What’s so conservative about Federal Highways?

by William S. Lind

Conservatives do not like public transportation—or so libertarians and Republican officeholders tell us. If that means we must spend hours stuck in congested traffic, so be it. Under no circumstances would conservatives ever ride public transit.

Except that we are riding it, in growing numbers. Studies of passengers on rail-transit systems across the country indicate many conservatives are on board. Chicago’s excellent METRA commuter trains offer one example. A recent survey revealed that in the six-county area METRA serves, 11 percent of commuters with incomes of $75,000 or more commuted by train. In Lake County, the mean earnings of rail commuters were more than $76,000. (The figure for bus riders was less than $14,000.) Not surprisingly, the area METRA serves regularly sends Republicans to Congress.

So why are conservatives using the public transportation we are told they oppose? Because being stuck in traffic isn’t fun, even if you are driving a BMW. On a commuter train or Light Rail line, you whiz past all those cars going no-where at 50 or 60 miles per hour—reading, working on your laptop, or relaxing, instead of staring at some other guy’s bumper.

StreetcarsStill, libertarians shriek, “Subsidies!”—ignoring the fact that highways only cover 58 percent of their costs from user fees, including the gas tax. To understand how conservatives might approach transportation issues more thoughtfully, we need to differentiate. All public transit is not created equal. You will find few people with alternatives sitting on buses crawling slowly down city streets. Most bus passengers are “transit dependents”—people who have no other way to get around. But most conservatives have cars; they are “riders from choice,” people who will only take transit that offers better conditions than driving. They demand high-quality transit, which usually means rail: commuter trains, subways, Light Rail, and streetcars.

Here we see one of the absurdities of the Republican position on transit. During the recent Bush administration, it was virtually impossible to get federal funding for rail-transit projects; buses were offered instead. But most Republicans’ constituents are served by rail transit.

The perception that conservatives do not use public transportation is only one of the mistaken notions that has warped the Right’s position on transportation policy. Another is that the dominance of automobiles and highways is a free-market outcome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Were we to drop back 100 years, we would find that Americans were highly mobile. Their mobility was based on a dense, nationwide network of rail transportation: intercity trains, streetcars, and interurbans (the latter two electrically powered). Almost all of these rail systems were privately owned, paid taxes, and were expected to make a profit. But they were wiped out by massive government subsidies to highways. Today’s situation, where “drive or die” is the reality for most Americans, is a product of almost a century of government intervention in the transportation market.

Another misperception is that public transportation does not serve conservative goals. Again, to understand the real situation we must differentiate between buses and trains. Buses do help the transit-dependent get to jobs, but for the most part, it is rail transit that serves conservatives’ goals. Subways, Light Rail, and streetcars often bring massive economic development or redevelopment of previously rundown areas. Portland, Oregon built a new streetcar line, a loop of just 2.4 miles, for $57 million. It quickly brought more than $2 billion in new development. The small city of Kenosha, Wisconsin put in a streetcar line for just over $4 million. It immediately brought $150 million in development, with another $150 million planned. Not surprisingly, both cities are expanding their streetcar systems. Buses have no such effect on development because a bus line can be here today, gone tomorrow. The investment in track and overhead wires streetcars and Light Rail require tells developers the service will be there for years to come.

Another conservative goal rail transit and intercity passenger trains advance is energy independence. One of America’s greatest national-security weaknesses is our dependence on imported oil, most of it coming from unstable parts of the world. One of the Bush administration’s objectives in invading Iraq was to secure a major new source of oil; predictably, we got war but no oil. Electric cars may eventually become practical, but optimists have been disappointed before: Thomas Edison was certain that the necessary breakthrough in battery technology would occur in his lifetime. In the meantime, trains can be electrified, and even when diesel-powered they use fuel far more efficiently than do automobiles.

The list of reasons that the libertarian/Republican policy of opposing public transportation, especially rail, is wrong could run many pages. A more interesting question is what a thoughtful conservative position on transit might be.

Russell Kirk offers a starting point for crafting an answer. He said that the first conservative political virtue is prudence. And there is nothing prudent about leaving most people immobile should events beyond the pale cut off our oil supply, as happened in 1973 and 1979. At present, half of all Americans have no transit service, and of those who do, only half call it “satisfactory.” The effects of suddenly stranding half the population are grim to imagine, not least on our already shaky economy. Grimmer still is the prospect of going to war to seize the missing oil. Prudence suggests the first goal of a conservative transportation policy would be to provide options, ways to get around without a car.

Conservatism offers a further guidepost: a predilection to turn to the past for answers to today’s problems. My old friend and colleague Paul Weyrich and I discovered that, as children in the 1950s, we shared a favorite television program: “I Remember Mama.” Each show opened with a modern woman being baffled by a contemporary problem. Then, reverently, she would say, “I remember Mama …” and the viewer would be transported to the 1890s, where Mama would demonstrate how an earlier generation had resolved the same difficulty. Conservatives like to remember Mama.

In transportation as in many things, the past was in some ways better than the present. Thanks to the Pullman Company, the night boats, our cities’ excellent streetcar systems, and the fast, electric interurbans that connected cities with towns and the countryside, earlier generations weren’t merely transported like so many barrels of flour. They traveled. Today, whether driving on the bland Interstate Highways or flying, Americans are just packaged and shipped.

So to Russell Kirk’s prudence let us add a conservative motto: what worked then can work now. In practical terms, where do these twin starting points lead conservative transportation policy?

First, we need a National Defense Public Transportation Act. As late as the 1950s, it was still possible to travel from anywhere in America to pretty much anywhere else in the country on a network of buses and trains. But President Eisenhower’s National Defense Interstate Highway Act, which has poured $114 billion into highway construction, killed the privately operated passenger train. We’re left with only a shadow of a wraith of its ghost in Amtrak’s skeletal national system.

A National Defense Public Transportation Act would seek to recreate that lost network of trains and buses, bit by bit as we can afford to do so. It would offer every county that choose to participate—conservatives believe in local options—a bus timed to connect its largest town with the nearest intercity passenger train. As time went on, it would thicken the network of trains so that a journey was made more by train and less by bus.

For cities, conservatives’ banner should read, “Bring Back the Streetcars!” It is no coincidence that the decline of America’s cities accelerated when streetcars were replaced by buses. People like riding streetcars, while few like riding buses. Streetcars are “pedestrian facilitators.” It is easy to hop off, shop and have lunch, then get on the streetcar again when feet get tired. Pedestrians are the lifeblood of cities; it is no accident that the first three chapters of Jane Jacobs’s great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are about sidewalks.

Buses do have a role to play, mostly as feeders for rail lines. Express buses that run directly from outlying suburbs into city centers can also draw “riders from choice.” These buses can be electrified with two overhead wires; unlike diesel buses, trolley buses neither smoke nor stink. San Francisco still has a nice network of them, thanks to all her steep inclines.

With streetcars should come two other revivals from the past: interurbans and night boats. Interurbans were big, fast streetcars—often very fast, running at 60 to 80 miles per hour in the open countryside. Interurbans connected big cities with outlying towns. Ohio alone had more than 2,000 miles of interurbans, all running on electricity. Today, just one remains, the South Shore between South Bend, Indiana and Chicago.

On the Great Lakes and major rivers, we also had night boats, wonderful steamers, often side-wheelers, that connected cities like Cleveland with Buffalo and Detroit. Like night trains, they offer no-real-time travel. Board in the evening, enjoy a good dinner in the grand salon and a restful sleep in your cabin, and arrive at your destination at the beginning of the next business day.

One point conservatives should insist on in reviving our trains, streetcars, and interurbans is keeping costs down. The greatest threat to a revival of attractive public transportation is not the libertarian transit critics. It is an unnecessary escalation of construction costs, usually driven by consultants who know nothing of rail and traction history, are often in cahoots with the suppliers, and gold-plate everything. Overbuilding is omnipresent; some Light Rail lines (the current term for interurbans) look as if they were designed for the Shinkansen. We are now seeing construction cost figures for streetcar lines of $40 million per mile and for light rail sometimes of more than $100 million.

A simple management tool could quickly bring costs into line: “should cost” figures. These are standards based on experience; anything that exceeds them should require very detailed and highly convincing analyses. For streetcars, the “should cost” figure ought to be $10 million per mile, and for light rail, $20 million. Lines have been built for that, and less.
Moving Minds book

In our book, Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, Paul Weyrich and I offer a chapter titled “Good Urban Transit: A Conservative Model.” We illustrate a variety of ways to keep costs down, beyond “should cost”: using existing rail infrastructure (the head of one transit system told me, “In my city, they wanted to spend $1 billion to build an 18-mile Light Rail line parallel to an existing double-track railroad.”), running streetcars on existing Rapid Transit lines to access the suburbs, and perhaps most important, avoiding the foxfire allure of high technology.

All the technology needed to run electric railways, and run them fast, was in place 100 years ago. It was simple, rugged, dependable, and relatively cheap. In the 1930s, many of America’s passenger trains, running behind steam locomotives, were faster than they are now. (After World War II, the federal government slapped speed limits on them.) There is no need for Maglev, monorails, or other innovations. All these do is drive up costs, reduce reliability, and make the unhappy user dependent on proprietary technologies. Simplicity is a virtue when it comes to transportation policy.

That past/future transportation network of course includes automobiles. But Americans would no longer be dependent on cars. Our mobility wouldn’t be held hostage by events overseas. Nor would we have to drive to leave the house, regardless of weather, old age, traffic congestion, or the myriad of other conditions that make automobiles less than convenient. We will still use cars to go to the grocery store; no one wants to lug home ten bags of groceries on a streetcar. But for commuting to work, going downtown to a show or game, or traveling to see Grandma or on business, we would not be harnessed to the horseless carriage. America’s motto would no longer be “drive or die.” Many people, not just conservatives, might find that an attractive proposition.

William S. Lind is the coauthor of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation and the director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

Keep America Moving: A Special Symposium on TransitKeep America Moving

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The Real Costs | Glen Bottoms does the numbers