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Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision

» Third in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The first considered governor’s races; the second reviewed ballot measures.

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.

17 replies on “Mayoral Elections Highlight Controversies Over Transit Provision”

I wouldn’t consider the tunnel to be a done deal yet. There is a lawsuit about the SEPA process and if McGinn gets elected that in combination with fights over who pays costs overruns or possibly cost overruns once project bids are submitted could still derail the tunnel. With that said the tunnel has almost universal support among the establishment on the city, regional and state level.

The King County Executive position is more important than the Mayor’s race in Seattle.

Hutchinson is a disaster — she’s a stealth right-wing candidate whose positions –when she admits them — are 100% wrong on all transit issues, and who tries to evade questions.

In contrast, Dow Constantine is a reasonable guy, with a strong record of bus and rail advocacy, but *also* a record of keeping to budgets, and even a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning.

Credit Seattle Transit Blog for the research.

While not a big-city race, the Vancouver, WA mayoral race between incumbent Royce Pollard, and strong challenger Tim Leavitt, is being driven somewhat by transit issues, and the proposed Columbia River Crossing (a multi-modal bridge spanning the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, OR, to replace the aging Interstate Bridge).

The specific issue is tolling–the Interstate, which carries I-5, is one of two roadway bridges crossing the Columbia in the Portland metro area (the other is the Glenn Jackson bridge, seven miles upstream, which carries I-205). An aging drawbridge (the northbound span is nearly 100 years old), the bridge has been a bit of a bottleneck for years. It has three auto lanes in each direction (on two independent spans), no rail facilities, and horrible pedestrian facilities.

The replacement bridge is expected to cost several billions of dollars; an initial proposal with six through lanes, six auxiliary lanes, a transitway, and a pedestrian/bike concourse, with a price tag of $4 billion, was pretty much panned by everybody. (The project also includes other elements, including redesigning I-5 for several miles in each direction to bring the freeway up to modern code, and a “cap” over the freeway in Vancouver). Various proposals for a less expensive alternative are circulating, but it’s still expected to be in the billions.

Many expect that tolls will be a major part of the financing package for the new bridge–and here, Vancouverites (many of whom commute to Oregon to work) are objecting. The challenger, Leavitt, is running on a no-tolls platform, though its unclear how much power he would have to affect this decision. More generally (and relevant to this blog), many voters in Vancouver view LRT as a boondoggle and would just as soon have this be a freeway-only bridge, and not extend the Yellow Line across the river. (Portland, on the other hand, insists that the bridge will have light rail or not be built at all).

The race is fairly tight, with Leavitt given a good chance to win by many pollsters.

I dont understand your opposition to Bloomberg. I would have thought he was the ideal transit and liveable streets candidate. What Janette Sadik Khan has done to NYC is amazing in my eyes, the city is prosperous and not falling off a deep financial cliff like many cities today, NYC crime levels remain way down and is still the safest big city in America. Hell, we are even seeing subway construction for the first time in 60 years, dare I suggest that the city actually works and can get things done. It just seems like things are getting done that only a few years ago we could only dream about, while at the same time the really important things about governing a city, the finances and crime, are well handled.

Anyhow I’m not a New Yorker so I’m seeing it all as a visitor and mostly from 3000 miles away.

Jon, Bloomberg is defunding Second Avenue Subway in favor of a subway to nowhere. Even with his subway to nowhere project, he killed funding for a station at 41st and 10th, which would serve an existing neighborhood rather than an urban renewal dream project where nobody lives today. The useful subway construction you see in New York, SAS, comes from state funds, shepherded by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

It’s the same for everything else that’s supposedly good about Bloomberg. Crime is marginally down from 2001; the main crime drop happened under Dinkins (who got no credit for it) and Giuliani (who got all the credit). And no, New York isn’t the safest big city in America – San Diego is. Prosperity isn’t happening anymore, with higher than average unemployment rates. And Sadik-Khan’s main agenda isn’t livable streets; it’s turning Broadway into a linear park, and putting bike lanes in every gentrifying neighborhood and in no neighborhood that could actually use traffic reduction.

Alon, could you stop repeating this line that Sadik-Khan has been favoring gentrifying neighborhoods and ignoring outer boroughs? It’s just plain false. She has reached out to politicians and business leaders in the outer boroughs and they have mostly given her the brush-off. The ones in Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn are the ones who have been willing to support her projects.

Even with that, there have been exceptions: Select Bus on Fordham Road, the redesign of the Bronx Hub, for example.

You’re right that most of the boldest projects have been in Manhattan, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

You make it sound as though Charlotte has given up on its ambitious plans for rail lines throughout the city and nearby areas and is just settling for a central-city streetcar. That’s not the case; the plans for a complete, five-corridor system are still there, and the city intends to build the other four, unbuilt corridors. The task, of course, because of the recession and its impact on Charlotte’s financial sector, is figuring how and when.

So don’t count Charlotte or its transit plans out. Knowing my hometown — and I know it pretty well — it will happen. Just got a few things to figure out first.

Cap’n, the business and community leaders in Manhattan gave Sadik-Khan the same brushoff. She slapped bike lanes and traffic calming on them anyway.

The mind boggles at the notion that the first traffic reduction priority should be Midtown and not East Harlem, where community activists have complained about asthma for decades, or Long Island City.

Did Sadik-Khan ever try to do anything for East Harlem?

As of this writing,

In Atlanta, it’s Norwood 45%, Reed 37%, Borders 14.5%, 14% precincts reporting. Likely to go into a runoff of Norwood vs. Reed

In Charlotte, Foxx has won with 51% of the vote, with Lassiter conceding

In Houston, it’s Parker 31%, Locke 25%, Brown 23%, Morales 20%, with 75% of precincts reporting. Likely to go into a runoff, with Parker vs. Locke

In Miami, Regalado is winning, with 72%, Sanchez 28%, with 81% precincts reporting.

In New York City, Bloomberg is winning again (CNN)

Bloomberg 51%, Thompson 46%, 98% of precincts reporting

In Seattle, McGinn is barely winning, with 50.03%, Mallahan 48.96% in early returns.

so you’d rather thompson?

alon, you are trying to make this into something its not. it makes more sense to start in high profile locations especially places where there is the volume of foot traffic to actually populate the new plazas. times square was in serious need of additional pedestrian space and is a place occupied by a large cross section of the population. there is no select bus service in manhattan, there is in the bronx, and she tried it in brooklyn which thompson has opposed.

thompson is the one fighting JSK’s projects especially those in neglected neighborhoods like bed-stuy and whom is more concerned about motorists street parking over new bus and bike lanes in these very neighborhoods.

Bloomberg is defunding Second Avenue Subway in favor of a subway to nowhere.

Seeing as the 7 train extension is being financed by bonds linked to new real estate tax revenue (an idea that looked much better several years ago than it does now,) exactly where is the proof that the SAS has been defunded for this other project?

In Philadelphia the powers that be are supporting a half billion trolley to nowhere when there’s recent study on a subway to its northeast that was projected to carry some 120k riders per day. who would have imagined that Houston woudl have the most sensible plan and have a line with the highest ridership per route mile. the world is upsdie down indeed

Russell: the city has spent $0 on SAS, either from the general fund or from bonds. This despite the fact that subway service increases property values even for existing neighborhoods.

Jon: yes, I’d rather have had Thompson. Thompson could be voted out in 4 years, and would be restricted from doing bad by the city council. Bloomberg can buy himself a fourth term and bribe city council into letting him gentrify more neighborhoods.

And no, Thompson didn’t run against any environmental justice projects in Bed-Stuy. He ran against bike lanes in Chinatown. That was stupid of him – the bike lanes are actually popular there – but Chinatown isn’t Bed-Stuy and it’s not East Harlem.

It makes sense to start in high-profile location only if you’re going for pizzazz, which is what Sadik-Khan’s doing. Even then, there’s no excuse not to immediately move on to the most traffic-choked neighborhoods. If you’re going for just improving alternative transportation and public health, you should start with projects that actually improve alternative transportation and public health.

Alon — So what if the City has spent $0 on the SAS? I have read that it’s delayed because moving the utilities took longer than expected, some designs needed to be reworked, blasting was delayed due to a couple of shaky buildings involved in real estate speculation, uh, lessee, the rock is too hard, the dog ate the blueprints, whatever.

The SAS has not been delayed, in the reports I’ve seen, due to a shortage of funds from the City. When Phase II ramps up, that may require City funds and then the needed cash will be found.

Today East Harlem is one big fat tract of ripening speculation and potential development. When we get beyond the big real estate slump and economic doldrums of the Great Recession, the big players will get ready to put up high-rise apartment towers along First, Second, and Third Avenues on the “Upper Upper East Side.” Then things will be moved and shaken, and the SAS will be completed up to 125th St, stations and all. If it takes City money to do that, no problem.

Anyway, perhaps a moot argument. Thompson wasn’t quite a giant killer, but he sure cut Hizzoner down to a more human size. A fourth term remains a theoretical possibility, but this morning it looked less like a very real threat. We’ll be watching Cong Anthony Weiner and Controller John Liu for their views on public transportation with great interest.

First, part of the original delay came from delays in securing funds. The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations provided nothing, and Sheldon Silver had to threaten Pataki that if he didn’t get his SAS money, Pataki wouldn’t get ESA money. SAS may have been started earlier if there had been more money available.

Arguably, the fact that the city didn’t provide enough money to do phases 1 and 2 at the same time caused part of the delay and construction cost overruns. It’d have been cheaper to put the launch box near the Harlem River Drive than in the middle of 2nd and 96th, and the overall cost of phases 1 and 2 would have been lower since they would just need one pair of TBMs.

Second, Bloomberg’s transit funding priorities aren’t skewed just because of SAS. I find his unwillingness to fund a station at 41st and 10th because that area is already developed every bit as enlightening.

And yes, I know that this is moot. The close victory means Weiner will run. He’ll probably win, which may or may not be a good thing. Weiner’s consistently a populist, and was against congestion pricing, but later supported bridge tolls on suburbanites (see plan here). On the other hand, on other domestic issues, like health care and neighborhood governance, he has a perfect record.

Thanks for your article. One other thing is the fact that individual states have their very own laws that affect house owners, which makes it quite hard for the the nation’s lawmakers to come up with a new set of recommendations concerning foreclosures on householders. The problem is that every state offers own guidelines which may work in a damaging manner on the subject of foreclosure insurance policies.

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