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Long Arm of the Koch Brothers Extends to Nashville to Slap Down Transit

2:47 PM EDT on April 3, 2014

Fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch are meddling in local Nashville transit politics. Image: screenshot from the "Koch Brothers Exposed" trailer, via ##

On Tuesday, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced that he might do away with dedicated transit lanes on two stretches of the Amp, the proposed seven-mile bus rapid transit line that could set an important precedent for the car-centric city. Dean is the main political backer of the project, so the fact that he's buckling says something about the mounting pressure to water down or kill the Amp. And that pressure isn't going to let up any time soon, because Dean and other supporters of effective transit in Nashville are up against opponents with very deep pockets.

Until recently, the anti-transit campaign in Nashville -- organized under the umbrella of a group called Stop AMP -- seemed like garden variety NIMBYism. Some nearby residents don't want to transfer any street space from cars to buses, and they had a fitting ringleader in local car dealer Lee Beaman. But when the Tennessee State Senate passed a bill that would ban transit lanes, that raised some eyebrows.

Where did Stop AMP get the muscle to move a bill through the State Senate? “Concerned citizens writing us checks for $100 here, $200 there,” Richard Fulton of Stop AMP told Streetsblog. Fulton is the son of former Nashville mayor and Tennessee state senator Dick Fulton.

Yup, $100 checks -- and oh right, a lobbyist paid by the Koch brothers, billionaire funders of the Tea Party movement and smart growth paranoia everywhere. "They do have a lobbyist that has been assisting us and helping lobby but mainly because he's a citizen of Nashville and against the Amp," Fulton admitted.

Americans for Prosperity, the most illustrious of the political organizations financed by Charles and David Koch, has a new chapter in Tennessee. It's just nine months old but with the State Senate vote it already has a big win under its belt.

While AFP and Stop Amp both take pains to declare that AFP provided no “financial support” to the campaign, it was state AFP director Andrew Ogles who had a “conversation” with Tennessee State Sen. Jim Tracy that persuaded the senator to sponsor the bill to kill the Amp. Tracy used the super sly pretense of banning dedicated transit lanes out of overwhelming concern for pedestrian safety. That particular talking point was aimed at center-running lanes, but the bill would actually ban all dedicated transit lanes in Tennessee.

Since the Tennessee AFP chapter is so new, it hasn’t yet filed tax forms that would reveal things like how much Ogles is paid. If he had "conversations" with Senator Tracy and other lawmakers on the clock, it would seem to deflate the argument that AFP didn’t financially support the campaign. And given that 27 out of 31 senators supported the bill, and that the Tennessee House has a similar bill pending, it appears Ogles did quite a bit of lobbying.

Americans for Prosperity is known for higher-profile campaigns like stopping ObamaCare and reducing clean energy subsidies, but with its network of state chapters it can insinuate itself into local matters all over the country. Militating against efficient modes of transportation is one favorite past-time across the organization. For example, AFP-Indiana has been running radio ads fomenting opposition to a transportation bill that would allow counties to ask voters for permission to raise taxes to fund transit.

Nashville transit advocates see the participation of the Koch brothers -- who live in Kansas and New York -- as carpet-bagging.

"The Amp Yes coalition is a coalition of local businesses, local individuals and local organizations that live in the community," Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, told the Tennessean. "These are the people that drive these roads every day, need the alternative transportation opportunities, know where Nashville's headed and know what kind of community they want Nashville to be."

Though Fulton describes Ogles’ lobbying as being "mainly because he’s a citizen of Nashville and against the Amp," he wouldn't be able to do it without financial support from the Kochs. Ogles has let slip that his state chapter is funded with a “sizable” budget, though he won’t disclose how sizable.

As Salon’s Alex Pareene wrote this week, “this is not ‘the Kochs’ doing this, in the cartoonish sense of David or Charles calling up a henchman and saying ‘kill that new bus line in Nashville,’ and then cackling and dipping an orphan in fracking runoff and using it to light a cigar."

Then comes the "but":

But this is the story of how billionaires dedicated to advancing an agenda at every level of government can do so with practically no one noticing until they’ve already won. Because a couple of energy moguls are constitutionally opposed to mass transit spending based on a very self-serving definition of “liberty,” Nashville, a city neither of them spends any significant amount of time in, may not get a new bus line. “All politics is local” means something a bit different in this age of unregulated free-for-all political spending.

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