Thursday, June 16, 2011

The New West: Think Light Rail, Not Covered Wagon

Among observers of American politics, there's a widespread misperception of the West as a libertarian haven that rejects government services in favor of a strict ideology of self-reliance.

That misperception is rooted in cultural depictions of the West as a destination for homesteaders, cowboys, and others looking to escape the rigid traditions of the East and create a new life on the frontier. In this vision, Westerners--by their very nature--are opposed to obtaining any of their basic needs through the help of an entity perceived as inflexible and impersonal--least of all the government.

While there's an element of truth in this stereotype--Westerners, after all, do value independence and individualism--the idea of a "libertarian West" is certainly challenged by a recent Brookings Institution report on urban public transit in the U.S. That report showed that 15 of the 20 public transit systems that rank highest on a combined score of transit coverage and job access are in the West. While many of those transit systems exist in coastal cities like Honolulu and Los Angeles, a surprising percentage of the these public transportation systems are in cities like El Paso, Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Denver, Colorado--places more-often associated with covered wagon than light rail. Salt Lake City, Tucson, and Las Vegas were also among the 20 highest-ranking cities.

According to Brookings, Western metro areas are "much more likely than others to engage in comprehensive planning with growth containment policies, employ infrastructure regulations such as impact fees, and administer programs designed to boost the supply of affordable housing... Their more urbanized form puts transit within reach of larger shares of their populations."

But there's more to the story. Western residents, an increasingly large percentage of whom live in urban areas, have also been willing to approve government investments in public transit when they see tangible benefits. Voters in cities like Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and others have all approved sales tax increases to finance public transit projects like light rail systems within the last several decades of population growth. These electoral outcomes are consistent with PNW's research, which has has shown that Western voters understand the important role state and local governments play in preserving a first-class quality of life.

As the West continues to fuel the nation's population growth, expect continued dedication on the part of Westerners to and the development and maintenance of first class transit systems.