Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Miscellaneous Musings

With Barack Obama on deck as president, the implications for cities aren’t that clear for me. But one thing is. Namely, Chicago’s chances of landing the Olympics just went up several notches. In fact, I think you’d have to say it’s Chicago’s to lose. I’d probably say Madrid is a better candidate city, but with London getting it in 2012 and Barcelona having recently gotten it, I think that knocks them out of the running. And with the Olympics would come much needed federal aid for the CTA.

Moving over to Kansas City, voters overwhelmingly rejected a light rail tax. I’ll have much more on transit later. Piling on, a citizen satisfaction survey showed large declines in satisfaction with city services. Scores on 32 different services declined, and the city scored below suburban areas and below peer city benchmarks. I actually applaud this survey. Benchmarking yourself and others, and publishing the results to really hold your performance to account to the public, is extremely admirable. The raw results are worth reading by interested parties in other cities, since it conveniently includes numbers for Des Moines, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis among others so those cities could use it to benchmark themselves.

Meanwhile in Indiana, a famously arch-conservative state, voters overwhelmingly came out in favor of change. Consider:

  • Barack Obama carried the state, tipping it blue for the first time in eons. The county-by-county view still shows a sea of red, but Obama carried the day overall, particularly in the urban areas.
  • Mitch Daniels was re-elected governor by a huge margin, despite pushing through highly controversial measures such as observing daylight savings time, privatizing some social service agencies, and leasing the toll road.
  • Despite a major tax revolt last year, voters in the Indianapolis Public Schools district approved an initiative to finish the capital upgrade of basically all schools in the district.
  • The bulk of township assessors, including all of them in the Indianapolis area, are on the way out, their offices completely eliminated, thanks to the voters.

Back to transit, there 32 measures on the ballot for transit funding nationally, and 72% of them passed. Voters approved a total of $75 billion in new funds. The full list is available, but here are some highlights:

  • State of California – $10 billion for high speed rail
  • Los Angeles County – $40 billion for miscellaneous transit projects.
  • Honolulu – $3.7 billion for elevated commuter rail
  • Seattle – $17.2 billion for miscellaneous trail transit projects.

The Midwest approved virtually nothing. In addition to the major Kansas City defeat for light rail, St. Louis also rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to expand its MetroLink system. Every approved Midwestern ballot was in small communities and/or for small amounts. Milwaukee voted in a 1% sales tax increase, but half of that is for property tax relief, and transit is only one of the beneficiaries of the remainder. And this was only an advisory referendum anyway.

Remember how I talked about the failure to learn from examples? Why is Seattle prosperous and the Midwest declining? Is it the rainy weather or the horrific traffic bottlenecks? I don’t think so.

The Midwest is behind, and it is falling further behind. Put aside for a minute California, where numbers can easily get big because of the size of the state. Just consider Seattle. We’re talking $17.2 billion for a metro area of only 3.3 million people. Contrast this with the Midwest and it is laughable. Chicago only needs $10 billion to bring the CTA up to good operating condition, but the state can’t get a capital program passed. Chicago has one of America’s most famous transit systems, but it isn’t being invested in.

Kansas City, with almost 2 million people, shot down a $700 million program. Rail transit has also failed in Milwaukee, Columbus, and Cincinnati. In Indianapolis and Louisville, they’ve never even gone to try to get funding.

Anyone who reads this blog know that I’m not “railigious” by any means. I’m a huge fan of public transit; I love to ride trains personally; but there has to be a business case. Seattle may be over investing. And I think that if you are going to build a rail system you need to face up to the reality that it is not a congestion reliever and that it requires many public policy changes, often difficult ones, and serious trade-offs to make work. Still, when you look at the 21st century economy and the long runs trends, it is clear that transit is something many places are turning to. When you consider the boomtowns of Denver, Charlotte, and even Atlanta and Dallas, you see robust transit systems.

Does anyone in the Midwest even want to compete? Do they want to be in the game? Apparently not.

Lastly, I’ve praised Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Indiana repeatedly on this blog, so it is only fair to note that he’s got major egg on his face. The Keystone Ave. roundabout interchange project can’t be completed for $90 million. It will required another $50 million to get done, and the city council isn’t sure it wants to give it to him. Also, the Performing Arts Center is $45 million over budget. It isn’t unusual for public works projects to run over budget, but these are way over budget. I’ve posted before that I thought $90 million was light. It was even lighter than I thought.

I still think both of these are excellent long term projects. I suspect both of them will get done. However, these financial problems are going to hamstring the mayor and the city’s ability to get future projects done, and there’s still a major backlog of arterial street improvements that are needed. Carmel’s roundabout and roadway improvement program is one of the things that really sets that city apart and is why it is likely to having long term staying power while its neighbors like Fishers will probably start hitting problems the minute they are built out. In the meantime, traffic is bearable because of the city’s investments. It would be a shame to see this road building program come to an end, but it may end up a casualty of these overruns.

Topics: Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis, Kansas City

5 Responses to “Miscellaneous Musings”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think the people in Indianapolis do want to compete and want rail transit…but are the elected officals listening?

  2. Dave Reid says:

    Actually in Milwaukee there is a vote on the 10th that is very significant in regards to public transit. Basically 7 officials will decide on a plan to fully fund an RTA that would take over transit for three counties. It would still have to go to the state but if 6 of those 7 agree it has a great chance. And it would fund commuter rail so keep an eye we’ll know soon!

  3. Dave Reid says:

    Quick followup the RTA funding was approved on the 10th and will now go to the state to be put in the budget. If approved there it will be the funding source for commuter rail between Kenosha, Racine and Milwaukee.

  4. Jeramey Jannene says:

    Nice writeup on the state of things and the issues the Midwest is facing. It’s nice to read things from an Indianapolis focus for a change, a city that is too often left off the list of large Midwestern cities.

  5. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the info and the comments.

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