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Lessons on Transit From Other Communities

Denver voters joined those in St. Louis on November 4 in defeating major transit proposals. But a single election defeat is not the end. Seattle passed a nearly $4 billion package in 1996, only one year after a major defeat.

There were a number of similarities in the three cities' efforts and lessons to be learned in the concepts that affected defeat and victory. The following analysis was prepared on November 14, 1997:

Transit - Seattle and St. Louis
St. Louis
Yes %
Sales Tax
Revenue (in billions)

  • Proposal - Size and Definition - The proposal and the conditions surrounding its development will largely determine its public reception. Previous unkept promises, vague ballot wording or a lack of proposal specifics can be major vulnerabilities. The fundamental plan and financing must be specific enough to withstand the inevitable attack. The proclivity of transit planners and special interests to be comprehensive tends to drive proposals beyond public tax tolerances, and often leaves out the public until hearings in the final stages.

  • Light Rail Emphasis - While light rail tends to have an initial popularity, its expense, weak cost-benefit ratio and limited routes make it a big target for critics who focus on cost, congestion reduction and lack of suburban accessibility.

  • Suburban-to- Suburban Strategy - The natural tension between the urban core and the suburbs is heightened in transit elections. Tax funds often come more from the suburbs than the core; yet, rail and bus programs often hub in the core city, making them vulnerable to attacks of not servicing the suburbs. Proposals that start with suburban mobility in mind fare better.

  • Vision and Alternatives - Transit is an investment in the future. Giving people a sense of realistic alternatives and congestion relief is difficult, but essential. Being specific about benefits to cue voter imagination is important. The education process may take years, and an intense, but unsuccessful campaign may be a necessary part of the process.

  • Leadership and Populism - Support from the political and media establishment are not necessarily a sign of voter support, and can sometimes be an easy target for populist anti-tax forces. Losing major suburban leaders or suffering partisan divisions is the bete noire of transit elections.

  • Campaigns Top Down - Most campaigns make similar arguments through similar channels. The difference between victory and defeat has more to do with the strength and vulnerability of the proposal and its support base than the advertising message. Although, a final message designed for the major voter base, especially suburbanites, is critical.

Prepared November 14, 1997

The Future of Transit

Congestion remains a problem that Denver residents want solved. RTD continues to have the primary responsibility for transit alternatives, but the loss, and especially its magnitude, have created confusion among supporters for transit investments and a vacuum of power that may be filled by opponents of transit. Alternatives range from simply waiting a year or two and reintroducing a proposal of the same size and type to dropping all light rail investments or only emphasizing bus service improvements.

However, if RTD does not address light rail, the effort will likely proceed with state and local areas taking the lead.

RTD Alternatives and 1998 and Beyond
Another voter
Same size
Same concept
Smaller initiative
Fewer corridors
More suburban
express buses/HOVs
Use RTD resources
and any available
federal/local funds
Limited rail/bus
No rail or bus

The Seattle experience illustrates a variation in which a large initiative is defeated, then a more limited initiative is offered for corridors where a consensus exists. HOV, buses and light rail may all be components, but with a smaller cost.

The most likely scenario will see progress in the metro area, but it will be incremental and require a higher level of cooperation and pooling of resources.

No New Taxes - The current revenue source will not likely be augmented with new regional tax revenue for several years.

Incremental - Transit and highway improvements will be incremental, not comprehensive. The downside is an increase in the length of time between identifying a problem and realizing a solution, and more difficulty maintaining priorities and integrating solutions. The upside is that models of success can be created to build momentum for the next step.

Multi-Lateral Cooperation - Progress on transit and highway improvements in the metro area will require a strong coalition of interests. Groups have periodically joined for specific projects and issues in the past, but now sustained multi-lateral coordination is required.

  • CDOT
  • RTD
  • City/counties
  • Governor
  • Legislature

Pooling Resources - Pooling resources will be the most critical aspect of the next phase of transit progress. Bonding ability of RTD, CDOT flexible funds, state surplus, city and county funds, and federal funding all need to be used.

Southeast Corridor Transit Priority - The Southeast Corridor has the highest level of leadership support for transit investment at this time.

Other Areas on List - While the Southeast Corridor should be the first focus, the MIS Corridors with completed studies also require funding strategies. Also, RTD, CDOT and DRCOG's studies of other corridors and aspects of the metro transit system should be coordinated and remain active.


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