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Why Do Conservatives Hate Public Transit?

In a word, because it’s public

Once upon a time — in a political environment that seems otherwordly compared to what we have in the United States today — the federal transportation bill was a bi-partisan endeavor. Now things are different. Congress went into spring recess last week and once again left hanging a reauthorization of the transportation bill, which expired two and a half years ago. Congress was just barely able to approve a temporary, 90-day extension of the lapsed law so that current infrastructure projects can keep moving along.

Photo by Jens LudickePublic transit does show the power — the necessity, even — of individuals working together. The
rubbing of elbows and the sharing of seats proves that we’re all connected.

Why the impasse on something that usually wins consensus? It comes down, in part, to a disagreement over how (or even whether) the federal government should fund mass transit programs.

The transportation bill moving through the House eliminates the provision that dedicates to mass transit 20 percent of monies from the gas-tax supported Highway Trust Fund — an arrangement that has been in place since Ronald Reagan was president. It also slashes support for high-speed rail projects, cuts subsidies to Amtrak, and eliminates designated funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure as well as the “Safe Routes to School” program. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a former Republican Congressman) called the House measure “the worst transportation bill I’ve ever seen during 35 years of public service.”

Compare that with the Senate version, which passed with overwhelming bi-partisan support (74-22). The Senate’s two-year bill, crafted by odd bedfellows Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe, would largely maintain the status quo. The easiest thing would be for the House to take up the Senate version, pass it with bi-partisan numbers, and send the law to the president.

But that would rankle Speaker John Boehner’s hard-right base. Here’s how Congressman Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, summed up the situation:

“[The House leadership’s] problem is they have about 80 or 90 people who want to kill off the federal transportation program in their caucus. Then they're hamstrung because they've got 20 or 25 [who] are still rational and say, 'Hey, if you're going to kill off transit funding, we won't vote for the bill.' So if they do what the flat earth people want, then they lose the moderates, and if they do what the moderates want they lose the flat earth people.”

This legislative train wreck (sorry for the pun) raises a question that’s been nagging me for a while: Why exactly are conservative representatives so antagonistic to public transit?

Here a couple of thoughts.


It’s an urban-rural thing.

Check out this graphic from the folks at The Transport Politic (hat tip to Ben Jervey for bringing it to my attention.)

As you can see, Republicans overwhelming come from rural areas. Democrats usually represent cities. (Leaving the two parties to battle it out for the swing votes in the suburbs.) Transport Politic writer Yonah Freemark sums it up: “Republicans in the House of Representatives know that very few of their constituents would benefit directly from increased spending on transit, for instance, so they propose gutting the nation’s commitment to new public transportation lines when they enter office. Starting two years ago, Democrats pushed the opposite agenda, devoting billions to urban-level projects that would have been impossible under the Bush Administration.”

I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with this. Representatives are elected to serve their constituents as well as the national interest. If their constituents live in areas with low population densities that wouldn’t be well served by buses or bike lanes, then it makes sense to prioritize spending on roads. One basic reason Republicans are against making investments in mass transit is that those projects don’t meet the needs of the people who elected them. Not surprisingly, Congressman DeFazio’s whip count of GOP supporters of the Senate legislation mostly includes Republicans who represent suburban areas that benefit from mass transit.


It’s a trade union thing.

The transportation bill has been popular in the past because it’s a surefire way of creating jobs. There’s just one hitch — when it comes to mass transit, many of those jobs are unionized. And of course Republicans don’t like unions.

In an editorial last year, the conservative Investor’s Business Daily slammed the Obama administration’s high speed rail plan as just a payoff for its union backers — and therefore something to oppose. “So who could possibly benefit from such a boondoggle? Unions, along with the politicians they vote for — in this case Obama and California Democrats, who'll be able to trade construction jobs and other union sop for votes.”

Republican opposition to mass transit, then, is just old-fashioned power politics: The friend of my enemy is my enemy. I can’t say this is as innocent as the rural-urban constituent divide. Not when high speed rail investment is so clearly in the nation’s interest — a way to boost the economy, decrease our reliance on oil imports, and keep America competitive in the twenty-first century.


It’s all about government-bashing.

Government is good-for-nothing. That foundation of libertarian thinking has become conventional wisdom on the right. If the government does it, the dogma goes, then it must be bad. (The only exception being the maintenance of a massive military.) The folks at the Cato Institute, for example, don’t think the federal government should be involved in funding road projects and argue that “transportation markets need to be liberated from government control.”

One reason that conservatives fear mass transit programs specifically — and federal funding for road projects more broadly — is that such infrastructure projects prove that government works.

No individual can repair a bridge. No family can build a railroad. Public works projects require, well, the public. Most everyone understands this. Good roads, safe bridges, and convenient transit networks are something that people expect the government will provide. A survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that 84 percent of Americans would pay 1 percent more on their taxes if the funds were targeted for infrastructure.

There’s a strong tradition of Republican leaders pushing ambitious infrastructure projects. The Interstate Highway System was build by President Eisenhower. The Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were both initiated by President Hoover. Many Republicans today retreat from such grand public works projects if for no other reason that they prove that government is good for something.


It’s all about undercutting the very idea of the public good.

If you want a peek into the conservative id to understand Republicans’ fears of mass transit, just check out this piece written last year by Washington Post columnist George Will bashing high-speed rail projects:


"Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons—to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

“To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

“Time was, the progressive cry was ‘Workers of the world unite!’ or ‘Power to the people!’ Now it is less resonant: ‘All aboard!’”


Most of this is absurd. Progressivism isn’t the same as collectivism, and I don’t know anyone on the liberal-left who is determined to undercut people’s sense of “adequacy.”

But Will is, in a way, right: The car encourages people to develop an overinflated sense of autonomy while mass transit illustrates how we are all, in fact, connected to and reliant on each other.

Driving down the open road is the most American expression of freedom. Wrapped in your own little steel carapace, blasting your music, pushing past the speed limit, you can feel like the master of your universe. The delusion of grandeur (to turn Will’s phrase on its head) is perfect. Unless you remember that the road you’re driving on was built and paid for with taxes. Or until you hit the inevitable traffic jam. (Notice how car commercials always show the new car model on empty streets — a fantasy if there ever was one.)

Riding the train, the subway or the bus is, of course, an entirely different experience. First of all, you have to share space: you can’t blast your music and sing along. You have to — yes, gasp — show deference (Will’s word) to other people. Maybe that’s annoying. But it’s also the basis of civilization, learning to get along with other people.

This doesn’t “diminish individualism.” But public transit does show the power — the necessity, even — of individuals working together. Mass transit requires many people working together to make it work. The rubbing of elbows and the sharing of seats proves that we’re all connected. Public transit, you could say, is human ecology at its best.

Public transit shows that we’re all in this together. And for many Republicans — who seem bent on taking us back to a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all — that’s reason enough to oppose it.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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I am mostly conservative and I like mass transit very much. I would love to see the U.S. build an extensive H.S.R. system and transit system (so long as they don’t interfere with freight rail traffic). We should actually move as much freight and as many people as possible by electric trains. Bringing back streetcars would also be nice.

Wasting money on highways only for them to clog and fall into disrepair is not fiscally conservative. True conservatives do concern ourselves with the usage of foreign oil and mass transit along with domestic production can curb our usage from countries other than the U.S.

By Jesse on Wed, April 11, 2018 at 8:54 pm

Another reason public transport is opposed by repubs is because by eliminating this option, people who would otherwise be disinclined to do so, will be forced to buy a car and keep it gassed up in order to have any sort of life. More profits for the auto, tire, and petroleum companies. This was their motivation for buying up and shutting down public transport options in the 1950’s. Here we go again. The repubs are doing this not for quality of life for Americans in general, but for the infinitely expanding economic aggrandizement of the already wealthy and powerful whose pelf comes from selling more cars, tires, and gasoline.

By Paul Meyer on Tue, January 20, 2015 at 1:43 pm

Well thought out. Nice summary and explanation of a perplexing problem.

By Margaret Thorp on Thu, April 05, 2012 at 7:32 pm

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