Much attention was given to a recent New York Times article that detailed how organized anti-transit forces came together to defeat May’s ballot initiative in Nashville, Tenn. While this has alarmed pro-transit forces across the political spectrum — yes, there are conservatives who also strongly support public transportation investments — it is not new. What is new is that this faction is much better financed and much more ideological, and proponents must be more prepared than ever for what will surely come to your city.
Anti-transit positions are not new
To be sure, the Nashville situation, like the Cincinnati streetcar referenda contests, was much more complicated than outside money influencing the campaign. The troubles of the last mayors factored in both examples, in fact. As the New York Times article points out, however, this may be just the beginning.
Moreover, some of the opposition is not new. The Cato Institute’s Randall O’Toole, for example, has been a thorn in pro-transit campaigners’ sides for decades, and much of his and his allies’ rhetoric at best uses dated evidence, and worse, employs radicalized arguments about crime supported by cherry-picked data. Even their latest hits, which suggest that automated and connected vehicles as well as ride-sharing services will obviate the need for transit services, have little evidentiary support and may, in fact, be contradicted by the most recent studies. And, put aside (at least for now) the decades of public transportation law that must be grappled with, such as Buy America, labor protections, employee drug and alcohol testing, and even vehicle-testing regulations that haven’t really found court cases yet, but are likely to come if these trends were ever to grow significantly.
The real arguments that these anti-transit forces make, however, is against government generally — except when used to promote highways and auto usage. For the money behind these groups is rooted in organizations like Americans for Prosperity, a group largely funded by oil, gas, and coal interests, and which deny links of climate change to human activity.
Get ready for the backlash
Public transportation has enjoyed constant success at all levels of government in the U.S. for more than two decades now, and many of those contests are hard-fought on legitimate, reasoned issues. What is coming are much more organized and well-funded attempts to undo all of this progress. The next major challenge may come in California in November, as a ballot initiative to undo recent legislation has qualified for the ballot. Pro-transit forces must be equally well-organized and up to the task.