Saturday, November 6, 2010

Election Results: Where We Stand

After Tuesday's midterm elections, a lot has changed. For those of us watching transportation policy and sustainable development, the results offer a mixed bag of good and bad news. Let's start at home and work our way up...

Local: Washtenaw County

The Ypsilanti City transit tax initiative was approved. According to the national Center for Transportation Excellence,

City of Ypsilanti voters were asked to approve a charter amendment to levy an additional 0.9789 mills specifically for public transit, restoring the original 20 mills that had been reduced. With the amendment in place, Ypsilanti would secure an additional $281,429 in revenue in 2011 for bus transportation through the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

The measure passed by a very comfortable 72%, indicating that even in hard times, Ypsilanti residents consider public transportation a high priority.

Ypsi residents often come to City Council meetings and protest cuts to AATA service, but being willing to pay for it is often another matter. Good job, Ypsi, for putting your money where your mouth is. Now, how about Ypsi Township...?

State Representative-Elect David Rutledge took an Internet class from me many years ago, before serving as Trustee at Washtenaw Community College. I found him to be thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and eager to learn. Though I've disagreed with him over the proposed WCC parking structure (Blog: December 8, 2009) I'm very positive about his ability to bring about effective policy in Lansing.

State: Michigan

Governor-Elect Rick Snyder appears to understand the need for mass transit and the benefits it can bring - including attracting talented young people to our state and providing a life-line for people who don't have access to automobiles for one reason or another. His results-oriented investment budgeting philosophy is encouraging, since in state after state, investment in rail transit has brought spectacular dividends. I recommend the on-line video interview by the Detroit Free Press in which Snyder talks about Lansing's culture, his budgeting strategy, and specifically about transportation (at 4:20 in the 5:50 minute video).

Michigan citizens across the state voted overwhelmingly for improved transit options. According to the Center for Transportation Excellence, five transportation-related property tax issues were on local November 2 ballots around the state. Only in Eaton County did an issue fail. I mentioned Ypsilanti's victory for transportation ; in addition, there were victories in Bennington Township (by 66%), Caro (by 62%), and Spring Lake (by 80%). Looking back to the election of August 3, 2010, a lot of property tax mileages for transit were passed or renewed in Michigan: Bay County (64%), Branch County (70%), Clare County (61%) Genesee County (63%), Ingham County (67% and 63% on two issues), Lapeer County (67%), Ludington and Scottsville (figures not available), Saginaw (65%), Shiawassee County (figures not available), St. Joseph County (61%), Van Buren (68%), Wexford County (61%), and the SMART renewal in the counties of Wayne (74%), Oakland (78%), and Macomb (72%). Not a single issue got less than 60% support, except a failed proposal in Eaton County (lost by 45% in August).

And look who gave the highest percentage approval for transit in August: arch-conservative Oakland County, with 78%! Who says good transit is just a liberal issue?

Regional: the Midwest

The Big Bad News in the Midwest is two governors-elect, those of Ohio and Wisconsin, vowing to kill their state's high speed rail projects. This is especially disappointing for Wisconsin, which had contracted with Spanish railroad equipment builder Talgo to construct trainsets in a disused Milwaukee-area factory. For a governor to kill a project that was providing jobs is unusual. Wisconsin's high speed line was to run from Chicago through Milwaukee to Madison. The governor's reason for killing the project was its ongoing cost to the state (apparently ignorant of the ongoing economic benefits of passenger rail). He would rather put the money into the state's "crumbling roads and bridges".

Ohio's governor-elect apparently opposes rail for the same reason. Their brand-new passenger service would run from Cleveland through Columbus and Dayton to Cincinnati. In both Ohio and Wisconsin, supporters of rail haven't given up on legal remedies, though they admit their situation is grave.

On the positive side, Illinois continues to be solidly rail-supportive. As the rail hub of the Midwest, we need Illinois's continuing support.


Nationwide, the Center for Transportation Excellence tells us, "On November 2, voters approved 23 of 31 transportation ballot measures for a 74% sucess rate. When added to the 21 out of 26 measures approved earlier in the year, voter support for transportation ballot measures remains strong with 77% approved in 2010. This is well above the 10-year average of 70%."

According to Transportation for America (T4A, of which Wake Up Washtenaw is a partner) the general outlook for transportation reform is not bad at the Federal level. Although fiscal conservatives will be in charge of the House, and the Minority Leader of the Senate has vowed not to compromise, many of the new leaders understand the value of transportation diversity in general, and rail in particular. John Mica (R-FL) will chair the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, replacing James Oberstar. Although Mica has strongly criticized Amtrak in the past, he is a supporter of rail, of walking, and of biking. (You don't have to dislike rail to be a critic of Amtrak...)

As you probably know, the Surface Transportation Authorization Act (STAA) was introduced, but tabled during the last Congress, and the previous legislation extended. Congress will have to address transportation early in its new session. T4A expects that, compared to what the bill looked like when it was introduced during the 111th Congress, this will be:

  • Smaller
  • Involve more creative financing;
  • Have fewer programs;
  • Encourage quicker starts by reducing the environmental review process;
  • Focus on repair, maintenance, and safety;
  • Support performance measures; and
  • Encourage "smarter" transportation investments.

Though we can't expect the level of investment we saw during the last Congress, we can expect a shift that will encourage transportation diversity. Could be worse for transportation reform. Could be a lot worse.


    I forgot to mention Iowa in the regional update. It's good news! This from the National Association of Rail Passengers:
    "Iowa gets $230 million for a new Amtrak Chicago-Quad Cities-Iowa City train. The Iowa Interstate Railroad... is a willing host." Not only is it good to see Iowa getting into the passenger rail scene, it's also really encouraging to see freight carriers like Iowa Interstate Railroad be eager to host passenger trains.

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