Koch Brothers and Dark Money Gang Up on Nashville Transit Referendum

An anti-transit group that goes by the deceptive name "Better Transit for Nashville" used the Waffle House shooting to gin up fear and confusion about the upcoming transit referendum.
An anti-transit group that goes by the deceptive name "Better Transit for Nashville" used the Waffle House shooting to gin up fear and confusion about the upcoming transit referendum.

The Koch brothers are at it again in Nashville.

Three years after funding a campaign to sink the city’s high-profile BRT project, the world’s richest climate deniers are paying their minions to wage a vicious fight against Nashville’s potentially transformative $5 billion transit referendum.

Transit policy experts view the package of bus and light rail improvements as a breakthrough that will deliver on its promise to create service people will want to use. On May 1, voters will decide whether to proceed with expanded bus service, new light rail and bus rapid transit routes, and pedestrian safety improvements, to be funded mainly by a sales tax bump.

As the election draws near, Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity Tennessee and a swarm of opposition groups funded by dark money have mounted a vicious disinformation campaign to prevent the proposal from passing, undermining years of public consensus building.

A single group, “NoTax4Tracks,” raised about $950,000 in three months to fight the transit package, reports the Tennessean. Most of it — $750,000 — was from a separate dark money organization whose donors are secret.

Meanwhile, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has been phone banking, sending opposition mailers, and organizing against the transit referendum.

The closer the election gets, the dirtier the tricks.

One of the transit opposition groups goes by the confusing name “Better Transit for Nashville.” The Tennessean recently published an op-ed submitted by the group, but was forced to print an apology after it was revealed that the byline was fake.

In another display of absolute shamelessness, the same group posted on Facebook that approving the transit referendum would “bring crime” like the Waffle House shooting, in which four people of color were killed by a 29-year-old white man with an AR-15. According to the Tennessean, the shooter arrived by truck.

Nora Kern, director of Bike Walk Nashville, which is one of 130 groups backing the referendum, says the debate has definitely taken an ugly turn in the last few weeks.

“The transit for Nashville side is trying to explain a really complicated infrastructure referendum,” she said. “The opposition just needs to make people confused or scared and they win.”

But Kern thinks the optimistic message from the pro-transit coalition can carry the day. Supporters expect the vote to be close and the outcome to come down to turnout.

“Our city desperately needs transportation options,” she said. “If you don’t have a car in Nashville you’re a second-class citizen. The only way we’re really going to move our city forward is to have dedicated funding for transit and walking. This is our city’s opportunity.

41 thoughts on Koch Brothers and Dark Money Gang Up on Nashville Transit Referendum

  1. Yep. Car-centric development is just what the free market shows the people want. The free market and a cool million of dark money…

  2. The Waffle House shooter drove a pickup truck to the shooting, and fled in a pickup truck afterwards. Going by their twisted logic the shooting should be blamed on automobiles.

  3. But the sex scandal that forced the unexpected resignation of Nashville’s mayor, who was the plan’s biggest proponent, probably had more to do with it.

    The bottom line is that gee whiz ideas like light rail may sound good at first. But once voters get a little educated they realize it is expensive and serves little purpose other than to enrich contractors and lobbyists. We’ll know for certain in a couple of weeks if Nashville voters have understood this lesson. The Lesson why is Nashville, the little city of 680,000 people going to spend close to 6 Billion dollars on technical systems that’ll probably only carry about 5% of the cities population; 1% if you count the Metro population. Cities and municipalities shouldn’t be saddled with billions of dollars of debt. And the politicians by 2030 will no doubt push more projects costing billions while ignoring the crucial maintenance for the systems they build first (Look no further than DC Metrorail, Boston MBTA, New York Subway, Portland’s Light rail) Rail infrastructure has a life span of about 30 years, after it’s reached that age; you either have to fully replace it or at least painstakingly refurbish it; which of course costs as much as what it cost to begin with, tack on inflation, labor costs, it probably cost more. Instead politicians push to build new rail projects that cripple cities with debts for decades to come. New York City did the responsible thing in the 80’s they repaired their subways, spent billions but went into debt. 30 years later, the trains are malfunctioning again; the debts are there, rather than muster the finances to pay off their debts and repair the subway again and take off their $7 Billion maintenance backlog; INSTEAD they spent $4.5 billion on the first 2 miles of the 8 mile Second Ave Subway (A 16.8 Billion dollar project), plus 2.4 billion on the 7 Subway line extension, and spending 10 Billion for the 3.5 mile long East Side Access to connect Long Island railway to Grand Central. Mayor DeBlasio also pissed money into aesthetic refurbishments and wi-fi. Never mind the fact Nashville presently has 3.1 Billion dollars in current debt, must we really add 6 Billion more?

  4. How else are people going to get around, freeways? How much do those cost to build and maintain?

  5. So? Everything requires maintenance and has a lifespan to it. Cars, concrete, highways, traffic lights, buildings, power plants, boats. Highways and car-based infra have plenty of breakdowns, accidents, and other problems. If we want to get into costs, currently Washington’s DOT is currently replacing many highways & bridges in the Seattle area at costs of $1-2 billion per mile. LA recently added a single freeway lane at a cost of well over $1.6 billion requiring 6 years of construction on an active freeway.

    NYC, Boston, and DC are textbook examples of neglect, underfunding, political graft, and corruption on legacy systems. New York in particular is a global outlier in costs and incompetence. Don’t kid yourself, Nashville is a far, far cry from New York and to claim Nashville is going to have the same experience is simply dishonest.

    Portland is currently rehabilitating original parts of their light rail system at a pretty reasonable cost with minimal disruptions for riders, just as any other agency would take care of their system. They’re also performing key capacity upgrades where they’ve noticed problems and extending lines to better serve riders. It’s worth realizing not everything needs replacement either since MAX is a modern rail system built to modern standards in the late 1980’s.

    BART, essentially DC’s brother, was maintained thanks to political leaders properly funding the agency. Today, they’re undergoing a $3 billion rehab to essentially replace everything AND increasing system-wide capacity 25-30% with a new signal system & power infrastructure. Voters approved the measure because they recognized the value BART provides to the region as a serious transportation network, moving 400,000+ daily.

    Of course, Seattle is curiously absent. We’re building our light rail network to the highest modern standards using lessons learned from many other cities, which people heavily support and are incredibly excited about. Our 9-year-old system already has 75,000 daily riders and the next extension, set to open in 2021, is expected to bring another 50,000 daily riders. Much of the next extension is in a tunnel with massive subway stations in extremely dense environments, which we’re building for about $500M/mile; a fraction of NYC’s costs.

  6. I was expecting some tin-foil-hattery when I saw the headline (and the byline). I was not disappointed. There’s nothing like throwing in a reference to the Koch brothers to rile up the #resist crowd, and once again, Angie Schmidt does not disappoint. If I just read Streetsblog’s articles on the various plans proposed in Nashville, I would be confused, but when I get to the comments, I discover that there are actually two sides to this story. Who would have guessed? And the other side cites numbers about how much the proposed plans are going to cost (the nerve!). The proponents never seem to stick around to argue the merits of those numbers. Much easier just to cry “racist!” or “car-lover!” than to debate whether the proposals are the best way to spend money. And “dark money!” Be afraid!

    Not every transit plan is a good idea. New York readers would happily chime in with what a dumb idea the BQX streetcar is. Could it possibly be that opponents of these transit proposals think there are other, better solutions, to Nashville’s transit challenges? Could they possibly be sincere?

    “A town with money like a mule with a spinning wheel…”

  7. Here in Los Angeles County rail is really utilized and rapidly expanding. Five new light rail lines are currently funded and three of those are under construction. A heavy rail subway is currently tunneling. The heavily used Bus Rapid Transit Orange Line is going to be converted to higher capacity light rail. The use of public transportation is making a huge comeback led by light rail.

  8. That’s great, but there are far more examples of light rail being an expensive white elephant.

  9. A serious note about crime concerns: as people stoke the flames on gun and drug control, transit will get caught up with it as collateral damage. NIMBYism takes many forms, and NIMBYs who are already campaigning hard against guns or drugs won’t even bother reading pro transit arguments because it (like guns or drugs) is usually an external thing trying to obtain access to their community.

  10. It’s this thought process that leads to commuter rail being dominant in America over light rail. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but transit advocates often forget that it’s hard to sell people on modes of transit that are different from regular trains.

    For example look at SMART in Santa Rosa, CA. That wouldn’t have been built if it was light rail. Or how the Capitol Corridor can easily justify expansion in the Sacramento area but SACRT light rail can’t. Same for Caltrain and ACE in San Jose against VTA light rail.

  11. A typical 4 lane highway costs around 8 million to build in the suburbs and exurbs, in the urban areas that costs about 10-15 million. But it only costs 1.25 million per mile to resurface. UC professor Charles Lave insisted on observing the “Law of Large
    Proportions.” Investing $1 Billion on the option used by 87.9% of the
    people (Drive Alone and Carpool) will produce far more benefits than
    investing the same $1 Billion on the option used by 2.0% of the people

  12. I’m from NYC – and I’m not a fan of the BQX streetcar, and I really can’t stand the idea of BRT on Staten Island’s North Shore, favoring the restoration of the former rail service on the North Shore, and then extending it via Arlington Yards to the literally pristine West Shore line instead. And the latter connection would provide convenient access to the vicinity of the might-have-been NASCAR track, which can then be developed into any combination of new projects, including new housing for various income classes, a public hospital, which Staten Island does not have, and a Staten Island House of Detention that would be the Island’s contribution to the closure of Rikers Island, which could then be converted into a full-service homeless shelter for the entire city.

  13. Since highway construction can be either incredibly cheap or incredibly expensive, it’s better to look at the comparable capacities between one lane of highway and a single track of rail. Freeways cannot exceed a flow of 2,000 automobiles per hour per lane without inducing congestion. Light rail, on the other hand, can serve up to 12,000 passengers per hour on single tracks, depending on headway frequencies and the number of rail cars being coupled together. Marginally, the dollars are put to much better use in fixed transit investment. source: https://seattletransitblog.com/2009/10/26/the-highway-vs-fixed-transit-debate/

  14. They don’t call it lightrail for it’s weight. But it’s capacity. Lightrail can move 12,000 people…assuming the rails are on their destination. Rail takes years to build; projects they talk about won’t be available til 2025 or beyond; taking into consideration construction/funding delays. Buses can be available now. The price always escalates beyond promises whatever the transit agency begins with (So 5.6 billion now? More like 7 Billion by 2020 before it’s even finished ). The fact Nashvilles only rail transit today, the Music City Star only carries 550 daily round trip riders; it would have been cheaper to buy every daily rider a new Toyota Prius every other year for as long as they operate the train. By comparison a dedicated highway lane can easily move 600 buses per hour; at 40 seats per bus, that’s 24,000 people per hour. Double decker buses capable of carrying nearly twice as many. Mini-buses can serve a myriad of dedicated destinations the rail cant. Microbuses can offer door to door services.

  15. No one would accuse me of being a fan of highways, but your cherry-picking projects seems kind of desperate, or willfully ignorant. A quick Google search turns up the data that Americans drove 3.2 trillion miles on public roads in 2016. I couldn’t come up with comparable numbers for light rail projects, but you need to cherry-pick to find successful ones with healthy ridership. My point, once again, is that voters who are suspicious of big public spending projects to create light rail are probably on to something. Tarring them as right-wing nut-job racists is not going to help the cause of promoting sane public transport projects.

  16. Key words: “up to” X passengers. It doesn’t really matter how many passengers light rail can accommodate if nobody is riding it. You can typically get a much higher number of passengers closer to their destinations with buses. If Nashville can get its bus network to the point where it needs the extra capacity that light rail can handle, maybe then it should go back to the voters and ask for light rail funding.

    Side note: you know what buses run on? Roads. When I take the bus home from work every day, I wish NYC would spend more money keeping the roads in better shape. Just a reminder that spending money on roads also helps people who don’t own cars.

  17. Transit will bring crime? Really???? This sounds like stuff people used to say in the 1950s, not in 2018. Then again, those who came of age in the 1950s are probably their target audience.

    This reminds me of when I talk to some relatives in NJ about cities. If you didn’t know any better you would think it was 1950 with some of the stuff they come out with.

  18. You lost me when you bragged about our 2016 VMT. That’s time one could be relaxing on a train instead of in long car commutes.

  19. I too wish NYC would spend more money keeping roads in good repair. I say this despite the fact I don’t drive, and rarely ride as a passenger in either cars or buses. Smooth roads help cyclists more than any other group. A pothole which might be slight kick in the behind to a car rider can knock a cyclist flat on their face.

  20. Agreed. So keep that in mind when complaining about how any money spent on roads is just a wretched subsidy for spoiled drivers.

  21. Try the cheap way : Assign some roads as busses only, probably with cyclists and Pedestrian crossings allowed. Ban private cars and motorcycles entirely. And then decide about trucks, vans and other delivery vehicles to use certain parts of the roads designed as “bus only”

    Then decide the speed, low pedestrian activity up to 30-40 km/h and in the high pedestrian activity (markets, CBD, etc,) is 10-20 km/h.

  22. This is also a good way to see if it can be converted to train, light rail, or still as a bus in the future.

  23. When opposition is funded by groups who financially benefit by continued reliance on fossil fuel, it’s legitimate to shine a light there.

  24. Roads externalize a far greater proportion of their costs than rail, so the true cost of auto-orientation is greater. Additionally, retooling is always expensive. It’s done with a long view. We’ve learned that our reliance on the personal automobile, and our transit deficiency compared to other economically advanced countries, has enormous and diverse costs. Mass transit must reach a critical mass before mass use. That requires a commitment.

  25. And who is funding the other side of the campaign? Didn’t see that mentioned in the article

  26. always how they do it–airports, highways, telecom are built by Washington, then everyone forgets where they came from and pretends they’re the market’s choice

    it’s the skip from Fordist capitalism to Reaganomics (originally from Pinochet, in fact)

  27. It’s already reaching mass use and falling apart because of it. YOU CANT build enough rail to accommodate the transportation needs of the whilly nilly decisions on a daily basis. Unless you geographically lock people into a ever increasing density urban area, which is exactly what the Soviet style planners did; of course when the soviet union fell, it’s residents suddenly left the city in droves and moved to lower density areas outskirts. Same thing happened in Europe. As Planners wanna supposedly make America more like Europe, Europe is becoming more like America the population densities of it’s major cities have thinned, people that can have bought cars and moved to suburbs…….practically indistinguishable from ours except maybe differences in architecture and landscaping. 85% of all passenger miles ridden in the US is done by automobiles only about 1% is by rail.
    Those green Europeans, 79% of travel is done by car and 6% is done by rail. So for several times the subsidies they got 6% of people out of their cars. Even Japan as it was building bullet trains across the nation, auto ridership went from 5% in the 1960’s to over 60% presently.

    Why did Europe decide to dedicate its railroads mainly to passengers while we dedicated them almost exclusively to freight? The answer is ownership: during the 20th century when these decisions were being made, most European railroads were government-owned, while American railroads were private.

    Government ownership means political control, and politicians try to
    be popular by having a visible effect on people’s lives. Passenger
    trains are a lot more visible to people than freight, so they were
    emphasized by European politicians. In contrast, America’s private
    railroads wanted to be profitable, and it is a lot more profitable to
    move large quantities of coal, grain, oil, refrigerated products and containers from one point to another than to deal with finicky passengers who start from thousands of different origins and want to go to thousands of different destinations. Europe’s high taxes on fuel depress total travel while its subsidies to rail don’t come close to making up the difference.

    By 2030, other than a few major urban areas, mass transit in the US will be extinct. The industry has to either adapt to demand oriented buses and vehicles rather than collectivist transportation schemes. Transit agencies should make a habit of paying down their debts and vastly unfunded pension and healthcare obligations before they eviscerate the municipal budgets or worse run the cities into bankruptcy, start to liquidate unessential assets and beginning the transition from rails to buses, vans and paratransit vehicles. Transit agencies should not saddle future taxpayers with heavy infrastructure debts, maintenance needs, and unfunded pension and health-care obligations.

  28. Great Post, Thanks

    I was expecting some tin-foil-hattery when I saw the headline (and the byline). I was not disappointed. There’s nothing like throwing in a reference to the Koch brothers to rile up the #resist crowd, and once again, Angie Schmidt does not disappoint.

    Checkout: How Webs .

  29. I would have thought that guns and transit were more cultural issues with opposite valence than “outsider” issues that get treated the same way. But I suppose there is a significant suburban community that is against both guns and transit.

  30. Wow…”dark money” AND the Koch Brothers?

    Is this like the equivalent of “deep state” and George Soros, but for Streetsbloggers?

  31. Why would the Oil Co’s care about a few more people riding the bus like thats going to break there bank..

  32. I read in the NYTime’s article called “Kochs put Tech to Work to Wage War on Transit”, June 19, 2018. The Koch’s work behind a group called “American’s for Prosperity”. A quote that makes it clear why they are against something as innocuous as public transit: “Public transit, Americans for Prosperity says, goes against the liberties that Americans hold dear. Additionally, “The Kochs’ opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways.” So, there you have it. The reason they are against something for the public good is greed. Greed, plain and simple. Sadly, they have won the current round by manipulating people’s fears and confusion. They have played on people’s fear of gentrification and also interestingly others fear of crime to meet their ends. Shows they will use whatever manipulative tactic to achieve their ends. They don’t have any moral compass except that leads to themselves. They aren’t libertarian. They are narcissist’s. Narcissist’s only do what is best for themselves, at the cost of other people. This is why they should be reviled. These people have more money than they could ever know what to do with, yet they would actively stand in the way of a project that according to transit experts, would only help a majority of people. They are a living example of the monetarily successful, but morally bankrupt psychopathic ceo’s. They would be sad and pitiable if their selfishness wasn’t hurting others. Hey Koch’s, you will never be winner’s b/c you are not good people. Good people understand “with great power comes great responsibility.” Every moral teaching says so. It means using your power to help other people. Even with all your money you can’t buy real altruism. People will remember that, despite trying to buy it by putting your name on a building.

  33. I understand the free-market idea. Most Public Bus and Train operations started out as for profit businesses. But the cost of infrastructure exceeded the cost that the public was willing to put in the farebox. Just to run a city bus costs 5-7.00 a rider. Can U pay 7.00 to go 7 city blocks?

  34. BQX was a dumb idea because it didn’t really do anything to help improve transit in Brooklyn or Queens. The only people it would benefit are the wealthy people living by the water front and a few working class communities. You’re better off taking a subway. And the idea of a street car in NYC would be great if they added it on areas that don’t have many transit option and on major corridors. I believe that every major city in the US should have rapid transit option other than unreliable buses.

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