Charlotte Finance Light Rail Seattle

When the Recession Strikes, Little Maneuvering Room for Better Transit

» Seattle’s large rail expansion program will be delayed thanks to a decline in local tax revenues. The sales tax comes back to bite.

The recession has not been kind to transportation agencies anywhere in the country. The loss of local revenues from dedicated taxes has in many places required agencies to reduce bus and rail operations — even with the significant aid that accompanied the 2009 Stimulus bill. But long-term consequences have been even more problematic for the hundreds of expansion plans either under construction or planned; in metropolitan areas from Dallas to Denver, previously funded projects have been put on hold.

Seattle’s Sound Transit is the most recent to announce its own problems: Last week, the agency revealed that its fifteen-year estimates for revenue collection established just two years ago would be 25% lower than expected. This means that a once $18 billion proposal to extend the region’s light rail system to the north, east, and south would have to be truncated by $3.9 billion, up from a $3.1 billion shortfall predicted just six months ago.

Though the region’s construction programs already in construction and in advanced planning — University Link and East Link, respectively — remain on schedule, a further extension of light rail facilities south into South King County past 272nd Street has been put on hold. A new transit investment in the region’s northern corridor (past Northgate) may no longer come in the form of light rail but instead in something less expensive, like improved buses. The creation of a new commuter rail link along the east side of the region has been suspended (though that project was to be funded primarily by private funds, so it could still be moved forward). All this in spite of the fact that Sound Transit has been able to literally quadruple ridership over the last ten years thanks both to the implementation of light rail beginning last year but also the improvement of regional bus and commuter rail services.

Seattle should comfort itself in the realization that despite all of these cutbacks, it is in a much better situation than cities elsewhere in the country. Example number one: Charlotte, whose countywide transit expansion program was revealed in the late 1990s and whose first light rail line has had high ridership, is facing a virtual shutdown in new construction because it has rightfully chosen to prioritize keeping its bus services afloat over spending on rail expansion.

Most cities have been especially affected by the recession because of their reliance on the sales tax to provide revenue. Of the recent referendums on transit expansion programs, almost all have involved a 1/2 cent or one cent increase in that tax; few cities have looked to other forms of revenue, like an income tax or a payroll tax. The consequences of this decision, however, have been devastating because sales tax revenues have fallen considerably as a result of the recession and the reduced standard of living experienced by the majority of Americans over the past few years. A more stable financing program for transit, using other forms of taxation, would ensure that planned projects actually get built.

The practically universal reliance on the sales tax is a “realistic” response to the sense that it is the most politically palatable form of taxation available. Because municipalities and regional entities are interested in producing stable coalitions in favor of transit expansion, they are required to institute revenue devices that are both regressive and unstable. That’s often because the business community — powerful in every area — is opposed to more progressive forms of taxation that threaten the salaries of their top executives. For many politicians, a sales tax is the most reasonable way to go about increasing funding. In addition, in many states, the idea of a special local or regional income tax is simply out of the question.

For cities like Seattle and Charlotte, what follows in an inability to proceed on schemes that were developed just a few years ago. But perhaps these cutbacks are simply the name of the game; it’s not like an increase in revenue through an income tax is even much of a feasible possibility.

Thus the current enigma: Should cities that had large transit ambitions scale them back due to having less money than once expected, or should they push for new revenue sources? The first option could be difficult to reconcile in the eye of the average citizen who voted for a sales tax increase on the assumption that he or she would experience significant improvements in transit service as a result. The second option seems unlikely to be supported by voters who are being asked to pay twice for something they were told could be accomplished after the first tax alone.

This situation puts transit agencies in a bind since they now appear as if they lied to the public when they promised certain amounts of spending during previous referenda. A more honest assessment of their travails would recognize that budget predictions are always predictions and nothing more; the severity of the recent recession was not something that was planned. Nonetheless, the public is rarely particularly sympathetic to the difficulties of government agencies.

Update, 28 September: I have updated the information about to reflect the state of the projects a bit more specifically.

Image above: Proposed entrance to the University of Washington Link Station, from Sound Transit

Light Rail Seattle

Seattle’s North Link Light Rail, Originally Considered for Highway-Running, May Be Partially Tunneled

» Underground route may actually save money — but it raises possibility of altering the alignment.

Seattle’s light rail expansion program may be one of the most ambitious in the nation: Not only did the region open a 14-mile first segment last year, but it has a northern extension currently under construction and three further routes mostly funded and in advanced planning. Unlike most new light rail systems, Seattle’s is also being built to light metro standards, with capacity for four (long) cars at every station.

This huge investment does not correlate with a perfectly planned system, of course. One of its major flaws is its reliance on the Interstate 5 right-of-way north of Seattle for the $1.4 billion, 4.3-mile North Link section of the project. It’s a route alignment that will not only restrict commuter access to and from stations, but also result in lessened transit-oriented development because of the limited appeal of locating new construction directly adjacent to a major highway. But the decision to stretch the light rail project along the side of the road was routed in the presumption that using an existing transportation corridor would save on land acquisition costs and allow expensive tunneling to be avoided.

Another 8.2-mile extension of the line, planned for the stretch from Northgate to Lynnwood, is currently suggested also to follow I-5 closely.

A new report from the region’s Sound Transit agency, however, suggests that moving trains underground could actually save money compared to the originally planned elevated alignment for a part of the route between the planned Roosevelt and Northgate Stations situated north of the University of Washington and the city center. If the engineers are correct, conventional wisdom about the high costs of tunneling made need to be reversed. The strict adherence to existing road rights-of-way that typically constrain new transit projects may need to give way to a broader vision of how new transit capacity can be built.

Current plans would extend the light rail tunnel from the University of Washington to 75th Street Northeast, where trains would exit onto an elevated route towards Northgate. Sound Transit’s new report suggests that the agency could save five to ten million dollars by extending the tunnel ten blocks further north — about half a mile — with the added benefit of reducing neighborhood environmental effects. Though the costs of tunneling have been reduced in recent years thanks to new boring methods, they’re rarely as cheap as transit built on the surface; this situation may prove to be an exception because it allows the light rail to avoid conflict with a number of road overpasses. And there are no planned stations along this stretch of track.

But the lesson is still worth considering more broadly speaking: As tunneling decreases in cost, the constraints that limit choices in rapid transit routes can be reduced and better alignments can be selected without damaging a project’s budget.

What the Seattle engineers are promoting now is merely a cost-saving solution to an expensive problem; it will keep the light rail in the I-5 right-of-way, just below it. Yet the realization that tunneling may actually be cheaper than building above ground raises questions about whether the city should continue to route the transit line along the Interstate alignment when other routes only accessible by underground tracks may be more appropriate for high-quality transit service.

It is probably too late to consider altering the alignment of North Link, since engineering is already underway, but it’s worth considering what could have been done differently in the stretch between Roosevelt and Northgate Stations had it been clear from the beginning that tunneling was a reasonable option.

The 2.3-mile distance between these two stations is a major concern; it puts a major population between the two out of easy walking distance to either station, reducing the appeal of the line and ridership prospects. The route along the highway left few desirable places for a third stop in between, but were trains routed under Roosevelt Way to the east of I-5 or under Aurora Avenue to the west of I-5, there are a number of areas that could support some increase in development coinciding with the arrival of rapid transit. Either of these routes would be a bit longer than the current alignment, but the added developmental activity resulting from their implementation could be enormous. Neither of these areas could have been served by ground-running trains because of limited street space.

Yet clear thinking about moving transit away from the highway right-of-way is only possible when it becomes obvious that the cost of inserting trains in tunnels is lower than other options. In Seattle, there is little chance that a wholehearted change in route is possible. But next time, either here or elsewhere, an underground route should not be dismissed as the “expensive,” and therefore infeasible, option.

Image above: Seattle Transit Tunnel, from Flickr user Jason Rodriguez

Infrastructure Light Rail Seattle

Light Rail Along Road Rights-of-Way: a Cheap Solution to an Expensive Proposition

» Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn proposes to build a new transit line to West Seattle and Ballard along the street.

The dividing line between what Americans reference as a streetcar and what they call light rail is not nearly as defined as one might assume considering the frequent use of the two terminologies in opposition. According to popular understanding, streetcars share their rights-of-way with automobiles and light rail has its own, reserved right-of-way.

But the truth is that the two modes use very similar vehicles and their corridors frequently fall somewhere between the respective stereotypes of each technology. Even the prototypical U.S. light rail project — the Portland MAX — includes significant track segments downtown in which its corridor is hardly separated from that of the automobiles nearby. And that city’s similarly pioneering streetcar includes several segments completely separated from the street.

In that context, it’s worth considering Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s recent argument for a scaled-down transit project that would extend from his city’s downtown to West Seattle and Ballard, a proposal he hopes to get before voters within two years. Unlike Seattle’s Central Link rail line, which opened in 2009, this new rail program would operate in street rights-of-way adjacent to moving automobiles; it would not include the expensive tunnels and viaducts that make Central Link a “mini-metro.”

As a result, some have labeled this plan little more than a streetcar, whose slow pace and minimal capacity make it more useful as a development tool than a transportation one. Others are convinced that the project will morph into a multi-billion dollar mini-metro like Link, a high-cost concept into whose face city budget experts are afraid to look.

But Mayor McGinn’s proposal is neither of those things — it’s an effort to build a cost-effective rail transit line on the model used by cities across Europe, known typically as tramways.

What makes Mr. McGinn’s plan — which, by the way, remains in the very early development stages — so different from those proposed by most cities is that it attempts directly to reduce significant road capacity for automobiles and replace it with space reserved for transit. Most light rail programs avoid that prospect by using existing rail rights-of-way for new lines, or by sending trains underground or above it. That’s because it’s considered treacherous to threaten to remove space now used by automobiles.

Indeed, if he goes forward with the proposal, the Mayor would be doing something that flies in the face of political expediency, since transit-friendly or not, most Seattleites continue to commute by private car. Yet Mr. McGinn claims he’s unworried about the implications of doing so; considering he won last year’s election partially by stridently opposing the construction of a $4 billion road tunnel under downtown, he probably should be taken at face value.

Mr. McGinn’s proposal is a reasonable one: by simply removing vehicle lanes and reserving space on the road for trains, you can build relatively fast light rail systems at the cost of streetcar lines. Other than over major physical barriers (the roughly 15-mile route suggested would require crossing two waterways), there’s little need to move earth or build new structures, saving tremendous amounts of money.

Unlike Central Link, which achieves very high average speeds compared to most urban rail systems, this project would feature only moderate speed improvements over existing bus services. But it would see a very large ramp-up in capacity and time savings over automobiles if intersections are properly designed. And it would encourage more people to ride transit because of clear station stops, frequent services, and comfortable trains.

All this at a much more reasonable price than would be possible if you wanted the type of full-scale, independent right-of-way featured by Link. Unlike equally cheap streetcars, these tram lines wouldn’t held up by surrounding traffic or required to have short trainsets because of limited street dimensions.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been relatively easy to implement such street-running rail in a number of European cities, and where it’s been done, it has often improved the quality of the surrounding streetscape, producing exactly the type of livable environment planners love to see around major new transit investments.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t places where transit corridors requiring full separation of rights-of-way are advisable; building New York’s Second Avenue Subway as a street-running light rail line would be a disaster, simply because it wouldn’t be able to handle anywhere near the capacity required. But in Seattle, land of moderate densities and medium-height commercial corridors, what Mayor McGinn is suggesting is exactly the right investment to make — at the right price.

Image above: Tram in Amsterdam, from Flickr user martin_vmorris (cc)

Light Rail Seattle Urbanism

In Seattle, as in Most Cities, Transit Works Best When It’s Not Highway-Bound

» Sound Transit advances plans for East Link light rail; Bellevue council member leads push for I-405 alignment.

In few places in the country is the choice between a quality transit alignment and a miserable one as stark as in Bellevue, Washington, through which light rail trains from Seattle will run by 2020.

The Puget Sound’s Central Link light rail line opened last year between downtown Seattle and SeaTac Airport. It forms the spine of what will be a much larger system that eventually extends south, north, east, and potentially west. The East Link, a 14-mile line across Lake Washington from downtown Seattle, though downtown Bellevue and to Overlake, would open by 2020 according to current Sound Transit plans and serve more than 45,000 daily passengers at a cost of a bit less than $3 billion. It’s a huge project.

But getting the specifics right about the corridor will make a big difference in whether light rail is well used in the eastern suburbs. Its exact route will be decided this year now that Sound Transit has conducted extensive studies on the effectiveness of alternative alignments.

As the region’s second largest business district and a huge opportunity for increased development, downtown Bellevue must be adequately served by light rail — or it will face increasing traffic congestion and encourage commercial space sprawl due to a lack of interest in upped density downtown. Last year, the City of Bellevue made clear its preference for a tunnel routing through the center city, but the $500 million added cost of that alignment forced Sound Transit to recommend a surface corridor, even while encouraging Bellevue to find its own funds for an underground link. But city councilors have expressed strong resistance to the idea of running trains in the street.

Now Bellevue council member Kevin Wallace is pushing forward his “Vision Line” proposal that would run light rail trains along I-405, several blocks from the center of downtown. The councilman’s project appears to be gaining support among Bellevue politicians, who are afraid of angering locals fearful of street-running rail and who are worried about raising the necessary taxes to pay for a tunnel. Picking this alignment, however, would significantly decrease the number of riding passengers and dilute the positive effects of installing light rail in the first place.

Sound Transit has a responsibility to ensure that the project is built right. Good transit, in virtually any city and in any situation, doesn’t have stations along highway rights-of-way.

Mr. Wallace’s “Vision” is an effort to ensure that light rail never reaches the heart of downtown, pure and simple. Compared to the other routes being considered, it would have significantly lowered effects on the commutes of people into and out of Bellevue. Compared to the proposed tunnel and surface lines, which would attract roughly 8,000 daily trips for the downtown segment alone, the Vision proposal would get only 6,000. There’s a good explanation for why that’s true; while the lines stopping at the existing transit center in the center of downtown would be in easy walking distance of 93 developable acres, the vision line would only reach 64. In terms of jobs and employment, the difference is even more stark: 18,000 jobs versus 6,400; 25,100 housing units versus 6,800.

If anything, the ridership estimates of the Vision line seem too high, or those of the alternative alignments too low.

Indeed, by placing a light rail line directly adjacent to a freeway, not only is the station itself not directly in downtown, but fully one half of potential ridership in the walking radius is simply cutoff by the highway to the east. That’s especially true in this situation, because the next stop planned for the line, at Overlake Hospital, would be far easier to get to for virtually all of the riders east of the highway. So the Vision line’s downtown station would only serve people on the west side, a huge missing market for such a big investment as a light rail station.

In other words, though there’s only a 1,500-foot distance between the proposed stations, the difference in access will be tremendous.

Mr. Wallace claims that his preference is for the tunnel, but that he is unwilling to use Bellevue money for the $300 million added cost of that project — he thinks Sound Transit should pay. Seattle, after all, didn’t have to pay directly for the tunnel to the University of Washington currently under construction.

The fallacy in that argument is that funding for light rail expansion is distributed by sales tax revenue, per affected area. So Seattle, in a way, did choose to pay for that tunnel; it could have saved money for something else had it opted for a surface alignment (though in the case of the University Link, only a tunnel alignment was possible). Mr. Wallace’s “savings” also ignore the enormous development potential — and added tax base — made possible by the construction of a station in the heart of downtown, since light rail’s capacity will increase the ability of downtown to handle added business and residents. This is something you’d expect the councilman to understand, since he’s a real estate developer himself.

There are other, less obvious reasons why a light rail station adjacent to the freeway would be so problematic. Such stops are frequently isolated, promote a feeling of insecurity, and difficult to get to, because they’re high up on an elevated viaduct adjacent to a roaring roadway. Anyone who’s willing to put transit riders in such an environment during their daily commutes is ignoring the humanity of those passengers and giving an undue preference to drivers, who apparently have the full right to downtown streets.

And that’s striking at the heart of the issue: the councilman is willing to continue the dominance of automobiles on the downtown’s roadways, despite explosive growth and the construction of high-rise residences and commercial buildings. This is an environment in which walking should be promoted. A surface light rail route would do that well, since it would make getting to stations easy, all while operating in roadways wide enough to allow trains to run in the center of the roadway along with cars on both sides. All at a cheap cost.

Yet Bellevue is afraid of the effects on traffic and on the general downtown environment. Those fears are overstated and closed to the possibility of using light rail as a catalyst to reshape the streetscape.

There are plenty of examples around the world where light rail has been implemented while improving the built environment of urban zones. Paris’ Tramway Line 3 operates in a grass-covered right-of-way along a completely renovated set of boulevards that are a pleasure to walk or bike on. In Nantes, the tram’s construction allowed for a complete rethink of the city’s downtown streets, with the results being a fantastic environment in which to stroll and shop. Each of these French transit lines carry more than 100,000 daily passengers.

If Bellevue wants to save money by not building a tunneled link, it could learn from those French examples. They have created great urban environments that this Washington city could well emulate. A highway alignment for light rail will do nothing of the sort.

Mr. Wallace’s argument, which is premised on the idea that a tunneled route is too expensive and that a street-running route is too dangerous, ignores the billions spent on roads and the danger of automobiles. Meanwhile, it ignores the potential advantages to the pedestrian environment made possible with street-running rail. It is a heavily biased perspective and one that should not influence Sound Transit decision-making.

Image above: Proposed Downtown Bellevue Vision Line Station Map, from Vision Line Report

Atlanta Charlotte Elections Houston Miami New York Seattle

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.