A con­ser­va­tive ar­gu­ment against the tyranny of the au­to­mo­bile

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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