The Search for GOP Partners on Transit: Streetsblog Q&A With Glen Bottoms

The opposition of some Republicans to any transportation policy that doesn’t follow the highway-oriented status quo seems to be reaching a fever pitch this election season. Just look to New Jersey, where Republican Governor Chris Christie just killed the ARC rail tunnel. Or to Wisconsin, where gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has made opposition to rail central to his campaign. Or to Colorado, where Tea Party-backed Dan Maes launched a bizarre attack on the city’s modest bike-sharing program.

Glen Bottoms
Glen Bottoms, pro-transit conservative.

Lately, in fact, it seems like public spending of any kind is anathema to the Tea Party-embracing GOP (though rising star Christie has been quite content to borrow and spend on highways). With Republicans poised to make major gains in Congress next month and the Obama administration planning a push for infrastructure investment, some sort of bipartisan arrangement will have to be reached to make progress on reforming the nation’s highway-centric transportation system.

The people behind a new transit-friendly think tank — The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation — think they can clear some space for a less polarized discussion of transportation policy. The center is the brainchild of conservative rail transit proponent William Lind and former Federal Transit Administration division chief Glen Bottoms, who aim to convince skeptical conservatives about the value of transit.

The center just rolled out its website on Friday, so we caught up with Bottoms to find out about the effort. (The transcript has been edited for clarity.)

Streetsblog: Why should conservatives support public transportation?

Glen Bottoms: We have three main reasons that we pitch to other conservatives. One is that we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Right now 90 percent of recoverable oil is controlled by foreign governments, most of which don’t wish us very well. Second is economic development. We’ve found that using streetcars in cities downtown spawns development. And third is that conservatives are traditional.  Streetcars are a way to preserve neighborhoods by effectively promoting neighborhood cohesion and vitality.

SB: The stereotype is that conservatives hate transit. Is that true?

GB: If it’s not, most conservatives are doing a good job of hiding it. The Republican gubernatorial candidates in Wisconsin said if elected each would give the all the money for high-speed rail back and cancel the project. In Ohio, the Republican senatorial candidate and gubernatorial candidate both came out against high-speed rail.  In Tampa, they’re going to hold a referendum in November on a sales tax to fund capital improvements to the region’s transit, and the opposition is coming from conservatives. It goes on and on…

SB: What is it about transit that seems to irk conservatives so much?

GB: At this point, any increase in taxes seems to bring people out of the woodwork. Take the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised since 1993.  Even a one cent increase in taxes has become a real anathema. Conservatives tend to look at cars and highways as freedom, as if they are a basic American good. And they think roads pay for themselves. Of course, if you read Bill Lind’s article “Rail Against the Machine”, you’ll see that the huge amount of money put into highways over the last 60 or 70 years has been one of the main reasons that public transportation has fallen on such hard times.

SB: What percent of highway funding is subsidized by the government?

GB: Fifty-eight percent of highway funding comes from user fees, including the gas tax, with the rest coming from general revenues. People like to say that mass transit is subsidized. That’s true, but so are highways. Before our massive public highway program, public transit was privately operated and maintained. When you subsidize one mode of transport against the other, it’s no mystery who wins. Free-market conservative adherence to highways rather puzzles us because it’s certainly not a free market outcome.

SB: How do conservatives respond when reminded how much highways are subsidized?

GB: It’s one those things that doesn’t correspond with their beliefs, so they just ignore or disparage it. If you read the material by Randal O’Toole and Wendell Cox, you’ll see that they specialize in half-truths. There was a statement by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that said: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

SB: What sort of “half-truths”?

GB: One example: they keep saying that only two percent of total trips in the metropolitan area are by mass transit. That means absolutely nothing. Transit doesn’t serve everywhere, we know that.

What you have to look at are the corridors where transit is competitive. If you look, for instance, at the District of Columbia, 40 percent of people entering the downtown area in the morning rush hour are carried by transit. And that’s been stable for the last twenty or thirty years. Forty percent, that’s a huge number.

So to get that two percent, they include truck trips, trips to the laundry, trips to the grocery, etc. You can make the overall percentage of transit trips look smaller depending on how you count. For example, if you take your car and go to the laundry, then the grocery store, then the drug store, then home, each of those are counted as one trip. Right there, that gives you four trips during one outing. But, if you take transit downtown, do the same errands, and come back that counts as just two trips. Some conservatives have fastened onto the “small” percentage of transit trips overall as a reason for not supporting transit, but it’s partly an anomaly in the way things are counted.

SB: Is there something in the way that liberals have tried to sell transit that has actively turned conservatives off?

GB: When liberals use environmental benefits as a justification for transit that is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. They don’t buy that. Likewise, conservatives don’t respond well to the idea that transit is worthwhile because transit “helps” transit-dependent people who don’t have cars. It works better to remind conservatives that we take transit just as much as everybody else.

SB: What about the argument that transit and active transportation can help reduce obesity and health care costs? Will that resonate with conservatives or just stink of nanny-government?

GB: I’ve seen studies bearing this out, and they certainly make sense to me. Sprawl keeps us in our cars, and reduces the amount of exercise we get. Current land use patterns are not healthy.  But for most conservatives, it would be the latter.

SB: How big is your center, and how is it funded?

GB: Right now we are a shoestring operation. We are small, but looking to grow in the future. We’re funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. We’re with the American Conservative, under the umbrella of the American Ideas Institute, which just recently formed. The amount of support and encouragement we’ve received so far has been quite gratifying.

SB: What do you think of Obama’s pitch for $50 billion in infrastructure investments as a way to kick-start the economy?

GB: It’s too little, too late, I’m afraid. When Obama first became president, he should have made clear that one of the centerpieces of his administration was going to be bringing back the infrastructure in this country. I’m sure Mr. Oberstar and others who came out to support him are saying privately: “Jeesh, I wish he’d done that a year-and-a-half ago.”

SB: Would transit work better if it was run more often by private companies?

GB: It’s something we need to look at. In Europe, they have gone to public-private partnerships (PPP) to build rail transit systems, which has worked well in some areas. The EU is moving towards privatization of transit operations, but keeping planning and infrastructure improvements as a state responsibility. I should note that PPP’s haven’t always worked when they’ve put too much risk on the private sector.  The Croydon light rail, which serves a borough of London, is an example of this.

SB: Do you get labeled as a turncoat or a Republican in Name Only (RINO) for supporting transit as a conservative?

GB: Based on what I’ve read so far, not yet. Of course, the usual suspects are going to say we’re wrong, and give their nostrums and tired old reasons for opposing transit—it’s a waste of money, we need to build more roads, and we’re suffering from congestion because we don’t invest enough in highways. Still, we haven’t seen anybody get really nasty yet.

SB: Do you support buses as well as rail?

GB: Well, buses are part of public transportation, but our emphasis is on rail. We feel that rail gives you the biggest bang for the buck over the long term.

SB: Are there specific projects that you’ve seen bipartisan support on?

GB: Oklahoma City — not exactly a bastion of liberalism — is a good example. They had a referendum last November to extend a tax that would pay for improvements downtown to make the city more walkable. It includes a streetcar connector, and the referendum passed rather handily. Cincinnati has approved a plan for a streetcar circulator. It didn’t have a whole lot of bipartisan support, but it had enough to get it through.

SB: Which Republicans do you see as emerging leaders on the topic of transportation?

GB: Well, one of the things we’re going to try to do is identify members of Congress who would think favorably of our proposals. One of our biggest friends in the Senate is Bob Bennett from Utah, but he didn’t make it [past] the primary. John Mica is a powerful person, and we’re hoping we might be able to talk to him. We’re looking at various places where we can identify people on both sides of the aisle who would be amenable to our message. It isn’t going to be easy.

  • J:Lai

    Everyone agrees that transportation is a good. We need and want to be able to move people and things.

    Is this a good where the government should be the supplier? The answer is unequivocally yes. Due to necessary economies of scale, transportation will not be adequately supplied by a non-monopoly provider. In addition, investment in transportation benefits everyone, as it is required for many types of economic activity. Again, this makes government the desired supplier as the costs should be distributed across society as a whole.

    However, there is a dimension to government supply which involves choices about how to distribute the resource, and how to distribute the costs. These kinds of choices are where conservatives typically disagree with government involvement. Unfortunately, transportation is a good where we can not avoid the need for government to make such choices.

    Then you have the objection of people who are not actually conservatives, although they are called by that label, such the majority of people who identify with the republican party.

    This is not an objection to government supply of transportation, but to transit (especially rail) specifically as opposed to auto based transportation. The argument is over how to allocate the costs and benefits of our public investment in transportation.

    We have invested an enormous amount of resources into our current transportation infrastructure. It influence almost everything in our economy. The pure economist’s view is that this is a sunk cost, and should not influence our decision going forward. If the marginal return on a dollar invested in rail is greater than the marginal return for highways, that is all we should care about.

    The pure economic analysis ignores the fact even if a current investment in rail would have higher returns to society, it has a very different profile of who pays and who benefits. The historical investment in auto based transport have created an entrenched class of people who benefit from maintaining the current system at the expense of investment in an alternative system.

    This is purely the effect of those who have wealth trying to protect it. I would not call that a conservative issue, although I guess it depends on how you define conservative.

  • paco

    awesome interview. I wanna hear from more republicans that see the benefits of mass transit. It can’t be just democratic areas of our nation’s cities where the majority relies more on buses and subways than they do on cars.

  • ChrisC

    It’s good to see that not all conservatives are selfish, short-sighted morons.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    That guy deserves a Streetfilm! Let’s go take transit with him!

  • For once, I wish conservatives actually read what the Europeans themselves say about how to build transit. They do not mention privatization and PPPs positively; this is because they control costs by having the design done by people who work for the transit agency, rather than by outsiders whose main incentive is to steer public money to their employers. They also keep a watchful eye over the contractors, to prevent them from abusing the system and doing shoddy or incompetent work. They prefer to have a well-run government, rather than to say government doesn’t work and then wash their hands when the private sector loots the taxpayers.

    None of this means privately provided public transit can’t work. It can. But companies like East Japan Railways and Hong Kong’s MTR act like a leviathan public operator sometimes. They do the opposite of what would be called PPPs if they were public: they not only design things in-house, but also deal in real estate and license transit smartcards as electronic money in order to boost profits.

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