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Transit wins in Phoenix


In David Koch’s most significant setback since dying last week, the good people of Phoenix have told his cynical, fearmongering, fake social justice campaign to kill public transit investment to go away, by what appears to be the best margin yet for Light Rail at the ballot box:

Proposition 105, which would have required the city to halt funding for any new light rail extensions and divert those funds to other transportation projects, was failing 38% to 62% as of 8 p.m. Tuesday.

The 8 p.m. results included mail-in ballots received through Friday and ballots cast in person on Saturday and Monday, which is the vast majority of votes cast in the election. The city was expected to release additional ballot results later Tuesday night. 

If the results stand, this will be the fourth time Phoenix voters have supported light rail since 2000. 

I occasionally encounter, in comments here and elsewhere, a weird kind of fatalism about transit among liberals and leftists about transit projects, which has a poor empirical grounding. While there’s lots of reasons for pessimism about transit usage trends (and increasing VMT) over the last five years, the empirical evidence doesn’t support extending that pessimism to transit at the ballot box, where it continues to perform pretty well. In the 2018 election, transit did very well, performing better than any other type of transportation funding package at the ballot box:

As a percentage, transit projects fared the best with a 87% success rate (excluding airports/aviation, maritime, marking, and rail, for which no money was considered by voters this year). Multimodal enjoyed a 83.33% success rate, while bike/pedestrian measures came in third at 81.25%. Voters approved 70.5% of the road measures considered this year, but there were far more of those than for any other mode.

While more measures were approved for road funding than for any other mode, looking at the actual dollar amounts approved tells a different story. Voters approved far more money for multimodal and transit projects than for roads–for the simple reason that the average amount of money at stake in the multimodal and transit measures was far greater than the average in road measures. Again, the “multimodal” measures will also result in more money for transit, roads, and other modes–but at the time of this analysis it was unclear how much money would go to each.

The 2016 election was more of a mixed bag, with some frustrating near-misses like Detroit, but the sheer size and significance of the transit packages approved in the Seattle area and Los Angeles (the latter clearing a 2/3 threshold!) make up for a lot.

While this time an organized Koch-fueled campaign to politicize transit failed, it can and does sometimes succeed. But the default for voters seems to be pretty pro-transit. An obscure but, I think, instructive example: in 2013 (another good election year for transit), Okanogan county in Washington voted on a plan to create a countywide bus network, paid for by a .4% sales tax. A few facts about Okanogan county: it’s a terrible candidate for efficient transit, as it has a total population of just over 40,000 people, and is roughly the size of Connecticut. It’s also deep red, going to Trump by 20 points and supporting local Republicans by margins at least that big. It passed–by 13%–in an election where several other local levies failed. I have no idea what kind of ridership they get, but there are now half a dozen bus routes connecting the various tiny towns of this vast county every day.

At the end of the day, transit funding is pretty popular, even among segments of the population where transit use is not. The latter half is frustrating, but it doesn’t change the former. And Phoenix gets to keep trying to build for a better, less car-dominated future.

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