Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Nashville voting today on transit referendum

-- "Who has the edge in Nashville transit referendum as election arrives?," Nashville Tennessean

The proposal aims to build light rail and bus rapid transit, expand local bus service, and make other improvements, by raising/imposing four different taxes, including sales and property.

Political advocacy groups affiliated with the Koch Family are spending millions in advertising against the referendum.

-- "Koch network group fires back in spat over Nashville transit plan," Nashville Tennessean
-- "Koch brothers group begins ad blitz against Nashville transit referendum," Nashville Tennessean
-- "Bulk of money raised by opposition Nashville transit group kept secret," Nashville Tennessean
-- "The Increasingly Ugly Battle Over Transit in Nashville," CityLab
-- No Tax 4 Tracks

This is less an issue in big cities, but when local issues get repositioned as national ones, or at least national political advocacy take on and oppose a local issue for non-local reasons, this is a big problem with political discourse, and a lesson that the Citizens United decision giving unlimited "free speech" to those with a lot more money is  problematic. 

(Relatedly, the Washington Post article, "Meet the little-known ‘big fish’ megadonor setting the tone for GOP primary races," on shipping supplies magnate Richard Uihlein funding anti-union very conservative candidates around the country was also disturbing.  At the very least, I'm not going to be spending my monies with goods from that firm.)

Time is required to build a base of support for transit.  My observation about these kinds of transit referenda is that at least initially, they tend to fail. 

This is because in a nation where the dominant land use and mobility planning paradigm is automobile-centric, people have a hard time seeing where transit can be a choice mode.  Mostly they see transit as a social service for poor people who can't afford cars.

Referenda failed multiple times in Tampa Bay and in Atlanta.  I think this is because the time between putting a referendum on the ballot and the election is so short, it's hard to build the understanding of the potential value in such a short time.

But now in Greater Atlanta there is positive movement towards transit--there at least they have a heavy rail system to build from while most communities lack rail transit of any form.  They've had some positive referenda since the failure in 2012.

-- "Failure of the transit-roads sales tax measure in Metro Atlanta," 2012

Greater Detroit is having a hard time moving transit forward with active opposition coming from County Executives in Oakland and Macomb Counties. Oftentimes advocates for low income populations will take anti-transit positions, which is odd. That happened in Atlanta's first round, etc.

Although I wonder if Americans for Prosperity is so active with a Nashville campaign because they see there being a strong likelihood of the transit referendum winning?  But why would Koch Brothers interests be so damaged by transit in Nashville?

Would that be a harbinger of land use and mobility policy change elsewhere?

Lately I've wondered about the value of rail transit outside of major metropolitan areas.  When I first started blogging, I wrote positively about light rail programs in places like Charlotte, North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia.  But those systems have so few riders, I wonder if it's worth the expense?

The reality is that it is very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle in terms of sustainable mobility versus the car, if the urban form has been reshaped in favor of the car ("Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis," Peter Muller, textbook chapter).

On the other hand, light rail systems in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix, and Seattle, maybe Denver are having some positive impact on changing land use and mobility practice. So maybe I shouldn't be so negative?  (Dallas?  I'd say given how many stations and miles of track they have, usage isn't that high. Houston?  Usage isn't that high and definitely land use isn't being reshaped.)

-- "Is Nashville dense enough for a light rail transit system?," Nashville Tennessean

Can bus transit change the paradigm?  A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story, "The Next Big Thing in Urban Transit: Fast-Bus Systems," suggesting that bus transit can be equally significant in changing mobility practices.  I am still not so sure.

It's not just having a great bus system, developed along the  lines I've recommended in the past:

-- "Will buses ever be cool? Boston vs. Raleigh-Durham's GoTransit Model," 2017
-- "Making bus service sexy and more equitable," 2012

Building a better bus, graphic

And repositioning with bi-articulated buses is something I've been advocating lately:

-- "Revisitng stories: the L Subway Shutdown in NYC and what to do," 2018

Again, it's not just about branding and design forward buses, success comes down to land use and density and relative efficiency when it comes to taking transit instead of driving--that means relatively short distances between origin and destination, and the ability to trip chain so that you reduce the number of trips.

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At 10:57 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

No surprise that it lost.

And I doubt it was money "Equipped with more than twice as much financial resources, the transit coalition — backed by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and business heavyweights — has outspent NoTax4Tracks overwhelmingly on television.

The transit coalition raised more than $383,000 between April 1 and April 21, giving them nearly $2.9 million for the entire campaign. NoTax4Tracks raised $205,000 during that same time, raising their fundraising to nearly $1.2 million overall.

Transit proponents acknowledge they got off to a slow start during the early voting period, but they say they grew more encouraged as the days continued. "

Government fee / tax hikes at that level are not popular; in DC we have the DC water bill and further out the 66 tolls/Dulles Greenway as example.

You can't get those things passed by voters. You have to run around them -- just as public unions did with pensions.

I can't tell how wide the taxing areas are; in Nashville I guess that is less of a problem.

At 12:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I agree that it is very hard to pass these kinds of taxes, but not completely. And of course I am not surprised at all about the Nashville result.

It's much easier in places that are denser, with some experience with quality transit (e.g., LA, Seattle).

That being said, plenty of places with some experience with quality transit are still resistant (e.g., proposals to add car registration fees beyond the statutory minimum in Washington State have mostly failed, even in Seattle, although more recently Seattle finally passed one).

I think in places like Tampa or Nashville it's f*ing hard. You can't do it in a few months.

cf. Oklahoma City and their Metropolitan Area Projects program. Again, like the various measures in California, is a sales tax.

But they've built a lot of "political capital" over the decades and the four rounds of the program -- it's really a TPAP thing, sometimes transit is a part of it, other times not -- and people keep voting in favor. They see tangible results and definite positive contributions to quality of life.

That to me is the model for doing this outside of the major metropolitan areas. Textbook.

In the plan draft I wrote, and an element of the Signature Streets concept, I laid out the case for "treating streets as elements of the county's brand and quality of life" as a way to position a bond issue as comparable to a parks bond vote. Virtually every parks bond passes there, and in most jurisdictions (not in Cincinnati a couple years ago when it was bike and trail focused though....).

(This discussion of various financing mechanisms for bike, ped, and transit improvements was excised from the final plan draft and plan, but I still have my original documents.)

As you know, it's hard enough here to get people to favor transit for funding, and that's with a system that until the last 10 years, was really somewhat awesome. (At least back to how I remember it in the late 1980s when I first came here). Look at the opposition to streetcars and light rail.

And that's in a region with transit success.

Try that in a place where transit isn't even on the radar for most people. It's virtually impossible.

Granted it didn't require a vote, but the program Hennepin County and later Minneapolis created to rebuild the economic success of Minneapolis to protect the property tax revenue base for the county and the viability of the city. It was kind of a MAP approach, without requiring a vote. This initiative, Hennepin County Works, predated OKC MAP by about a decade.

What Minneapolis did was a multi-decade TIF bond, and the monies went to neighborhood improvement projects. Not b.s. projects. Improvements to schools, parks, trails, commercial districts, etc., developed by community boards.

They realized that the people didn't have great capacity to do what the program expected, so they developed a training and technical assistance program to support it.

Anyway, these aren't analogous but I think the approach is still relevant.

You have to make the case. It takes time. Especially for transit. And too often we don't do a good enough job outlining the benefits to the resident/citizen/Taxpayer in a way that they can relate to it.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Speaking of elections, it will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow with the UK local elections.


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