The Koch Brothers’ War on Transit
5:50 PM PDT on September 26, 2014
Transit advocates around the country were transfixed by a story in Tennessee this April, when the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity made a bid to pre-emptively kill Nashville bus rapid transit. It was an especially brazen attempt by Charles and David Koch's political network to strong-arm local transportation policy makers. But it was far from the only time the Kochs and their surrogates have taken aim at transit.
The Koch brothers, who owe their fortune to fossil fuels, are best known for funding global warming deniers and Republican insurgents aligned with the Tea Party. With their political influence under greater scrutiny during election season, now's a good time to pull together the various strands of Koch anti-transit activism.
The Kochs fund a wide-ranging network of "think tanks," non-profits, and political organizations. Their best-known political arm is Americans for Prosperity and its various offshoots and subsidiaries. David Koch was founding chairman of Americans for Prosperity, and both brothers provided funding for its launch. Among other activities, the group does plenty to manufacture Agenda 21 paranoia, which has cable subscribers around the country convinced that smart growth is a United Nations conspiracy that will lead to one-world government.
The Kochs also have plenty of ties to widely quoted, transit-bashing pundits like Randall O'Toole, Wendell Cox, and Stanley Kurtz -- people employed by organizations that receive Koch funding, like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and who spout the same talking points against walkability and smart growth.
Fake experts like O'Toole and Cox have been making the rounds for ages, but the Nashville BRT story raised new questions. How many local transit projects are drawing fire from the Koch political network? And what impact is it having?
Ashley Robbins, policy manager at the Center for Transportation Excellence, which supports transit ballot measures around the country, said the Nashville case was an eye-opener. "We’re definitely going to be watching it as we see more conservative efforts pop up in Milwaukee and Oregon as well," she said. "We’re starting to keep an eye out to see if it’s going to be a trend."
In Tennessee, the local Americans for Prosperity chapter failed to enact the transit lane ban, but it did undermine and weaken the Nashville BRT project, which won't be as robust as first planned. The Nashville example got us wondering where else Koch-backed groups are attacking local transit projects.
Here are a few more examples we turned up:
Americans for Prosperity Indiana was a leading opponent of efforts to expand transit in the Indianapolis region. The group lobbied state officials to kill legislation that allows Indianapolis to hold a tax referendum to expand its transit network.
Americans for Prosperity was unsuccessful in completely stopping the Indiana legislation, but it made its mark. The language of the bill that eventually passed was amended to forbid the Indianapolis region from pursuing light rail with any funds raised from the tax. Americans for Prosperity has been especially critical of rail, citing a Cato Institute study [PDF] that says rail projects are likely to run over budget (which road projects never do, of course).
Americans for Prosperity Virginia fought a new tax in Loudoun County to pay for Metro's Silver Line extension. The organization issued robo-calls calling the extension a "bail-out to rail-station developers,’’ according to the Washington Post. The county Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with the project anyway.
A report by the Pioneer Institute created a "manufactured controversy" over the costs of service at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Ellen Dannin wrote in Truthout earlier this year.
The Pioneer Institute is part of the State Policy Network, a group of think tanks with "deep ties to the Koch brothers" according to the Center for Media and Democracy [PDF]. According to one of the institute's studies, maintenance costs at the MBTA are "out-of-control," but Dannin, an author of two books on labor issues, wrote in Truthout that Pioneer relied on metrics that were bound to arrive at a predetermined outcome. For example, it chose to compare bus maintenance costs on a per-mile basis, a standard that puts a dense, crowded city like Boston at a disadvantage.
"Pioneer must have been aware that choosing a cost-per-mile standard would put the worst face on the MBTA's performance and that neither a bus driver nor a mechanic could do anything to change that situation," wrote Dannin.
The report also relied on some suspect comparisons. As the basis for its claims that MBTA's pay was "out of control," Pioneer compared costs with less expensive cities like Spokane, Washington, where the cost of living is about 22 percent lower than Boston's.
Koch-backed organizations were instrumental in sinking Florida's high-speed rail plans. In 2000, Sunshine State voters passed an amendment to the state's constitution requiring the state to establish high-speed rail exceeding 120 mph linking its five major cities.
But when Governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 in a wave of Tea Party governors, he fell in line with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association who were killing rail projects on Ohio, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.
Scott hired the Reason Foundation -- where David Koch is a trustee -- to write a report about the proposal. To the surprise of no one, the foundation's Wendell Cox found the project would cost way more than projected [PDF]. Scott used Cox's dubious claims as the basis for killing the project.
Since that time, private investors have taken up the project, which is, in itself, pretty compelling evidence of the financial feasibility of the concept.
The Reason Foundation was also critical of the Los Angeles Exposition Line extension, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile light rail line that will connect Santa Monica to downtown. In May 2012, the week the first phase opened, Reason conducted a "study" in which staff went to Expo Line stations and counted passengers. Researchers counted 13,000 passengers, short of the 27,000 daily ridership forecast for 2020. The organization concluded that even by "the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with," ridership projections had been "vastly inflated."
Proponents of the line argued that counting passengers during the first week of service wasn't a fair way to measure its long term success. And they were right. The following year, the Expo Line exceeded anticipated 2020 daily ridership, seven years sooner than expected.
A study by the University of Southern California reinforced the success of the project, finding that those living within a half mile of the station had reduced their driving by 40 percent. A little bit less of their paychecks will end up in the Kochs' pockets.
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