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October 12, 2009

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Paul Weyrich’s Soft Spot for Public Transit: The late conservative leader debunks the free-market case against transit.

This article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Governing magazine. Reprinted by permission of the author

When it comes to transit, national free-market ideologists have been attacking the idea so long it is hard for them to notice what is actually going on around them. Whether it is the continuing growth of light-rail ridership throughout the country, the economic regeneration of transit corridors such as those in Washington, D.C., Denver and Portland, Oregon, or the continuing voter support for new systems in seemingly unlikely places such as Phoenix and Albuquerque, organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation produce the same answer: Those numbers are misleading. This can’t be happening because theory tells us it is impossible. Only the free market—and especially automobiles—can do a good job moving people from place to place.

The libertarian noise machine against public transportation has been so loud in recent years that it would be easy to conclude all conservatives must agree with it. That is why it is so interesting to come across the new book Moving Minds, the contrarian work that Paul M. Weyrich wrote before his untimely death last year. By any standard, Weyrich was one of the most important conservative figures of the past generation. In the book, released jointly by the conservative Free Congress Foundation and the smart-growth group Reconnecting America, Weyrich and co-author William Lind, a national security specialist by training and a prominent cultural conservative in his own right, argue in blunt terms that the free-market case against public transportation essentially is a fraud.

Some of Weyrich’s ideas about transportation are so sensible that one wonders whether they might have become commonly accepted among conservatives long ago if the libertarians hadn’t been so ubiquitous and so well-funded as to make serious discussion on the right impossible.

Weyrich, along with Lind, believed the U.S. economy worked best with as few federal subsidies as possible and as much private investment as could be encouraged. The two of them looked around and saw that tax-supported aid to highways was astronomically higher than any comparable aid to subways, light-rail systems and buses. In 1980, for example, the comparative figures were $39.7 billion to $5.8 billion. Over the next two decades, federal transit funding never amounted to more than a fraction of highway funding. “The current division of market share between the automobile and mass transit,” Weyrich wrote, “is in no way the product of a free market. It reflects massive and sustained government intervention in favor of automobiles.” Weyrich never saw anything conservative about a traffic jam.

Late in his life, and in his posthumously published book, Weyrich emphasized another point. He often said that he cared about freedom from another overseas attack more than perhaps any other federal issue. And he realized that dependence on foreign oil could be the greatest single threat to security. “As conservatives,” he and Lind wrote in Moving Minds, “we are not environmentalists. More important to us is the fact that people who switch from their car to an electrified railway help reduce our dependence on oil imports, which in turn improves our national security.”

Compelling as their theoretical case is, Weyrich and Lind are most persuasive—and most amusing—when they begin taking on the shibboleths of the free-market anti-transit movement one-by-one.

The single most striking piece of evidence usually offered against public transportation is the number of personal trips in the country made by public conveyance as compared to those made by private automobiles. This number always has been very small, rarely above 5 percent and in some studies less than 2 percent. It suggests, at least at first, that investing in transit is a bad use of resources.

Weyrich and Lind make a simple but rarely considered observation: These studies count all trips—even those where the traveler would have no plausible opportunity to use public transportation if he wanted to. There are countless situations like this, even within individual metropolitan areas. As Weyrich liked to say, “If you don’t build it, they can’t come.”

Rather than taking an indiscriminate count of travel in the United States, Weyrich and Lind suggest a measurement that has been proposed by others, one based on “transit-competitive” trips. In other words, how often do consumers use public transportation when it is genuinely available to them? This is not an easy measurement to agree upon.

The indisputable fact is that transit ridership has been increasing in America for the past 15 years. Between 1995 and 2007, public-transit use in the United States increased by almost 30 percent—considerably more than the increase in the number of vehicle-miles traveled altogether. That increase corresponded rather closely with the construction of light-rail systems in cities such as St. Louis, Denver and San Diego, ones that replaced obsolete and lightly used bus lines. In 2008, Americans made 10.7 billion transit trips, the highest number in 52 years and a 4 percent increase over 2007. In the first quarter of this year, transit use remained essentially level—and if buses are excluded from the count, actually rose modestly, despite declining gas prices and a severe recession.

Paul Weyrich spent two decades of his life trying to persuade fellow conservatives that ideas such as those made sense. At the time he died, last December, I don’t know if he felt he had been successful. But to a great extent, I think he had. Former Governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, no liberal by anybody’s standard, read Weyrich’s work and was convinced. “Why do academic conservatives seem to believe that all transit is bad,” Thompson once asked, “when as a real-world conservative, I know it isn’t?”

Weyrich himself put it a little more colorfully. The anti-transit zealots, he said, “can’t even see what everyone else sees, probably their own grandmothers, namely, that driving a car in rush hour in the city is a pain-in-the-you-know what.” That would seem to be a truth that transcends ideology.

Alan Ehrenhalt is Governing’s editor.


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