Wholly aside from my own ideological inclinations, I really have a soft spot for heretics on both sides.  On the national stage, I always find Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, and Mickey Kaus difficult to categorize and therefore interesting to read.

So it’s no surprise that I’m somewhat obsessed with pro-transit conservate William Lind, above and beyond the fact that he agrees with me.  The modern conservative coalition largely consists of rural interests that are never going to be pro-transit, but there’s really no good reason that urban conservatives and libertarians should be anti-rail and anti-transit*.

The effort to win this argument is an important one; the nature of the system is that parties alternate in power, and decades-long infrastructure projects can’t survive administrations that alternate between supporting and sabotaging them.

See also this recollection of Lind’s coauthor, the late Paul Weyrich.

*I fear Lind’s comparison of rail and road subsidies may not be apples-to-apples (are capital costs in that highway figure?), but without easy sourcing it’s hard to say.  On the other hand, things like wide arterials, density restrictions and parking mandates are undoubtedly car subsidies but don’t show up in his figures.

53 Replies to “The Conservative Case for Rail”

  1. Anti-rail and anti-transit are different. One can be pro-transit and anti-rail. Most transit in America runs on roads. I’m guessing that most transit in the world runs on roads. Some people are pro-roads and pro-transit.

    All this pro- and anti- is in the context of place-specific density, which generates exceptions. Elevators in buildings are an important, useful form of “transit,” as are moving sidewalks and people-movers in airports. Very high density cities are served well with subways.

    1. John,

      I agree that they’re different; that’s why I mentioned them separately!

      However, although there are honorable exceptions, my experience has been that most anti-rail advocates are nowhere to be found when it comes time to actually invest in better bus transit.

    2. John, you’ll be anti-transit until the day you come out in favor of a planned transit project.

  2. I’ve never understood why being conservative is associated with being anti transit.
    The word conservative conjures up thoughts of saving what we have, and not squandering our precious resources (material and capital) on the rest – a very Teddy Rooseveltian idea.
    Saving fuel on public transit, and buy less from hostile regimes around the world seems like a poster child issue for the good republicans of the country, but somehow investing in public infrastuctue with public monies a poison pill for all but the most secure in their position. Maybe Rush and Bill might not approve.
    Pouring vast sums of todays and future dollars into a failing road networks seems like a fools errand, but one which most conservatives eagerly line up to do. Is the construction, bonding, and engineering lobby that powerful? YES.
    If transit didn’t exist, then nearly half of all commuters would be competing for a few available lane spots on todays freeways, making life miserable for those that don’t or can’t use transit. Now that’s a horrible thought right there.

      1. American conservatism is very different than conservatism in other countries. The argument about driving is one based on the platform of property. You hear it all the time: “I worked hard to earn this car! I have the right to drive it!”

      2. In my experience, it boils down to entitlement and selfishness (which, ironically, is what Conservatives that I’m familiar with rally most stridently against, see Reagan and the Welfare Queen). “I got mine, so screw you.”

        I find it a rare Conservative who understands The Prisoners Dilemma (cooperation may result in a less than ideal result for me, but will result in a better result for both of us combined), the Iterated Prisoners Dilemma (betrayal will result in tit-for-tat in the next round of interaction), and the concept of Opportunity Cost (what is the value of the things not done instead?).

        Not that those who are traditionally Liberal are flawless. Far from it.

        My personal philosophy is to examine as many options as possible in a reasonable amount of time, make a choice that has good data supporting that it will probably work well, and then adjust down the road after seeing the results or trending.

        The biggest mistake on the Left is to throw out the baby with the bathwater every single time and start from scratch, and on the Right is to insist that if something isn’t working, the methodology is sound byt we’re just not doing it “hard enough.”

        Let’s be scientific and rational about finding solutions that maximize the benefit for everyone, while minimizing the cost (financial and otherwise) as much as is possible.

      3. The key point here is something Martin mentioned in the main post — the Republican party sets the conservative talking points in this country, and the Republican party is dominated by a rural coalition at the moment. The link between rural and conservative is not as strong in other countries.

      4. I wouldn’t say it’s “dominated” by rural interests — the reflexive opposition to high marginal tax rates, for instance, comes from other parts of the coalition — but it’s an important part of the movement that will be difficult to reconcile with effective transit systems and deterrents to driving.

  3. I think the notion that “The modern conservative coalition largely consists of rural interests that are never going to be pro-transit” is nonsense. Most conservatives I know are concerned about: government spending and national security. I don’t know how that translates into “rural.” Some portion of conservatives identify very strongly with the moral questions but my experience is that most people who call themselves “conservative” do so because they are against wasteful government spending. It’s just a question, then, of pointing out how wasteful (and how very subsidized) roads, free parking, and the like are before your average conservative realizes that transit looks kinda nice in comparison.

    Treating conservatives like an alien species to be identified and categorized, or worse, writing off vast swathes of the country as inevitably anti-transit, is not helping the transit cause.

    1. Sure, “conservatives” shouldn’t necessarily be anti-transit but Republicans are. Republicans get a huge amount of votes from rural areas and a huge amount of money (especially in WA) from real estate development interests.

      Rural areas have a lower demand for transit and the real estate industry is generally going to favor land use & development policies that make transit less effective (ie sprawl). So while you may find pro-transit conservatives, you’re going to have a really hard time finding pro-transit Republicans given the current political coalitions.

      1. True. However, more and more people are moving into urban areas and those areas want more public transportation and safe alternatives to driving. If Republicans want some of those votes, they need to bring conservative arguments to the table that match up with the needs of those voters.

        The ST2 vote seemed to validate that voters are tired of the old line of building more roads to solve congestion. Here’s a platform for the state Republican party: No more “free”way general purpose lanes. All future lanes either need to be tollways or HOT lanes. Sadly, Dino Rossi presented a plan to raid the State’s general fund for roads. Stupid, just plain stupid.

    2. Jenniferwhatnot,

      I’m not sure how you can look at an electoral map — local, state, or national — and not concede that the appeal of conservative politics is strongest in rural areas.

      There are other parts of the coalition — the management class, the strongly religious, etc. — but I think those pieces are “winnable” for transit activists. Assuming you live around here, those are generally the conservatives that you know, and we should strive to win them. The rural base, though, will be a tough sell.

      1. Rural areas may generally oppose the use of public money for non-road transportation, but applied to their own case they usually argue FOR it. Take Amtrak away from the rural areas of the West served by long-distance trains, and you’ll be inundated with complaints. Or try to repeal the Essential Air Service subsidy in places like Rapid City, Cheyenne, or Nome, and see what reaction you get. I think the problem lies less in rural areas and more in the cultural entrenchment of the suburban and exurban ‘ideal’.

      2. One thing to remember is some rural areas have a high level of passenger rail use and rural passenger rail enjoys at least some political support. Witness the efforts to revive the pioneer route or the north coast limited. Also see the high ridership of the empire builder which passes through some fairly sparsely populated country for much of it’s route.

        For many rural communities Amtrak is the only alternative to driving left. The nearest airport with scheduled service can be a many hour car trip away and often Intercity motorcoach service is no longer availible.

        I think the keys to gaining rural support for transportation alternatives is multi-pronged:
        1. FTA and state grant programs aimed at establishing and maintaining local rural transit service.
        2. An EAS like program for subsidizing rural intercity motorcoach service.
        3. Improving passenger rail to cities already served and re-establishing service in certain corridors such as the pioneer efforts.

        If rural areas have some skin in the game they won’t complain as much about urban areas demanding more money for transit.

        Ultimately I’m not so sure the roads vs. transit debate is a rural thing so much as it is an exurban and suburban thing. These are the areas where taxpayers may be funding urban transit directly without seeing many benefits. They are also areas where the people’s desire for congestion relief aligns with the interests of the sprawl lobby.

    3. Actually, t4a did a Small Towns and Rural Regions brief. They point out that rural areas and small towns have higher concentrations of elderly and low-income citizens who need transit. We took the Tillamook Co Bus to the Oregon Coast (from Portland) last summer, and there were a fair number of people with disabilities using it. I didn’t ask their income levels or political leanings, but judging from the election map cartograms I’d bet there were a fair number of Republicans.

      Remember most small towns were platted before sprawl and are very walkable, and farms were within horse-carriage distance of a town. Unfortunately due to a host of reasons they’ve been losing population for the past 100 years, but we may need a lot more farmers.

    4. There’s gotta be at least a few rural, conservative, pro-transit people in places like Chelan and Douglas Counties, which share the original Link, which is a pretty sweet bus system. I love visitng Chelan – not many towns of 3,500 people areserved by four bus routes!

    1. It’s too bad the theologian they chose, Doug Wilson, is from a crazy little church in Moscow, Idaho. I was attending the University of Idaho when he started New St. Andrews College back in 2004(?). Their big thing back then was defending the Confederacy and the human rights legacy of slaveholders. It was all really bizarre.

  4. When I think conservatism I think economic efficiency, and as a Kantian I can’t help but prefer the behavioral pattern that works best if universalized (similar to the golden rule). Sitting stuck on a freeway with 1.2 people per 1.5-ton-car is one of the most egregious patterns of waste and inefficiency in our society, and there is an incredibly solid conservative case to be made for economically optimizing travel and living patterns through the construction of dense, high capacity, exclusive ROW…which usually means rail. Now, if it is inadequately or skeletally built and thus underutilized, the economic case for rail (and most suburban buses) falls apart, and the Randall O’Tooles of the world promptly pounce on such scenarios.

    But then again, full disclosure, I’m a liberal and a train-lover, so I want it all built anyway. =)

  5. Thank you all for your high-minded defense of Conservatism. It speaks well for of your parents and how well they taught everyone here manners and politeness.

    Unfortunately, the ugly truth is that most American conservatives (e.g. Republicans) dislike public transit because “they” ride it. We all know who “they” are, don’t we?

    1. How asinine. How can you back that up? As a conservative, I have a big bone to pick with what you just said.

      1. And have you made your objections known to your friends when they make a “slip of the tongue?”

      2. Sherwin,

        Let me say that I take your word you are not a racist. My wife’s niece is mixed race and has married a fellow who is also. We go to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with them in the Rainier Valley. If you want to see a multi-cultural Utopia, their parties are it. So I know that for urban folks of the age of most blog participants, race has just about disappeared as an issue. That’s because you grew up in integrated schools and everyone saw first hand that Dr. King was right: a person’s character is the bottom line for everything else about him or her.

        It hasn’t disappeared for people over forty, though. People do have better filters on their outbursts than they used to, but the filters still fail disappointingly often.

    2. Anandakos,

      Your insinuation that MOST (as opposed to some) conservatives are racists is both completely unsupported by evidence and entirely unhelpful with the attempt to win reasonable ones over.

      1. Unsupported by evidence? Just go to RedState or Drudge or attend any Tea Party.

        Now I agree that these people are not Conservatives in the Burkean sense. They’re Confederates regardless of where they live. But they dominate the “Conservative” message in America at this time in history, so anyone who doesn’t vocally and consistently call their party mates on the endless insinuations is a racist if by no other measure than association.

        Most can’t be bothered, are afraid of losing status, or agree secretly or overtly.

      2. they dominate the “Conservative” message in America

        No, they dominate the liberal press coverage of the “Conservative message”; mostly with out of context sound bites. Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot and this vocal minority has cost Republicans a vast number of independent centrists which are what decides elections. Now, can we talk ACORN?

      3. In an effort to steer this back on-topic, I’m going to stop quibbling over the definition of “racist” by saying that simply dismissing anti-transit feeling as racist is going to get us anywhere. It’s not dealing with the other side’s strongest arguments and will make people defensive.

        What is valuable is to see how policies we favor are actually consistent with the Conservative movement’s stated values. In particular, the repeal of draconian zoning restrictions (minimum parking, etc) is very consistent with libertarian, property rights, and small government ideas.

    3. I think that is something that racists or people that have problems with poor people say, but not necessary conservatives.

      I think that the real issue why conservatives are generally less in favor of transit than liberals is that they generally have less interaction with it as well as the quality of that service being lower. This simply stems from the fact that liberals tend to live in urban settings with better transit service while conservatives tend to live in suburban settings with less transit.

      Of course there are going to ideologues but I think most people, once they experience the value of transit support it.

      1. Correct. Anti-transit conservatives generally live in areas with poor or no existing transit. You’d be hard pressed to find a conservative New Yorker railing against the subway.

    4. How many people on this blog have read “The Power Broker”?

      Road building (in the NYC area) was a way to keep “them” away. Now whether Robert Moses was conservative/liberal/Republican/Democrat, we’ll never know, since he was never elected to office.

      However, it might be a real dry read unless you’re from that area. Enlightened me as to why things looked and functioned the way they do back there.


      1. Absolutely brilliant book, that one – it *is* long, but fascinating, and a great history of why NYC looks the way it does today.

      2. It is also a great book for understanding who the “winners” and “losers” were/are in highway construction vs transit destruction from that time down to the present. More often than not, those benefitting from the Moses transport projects were middle and upper middle class persons of european heritage. Subtle rather than blatant but still with us today.

      3. I had always wondered why there were limited access highways all around the area called ‘Parkways’, until I read the book.

        These scenic roads were ‘connecting roads’ between Parks, hence the term ‘Parkway’. And the reason they were limited to auto-only traffic, the briges were built too low to allow buses access.

        That way, ‘those people’ would be dissuaded from visiting his parks.

        Plus, he was taking money from all sorts of non-highway funds to build is road projects. Parks money, obviously, for the ‘parkways’, but the Cross Bronx Expressway was using HUD money.

        Talk about subsidizing road building!


  6. The banner ad network STB is using picked an Ann Coulter ad for this thread (for me, at least). I guess that’s what happens when you use the word conservative 100 times in a page.

    1. I have a Sarah Palin Newsmax ad. It’s funny because we’re helping them waste their money. :)

  7. One stick to use against Ron Paul Republicans would be to point out the subsidies already mentioned, but also the billions spent every year on our military due to the necessity of keeping the shipping lanes open and strategic regions secure.

  8. Whatever their viewpoints, I have a hard time trusting anyone with a combover since they’re obviously trying to put one over on you and convince you they’re not actually bald. I guess that would make them bad liars.

  9. The word “Conservative” now has several meanings in the US. Sam Tanenhaus’s “The Death of Conservatism” does a good job of disentangling them. Historical conservatism comes from Edmund Burke, and favors incremental improvement over all-encompassing revolutions. Thus they’re “conserving” the status quo and its accumulated wisdom, while not ignoring the need for reforms.

    Revanchist conservatism came from those opposed to the New Deal, and went through Goldwater, Buckley, Nixon, Reagan, Bush II, and Limbaugh. Tanenhaus says it doesn’t want to “conserve” anything, but rather to turn the clock back to the 1920s when businessmen had almost absolute power and no restrictions. But society has moved way beyond that, because few people would support the complete repeal of Social Security, Medicare, basic regulations or goverment services. The revanchists are thus advocating a revolution under a conservative guise. And traditional religion and anti-urbanism is thrown in too.

    Regarding anti-urbanism, several authors have pointed out it goes back to colonial days. One points to the different historical role of cities in the US and Europe. In Europe, fortified cities were the best defense against lawless robbers. In the US, cities went against the Jeffersonian agrarian ideal, and were places of polluting factories and immorality. “Those people” lived in cities because they had to live next to the factories where they worked. The original zoning laws were formed to separate polluting factories from residential areas. Then transportation improved and factories became cleaner, but the impression remained.

    Christopher Leinberger in “The Option of Urbanism” discusses how these changes impacted New Haven, Connecticut. He also discusses redlining, which was far worse than I realized. Federal agents rated real estate in terms of how many black people lived in a neighborhood, and those on the high end were considered blighted and ineligible for mortgates on good terms. They also disfavored old walkable areas regardless of condition, in favor of the new suburban model. Nobody considered that the lack of mortgates guaranteed that those areas would run down. It’s like if somebody declared Lake City an undesirable area, and therefore Fannie Mae refused to write low-interest mortgates in it. Any residents who had ideas to improve it would be stymied by lack of financing. It’s breathtaking that the federal government could just write off areas like this and ignore people’s rights (including some residents who were white and wanted to live in walkable neighborhoods) without anybody complaining.

    1. I meant to add, Tanenhaus also says that Social Security and universal healthcare are precisely the sort of reforms Burkeans favor, to relieve intolerable conditions without resorting to revolutions. Because revolutions have a way of gobbling up their original proponents and descending into state terrorism (viz. French, Russian, Chinese revolutions). One might add that effective public transportation is a similar essential good, and is thus compatible with evolving conservatism.

  10. I don’t believe the conservative position is automatically anti-transit or even anti-rail; it’s anti waste. You can certainly waste money with buses (40/40/20) but to really waste money you need rail. Amtrak is full of examples. The Federal subsidies are not “free money”. They come with so much baggage attached you need a locomotive to haul it around.

    Locally we don’t have to look any farther than Sounder North. This line has had plenty of time to demonstrate that it’s not viable. ST says in their 2010 SIP,

    Ridership Assumptions
    It is assumed that Sounder ridership will grow to fill existing capacity and as additional
    service is implemented, and that by 2015 ridership will be 3.3 million annual boardings.

    Well, I can believe the ridership projections but that will only be about 50% of the planned capacity by 2015. In Q1 of 2008 Sounder North averaged 165 people per train. That’s about one quarter of what the trains can hold (less if they just add cars). In Sept. ’08 they added another train and are quick to point to increased ridership (some of which can be attributed just to increased parking). What airline would ever add capacity to a woefully under utilized route? Of course after the additional train the passengers per train dropped from 165 in 2008 to 137 in Q1 of 2009. For all of 2009 estimated train miles for Sounder North is 73,564 at an estimated cost of $8,336,643 or $113/mile. With 137 people on the train that’s 83 cents per passenger mile. (it’s actually worse than that because of the “Rails Plus” agreement with Amtrack and not everybody rides the entire length of the line). That’s a whopping $29 per person from Everett. Contrast this with ST513 Everett-Seattle with a weekday cost per boarding of $5.70! Even if it were at capacity the train loses economically. Environmentally it has the exact opposite effect of promoting density and even on a fuel used per passenger mile it’s woefully deficient (about the same as a SOV getting 28mph, worse than an SUV in the HOV lane).

    1. As William Lind describes, the “anti-spend” is a fallacy when considering highway subsidies. Being conservative in many other views, I can attest that the issue is much more a matter of the preservation of private property. People drive because they can. Not because transit is subsidized.

    2. And Sounder North doesn’t go to the main population centers, which are along 99 and further east. It works for a few people who live near downtown Edmonds and Mukilteo.

      1. Exactly. There’s no way it can ever work. Most of the route you’ve got water on one side and a steep bank on the other. It encourages people to move to the west side of the sound and ride a ferry (sprawl). It doesn’t even offer a significant time savings. In fact outside of the worst part of rush hour the Express bus is faster from Everett. The bus costs 1/2 as much to ride and it has 14 runs that get you to DT before 9AM vs only four. Buses currently move each person for about a fifth the cost per rider and that would be even more efficient if it had the additional ridership from the train.

    3. Bernie,

      Any time the government is budgeting you’ll have waste. Legislators funneling money to their district, sweetheart deals with favored contractors, etc. That’s true of transit, true of highways, and indeed welfare and defense spending.

      And of course sometimes you have to win votes, as was the case with Sounder North.

      If we’re going to have government in the transportation business we’re going to have to scrutinize projects but ultimately accept that truth. No conservatives are seeking an end to road-building because the State’s going to spend $1.9 billion on a 2-mile tunnel.

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