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Voting for Transit

While much of the world is in a state of disbelief over the result of the US election, there was some positive news to come out of it too. In many areas a range of transit projects/initiatives were also ballot. In total, there were 48 local or statewide measures and 33 (69%) passed, even though many required increases in taxes to pay for them and some required 2/3rds of voter support. The Transport Politic has a list of many of them and their outcomes while CityLab highlights three of the biggest.

Los Angeles 

With nearly 70 percent voting yes on Measure M, Los Angeles County is set to see a dramatic transit transformation over the coming decades with a permanent half-cent sales tax hike. The plan will rake in some $121 billion for proposed and ongoing projects such as a rail connection to LAX and a subway tunnel through the Sepulveda Pass. Long-disconnected neighborhoods in the region’s southeastern reaches are also slated for rail and bus-rapid transit connections. The tax increase will also pay for badly needed sidewalk upkeep, pothole repairs, new bike lanes, and bike-share stations, as well as a clutch of greenways.

los-angeles-metrorail-comparison

Image from LA Curbed

Seattle

Also clearing the ballot box was Sound Transit 3, an ambitious light-rail jump-start that promises to become one of the largest transit projects in American history. The plan is to more than double the Seattle region’s light rail system, with 62 miles of new track and 37 stations built over 25 years. It will also install three BRT lines and a chain of park-and-ride stations across urban Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties by 2041. The plan, which would be paid for by sustained increases in sales, motor vehicle, and property taxes (to the estimated tune of $169 per adult per year), is slated put the area’s rail system in the same weight class as San Francisco’s and Washington, D.C.’s, as the Ringer recently reported.

seattle-st3-map

Seattle ST3 plan

Atlanta

Atlanta voters overwhelmingly passed a .4 percent sales tax increase that would raise $300 million over five years for transportation improvements, with projects including the completion of the city’s BeltLine loop of green trails, 15 “complete streets” projects, a bike-share scale-up, and significant sidewalk improvements. Meanwhile, a separate half-penny sales tax increase will generate $2.5 billion over the next 40 years, allowing the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority to make “major investments in transit infrastructure, including introducing high-capacity rail improvements, building new infill rail stations within the city, purchasing new buses, adding more frequent service, and introducing new bus routes,” according to the city.

The high capacity rail improvements includes extensions their existing heavy rail network and 7 light rail routes.

 

The downside for many of the measures is they are also dependent on federal funding and with the Republicans hostile towards transit investment, they ultimately may not ever happen.

All of this got me thinking about what the outcome would be if Aucklanders got to vote directly on transport plans. It could be argued that we already vote on transport but we only do so indirectly. In central government elections transport is normally considered just a minor issue behind the likes of health, education, the economy and welfare, even though transport can influence outcomes from each of those areas. Transport is much more of a local issue and while it usually garners a much larger mindshare than at a national level, it is also competing against other topics too, such as rates and housing.

In the end, voting at both central and local level is very indirect. For example, Phil Goff stood on a platform of light rail down Dominion Rd but just because he’s been elected it doesn’t mean it will ever actually happen as the project is captive to a plethora of political and technical hurdles. How would voters in Auckland respond if they had a more direct say on transport plans in Auckland.

The recent Auckland Transport Alignment Project (ATAP) is a big step in getting the government and council in alignment on transport in Auckland but it takes very much a “the experts know best” approach that relies heavily on transport modelling. It was the antithesis of the public having a say. The ATAP modelling relies heavily on assumptions, value judgements and historical trends, and it has been frequently made clear that the outputs are incredibly flawed. That ATAP ended up proposing some substantial transit investment, albeit it not soon enough in my view, is more a reflection of how out of balance our transport system already is than the process working.

atap-future-strategic-pt-network

Perhaps one of the issues with ATAP, and many other transport plans, is that they start from the wrong place. They are treated as a technical solution to a technical problem rather than first working out and agreeing what the vision is for how we want our city to look and feel and then working back from there. This can include deliberately ignoring plans that have already done the work of deciding the vision element. In ATAP the word vision isn’t mentioned once and the only mention of the council’s 30-year vision, the ‘Auckland Plan’, is that the council will need to update it with the outcome of ATAP. I think this happens as vision is a harder thing to define and measure than technical aspects. Added to that I suspect many of the bureaucrats either don’t have a vision or are too scared to be seen as imposing one

This is something that happens at many levels and is the same kind of thinking that leads to stupid ideas such as trying to squeeze up footpaths and the CRL entrance on Victoria St that will be used by 10’s of thousands of people every day, just so that an extra traffic lane can be added. This of course completely ignores the agreed vision for the city centre.

I’m not quite sure how you’d do it but what outcome would ATAP have delivered if the wider public had a greater say in the vision they want for Auckland or even just on some of the value judgement made by officials.

As we know from ATAP, Auckland has a transport funding shortfall of around $400 million annually. While some of that might disappear if the value judgements were different, a lot of it would still be needed, even if for a different set of projects. The public having a say on whether they agree with the proposed plan and how to pay for it might be a good idea if nothing else than to build confidence that the plan is right. The only thing though is it would need to be about the entire transport plan, not just raising money just to pay for transit while road spending goes unquestioned – like in many of those ballots in the US.

25 comments to Voting for Transit

  • Yes the risk with ATAP type technical studies, important though they are, is if they are placed higher in the hierarchy than broader plans for the whole of society. Transport infrastructure and networks are means to an end, and not ends in themselves. ATAP is essentially process of discovering what could work, and more importantly what won’t (e.g. a road harbour crossing), but it doesn’t decide anything about what kind or shape of city or society we want, or even take into account broader risks and issues such as public health and environment burdens, or political context.

    ATAP type analyses are an extension of the classic ‘predict and provide’ approach we have been running for the last 60 years, where transport is more or less considered in a more narrow technical context separate from wider issues. This is largely understood to be inadequate and prone to costly risks. The problem is that the modelling actually does contain powerful assumptions about broader context but that these are unexamined and are almost always simply extrapolations of the known status quo. This means the process both can fail to react important new influences and almost always acts as a brake on making any significant change. These are big risks, especially in times of fast change.

    The more current model, know as ‘decide and provide’, at least tries to unpack the assumptions in the evaluation process, seeks to have a conscious discussion about what sort of city and society we could build with for transport plans and systems.

  • One important thing to remember about the big US transit programmes – such as those in Seattle and Los Angeles – is that a lot of construction is currently underway on major projects that have Full Funding Grant Agreements locked in place with the Federal Transit Administration. In Los Angeles, the Purple Line subway extension under Wilshire Boulevard is under construction to La Cienaga in Beverly Hills; the Crenshaw Line towards LAX; and the Regional Connector tunnel under Downtown LA tying together four light rail lines (& somewhat analogous to Auckland’s City Rail Link) are under construction. In Seattle, Link light rail is being extended north and south and East Link light rail is under construction. The next tranche of projects have considerable planning and environmental clearance time ahead of them – which in the US is generally locally funded – before they need serious amounts of federal capex support. By this time most likely the Donald will be an ex-President; and will have been thoughtfully recycled into something actually useful (although I struggle to imagine what that might be) and the painful memories of his presidency will be gradually receding into the footnotes of history.

  • Yes we need mode shift by spending shift, would be good to vote for some projects after good public engagement. Interesting how much a small sale tax increase adds up to in those areas. Auckland needs more of its GST $ spent on improving transit.

  • Yes, since coming back to New Zealand I have been concerned by this “expert knows best” approach to transport considerations. While expert input is certainly required, a vision of communities and the transport aspects involved can work a lot better politically and does allow experts to play to some of their strengths in working out the technical detail or changing the debate through their technical work.
    When I worked in a NZ government transport policy setting, a planned vision for certain aspects of the transport sector was quickly stifled by upper management. It has since been taken up again by another government organisation, but very much on a predict-and-plan basis.
    In contrast, my colleagues in Switzerland often told me they are working on this or that transport project because the people voted for it. They felt their technical competence was democratically validated.

  • J Morton

    Yes can Auckland get 1c of the Auckland GST take allocated to Transport!

  • Harriet Gale

    The great thing about Measure M is not just the fancy map of projects, it also includes maintenance as well as walking/cycling projects.

  • Harrymc

    Yes, but Auckland is different. I’m sure Ricardo and TRM will be along in a minute to explain precisely why???

    • Yes, funny how we’re only supposed to copy the old out of date LA, not the current Transit building one… in the minds of some.

    • The Real Matthew

      As I’ve stated on here many times I’m in favour of a number of Auckland projects including the CRL and Skypath. I’m even on record as stating that I believe the CRL is being built too small. It will be interesting to see what happens long term.

      I haven’t been to Seattle but LA does need some alternative transport options. Hopefully any such system would extend to Anaheim (can’t see on the map if this is the case).

      Looking at the plans I’m initially skeptical that $121 billion will be enough.

      It’s great that these residents get a choice on their future. New Zealand politicans could learn a lot from this approach.

      • The CRL has indeed limited capacity. I had to think about the rail tunnel under Brussels:

        – built in the 50’s, with 6 tracks. giving a total capacity according to Wikipedia of 96 trains per hour. Increasing the capacity is problematic due to the variety of train types using the tunnel. Lots of them being large intercity trains.
        – completely saturated at the moment, often causing delays on the train network to cascade to dozens of other trains.
        – the 3 big stations along that line handle 1 million boardings per week [1]. A single station sees more passengers per year than the entire network in Auckland.

        It’s not really comparable to Auckland though, apart from local passengers, there are a lot of people coming and going from the other cities nearby.

        [1] http://nl.metrotime.be/2015/06/02/must-read/384499/

        • Hmm, I would agree there is very little equivalence between the projects and the cities. But I do agree the CRL is not the end of building Rapid Transit infrastructure in AKL. It doesn’t do everything. In particular I have long said there will be a need for what could be described as a ‘CRL II’: Another tunnel perpendicular to the one currently being built from a new rail harbour crossing probably to the southern line at Parnell, or to a whole new route and possibly system. We shall see. The CRL is no more the last thing AKL needs than SH 1 has provided to be.

          But the next investments must be on extending the RTN love out to the barren suburbs, especially NW, SE, and SW. And maxing out the current investment in rail capacity that is the CRL, while supplementing it and the busy bus systems with Isthmus-City Light Rail. Upgrading the Shore with a rail system too, then we’ll need additional capacity and routes in the city.

          So the CRL is right sized for its job, and time, and available funds, better to meet future capacity with additional routes because that also increases access and spread of the whole RT Network.

      • Dion

        Anaheim is in Orange County, so not covered by LA County’s Measure M (Orange County has had it’s own measure M since 1990 I believe). Anaheim is currently connected to LA by the Metrolink commuter service and there is a proposal to connect the resorts and amusement parks to the local metrolink station by a streetcar.

  • JimboJones

    That ATAP map is very suburban focused – apart from Dominion Road there would barely be a single new high frequency station within 5km of the CBD.
    I think it sends the wrong message – you need to live miles out of the city to get good PT!

    • The effect of NZTA and its predecessors’ work in Auckland has been sprawl enablement. It gets described in a multitude of different ways, and isn’t even all that conscious, but because the justification of the ‘State Highway’ classification and brand is interregional road travel, in cities it becomes by default a subsidy for suburban and ex-urban spread. Always enabling those with longer driving commutes. All transport infrastructure provision influences spatial form and by design or otherwise, NZTA’s work helps to spread and bloat our cities.

      Reforming this consequence of the structure of transport funding and provision is urgent because it is distortionary and incentivises costly, inefficient, and traffic congestive urban form.

      Now that we’ve reformed AKL’s planning rules a little to allow a more efficient and sustainable growth pattern we also need to look at the subsidies in the transport sector that work against that.

  • Ari

    I may be grossly misinformed, but I understand that Measure M isn’t that great. I really dislike sales taxes because it hurts poor people the most. It will be difficult to overturn because you need people to vote against it. It doesn’t automatically expire. It runs forever. There is no guarantee the money will be spent on what was promised and apparently wealthy communities will likely be the first ones to get anything done for them as they have the best advocacy. So tax the poor to help the rich ride their bikes around. Sounds great right?

    • “So tax the poor to help the rich ride their bikes around” – It is hard to know where this stereotype comes from but it has been shown again and again that it is people on lower incomes who use bicycles the most to get around. Including in the USA.

      http://www.citylab.com/commute/2015/10/the-poor-bike-the-rich-bike-share/413119/

      http://www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/memo-to-cities-most-cyclists-arent-urban-hipsters.html

      I guess this erroneous idea is helpful if you want to stop cycle facilities being built that benefit everyone. You can tell lower income people that they are subsidising the rich. True facts are not very useful when arguing against cycling as it is just such a positive thing for a city – so making facts up is easier.

    • Nick R

      Correct me if I’m wrong but surely the rich spend a lot more buying more and expensive things than the poor do. Sure I understand the regressive argument, but the transit tax on a loaf of wonderbread will be less than 1c. On a loaf of organic quinoa sourdough it would be 5c. On a new prada handbag it would be $20.

      Given the poor will benefit at least as much from better transit, it’s hadly a case of the poor funding the rich now is it?

    • Ari

      Yes rich people spend more money on stuff, but they can choose where to buy. But poor people can’t escape paying sales tax when they are living day to day. Most people on this blog are probably white, educated and earning a decent wage. There is nothing wrong with that, but with that background it is often hard for them to understand what it means to be poor in this country wondering where your next meal will come from. I dislike sales tax because it hurts the poor and instead prefer income tax. And before increasing taxes I also prefer better use of taxes in the first place.

      Also, they don’t know what the money is going to be spent on. Decisions are left up to the city councils. There is no guarantee the money will be spent on anything other than motorway projects and fixing potholes. There is no guarantee that all the money will just be spent in the affluent areas with most influence.

      Overall I think it is better than nothing and the poor will probably benefit.

      • I don’t get your ‘choose where to buy’ argument, if this sales tax is across the board it doesn’t matter where you buy good and services from you will still pay the tax.

      • Nick R

        Nobody can chose to not pay sales tax in NZ, GST is levied on absolutely all goods and services. I don’t understand your argument really, apart from the spend existing taxes more wisely (which I agree with) you seem to be suggesting it would be better to tax people’s incomes before they even see any of the money, than to tax their consumption where they have as least some potential to choose how to spend their money.

        I would have thought having less money in the pocket to start with hurts more.

        • Kevin S

          I will offer a rebuttal.

          High income earners/the wealthy will have savings and investments that are not being spent on GST-liable goods and services. So even though the wealthiest may be paying more GST in absolute terms, relative to their income they are paying proportionately less than poor people spending their entire income (with their rent likely to be their only GST-exempt transaction). Residential real estate transactions, rents, leases and the most common financial transactions are GST exempt in NZ. This further lowers the GST contribution of those with significant savings and investments.

          GST Exempt Supplies in NZ

          • Nick R

            They may be exempt from GST, but any income from real estate transactions, rents and leases attracts income tax. So does returns on savings and investments.

            The suggestion was the rich would get an easy ride off the back of the poor with a consumption tax for transit, I’m saying the rich do and will pay many times more per head in GST than the poor will (and indeed many times more in income tax too).

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