Rail transit ballot measures lost in Kansas City and San Jose, but won in Seattle, Sonoma-Marin counties, and Los Angeles. From the point of view of sensible transportation policy, the biggest disaster of the election was passage of the California high-speed rail measure.
Sometimes I think it is wonderful that we can live in a country that is so wealthy that we can afford to build rail lines that cost five times as much per mile as freeway lanes yet carry only one-fifth as many people. But, as it turns out, we really can’t afford to do so.
The bursting of the stockmarket bubble in 2001 would have sent us into a recession but for the increase in consumer spending that resulted from the housing bubble. Now that the housing bubble has burst, our weak economy stands naked and trembling for all to see. Yet this did not much dampen enthusiasm for ridiculous rail projects.
First, the good news. After rejecting light rail seven times, then approving a plan that turned out to be unworkable, Kansas City once again resoundingly defeated a new light-rail plan. It would be nice to think that after 56 percent of voters rejected this plan that it will stay dead and buried, but these things always come back.
As it came back to Santa Clara County, California, which in 2000 approved a sales tax increase for a BART line from Fremont to San Jose. But the line turned out to cost a lot more than expected, so votes were asked for another sales tax increase. The latest count says that 66.27 percent said yes, which means that it failed because California requires a two-thirds majority to pass tax increases. But it was painfully close.
In two other ballot measures, San Jose residents gave up what little oversight they have over the nation’s worst transit agency, the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Under VTA’s charter, the agency must submit its transportation plan to the voters every six years. In measure C, VTA asked voters to approve a plan that it had not yet completed. In measure D, VTA asked voters to repeal the requirement that it submit plans to the voters. Both passed by huge margins.
In Los Angeles, the “red” subway line is, by all accounts, a failure, costing 50 percent more to build than the original estimates and carrying less than half as many people as estimated. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was content to focus instead on light rail. But L.A.’s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, wanted to complete the “subway-to-the-sea” line, and he managed to persuade 67.4 percent of voters to raise sales taxes to do so.
The “SMART” train is a proposed commuter-rail line in Sonoma and Marin counties that would end near (but not at) a San Francisco ferry terminal but otherwise not approach any major job centers. Voters twice before failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to fund it, but in this case, the third time’s the charm.
Finally, California high-speed rail passed with 52.2 percent of the vote. This commits California to spend $9 billion starting construction on what ultimately will be a $50 to $60 or more billion megaproject.
Backers of the plan are counting on getting matching or even more than matching funds from the federal government. They may even get it, but not without starting high-speed rail crazes in other parts of the country.
It is widely agreed that government failure caused the current economic crisis (though not everyone agrees on just what that failure was). Ironically, as NBC anchor Brian Williams noted during Tuesday night’s election coverage, “There is evidence that more people are now viewing government as the solution and not the problem.” It will be sad indeed if we end up suffering from more government failures as a response to government failures of the past.