School funding, public safety, marijuana — the 2014 mayoral races bring a host of issues to the debate table. And as many cities struggle to redefine themselves with transit-oriented development, public transportation is one to watch. Here’s a roundup of campaigns influenced by high-profile public works projects. Come November, new leadership in Austin, Washington, D.C. and San Jose will determine the future of several light rail lines and, in the so-called “capitol of Silicon Valley,” a sprawling grid that needs to curb its dependence on cars.
Austin’s contentious Prop 1 bundles $600 million to build a light rail line with $400 million for road improvements. The odd coupling is city council’s deliberate attempt to sweeten the pot for Austin-dwellers who don’t want a rail tax but worry about road congestion. A similar measure failed in 2000, getting a close 49.6 percent of the vote.
But the very city government that approved Prop 1 one stands to be shaken up by it in November. The ballot measure was the very first issue leveled at mayoral candidates at a forum on August 28th. Three candidates — Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole and Steve Adler support it, while Randall Stevens and Todd Phelps do not. Their arguments mirror public debate: Phelps said rising property taxes would push Austin-dwellers out to the fringes where a city-center train won’t help them; Martinez argued that a strong public transportation network will actually boost affordability; Cole maintained that the city can’t simply build its way out of congestion.
As of early August, Adler had so far raised the most for his campaign, with current council members Martinez and Cole at second and third.
Though not the defining aspect of D.C.’s mayoral race, transportation is certainly a key piece. Incumbent mayor Vincent Gray has fiercely supported the city’s embattled streetcar, an eventual 37-mile line that will open first along H Street NE. But Gray lost his reelection bid in the April primary to Councilmember Muriel Bowser — and her support has been far less enthusiastic.
Bowser was one of several council members who argued for budget cuts to Gray’s pet project earlier this summer, saying that the city has “yet to see results” from the oft-delayed line. (Gray, meanwhile, said the cuts would set the project back decades and vetoed the budget, a move that council members promptly overrode 12-1).
In a city where Democrats make up 76 percent of the electorate, Bowser is very likely to win the race over her Independent challengers. So far she’s been vague on expanding the line versus keeping it a novelty item for downtown developers, but she certainly doesn’t seem to prioritize it as a legacy-maker like Gray.
Poised for massive population growth over the next few decades, the South Bay’s transportation still leaves much to be desired. San Jose has made strides with road diets and bike infrastructure, but an integrated transit plan would go a long way for the area’s congestion and air quality.
The two mayoral contenders — Councilmember Sam Liccardo and Supervisor Dave Cortese — list transportation and infrastructure as key elements of their campaign. But their vision has been vastly different over the years. According to the city’s alt weekly, “Cortese is a product of the valley’s conversion from orchards to sprawling suburbia” while Liccardo “is an urbanist and alternative-transportation wonk.”
At a forum earlier this year, both candidates praised transit-oriented development for San Jose’s downtown; Liccardo talked about halting sprawl by building up while Cortese cited his involvement with planning organizations that promote smart growth. More telling, perhaps, is their positions on bringing BART down south. Liccardo has vigorously supported the effort, while Cortese has been more cautious. Their bike record is also uneven; Cortese claims that taking away congested street space for bike lanes is “generally not a good idea.” Liccardo, who oversees the downtown district, has actually proposed green lanes during his time on the council. While Cortese is no hard-line car advocate, Liccardo is the better choice for an aggressive urbanizing San Jose.
Transportation Initiatives to Watch
Alameda County, Calif.: Oakland’s home county will vote on whether to double the existing transportation sales tax and approve a $7.8 billion plan for the next 30 years. The overall spending plan includes 30 percent for city and county streets, 20 percent for roads, and 8 percent for bike and pedestrian projects.
Seattle: Emerald City voters will decide whether to approve a $60 car tab fee and .1 percent sales tax increase to prevent bus cuts.
Austin: Prop 1 bundles $600 million for the initial leg of a controversial light rail with $400 million for road projects.
Clayton County, Ga.: Residents of the county south of Atlanta will vote on a one-cent sales tax to raise about $46 million a year, which will pay for a mix of “local bus routes, paratransit, and either bus rapid transit or commuter rail” to sync up with Atlanta’s MARTA.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.