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Average time for rail transit vote to succeed after first failing: 3.8 years

8 April 2014

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If a proposed rail transit project is rejected by local voters, how long does it take to get voters to approve a subsequent rail project, if one is presented?

According to a study of applicable U.S. cases by the Light Rail Now Project (one of the organizations sponsoring ARN), on average, it takes between 3 and 4 years (i.e., mean delay of 3.8 years). What this means is that — if there’s community will do do so — a new rail transit proposal (typically, a revision of the original one that has failed) can be re-submitted to voters and approved within a relatively short time.

Here in Austin’s “transit war” over competing visions of urban rail, these results challenge contentions of dire consequences (from a possible rail vote loss) being made by partisans of the official Project Connect plan for “high-capacity transit” in a dubious “Highland-East Riverside” route. Rail supporters that perceive major flaws and drawbacks in the Project Connect plan are being advised to swallow their disgust and support the official plan, on the premise that if it fails to win voter support, the development of urban rail would be catastrophically delayed another decade or more, perhaps even forever.

A couple of comments posted online in response to news reports on local media websites give some of the flavor of this line of argument.

See the problem is, if we vote against the urban rail, it will get put off for another ten years. Unfortunately, our fate was sealed when the urban rail committee, who wants the urban rail to eventually go to Mueller, decided upon the San Jacinto/Highland route. We might as well vote for it so that we’ll get some sort of rail closer and more relevant to downtown than MetroRail.
Daily Texan, 3 February 2014

Referring to the Austinites United for Rail Action (AURA) group — many of whose members seems to have misgivings about the official “Highland-East Riverside” route recommendation — another reader, in a comment posted to an article in the Feb. 28th Austin Chronicle, warned

For the good of the city I hope the AURA folks will reconsider their opposition to the likely starter route. With an entirely new district-based City Council taking office in January, November will probably be our last chance at rail for many, many years.

Other proponents of Project Connect’s “high-capacity transit” route recommendation (which currently still doesn’t specify whether it would involve buses or trains meandering along it) have conjured even more dire warnings that urban rail could be stalled for “10 or 20 years or more” if voters fail to pass bond funding for the official plan. For example, in a similar online news site exchange in late February, a commenter identifying herself as a UT development associate argued:

The Federal Government just gave Austin $35 Million for MetroRapid. There is no way they are going to allow us to spend more Federal Money on that route. We have to look forward and make a first step. If we don’t do it now, it’s going to be another 20 years before it’s on the table again. No one wins if we don’t support Project Connect.

The results from the LRN study would seem to debunk these contentions and warnings of doom upon the failure of Project Connect’s plan. LRN explains the methodology used:

To … assess the actual delay between the failure of rail ballot measures and the ultimate passage of support for a subsequent rail transit ballot initiative, the LRN Project team examined available cases since 2000 where an initial rejection of rail was followed by a successful later vote. LRN’s approach has examined this issue strictly from the standpoint of attracting voter support — in other words, if the issue of rail transit is re-voted, how long does it take to win approval?

It should be noted that this study has examined the sequence of events only in cities where, after the failure of an initial measure, a new measure for rail transit (often with a somewhat different plan) was offered to voters. In other cases, poorly prepared or presented rail plans were rejected by voters, but rail planning was subsequently dropped (e.g., Spokane, Columbus) or has proceeded without needing a public vote (e.g., San Antonio).

The study examined six cases, meeting the basic critieria, where such re-votes have occurred — Austin, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Tucson, Seattle, and St. Louis. The analysis indicated that “recent re-votes on rail transit have taken from one to seven years to succeed”, with an average delay of 3.8 years.

In addition, LRN notes that “the data seems to suggest a pattern, whereby the delay before a successful rail transit re-vote is less in cities already operating some form of rail transit (Seattle, St. Louis), in contrast to cities where rail would be a totally new addition to the transit mix (Austin, Tucson, Kansas City, Cincinnati).” Indeed, in the two cities operating some form of rail transit (St. Louis and Seattle), the delay averaged just 1.5 years:

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit.

Left bar: Average years of delay in cities already operating rail transit. Right bar: Average delay in cities with no current rail transit.

While this study “with its very small data set does not offer a basis for strong conclusions” states the LRN report, nevertheless it is possible “to infer that the loss of a vote does not inevitably represent a ‘catastrophic’ setback for rail transit in a given city….” Furthermore, “there is opportunity for plausible speculation….”

• Conditions for a more speedy re-vote and approval of a rail transit ballot measure may be more propitious in communities that already have experience with successful rail transit systems.

• The process of re-submitting a rail transit measure to a vote may depend not so much on public attitudes but on the determination of sponsoring officials, their responsiveness to public input, and their willingness to re-craft specific project details to more closely conform to public needs and desires.

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3 comments

  1. Vote it Down!


  2. Wouldn’t the most reasonable comparison be to how long has elapsed since the last initiative was voted down in Austin? That would take into account all the variables unique to Austin.


    • The Light Rail Now study examined the lapse of time between a public vote rejecting rail transit and a subsequent vote accepting rail transit (typically, not the same proposals in each vote). There’s only a handful of such votes in the U.S. (There have been more rail ballot votes, but not meeting the study criteria.) Averages for the small population of eligible cases were calculated, as reported.

      In part, the intent was to address claims that the failure of a rail measure at the polls means a wait of one or more decades before a successful one can be passed. This contention is disproved in the study of actual cases.

      — ARN editor



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