Thursday, November 13, 2014

Light Fail

You won't be seeing a lot more light rail trains, like this one in Minneapolis, in These States any time soon.

Democratic Party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz can talk all she wants about how progressive initiatives succeeded on Election Day despite the fact that most progressive candidates didn't, like the minimum wage increases in the Republican states of Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota, marijuana legalization in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., background checks on gun sales in Washington State, and open-space preservation in New Jersey, but one vital issue of the American progressive movement failed and failed miserably in the 2014 elections: public transit. Every  major initiative to expand mass transit, including a high-profile light rail initiative in Austin, Texas, went down to defeat.
Anti-transit Republicans were also elected or re-elected to state governorships.  Wisconsin's Scott Walker - Public Enemy Number One among transit advocates - has spent the past four years lavishing money on highways and cutting social programs to pay for them, after having rejected money to build a high-speed rail line to connect Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago.  This is despite the fact that Wisconsin residents have driven fewer vehicle miles since 2010.  Walker has cut money for just about any and every mass transit project in Wisconsin, and his entire political career has been based on fighting transit subsidies.  He's concentrated a good deal of his highway spending on expanding Interstate 94.  Guess which cities Interstate 94 connects.
Unlike his now politically buried Democratic electoral opponent Martha Coakley, Massachusetts Governor-elect Charlie Baker would rather not talk about spending more money on alterantives to car travel.  He says that biking, walking, and transit are all good and fine, but he added that "we cannot ignore that, for many people, a car is the only way to get from an affordable place to live to their job."
His policies toward transit and urban development, which are nothing like the ones Coakley espoused, will certainly keep things that way.
The same goes for Maryland, where the incoming Republican governor, Larry Hogan, wants to cancel two light rail projects linking Baltimore to its suburbs because he thinks it's much, much more important to take care of the backlog of highway projects in the state.  Land developers in Maryland who specialize in autocentric suburbia - strip malls, tract houses - will certainly benefit from this policy. One of them is a Republican businessman named . . . Larry Hogan.
And then there was Connecticut Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley, who sneered at the very idea of using government to encourage use of one transportation mode at the expense of another. "Any purposeful strategy to push people out of their cars and onto mass transit," Foley said, "I really don’t think is going to work."
Why not?  The federal government's strategy to push people into their cars and away from mass transit certainly did!
Foley lost, of course, to Democratic Governor Dan Malloy, who defended his pro-transit initiatives, but that was a negligible upward blip in an otherwise declining set of prospects for public transit.  And, as the falling price of gas and the rising sales figures for autos show, people are not ready to give up their Ford Explorers and suburban malls just yet.  This all has me leading to doubt if I should bother continuing to advocate high-speed passenger rail in America.  How can we build high-speed rail if we can't build or expand local transit systems or even support conventional intercity passenger rail?  
If I'm not telling the truth here, I hope I'm run over by a streetcar.  That, I assure you, is never going to happen to me where I live.   

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