation to release funds needed for transit projects, and potentially reorient the BUILD discretionary grant program, which has reinforced the administration’s focus on rural, rather than urban, projects.

Yet the real action this year may actually be in the nation’s states and cities, where 36 gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, dozens of transportation-related referenda are being considered, and several major mayoral positions are being contested. Voter input on these races will orient the course of action for states representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population.

If state and local elections are less visible, they are likely to be quite impactful in terms of actually defining how urban transportation works, since cities decide what projects they want to pursue, states allocate resources between transportation modes, and referenda often determine funding streams.

Here, I round up some of the key races at stake this November. Most importantly, there are clear differences in approaches among the candidates running for governor—with, as I show below, many Democrats promoting platforms that would increase transportation funding, support specific transit projects, and encourage transit-oriented development. Republicans, in contrast, for the most part have platforms that actively oppose increasing transportation funding and offer little reason to suspect they would support transit investments.

In addition, I am providing a summary of key elections at thetransportpolitic.com/elections and on a dedicated Google sheet. On election night, I will update both of those pages, as well as my Twitter profile, with results, and you can keep track there.

Major gubernatorial elections

Of the 76 major candidates for governor in the 36 states with elections (36 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and four Libertarians or independents), a majority have stated positions on transportation on their policy platforms posted on their respective websites. But Democratic candidates are far more likely to have made a transportation-related statement (72 percent have such a statement) than their GOP opponents (just 42 percent of them).

Of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, 72 percent currently have GOP governors.

The GOP candidates who do have positions on mobility almost universally focus on themes such as cutting spending, “improving efficiencies” and “reforms.” Other than the Republican candidate for New York Governor, Marc Molinaro—who supports a plan to generate new funding for the New York City Subway—none of the GOP candidates supports increasing taxes or fees for transportation; in fact, South Carolina gubernatorial incumbent Henry McMaster specifically highlights his veto of a gas tax increase as one of his accomplishments, and Minnesota candidate Jeff Johnson says he would cut car license fees.

In terms of their policies on transportation spending, the Republicans focus overwhelmingly on roads. John H. Cox, the GOP candidate in California, says he would cancel that state’s high-speed rail program; Jeff Johnson would put a moratorium on light-rail construction. None of them appear to make a link between transportation and land use.

The Democrats running for office, on whole, have endorsed quite a different transportation program. The candidate in Alabama, Walt Maddox, suggests a new funding plan for transportation, pointing to a 12¢ increase in the gas tax as a possible approach; Jared Polis in Colorado, Jay Pritzker in Illinois, Jay Gonzalez in Massachusetts, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Richard Cordray in Ohio, and Tony Evers all endorse identifying new funds for transportation. Walz specifically commits to increasing the gas tax and Gonzalez to passing an income tax increase on the wealthiest to pay for transportation and education investments.

A large share of the Democrats—unlike the Republicans—say they would improve transit offerings, and provide specific examples of changes they would pursue.

California candidate Gavin Newsom has reaffirmed his support for high-speed rail. Polis would complete Denver’s Northwest rail line and invest in the Front Range Passenger Rail project; Connecticut candidate Ned Lamont would extend the Waterbury commuter rail line to Hartford and improve the New Haven line; Maryland’s Ben Jealous would build the Baltimore Red Line light rail, which was cancelled by incumbent Republican governor Larry Hogan; and Massachusetts’ Gonzalez would invest in an extension of Boston’s Blue Line to Lynn, while funding new planning for a North-South Rail Link for regional rail through Boston and high-speed rail to Springfield.

The transit commitments of several other Democratic candidates—all attempting to overturn existing Republican power at the governor’s mansion—are a bit less specific but still indicative of what would happen were they to win the election. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams would make transit a statewide priority, and in Ohio, Cordray would dedicate state funding for transit for the first time in years. Finally, Michigan’s Whitmer would pass a Detroit-region transit plan and Texas candidate Lupe Valdez would find ways to encourage a state with better transit and high-speed rail.

Several of the Democrats, finally, note the connections between land use and transportation and intend to pursue policies related to them. Maryland’s Jealous says he would incentivize transit-oriented development (TOD), and Colorado’s Polis says he would develop new state regulations for TOD. Connecticut’s Lamont says he would eliminate parking requirements around stations to encourage more housing in those locations.

It is worth noting, of course, that the candidates’ platforms profiled here only tell us so much about what will actually happen in their states were they to be elected. Many of them are relying on federal grants for their programs, and they’ll have to get support from state legislatures, which must pass legislation.

Major municipal elections

In the U.S., most mayoral elections occur in off-years, but several cities have scheduled their races for this November. Unlike the gubernatorial elections, of the three elections profiled here, only one has candidates associated with a party.

In Austin, incumbent Mayor Steve Adler is promoting a systemwide transit plan to replace the previous proposal, which failed to attract the support of voters in a 2014 referendum. His opponent Travis Duncan says he would encourage zero-emissions vehicles, provide free public transit, and improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure; others running have less concrete strategies.

in Phoenix, Kate Gallego, who is apparently the frontrunner, says she is a “strong proponent of investing in the infrastructure” the city needs to grow, but her platform makes few other commitments. Her opponent Nicholas Sarwark, on the other hand, specifically promotes the idea of encouraging the city’s residents to leave their cars at home through improved bike lanes, and Daniel Valenzuela supports light-rail extensions.

In Washington, D.C., incumbent Muriel Bowser, a Democrat in this partisan race, has no acknowledgement about transportation in her platform. Nor, unfortunately, do her opponents say much about what they would do differently.

It is also worth pointing out that Toronto’s mayoral election is next week, October 22. There, former head of city planning Jennifer Keesmaat is attempting to oust incumbent mayor John Tory. Keesmaat is running an aggressively planning-oriented campaign, premised on developing a new network plan for transit, expanding light rail, and building a Relief Line for downtown Toronto more quickly. She also says she would tear down a portion of the Gardiner Expressway, which runs along the city’s waterfront. Tory is running a far tamer campaign, but nevertheless does continue to support several transit improvements.

Transportation-related referenda

The dozens of referenda related to transportation on the ballot in November have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, notably by the Eno Center for Transportation.

The major referenda are catalogued at thetransportpolitic.com/elections, but several are specifically worth noting here.

Voters are being asked to consider sales tax increases for transportation at the local level in Baton Rouge, Broward County (Florida), Collier County (Florida), Flagstaff, Hillsborough County (Florida), Marin County (California), St. Lucie County (Florida). San Benito County (California), San Mateo County (California), and Thurston County (Washington). Of these, the Broward, Hillsborough, and San Mateo referenda are the most significant, all raising billions of dollars over 30 years, a significant share of which would be dedicated to transit improvements.

Several statewide referenda are also worth following. In California, voters are being asked (Proposition 6) whether to repeal a gas tax increase and vehicle fee passed by the state legislature in 2017. Colorado voters are being asked to consider two separate referenda that would increase funding for transportation, one of which would increase the sales tax and fund significant transit improvements (Proposition 110), and the other of which would simply bond out funding for roadways (Proposition 109). In Missouri, voters are considering a 10¢ gas tax increase (Proposition D).

Finally, in Washington state, voters are considering whether to impose a carbon fee (Initiative 1631), which would represent a significant effort by the state to address climate issues.

Explore these and more races and referenda at thetransportpolitic.com/elections. I’ll be updating it on election night.

The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway

» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.

For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.

After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are some depressing exceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.

But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed,

Continue reading The politics of wishful thinking: American cities and their commitment to the expressway »

U.S. transit systems are shedding riders. Are they under threat?

» Transit agencies are losing ridership across the country. Just how bad is this problem?

Between 1996 and 2014, overall transit ridership in the U.S. grew by about 35 percent, roughly twice as quickly as the nation’s population as a whole. That increase was driven, to a large degree, by very significant growth in boardings on New York City’s Subway, which in 2017 accounted for more than a quarter of all transit trips in the country. The rest of the country kept up, seeing relatively steady increases, particularly in places where new light rail systems opened.

Yet over the past few years, the trend reversed itself. Overall ridership declined by about six percent, or almost 600 million rides annually, between 2014 and 2017. In the context of the breakdown in service on New York’s Subway, the crises of confidence in Washington’s Metro, the arrival of ride-hailing services, and automated vehicle testing, the future

Continue reading U.S. transit systems are shedding riders. Are they under threat? »

Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board

» The city’s mayor has announced a multi-billion-dollar plan that would bring new light rail and bus rapid transit routes to the city’s core, but critics are suggesting it won’t work. It depends on the design.

Nashville is booming. The region that encompasses it is growing by an average of 100 people a day, and the rhythm has held up for several years now. The combined city-county Nashville-Davidson has added more than 60,000 residents since 2010 alone.

Developers are catching up, constructing thousands of new residential units, office buildings, and other projects; much of the development is happening downtown.

Yet the city’s transportation system isn’t made for the growth. The highway system is bottleneck-after-bottleneck, and the transit system is underfunded and underused.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s hope is to offer an alternative through a massive new transit program that she announced in October. It would rely on voter-supported tax increases.

But the

Continue reading Nashville plans for a big boost in local transit, and is hoping its voters will step on board »

In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros

» With rail rapid transit construction in virtually every major Chinese city, the country is betting on an urban future focused on transit.

Faced with limited political will for increased infrastructure funding, the debate over transportation planning in the United States has become increasingly dominated by an austerity-driven understanding of how to respond to growth. Unwilling or unable to develop ambitious plans for the future, many cities and their public officials have contented themselves with doing more with less.

Doing more with less is a strange maxim for an incredibly wealthy—and still growing—nation. Nevertheless, it is a pathology that has so altered many American planners’ sense of the acceptable that the mere idea of a master plan of significant investment attracts little more than dismissive scoffs. With blasé planners and uninterested politicians, “doing more” is readily transformed into actually doing very little.

Undoubtedly the overwhelming problems that infect that very core of the American

Continue reading In response to growth, Chinese cities choose metros »