Politics and Transit

Putzing around on the internet in the wake of last night’s elections, I saw this, the statement that Al Wynn, a congressman from Maryland:

This domestic policy should include providing universal health coverage for everyone, creating domestic jobs and transit projects (i.e., Purple Line), as well as fighting global warming with a cap and trade program to limit emissions. [emph. added]

It’s interesting to see a congressman — federal, no less — be such a bold transit supporter like that. You don’t typically see that sort of thing here in Washington. Don’t get me wrong, Patty Murray’s been great for Sound Transit, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing you see pols bending over backwards to promise us come election time: “Vote for me and I’ll make sure light rail gets to Redmond!”

I do remember Greg Nickels running on a vague, “all transit all the time” platform where he simultaneously embraced the Monorail AND Sound Transit. But generally pols treat the transit agencies here like a hot potato. Sure, they serve on the ST board, and they formally supported last fall’s Prop. 1, but the typical face of the Prop. 1 campaign was the Washington Business Roundtable.

If this is indeed the case — and I’m not convinced, just putting it out here for discussion — I wonder how much it has to do with the initiative system. Because so much of our transit is approved by popular vote, it disconnects the pols from responsibility. And since their a** isn’t personally on the line, they’re less invested in the outcome. As a result, the debate drags on interminably and concrete never gets poured.

[The exception here might be the Seattle Streetcar, which pols were falling all over each other to take credit for. But that wasn't up for a vote: the exception that proves the rule?]

And yet, at the same time, the legislators who put Prop. 1 together assumed — incorrectly it turns out — that voters think like they do: they assumed we’re willing to horse-trade: that I would, say, wheel and deal with my counterpart in Pierce County, supporting the Cross Base Highway in exchange for his/her support of my light rail. But voters don’t think like politicians. We’re more likely to just reject the whole thing if it gets too complicated.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of all this, it just sort of popped into my head as I was reading the results of tonight’s elections. What do you think?

One response to “Politics and Transit”

  1. Frank

    Couldn’t agree more, Matt. Only about 5% of the electorate knew how much Prop. 1 actually cost, yet many cited “cost” as a reason for voting “no”!

    Initiatives can be good for broad, general, sense-of-the-electorate things, but for fine-grained policy tradeoffs (don’t get me started on the Viaduct vote), they’re useless.

    To the extent that we have initiatives, they should be broad and vague. I know people SAY they want more details (and reporters demand details or they won’t take your initiative seriously), but they really don’t.