June 2012

Rail projects reveal split in conservative thinking

by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

When you try to listen to the arguments that conservatives use about rail transit — and in some cases it’s pretty hard to keep listening, I admit — you realize that rail transit projects are right in the middle of conservatives’ fight among themselves over the government’s role in helping the economy to grow. How we as an industry deal with that fight will determine a big part of our success in the future of rail transit and intercity passenger rail funding at all levels of government.

Battle lines are drawn
Some conservatives have been strong supporters of transit and intercity passenger rail funding. People like Bill Lind and Glen Bottoms of The American Conservative’s Center for Public Transportation view investment in rail projects as both a way to bolster local communities as well as grow the national economy. In other words, they see these investments as enablers of the private economy. Lind also makes the case that rail transit is a national security issue, because it reduces the country’s dependence on unstable foreign sources of oil and keeps those dollars invested at home. It should be noted that Bottoms has also been an advisor to the Mitt Romney presidential campaign.

At the other end of the spectrum among conservatives are many Tea Party types, who see transit spending as wasteful and ineffective, or worse, social engineering bordering on some kind of international socialist plot (look up “Agenda 21” sometime to see what I mean). Some in this wing also want to see transit gutted for more highway spending, as if that’s not government intervention that favors one kind of economic activity over another, supposedly a no-no with libertarians. Nevermind also that Ronald Reagan, almost their patron saint, signed into law the federal New Starts program funded by the Mass Transit Account in the Highway Trust Fund.

What should we do about it?
Some conservatives have been a very important part of the coalition for greater rail investment at all levels of government over the past 40 years. Yet as the late Paul Weyrich, who helped to start the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, used to say, there are some opponents who will never be convinced no matter how much evidence they are given. To those, give them the evidence — but then don’t waste your time any further.

Although many in the House of Representatives’ majority are this kind of ideologues, many are not, and pushed back hard against their far-right colleagues who wanted to gut New Starts and the Mass Transit Account. Make no mistake, the battle is still on, but the recent fight back against the far right indicates that the tide is shifting back in our favor —if we keep it up. Stay involved.


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