The Koch Brothers’ War on Transit

Fanning the flames of Agenda 21 paranoia just scratches the surface of how the Kochs and their political network have undermined transit. Image: screenshot from “Koch Brothers Exposed” via Salon

Transit advocates around the country were transfixed by a story in Tennessee this April, when the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity made a bid to pre-emptively kill Nashville bus rapid transit. It was an especially brazen attempt by Charles and David Koch’s political network to strong-arm local transportation policy makers. But it was far from the only time the Kochs and their surrogates have taken aim at transit.

The Koch brothers, who owe their fortune to fossil fuels, are best known for funding global warming deniers and Republican insurgents aligned with the Tea Party. With their political influence under greater scrutiny during election season, now’s a good time to pull together the various strands of Koch anti-transit activism.

The Kochs fund a wide-ranging network of “think tanks,” non-profits, and political organizations. Their best-known political arm is Americans for Prosperity and its various offshoots and subsidiaries. David Koch was founding chairman of Americans for Prosperity, and both brothers provided funding for its launch. Among other activities, the group does plenty to manufacture Agenda 21 paranoia, which has cable subscribers around the country convinced that smart growth is a United Nations conspiracy that will lead to one-world government.

The Kochs also have plenty of ties to widely quoted, transit-bashing pundits like Randall O’Toole, Wendell Cox, and Stanley Kurtz — people employed by organizations that receive Koch funding, like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and who spout the same talking points against walkability and smart growth.

Fake experts like O’Toole and Cox have been making the rounds for ages, but the Nashville BRT story raised new questions. How many local transit projects are drawing fire from the Koch political network? And what impact is it having?

Who’s afraid of a bus lane? Rendering of Nashville BRT station: Nashville Public Radio

Ashley Robbins, policy manager at the Center for Transportation Excellence, which supports transit ballot measures around the country, said the Nashville case was an eye-opener. “We’re definitely going to be watching it as we see more conservative efforts pop up in Milwaukee and Oregon as well,” she said. “We’re starting to keep an eye out to see if it’s going to be a trend.”

In Tennessee, the local Americans for Prosperity chapter failed to enact the transit lane ban, but it did undermine and weaken the Nashville BRT project, which won’t be as robust as first planned. The Nashville example got us wondering where else Koch-backed groups are attacking local transit projects.

Here are a few more examples we turned up:

Indianapolis

Americans for Prosperity Indiana was a leading opponent of efforts to expand transit in the Indianapolis region. The group lobbied state officials to kill legislation that allows Indianapolis to hold a tax referendum to expand its transit network.

Americans for Prosperity was unsuccessful in completely stopping the Indiana legislation, but it made its mark. The language of the bill that eventually passed was amended to forbid the Indianapolis region from pursuing light rail with any funds raised from the tax. Americans for Prosperity has been especially critical of rail, citing a Cato Institute study [PDF] that says rail projects are likely to run over budget (which road projects never do, of course).

Virginia

Americans for Prosperity Virginia fought a new tax in Loudoun County to pay for Metro’s Silver Line extension. The organization issued robo-calls calling the extension a “bail-out to rail-station developers,’’ according to the Washington Post. The county Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with the project anyway.

Boston

A report by the Pioneer Institute created a “manufactured controversy” over the costs of service at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Ellen Dannin wrote in Truthout earlier this year.

The Pioneer Institute is part of the State Policy Network, a group of think tanks with “deep ties to the Koch brothers” according to the Center for Media and Democracy [PDF]. According to one of the institute’s studies, maintenance costs at the MBTA are “out-of-control,” but Dannin, an author of two books on labor issues, wrote in Truthout that Pioneer relied on metrics that were bound to arrive at a predetermined outcome. For example, it chose to compare bus maintenance costs on a per-mile basis, a standard that puts a dense, crowded city like Boston at a disadvantage.

“Pioneer must have been aware that choosing a cost-per-mile standard would put the worst face on the MBTA’s performance and that neither a bus driver nor a mechanic could do anything to change that situation,” wrote Dannin.

The report also relied on some suspect comparisons. As the basis for its claims that MBTA’s pay was “out of control,” Pioneer compared costs with less expensive cities like Spokane, Washington, where the cost of living is about 22 percent lower than Boston’s.

Florida

Koch-backed organizations were instrumental in sinking Florida’s high-speed rail plans. In 2000, Sunshine State voters passed an amendment to the state’s constitution requiring the state to establish high-speed rail exceeding 120 mph linking its five major cities.

But when Governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 in a wave of Tea Party governors, he fell in line with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association who were killing rail projects on Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.

Scott hired the Reason Foundation — where David Koch is a trustee — to write a report about the proposal. To the surprise of no one, the foundation’s Wendell Cox found the project would cost way more than projected [PDF]. Scott used Cox’s dubious claims as the basis for killing the project.

Since that time, private investors have taken up the project, which is, in itself, pretty compelling evidence of the financial feasibility of the concept.
Los Angeles

On the first week the first phase opened, Reason concluded Los Angeles' Expo Line ridership projections were greatly exaggerated. One year later, the line had already surpassed projections for 2020. Photo: Buildexpo.org
The same week the first phase opened, Reason concluded Los Angeles’s Expo Line ridership projections were greatly exaggerated. One year later, the line had already surpassed projections for 2020. Photo: Buildexpo.org

The Reason Foundation was also critical of the Los Angeles Exposition Line extension, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile light rail line that will connect Santa Monica to downtown. In May 2012, the week the first phase opened, Reason conducted a “study” in which staff went to Expo Line stations and counted passengers. Researchers counted 13,000 passengers, short of the 27,000 daily ridership forecast for 2020. The organization concluded that even by “the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with,” ridership projections had been “vastly inflated.”

Proponents of the line argued that counting passengers during the first week of service wasn’t a fair way to measure its long term success. And they were right. The following year, the Expo Line exceeded anticipated 2020 daily ridership, seven years sooner than expected.

A study by the University of Southern California reinforced the success of the project, finding that those living within a half mile of the station had reduced their driving by 40 percent. A little bit less of their paychecks will end up in the Kochs’ pockets.

52 thoughts on The Koch Brothers’ War on Transit

  1. Its ironic, how terrified American’s are of ISIS when those who are actually capable of causing and routinely do cause American citizens real measurable harm are celebrated.

  2. So strengthening local neighborhoods and municipal governments is part of a conspiracy to centralize power in a one-world government? I don’t quite see how that works.

    There are paranoid conspiracy theories, and then there are STUPID paranoid conspiracy theories.

  3. Yet David Koch also spends lavishly on public spaces in New York, such as the $65 million he donated for the new plaza in front of the Met Museum and the $100+ million he gave to Lincoln Center. It seems being an NYC resident he recognizes the value of these things in his own home town. A little odd.

  4. Here are two related articles, one of which comes from the DC Streetsblog.

    http://www.treehugger.com/environmental-policy/who-behind-agenda-21-paranoia-how-can-we-fight-back.html

    http://usa.streetsblog.org/index.php/2012/07/12/peeking-behind-the-curtain-of-big-oil-funded-agenda-21-conspiracy-mongers/

    In Santa Cruz County, there is an organized group who frequently disrupt public hearings.

    Members of this group cite an Agenda 21 conspiracy to “herd us into tiny boxes for housing along transit corridors”.

    They complain that public meetings are conducted to reach a “predetermined outcome” through the “Delphi technique”.

    Members of this group make false claims about inadequate public notice, even though the public agencies go above and beyond what the law requires in regards to outreach. When they complain about inadequate notice, and they can visit a website, sign up for an email list, or just read a newspaper, then they have not accepted their civic responsibility.

    They often make ridiculous claims against bicycling as a viable mode of transportation, ignoring the fact that bicycles are a useful mode of transportation for short trips, such as “Bicycles are not going to solve traffic problems. No one is going to ride their bike from Aptos to San Jose and back (about a 75-mile round trip).”

    The best way to fight back is to point out their connections to out-of-the-area fossil fuel interests and discredit them as “concerned citizens”.

  5. Everything that isn’t forbidden is mandatory. If we don’t ban transit, we’ll have to use it!

    I’m not sure this is paranoid conspiracy thinking so much as opportunistic agitprop. What they actually fear is local empowerment: the idea, very conservative if you think about it, that local communities can say no to centrally planned car dependency.

  6. Definitely love the cynical nomenclature. Americans for Prosperity is literally at war with prosperity and Reason is pathologically unable to reason.

  7. Sadly, their meddling in transit issues has created a complicated situation here in Austin, where a great many transit advocates (including myself) oppose the billion-dollar light rail proposal this November. Since the Koch brothers agree with us on this ballot—though of course not on the merits of public transit as a whole—we’re being lumped in with them by the “pro” camp.

  8. In Grand Rapids, MI…Americans for prosperity funded the opposition of extended a .2% income tax that was about to expire to dedicate to streets, that would include rebuilds, bike lanes and curb outs which our city desperately needed. It passed probably because of the outside money(Koch) thrown against it, people thought it was tasteless for two guys from not only out of the state but also region getting involve in our most local election.

  9. The AMP project served only a very wealthy neighborhood full of Land Rover driving folks, an area including Al Gore’s home by the way. AFP Tennessee advocated allocating those transportation dollars into underserved areas that needed them, and where the money would go much further on a dollars per mile basis. The mayor of Nashville was trying to build a vanity project, not improve public transit, or he would have addressed a half-dozen other sectors of Nashville first.

  10. Not only do they fight improvements but their shills send nasty emails to people like me when we support legislation. NH has serious highway detioration because of cold winters. Apparently prosperity doesn’t mean good roads for businesses and customers to travel on!

  11. I love the phrase “centrally planned car dependency.” That is such an accurate description of post-war US transportation/development policy. Good to point out that auto dependency is not at all a natural “free” outcome by any means, and that in a actual anarcho/minarchist/libertarian fantasy world come to life roads and private auto ownership would be extremely rare.

    When cars first emerged in large numbers, a statement like this might not have been too far afield:

    “The government has a secret plan to force me to depend on a car! The politicians are in cahoots with the car makers and the road builders. They are throwing people in jail just for crossing the street! They are tearing down my house to build a highway, and the only other home I can afford is so far out I won’t be able to get to my job.”

  12. With so much money in petroleum and so.many interests or pieces of ownership in foreign companies, I wonder if even a dime of the Koch’s money…..moved darkly from one channel to another…..is partially FUNDING ISIS. The goal of ISIS and the Koch Bros. is the same….destabilize the USA and destroy its democracy.

  13. At least 20% of the Koch’s $80 billion dollar wealth is probably tax payer dollars scammed since 2005 by fake green energy tax credits like the fake bio-fuel black liquor tax credit,and the son of black liquor tax credit…..
    ……The Kochs scam at least $2 billon tax payer dollars per year with the before mentioned fake green energy tax credits…….The son of black liquor fake green energy tax credit assures that Koch owned companies do not have to pay federal income tax ons of illion corporate earnings for a long time…..Obamacare outlawed some of the giveaway of $billions of tax payer dollars to the Kochs for fake green energy tax credits…..The reason the Kochs have spent hundreds of $millions of dollars trying to “repeal”Obamacare ..So that the $billions of tax payer dollars yearly paid to the Kochs for fake green energy tax credits outlawed by Obamacare would be automatically re-instated upon its repeal……
    ……….Everything the Kochs spend money on,including their charitable giving always has something to do with putting more money in their pockets

  14. David Koch scams at least $2 billion tax payer dollars every year via fake green energy tax credits like the black liquor tax credit,and the son of black liquor tax credit that have produce no green energy…….So any money David Koch spends on things mentioned in your comment….. the tax payers are the ones paying the cost

  15. The 51 million baby murders, the latest Islam beheading Thursday in the U.S. as well as Benghazi and gay marriage aren’t distractions but real issues.

  16. That’s not exactly what most people mean by “transit.” Regardless, they’re most hostile to rail. They’re less hostile to buses probably because they realize (1) buses probably attract fewer riders and (2) still use fossil fuel sources and (3) aren’t interpreted as something that siphons funds from roads.

    Lyft and Uber potentially do threaten them if those things become “normal” in place of personally owned autos. For now, they probably see more value in directing support away from [mass] transit and toward the mode they like.

  17. Taxicabs are properly seen as transit, though not as efficient a form as rail or bus.

    I was trying to be tongue in cheek anyway (sorry that didn’t come across), the Kock brother support Uber and Lyft because these are a privatized, corporate, automotive alternative to that terrible, socialist, public transit.

  18. I figured, but wasn’t sure!

    Yes, taxis are demand-response transit. But most people still think of transit in terms of mass transit.

  19. Except roads were common long before the automobile. Paved roads were developed before the automobile. More or less modern paved roads were pushed by bicycling clubs. And the automobile came into common man’s hands before government became our centrally planned road builder and while most roads were still dirt. The automobile was well established and growing long before “centrally planned car dependency”

    It might serve you to actually read libertarian/minarchist/an-cap stuff before being so critical. You’ll find terms like that and ‘socialist roads’ rather common. Remember the first thing no matter what the subject to throw at a libertarian is ‘But who will build the roads?’ Thus a disproportionate amount of effort has been put into the topic. It’s there for anyone who wants to read it.

    What actually happened at the time is that people desired to get out of densely packed cities and have a little space of their own. The affordable automobile allowed them to do this. Government back then didn’t have the power it does today. It was decades before it could do much of anything. Best it could do for most of the 20th century in the USA was enrich those in and close to it through road projects.

    Now the political push is cram most everyone that spread out back into the big cities. That is undo what productivity and wealth did for the common man. Today government has sucked up enough power to do it.

    And before you consider the Koch brothers anarcho/minarchist/libertarian please read up on what happened between them and Murray Rothbard. (good
    as place as any to start: http://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/david-gordon/why-the-koch-brothers-went-after-murray-rothbard/ (links at bottom too) ) The Koches are what are at best beltarians. ( http://www.lewrockwell.com/2014/01/thomas-dilorenzo/the-beltarian-cult/ )

  20. So, the total U.S. population in 2014 is 318,827,000 according to WIki. Let’s assume that half are women (thus, capable of giving birth — we’ll ignore the fact that many of these women are post menopausal and incapable of giving birth, many are infertile, and many are pre-menarche and incapable of giving birth) that gives us 159,413,500 women in the U.S.

    If you are arguing that there are 51 million (51,000,000) babies “murdered” (I assume you mean aborted) what you are saying is that approximately one third of all american women have an abortion in any given year.

    That means one in three women gets pregnant and has an abortion every year in the U.S.

    This is just mathematically ridiculous. This is why innumeracy is a huge problem in the US. It allows people to believe things that are simply not mathematically possible.

  21. versus leftwingwacko ideology which is about $$$MORE MONEY FOR CRONIES$$$ is there a difference?

  22. ISIS sells oil (which they seized at gunpoint from oil fields) at distressed prices of $30-$35/barrel on the black market, because they are locked out of the regular oil market. None of it gets to the USA. But facts are not important to you.

  23. And who builds the roads? Oh yeah. politically connected cronies. The tax was $$$MORE MONEY FOR CRONIES$$$

  24. Petroleum is fungible, so it doesn’t matter whether the specific ISIS-sold oil molecules ever arrive here. Somebody is buying that oil and is therefore buying less oil on the “regular” oil market.

    The more oil the US burns, the higher the “regular” market price goes, and a higher “regular” market price means a higher black market price for ISIS. The more we burn, the more money ISIS makes (even if we don’t buy any directly from ISIS).

  25. Fungible is irrelevant. The oil is useless unless sold for $. If the USA burns oil but ISIS never sells a drop, you’re still railing against the USA. So this is nothing but some irrational USA-derangement syndrome.

  26. One of the most outspoken critics of the Koch Brothers is Democratic senator and lifetime government employee Harry Reid. Ask yourself this: “How is Harry Reid a multi-millionaire?” Just let that roll around in your head while your keep reciting his talking points…

  27. Its a fairly accurate statement to say that most rail transit projects run over budget and unfortunately so do the operating costs. Also, maintenance cost per mile is a standard measurement for mass transit although it is often expressed as passenger vehicle miles. Cost is cost no matter how you look at it and the importatnt issue is farebox return. Presumably in a dense urban environment where buses travel less distance with more passengers the revenue per mile should be higher as an offset.

    Why is stating the facts a war on transit. We should demand greater accountability and efficiency from publically subsidized transit and spend the limited resources, our tax dollars, with those that pereform accordingly.

  28. Yeah, I think transit will be kind of important. Even with changes in technology, such as electric cars.. that will not control outrageous congestion. Bikes, Busses, Trains.. that’s where our energy needs to be going.

  29. Good news. Prop 1 is dead and now the word is out that the people in Austin voted against rail so it’s no use making any more proposals.
    Come back in 20 years and you can vote down another rail proposal that isn’t exactly perfect.

  30. It’s so cute how you people incessantly repeat that we opposed this plan because it wasn’t “perfect.” No, we opposed this plan because it was *absolutely terrible*. There’s a difference, you see.

  31. It most certainly isn’t accurate to say those things… If you cherry-pick bungled projects from bloated and incompetent American agencies (and cherry-picking is a specialty of outfits like the Reason Foundation), you can generate statistics that show what you want, but experience in other, more competent, locales shows that it’s most certainly possible to do much better….

  32. The cheapest transport infrastructure to build by far is bicycle infrastructure. Even in North American sprawled-out cities, I believe cycling modal share could be pushed to 10 or 20% of all trips. In the Netherlands, it’s often above 30%.

    But do you think the oil billionaires, the Koch brothers, would support a 1000% – 2000% increase in cycling in US cities at the expense of oil-based transport, even given bicycle infrastructure’s cheap outlay and minuscule running costs? If so, your economic argument might hold water. But I very much doubt that they would view it as anything other than a threat to their interests.

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