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.