An Interview with Pro-Transit Conservative William Lind

Photo by Oran

In this day and age, anti-transit politicos generally don’t get very much airtime to espouse their opposition to transit investments.  Media coverage of transportation spending is subdued at best and the overwhelming consensus among planners is one that aspires for a greener less auto-oriented future.  Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean transit advocates can kick back and relax.  Opposition still remains staunch and is generally focused indirectly, through groups like the highway lobby and property rights advocates.

Though anti-transit ideology stems largely from the conservative crowd, there are a select few that have been vociferous in their support for transit while remaining staunchly conservative in other areas.  William S. Lind, director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, is one of those few and has authored quite a bit of pro-transit literature from a conservative’s viewpoint.  As a result, we’ve not been unfamiliar with his work.

I had the privilege of corresponding with the Center and soliciting a few opinions from Mr. Lind about his thoughts on the matter.  While you may not find some of the nuances in his opinion entirely agreeable, his general argument does deliver a powerful and persuasive case for bridging the ideological gap on transportation.  The interview is below the jump.

STB: First of all, why transit? Why not more roads?

WL: In urban areas, building more roads does not effectively relieve traffic congestion because of suppressed/induced demand. In most cases, within a year of a new lane opening, congestion has returned to its previous level. In addition, limited-access highways do cities immense damage by sectioning them. Building new limited-access highways (as opposed to simply adding lanes) in urban areas would repeat what is now widely recognized as a destructive error. Finally, only electric railways protect our mobility in case events overseas create a new motor fuel supply crisis similar to those of 1973 and 1979.

STB: Why do you think so many conservatives and libertarians deride investing in public transit?

WL: Many conservatives and libertarians, like many other Americans, have never ridden a rail vehicle of any type – – subway, streetcar or train. Their only picture of public transportation is a typical city bus. No one wants to ride; bus riders, except on some suburban express routes, are overwhelmingly transit dependents. So conservatives and libertarians, like other people who have cars and can drive, say, “Why should I care about transit? I’m not going to ride the bus.”

The key to changing this outlook is to let people experience the much higher quality of service rail usually provides. Some years ago, my late colleague and friend Paul Weyrich was in Denver with a Republican U.S. Senator who was a staunch opponent of rail transit. Denver’s first Light Rail Line had just opened. Paul asked him, “Will you ride it with me?” The Senator grumbled and said, “Well, OK.” (Wise Republican Senators did not say no to Paul Weyrich.) Halfway into town, the Senator turned to Paul and said, “This is nice.” Transit advocates need to find ways to help other conservative leaders have a similar experience.

STB: What’s your response to those who think of transit investments as “social engineering?”

WL: Conservatives object to social engineering by government because it is coercive. Social engineering by the free market is a different story. Free market social engineering was a common element of the first trolley era, as developers bought land, built at their own expense a trolley line to serve it, and then built new housing communities on the land. Conservatives have no objections to that.

One way is to let conservatives and liberals work together to facilitate free market social engineering would be to promote dual development codes, one sprawl, the other Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND). A developer would be free to choose which code to follow, depending on his assessment of the market. Those developers who foresaw greater profits from TND might be willing to pay some or all of the cost of an electric railway to serve their development, just as they did 100 years ago. Remember, doing things the way we did them 100 years ago is, from a conservative perspective, good.

STB: Many conservatives are entrenched in the philosophy that rail transit is wasteful. How do you combat this argument, and more importantly, how do you begin to move the mainstream GOP to a position that recognizes the value of transit?

WL: Many conservatives do not know that while the construction cost of rail transit is higher than bus on arterials, the operating costs are usually lower, much lower. Nationwide, urban rail systems recover on average about 50% of their operating costs from the farebox, buses only 28%.

To move the mainstream GOP to being supportive of transit, you have to get Republicans riding transit. The Party will only listen to an internal constituency. That in turn requires providing high quality transit that is effective in drawing riders of choice, which usually means rail, not bus. If you look at the ridership on well-run rail systems, such as Chicago’s METRA, you will see that many are Republicans. The Republican Congressmen who represent them will hear from them fast (and recently have) if they think they are about to lose their commuter train.

STB: The relationship between transportation and land use (as well as property) is an important one to recognize. How does a conservative reconcile his/her pro-property rights position with his/her pro-transit position?

WL: Rail transit and economic development that benefits property owners are complementary. We have seen this in city after city. Again, dual codes (sprawl and TND) are an excellent way to reconcile land use issues and property rights on a free market basis. Government-loving liberals should remember that the main reason we have sprawl is that after World War II government mandated it.

STB: You’ve argued with the late Paul Weyrich that the federal government should take a more active role in funding transit. However, the federal government is often at the whim of political ideologies of the administration in office – – what kinds of solutions would you suggest so that support and funding for transit is stable, regardless of the administration in power?

WL: In our political system, policy can never be insulated from shifts in political power. As one party comes in and the other goes out, policy will change, and with it funding. We might obtain somewhat more stable funding if we continue to allocate a portion of the Highway Trust Fund to transit while adding an automatic mechanism for raising the gas tax over time (as a member of the Surface Transportation Commission, Paul Weyrich voted for an increase in the gas tax). But this too will be affected by partisan politics. Note that just as the House Republicans tried to take all transit funding out of the Highway Trust Fund, President Obama ruled out any increase in the gas tax at the beginning of his administration.

STB: What do you think is the proper balance between the roles of local, state and federal governments in transit?

WL: As a conservative, I believe in subsidiary: problems should always be addressed at the most local level possible. Washington’s “one size fits all” solutions usually fit no one well. The first place to turn for better transit is the free market; many actors in the market can benefit from improved rail transit and are willing to invest in it. (A side benefit of the private sector building rail transit is that construction costs should come down dramatically: governments don’t much care about costs but investors do.) If government involvement is needed, local government should come first, the state, and federal involvement should be a last, worst choice. Anyone remember what happened when the federal government got involved in designing a streetcar (ask Boston and San Francisco)?

Mr. William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

Comments

  1. Matt L (aka Angry Transit Nerd) says

    ITYM “subsidiarity.”

    I’m not sure the private model is viable when we’re talking about trying to build greater density in existing sprawl, which is what we should be talking about rather than more greenfield development. It’s hard to see a private actor buying ROW or negotiating easements with hundreds of property owners without eminent domain.

    • Mike B says

      Lind is an excellent mind and I agree; thanks for bringing him to STB. It is always a pleasure to read his work. Also, if anyone has time, read the book “Moving Minds” Lind co-authored with Paul Weyrich. It’s a phenomenal resource for discussing pro-transit concepts with people (such as conservatives, libertarians, and people like me) who get turned off by the constant arguments that we should build transit primairly because of social justice and environmental friendliness. The typical anti-transit person is often rather surprised, impressed, and even persuaded when you start arguing from their perspective, and not just bringing up the typical lefty, pro-transit talking points. The book is a bit dense, but it’s an excellent read.

      http://www.amazon.com/Moving-Minds-Conservatives-Public-Transportation/dp/0982527306

  2. says

    History isn’t my strongest subject. Which U.S president created the U.S. Interstate Highway System? And was he a Democrat or Republican? Does anyone know?

    • Gordon Werner says

      from wikipedia

      The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (commonly known as the Interstate Highway System, Interstate Freeway System or the Interstate) is a network of limited-access roads, including freeways, highways, and expressways, forming part of the National Highway System of the United States. The system is named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who championed its formation. Construction was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the original portion was completed 35 years later. The network has since been extended, and as of 2010, it had a total length of 47,182 miles (75,932 km). As of 2010, about one-quarter of all vehicle miles driven in the country use the Interstate system. The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars), making it the “largest public works program since the Pyramids.”

    • Gordon Werner says

      Eisenhower gained an appreciation of the German Autobahn network as a necessary component of a national defense system while he was serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II. He recognized that the proposed system would also provide key ground transport routes for military supplies and troop deployments in case of an emergency or foreign invasion.

      • Erik G. says

        As mentioned Sherwin Lee’s link Ike had, as a recent grad of West Point, been tasked with getting a convoy to the West Coast and they get bogged down in mud more than a few times enroute.

        And before we Godwin the thread too much, the German Autobahns were certainly a jobs program much like the U.S. WPA or the current Recovery.gov program, and…

        …were based in part on the New York area parkways (Northern State Parkway, Southern State Parkway, Wantagh State Parkway and early stages of the Taconic State Parkway) that had impressed German officials during pre-WW2 visits.

  3. Andrew Smith says

    Though anti-transit ideology stems largely from the conservative crowd

    I think this is very much not true. I don’t believe your typical suburban liberal gives two shits about transit.

    • Bellinghammer says

      I agree somewhat, but I’d say there is an important political difference between indifference (suburban liberals) and outright hostility (most conservatives). I’d bet that most I-drive-everywhere-in-my-Volvo/Subaru liberals still vote pro-transit at a much higher rate than conservatives.

      • says

        Bellinghamer is correct. Wouldn’t find many of them in opposition. Soft or sympathetic support as they realise the service it provides, if nothing else for transit-dependent folks.

      • Andrew Smith says

        The voting records and rhetoric from Mary Margaret Haugen, et al, suggest something other than what you have said.

      • Sherwin Lee says

        Haugen is a different story. She represents Camano Island and Stanwood, which can hardly be considered suburban.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Sure, I may have been too specific replace “suburban” in my sentence with “non-urban”. You wrote:

        Though anti-transit ideology stems largely from the conservative crowd

        If you are saying Mary Margaret Haugen is conservative, fine. By that definition, I’m a firebrand arch-conservative. I don’t think many people agree that someone with her political opinions is a conservative generally; she’s even on the left side of the transportation spectrum in this state, if only a little bit.

    • Sherwin Lee says

      As someone who’s grown up in the suburbs, I disagree. Suburban liberals do live culturally conservative (meaning they almost always drive everywhere) but are supportive of transit policy-wise. Would they rather see some kind of project that “relives” congestion? Yes, but many are not hostile to transit.

      • Andrew Smith says

        I look around Washington politics and see a lot of democrats saying nasty things about transit.

        And ultimately there is no difference than arguing for “congestion relief” and arguing against transit. With fixed funding, they are the same thing.

      • says

        You’re conflating rural with suburban. Completely different. Completely. Even though rural areas are highly dependent. In fact, some rural constituencies aren’t so hostile even for conservatives. It’s difficult to categorise.

    • Brett says

      Not giving “two shits about transit” is different than being anti-transit. And of course ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have issue-specific contexts.

  4. Nathanael says

    The Lind / Weyrich brand of “conservatism”, unfortunately, has very little impact on the modern “movement conservatives”. Even though Weyrich was one of the original movement conservatives.

    The problem is that free market worship led, inevitably, to the outright purchase of most of the Republican Party and even parts of the Libertarian Party by the highest bidders — and the highest bidders were the oil monopolists.

    Well, I wish Lind luck.

    • Doug Bostrom says

      Well, I wish Lind luck.

      Me, too. We all should; our future depends on the success of Lind, as opposed to some of the latter-day “conservatives.”

  5. Norman says

    “Many conservatives do not know that while the construction cost of rail transit is higher than bus on arterials, the operating costs are usually lower, much lower. Nationwide, urban rail systems recover on average about 50% of their operating costs from the farebox, buses only 28%.”

    This is certainly not true in our area, and, in fact, is pretty much the opposite: Metro gets a higher percentage of its operating costs from fares than does Link lite rail. So, there goes the only argument there is in favor of lite rail over buses — that argument actually works to support buses over lite rail in our area.

    In 2011, Central Link light rail recovered less than 24% of its operating costs from fares. This is less than half the national average for rail systems, and less than the national average for bus systems.

    http://metro.kingcounty.gov/am/generalmanager_11-18-11.html

    “A key performance indicator [for King County Metro buses], our farebox recovery rate, is nearing 30 percent”

    And, this does not even consider comparing Link to private autos, where the operating cost per passenger-mile for Central Link is something like seven times higher than the operating cost per passenger-mile of the average U.S. auto.

    Anyway you look at it, the light rail system we built here — Link light rail — is just stupidly expensive, both in regards to construction cost and operating cost.

    • Doug Bostrom says

      How long has Link been running? How did the economics of Atlanta’s Marta, or DC Metro appear after a handful of years in operations?

      Apples-apples, always better.

      • Norman says

        And we know how brilliantly accurate ST and this blog have been at predicting future performance of Link light rail. Don’t we?

  6. Kyle D. says

    Most conservatives actually are in favor of how Sound Transit is financed. There is lots of new bond selling (Wall Street loves that). Also, local sales taxes are used. Mike Huckabee, the right-wingnut R poster-boy made high sales taxes the centerpiece when he was seeking the R nomination for President in 2008.

    The cultural-liberal majority and our political leadership in this region actually embraces MANY of the conservatives’ fiscal policies when it comes to transit. Strange bedfellows indeed!

  7. Jason Mitchell says

    A lot of those suburbs Metra serves have turned from bright red to purple over the years. The liberalizing impact of rail service?



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