Elections Seattle Streetcar

A Month Before Elections, Seattle Approves Plan for First Hill Streetcar

Seattle First Hill Streetcar Map» Candidate Mike McGinn presents strongly pro-transit platform, while opponent Joe Mallahan’s interest in new capital investment is limited.

The Seattle political establishment was shocked by the failure of Mayor Greg Nickels to make it past primary elections in August. Mr. Nickels faced strong competition on both his right and left, from executive Joe Mallahan, who promoted an efficient, business-friendly platform, and from environmentalist Mike McGinn, who argued that the mayor hadn’t done enough to ready the city for a greener 21st century. The city’s inhabitants will vote again in early November to determine which of the two candidates will lead America’s 25th-largest city; their choice will be elemental in determining the municipality’s future transportation options.

At the national level, Mr. Nickels made a name for himself as a major proponent of transit investment. He campaigned relentlessly for the passage of Sound Transit 2 last fall, which provided several billion dollars of new funds for light rail expansion north to Lynnwood, east to Overlake, and south to Redondo. That said, he was a vigorous proponent of the four billion dollar Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, which is primarily an expenditure designed to improve the lives of automobile commuters.

It is increasingly apparent that Mr. McGinn, who has in the past favored cheaper bus service over rapid transit expansion, will also be a strong proponent of capital investment in mass transit if he is elected. He fought the costly and unnecessary replacement of the Viaduct with a new downtown tunnel. Mr. Mallahan, who drives almost everywhere, has provided little evidence that he feels similarly, and his strong support of the tunneling of the Viaduct, rather than its replacement with the surface-level boulevard Mr. McGinn suggests, augurs poorly for his ability to advocate for new transit solutions.

The mayoral contest is particularly relevant because of the recent decision of the Seattle City Council to pursue an agreement with regional authority Sound Transit on the First Hill Streetcar line. This project, which will be the second modern streetcar in the city (after the corridor in South Lake Union), will connect the International District downtown with First Hill and Capitol Hill, essentially providing a secondary parallel transit spine to the just-opened Link light rail line. It will be sponsored by Sound Transit, as it was one of the funded projects in Mr. Nickels’ ST2; in a complicated arrangement, the city will build and operate the line despite having limited financial involvement. When it opens in 2013, the First Hill line could be the second element of a whole network of streetcars running through the city’s core. It has yet to acquire a definitive route or an official name.

Perhaps the most admirable element of Mr. McGinn’s platform is his emphasis on preserving rights-of-way for transit; despite his support of the First Hill line, he is not focused on streetcars because he is concerned that they are simply too slow to replace a large share of car trips. He wants more rapid bus lines that travel in their own lanes. Instead of pushing for a streetcar line to West Seattle’s Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard neighborhoods, he wants a quick light rail line along the same route to be submitted for voter consideration in a couple of years. His platform, then, suggests a willingness to continue the investments Mr. Nickels prioritized and an excitement to go further towards making the city great.

Mr. McGinn understands that a simple streetcar line isn’t enough to ensure efficient and trustworthy public transportation options for the city’s voters, but he also has made apparent his understanding that streetcars can be powerful tools for the development of dense urban environments. His opposition to the Viaduct makes his credentials as a transit advocate all the more obvious. He would be an intelligent steward of the city’s funds and a visionary for the region’s future.

Image above: Proposed First Hill Streetcar Route, from Seattle Department of Transportation


A Good Night for Transportation

Results from Last Night’s Election :

Barack Obama, as you know, has won the Presidency. This is excellent news for transit supporters.

In the most important election of the evening, it appears that California’s High Speed Rail will get its $10 billion bond. This was a close election, with 52% in favor, and 48% opposed.

Los Angeles voters have approved Measure R by a margin of 67-33, just above the necessary 2/3 majority, providing the starting funds for their proposed Subway to the Sea and dramatically improving the prospect for a more livable L.A.

In Santa Clara County, it looks like Measure B, the effort to extend BART to San Jose, has made it through with a 66-33% passage. came incredibly close to passing, at 66.27%, but failed because it needed a 66.66% (2/3) majority.

In Honolulu, pro-rail Mayor Mufi Hannemann easily won reelection and the effort to establish rail in the city won on a 53-47% margin.

In Seattle, it looks like Prop 1, the measure to dramatically ramp up light rail construction in the city, has passed by an overwhelming 59-41% margin.

In New Mexico, the effort for a new transit tax for increased commuter rail, passed with a 57-43% margin.

In West Sacramento, voters agreed with the idea of building a streetcar, but appear not to have received the 2/3 majority necessary to pay for it.

In Sonoma and Marin Counties, Measure Q to build a SMART commuter train, passed with a 74-26% margin.

In Kansas City, the effort to build light rail has failed with a 44-56% margin.

In St. Louis, Proposition M to expand Metrolink, failed with a 48-52% margin.

Overall, this was a pretty good night for transit, with the exception of in Missouri, which suffered two defeats. The election of Barack Obama, however, is more important than anything else, because it guarantees a federal government that will play an important role in funding transit infrastructure.

We should be looking forward to an exciting four years!


The Day Before

The most important day of the year is tomorrow, as anyone alive and not comatose knows. As a result, we won’t waste your time with interesting blog entries today or tomorrow.

The fundamental point is this: you should be spending your time today convincing everyone you know to vote, and preferably to vote well. Tomorrow, you should be spending your time voting and getting other people to the polls. Democracy is a wonderful thing.

A few reminders: if you believe that it’s time for a new transportation policy in this country, wake up and smell the coffee. Jim Oberstar and Earl Blumenauer, two of Congress’ best and most progressive transportation experts, are on the short list to be Obama’s Transportation Secretary. I hate to repeat the obvious, but a President McCain would likely mean another Secretary Mary Peters. That would be a very bad thing.

Coming Wednesday and Thursday: two re-thinks of New York’s Second Avenue Subway. You’ll be interested, promise. Thanks for reading.

Elections High-Speed Rail

California HSR Polls; Overcrowded Philly Trains; UK Considers HSR

California HSR:

A new Field poll shows 47% in favor, 42% opposed. This is in contrast to 52% in favor, 36% opposed back in July. The economic crisis is starting to take its toll on voter confidence for new projects. The people have it all wrong, though: this high-speed rail project would prove to be a dramatic job-creator and economy-stimulator.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Dianne Feinstein campaigned vigorously in San Francisco for the proposition’s passage.

The L.A. Times’ architecture critic writes positively about the potential densification of L.A.’s downtown as a result of HSR.

Overcrowding in Philadelphia:

The Phillies’ World Series parade seems to have driven SEPTA ridership to record levels – even though the trains had to be shut down for five hours in the middle of the day to prepare for the massive number of people leaving the parade. It’s too bad Philadelphia’s underfunded transit system was so woefully unprepared for this exciting event.

HSR in Great Britain:

Labour, currently in power, last year rejected the opposition Conservative Party’s push for a high-speed rail link between London, Birmingham, and Manchester. Now, however, Labour has reconsidered. Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon is even considering a maglev option.

Opposition grows to Labour’s vision of a third runway at Heathrow, with the Tories oppose; even some Labour MPs in Parliament see the third runway as a mistake.

Elections Finance Light Rail Los Angeles Metro Rail

Change for L.A.! (if voters agree)

Los Angeles Transit Plans

Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country, and the county that includes it, with over ten million inhabitants, is larger than New York. And yet this growing metropolis is served by little more than a skeleton of a transit network, with two short metro lines, three light rail lines, three busways, and a decent rapid bus system. A relatively small percentage of the population lives within a half-mile distance of a transit stop, which is generally considered the longest walk people will take to get to a station. And huge sections of the city – including some of the city’s most densest, most culturally important, and most trafficked – are simply not served well enough. How did this come to be? What have L.A.’s transportation planners done in recent decades to try to solve the problem? And what will this year’s Measure R accomplish if voters approve it in just six days?

Los Angeles was once the center of the nation’s largest concentration of streetcar lines. The Pacific Electric “Red Cars” and the “Yellow Cars” traveled throughout the region, providing adequate – though certainly not fast service. Beginning in the 1940s, bus companies, using brand new General Motors buses, bought up the lines, tore out the tracks and overhead catenaries, and replaced them with bus lines. Some transit advocates are convinced that this was a conspiracy, designed to prevent L.A. from having good public transportation. But the truth is that the Red and Yellow Cars were bought openly by bus companies and the city government sat by passively as the streetcars were replaced by buses. People at the time genuinely thought that buses would provide better service than the streetcars, because they had fewer mechanical problems, held more passengers in a more modern environment, and could travel on L.A.’s freeways. People at several levels of government, as well as in the elements of the private sector that would profit saw a benefit to the implementation of bus service.

It is also essential to point out that during the 1930s, the country’s other big metropolis, New York, was busy building the massive Independent Subway System, which produced new lines running on 6rh and 8th Avenues on Manhattan, as well as extensions to the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. These subways provided markedly better service than either buses or streetcars. What was the “conspiracy” in L.A.? That no one in the government got it together enough to implement and build a new rapid transit system. If that had happened way back in the 1930s, L.A. would not have the traffic nightmare it has today.

In 1951, the L.A. Metropolitan Transit Authority was formed in order to consider a monorail line for the region; in 1954, it was authorized to begin planning for the whole region. By 1960, it proposed a 75-mile monorail plan, but this was immediately opposed by people who quite reasonably didn’t want elevated rail lines in their backyards (note: at the same time, New York City and Chicago were actively trying to replace their elevated lines with new subways). So the proposal was reduced to a subway between Santa Monica and downtown on Wilshire Blvd, and an at-grade line to El Monte. This route remained the backbone of L.A. transit plans for thirty more years.

The MTA was replaced by the Southern California Rapid Transit District in 1964, which was provided with taxation and eminent domain powers; the RTD immediately took over several failed bus lines and became the main operator of transit in the region. It was buoyed by the creation the same year of the Urban Mass Transit Administration by the Johnson Administration; the UMTA would provide funds directly to cities for transit expansion and modernization.

RTD recognized the potential for mass transit to reduce congestion, which had already begun to expand on the region’s highways. So in 1968, 1974, and 1976, it proposed massive metro-based plans that would provide huge transit systems to compete with New York for transit supremacy – by ’76, the plan was articulating a vision of 230 miles of metro. But in each year, voters, who were asked to tax themselves in order to pay for the network, rejected the projects in referendums. A combination of factors led to the programs’ failure: an increasing sense that L.A. was a different kind of city, where people got around by car; a growing anti-tax mentality in California as a whole; and a coalition of powerful business, newspaper; and nonprofit interests that campaigned repeatedly against the transit plans on the basis of their “high” cost. The constant assumption was that L.A. inhabitants simply “would not take” mass transit. This remains the basis for the most anti-transit arguments today.

Another fundamental problem with the 1968 plan (but which was admittedly improved in ’74 and ’76) was that the program was very much centered on downtown. Urban planners wanted the redevelopment of downtown L.A., and saw a metro system leading people there (rather than anywhere else) from all over the region as an essential component to their plan. So the 1968 plan proposed an initial plan of five lines, running to San Fernando Valley, Santa Monica, El Monte, LAX, and Long Beach. (Download a PDF of this and the other plans discussed here.) Other, future extensions were envisioned but could not be financed by this tax. But downtown L.A. was assuming a decreasing importance in the metro region as a whole, especially since the 1940s, when mass transit was largely replaced with automobile commuting and as the Westside grew in power and wealth. So it makes sense that voters would see little reason to sponsor a project with so little consequence to their lives.

Nonetheless, RTD did manage to build the El Monte busway along a highway with federal grants, and in ’74, California Proposition 5 marked some highway funds for mass transit, providing more funding for the agency. Meanwhile, the state in 1976 formed a competing agency called the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, whose mission was also to develop transit plans for the region, but also work to improve roads. The competition between the two agencies probably made it more difficult to implement transit improvements, and led to some cognitive dissonance for the public: which agency was making the plans? Which plans were the right ones?

But the CTC was successful in 1980 when it proposed Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax, completely devoted to transportation and with 35% allocated to rail. The difference this time was several fold: it had become increasingly apparent that L.A. highway system wasn’t “working,” in that congestion was rampant; the businesses and newspapers that had opposed previous plans were now mostly silent; and the fact that most of the revenues went to roads probably felt like an acceptable compromise to most people. The plan presented to voters was vague, but envisioned an extensive system that would provide most areas of L.A. County with adequate access to transit – and it wasn’t downtown-centered. Using the new funding, the agencies began planning new lines, CTC developed what would become the Blue and Green light rail lines, running from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach and running from El Segundo to Norwalk, intersecting in Compton. RTD began planning a metro subway under Wilshire, running to the Westside, the route that has always been the center of L.A.’s plans.

But in 1985, a methane gas explosion under a Ross Store in the midst of the Westside ignited peoples’ fears about the subway line. Would building transit on the Westside result in more explosions? Was L.A. made for subways? RTD, sensing extreme opposition to its plans, began building the subway through downtown, designed so it could run either down Wilshire or up to the San Fernando Valley, or both.

In 1990, voters faced another referendum – Proposition C, which would again provide some some of its half-cent tax revenues for transportation. Prop A was not providing nearly enough money for transportation improvements, but Prop C, which wouldn’t be completely devoted transit, wouldn’t either. So the vision people were expecting to be achieved with A and C revenues (C was passed successfully as well) was a fantasy. There simply was not enough money at the time to make the giant plan that was envisioned happen. This paved the ground for this year’s Measure R.

Even with massive cost overruns, especially on the downtown subway (Red Line), the three lines opened partially by 1995. In 1993, the competing agencies were merged by the state, making today’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro), which controlled the county’s roads, rails, and buses. This was ultimately a good move for the county, because it ensured a decrease in inter-agency competition and made the allocation of revenues possible. Also, the fact that a unified authority managed both roads and transit – but which has always had a pro-transit bent – meant that revenues could be expended in a more equitable way.

The subway’s route to North Hollywood was completed by 2000 and a new Gold light rail line to Pasadena was finished in 2003; meanwhile, the Harbor transitway was build in 1998 and the Orange line busway in San Fernando Valley opened in 2005.

On the way, however, Metro experienced a number of problems in its implementation plan. For one, the gas explosion and considerable opposition to mass transit on the Westside (the area that needed mass transit the most) convinced Congressman Henry Waxman, a powerful member of the House, to push through a bill that would prevent using federal funds for new L.A. subways. This was a major problem, because any serious transit expansion in L.A. would need money from Washington to be financed realistically. In 1998, voters passed a referendum that prevented the funding of any “new subway” in L.A. with Proposition A or C revenues. These two efforts effectively closed off the dream of the line down Wilshire Blvd.

Simultaneously, an organization called the Bus Riders’ Union (BRU), which was effectively an group of bus drivers – sued Metro with the argument that rail lines were discriminatory, because they sucked up too much money for improvements for a small percentage of the overall riding public. Their arguments made some sense: L.A. has over a million bus riders everyday, but only a few hundred thousand rail passengers. As a result, Metro was forced to significantly build up bus services, which resulted in the creation of the successful Metro Rapid system, which “speeds up” very slow buses to slow speeds. The investment in local bus service may have been a good idea, but ultimately it simply resulted in more people spending more time commuting. The buses clogged already clogged roads, and people on buses can never escape the ever-increasing traffic, because the rail system, lacking funds, couldn’t expand enough to provide a real alternative to road travel. So the BRU made a vision of rapid transit in L.A. impossible, even as it was campaigning for the “rights” of transit riders (note: the BRU now opposes Measure R). In interim, however, Metro did have the capacity to begin construction on a Gold Line extension to East L.A., which will open next year, and the Expo Line, a Light Rail line to Culver City.

The election of Antonio Villaraigosa in 2005 to the mayor’s seat changed the equation a bit. Running openly on behalf of a “Subway to the Sea” – that extension down Wilshire to Santa Monica that’s always been an element of transit plans – the mayor won over Westsiders who now saw that they might actually benefit from a better transit system. His victory also forced Metro to open look into the possibility of expanding down Wilshire once again, as he became the head of Metro’s board. When Metro investigated, it found no cause for concern – the methane gas “problem” wasn’t one. This year, Congressman Waxman, whose constituents had had a change of heart, removed the ban on federal funding for subways in L.A.

And this, after all, is where this year’s Measure R comes in. Though Metro has some money through Prop A and C to continue funding expansions, rising costs, as well as increased fuel costs, are making that kind of expansion increasingly unlikely. Meanwhile, the Subway to the Sea, which is the main – but unsaid – point of Measure R, cannot be funded using those revenues because of the 1998 initiative.

So Measure R will impose another 1/2-cent sales tax for transportation, making L.A. the most transportation-taxed of any place in the country. The vast majority of these revenues will be devoted to rail expansion. And Measure R’s revenues will not prevent subway expansion, so they will go straight into the new subway, which under a new plan will be a two-part affair, with lines extending down both Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds from the existing Red (and Purple) lines. This project is expected to attract more than 300,000 people a day.

Although Measure R will, again, because of construction cost increases, not actually fund everything its proponents claim, it will provide sufficient funding for at least some transit improvements. Other than the Subway to the Sea, it proposes to expand the currently-under-construction Expo line all the way to Santa Monica. It will push forward the Crenshaw transit corridor and create a transit connection between the Westide and San Fernando valley along the I-405 highway. It will connect the Gold line to the Blue and Expo lines by building a light rail connector downtown. It will expand the Gold line on its northern and southern ends. And it will finally connect the Green line directly to LAX airport.

What voters have in front of them is a significant plate of mass transit improvements that will finally allow for the implementation of plans going all the way back to 1968. If voters pass the referendum – a so-so chance because it requires a 2/3 majority – they will get an integrated system that will radically improve the ability of most people to get around L.A. People, desperate to get out of traffic, will take these trains.