A conservative argument against the tyranny of the automobile
Conservatives as a rule don’t give much thought to passenger railroading or public transportation. It is just not one of their issues. Of those who do pay attention to it, more are critical. Automobiles are marketed through the private sector and thus automatically are superior to public-sector rail transit. Ergo, cars are more in sync with the conservative ethic. Or so the reasoning goes.
However, a significant minority of transportation-oriented conservatives have a decidedly different view. Foremost among them is the Free Congress Foundation, whose founder was the late, legendary Paul M. Weyrich. He and associate William S. Lind made a clear case for the proposition that passenger railroading (now almost entirely publicly funded) is — or should be — a conservative issue, for three main reasons.
In “Moving Minds,” they cite the fact that conservatives — since the days of the decidedly non-socialist thinkers Alexander Hamilton and Adam Smith — have argued that the two primary obligations of the central government are (1) defending the nation and (2) supporting the infrastructure, of which transportation is a part.
One prominent contemporary conservative commented to me, “Well, [Hamilton and Adams] were half right,” meaning that national defense is a legitimate public function, but not infrastructure.
Some of these anti-rail naysayers think both rail transit and interstate highways should be privately operated. That’s consistent, at least, but some free-market purists argue — incorrectly, in this book’s view — that only highway travel, and not rail, is a purely private groundtransport alternative.
Weyrich and Mr. Lind say in the book that our nation’s transportation system was knocked out of balance starting in the 1920s when unsubsidized railroads (both intercity trains and local electric trolleys) had to compete with subsidized highways. Unsurprisingly, after the Interstate Highway system magnified that imbalance, the railroad industry landed flat on its back. Privately operated streetcars disappeared, plagued by high tax bills (a portion of which helped build the highway competition) and by local regulators that prevented them from raising fares to keep pace with inflation.
That imbalance continues as today’s public subsidies for rail passenger transportation are puny alongside those supporting the highway culture.
The second reason public rail transport should be a conservative cause, according to the authors, is protecting this nation from being brought to its knees by oil-rich nations that hate us. “We contend that national security requires us to lessen our dependence on foreign oil by creat- ing a viable alternative to automobile dependence,” Weyrich and Mr. Lind argue.
Their remedy: A National Defense Public Transportation Act, which would use a system of nationally coordinated trains and connecting buses. The aim would be to enable anyone to travel from anywhere in the continental United States to anywhere else in the United States without having to use an automobile.
The program would offer subsidies to every county in America. In tune with the conservative emphasis on local control, the authors write that “every county could join the program or not.” They’re betting that sheer convenience would generate a popular demand for near universal participation.
No. 3 in the book’s case for conservative support of rail transport focuses on economic development. Here the authors appeal to business and labor to support a good transit system, with buses serving mainly as connectors to the trains and filling gaps where rail is yet to be implemented.
When tracks and other infrastructure for rail transport are built, that represents a real years-long (likely permanent) commitment. It induces developers to do business (and create jobs) near a rail line, where it is almost certain that “if you build it, they will come.” A bus operation, on the other hand, can be yanked overnight.
Moreover, the authors say the suburban sprawl that gave birth to our present-day automobilecentric culture was actually of left-wing origins. Mr. Lind has noted that post-World War II government mandates on local building codes separated the places where we live from the places where we shop and where we work.
In the final chapter, Weyrich and Mr. Lind deal with a scandal involving a federal transporta- tion commission on which Weyrich served. The Free Congress founder repeatedly clashed with President George W. Bush’s Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, a highway advocate. Weyrich, a Republican, and Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, a Democrat, led a bipartisan majority in favor of recommending a prominent place for passenger rail. Ms. Peters, frustrated at being outvoted on a panel that she chaired, tried to undermine the majority at every turn.
“Moving Minds” complains that a section of the official report making a strong case for rail transit was mysteriously removed from the hard-copy volumes after having been officially approved by a 9-3 majority. “An obviously gross and possibly illegal violation of due process,” according to one Capitol Hill veteran familiar with such projects.
Weyrich and Mr. Lind did not name the person responsible because at the time the chapter was written, Weyrich wanted to protect his relations with fellow commissioners. However, this writer, with the benefit of inside information from the panel, identified the remover at the time as Commissioner Steve Heminger, who, oddly enough, had voted with the majority for the pro-rail wording.
Mr. Heminger, a top transportation official in the San Francisco Bay Area, admitted the situation was “not handled right” and sought the forgiveness of fellow commissioner Weyrich, who had demanded an explanation.
Just a few weeks earlier, Ms. Peters had appeared alongside Mr. Heminger at a San Francisco news conference to announce federal funding for a Golden State Bridge project Mr. Heminger wanted. Neither Mr. Heminger nor the federal Department of Transportation would comment on a possible link between that federal largesse and later removal of the pro-transit report language, which ultimately was replaced by a softer (but specific) endorsement of rail transit. “Moving Minds” reprints key passages that were removed improperly.
The authors make a strong case for a passenger rail renaissance, reviving what was destroyed, not by the free market but by left-wing-style government intrusion.
Wes Vernon is a Washingtonbased writer and veteran broadcast journalist.