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Public Wants Transit, But Not at Any Price

While the public is highly supportive of transit as key to solving the metro area transportation problem, it is pragmatic and frugal in its view of government in general and transit spending in particular.

Unfortunately, the recent Guide the Ride ballot initiative was based on a philosophy of transit liberalism. The touchstone of this viewpoint is that the metro area must have a comprehensive rail-based transit system. This inevitably leads to a massive program dependent on new tax dollars.

Before advocates of this philosophy start another tax election for largely the same goals, there should be a careful examination of the public's view on transit spending.

A Ciruli Associates poll conducted for RTD in March 1998 shows two-thirds of Denver metro voters say they want to invest in more transit and light rail to solve the area's congestion problems, and 78 percent support a light rail line down the southeast corridor from downtown to the Tech Center. Yet they also made clear that last November's transit proposal was too much all at once (it was defeated 42% to 58%).

Why? The answer lies largely in a misalignment between transit advocates who enthusiastically proposed last fall's $6 billion, 66 percent tax increase and the majority of voters who are conservative to moderate regarding transit spending and planning.

The survey emphasizes voter pragmatism related to transit investment:

Seventy-six percent of the metro public now believes the area is growing too fast, up from 63 percent in 1994. The number-one problem cited is traffic and its attendant congestion.
Metro residents are ahead of the area's political leadership: Seventy-eight percent believe the area's transportation authorities (RTD, CDOT, and city and county governments) need to start working together to solve the problems.
Residents believe multiple sources should fund transit solutions and that taxpayers should be last in line to provide new revenue. They first want to tap state surplus, federal funds, RTD income, bonding revenue, local government funds and private developers.
Transit agencies and new proposals need to be both market-driven and as efficient as possible. State limitations that restrict a free market in transit services should be modified (59% agree). And contracting out, which can include transit union participation, should be increased (51% agree).
Contrary to some transit advocates, the public strongly supports continuing highway investments. Maintaining city and county roads and finishing the beltway are top public transportation priorities ahead of transit investments.
Transit construction to reduce congestion should not hinge on a single technology, such as light rail, but should be part of an overall package that includes bus and carpool lanes, rail where most efficient, and highway upgrades.

Given a choice in transit scenarios for the Denver area, a plurality (40%) of residents would use current revenue to improve bus service and build some light rail. Only if congestion requires additional investment will the public support a tax increase, and even then it must be more economical than last November's proposal. Remaining residents were divided: about one-quarter are ready to support another Guide the Ride tax proposal and 31 percent are opposed to any tax increase for transit spending. Voters are pro transit, but tax resistant.

This polling data shows that of all options the public is most ready to make transit progress, including light rail and more lanes in the southeast corridor, running from downtown Denver to the Tech Center.

The public is not libertarian regarding government involvement and tax investment in transportation. But it resists proposals that appear to offer meager gains, waste substantial revenue or benefit narrow interests.

The future of transportation planning in the Denver metro area will depend on a new alliance of business, local government and transportation agencies that are guided by a new philosophy of transit pragmatism.

Related Links: Ride On | The Culture of Opposition


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