Why Do the Koch Brothers Care About Bus Rapid Transit?

Some laws don’t make a lot of sense to me. The Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would make bus rapid transit systems illegal in basically the only places in Tennessee where they are being proposed, including Nashville. It has recently come to light that the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity (founded and funded by the Koch brothers) had a major hand in the bill’s creation and passage. But why?

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems are hybrid systems that combine the efficiency of rail systems with the economy of buses. No rails have to be constructed. Instead, buses are given dedicated lanes (often in the middle of roadways), fare is collected outside the bus, and nowadays, phone apps give real-time info on bus departure and arrival schedules. They have not grown popular in the United States, but in other countries around the world, they have proven extremely effective in reducing congestion and revitalizing urban centers.

BRT systems cost cities very little in comparison to building rail systems. The proposed BRT in Nashville was a 7.1 mile East-West system called the Amp which was slated to cost $174 million. Much of that funding would have been federal, but would not have constituted any additional funds from the federal government. Instead, the Amp would have been included in the state’s budget for federal allocations.

So far, I’m not seeing any peculiar reason why AFP should have shut down the Amp. Or why the Koch brothers would even care. In fact, why are conservatives so often against mass transit systems?

Most cities, especially in the South, suffer from urban sprawl, strip mall eye sores, the propagation of parking lot wastelands, and a general lack of local community. I live in Marietta, GA, a geographical oddity that is somehow thirty minutes drive from everywhere in the Metro Atlanta area. Because of the fact that everyone drives his own car everywhere (and basically has to), urban centers that would have typically included street-front businesses, cheaper lodging, historical architecture, etc., are instead largely populated by drab, rectangular, low-cost franchise outlets and miles and miles of parking lots and multi-lane expressways.

There is no way to downplay what a chilling effect this has had on communities. Most people can’t live where they work, which means they are not much invested in the community where they live. They often don’t know local business owners or their neighbors. The church they go to might be thirty minutes away, their family and friends might be scattered all over town. And all this sprawl just creates more sprawl. You need more lanes to ease traffic, so you flatten out a local community to put in another highway and another set of parking lots. Just look at what happened to Atlanta. Unless you make a major step toward a different urban system, that will never change. And the initial changes will be very difficult.

The website stopamp.org cites many reasons not to support Amp. For one, it says that it will take away two lanes of traffic (and parking spaces) from streets that are already congested. They think this will just make traffic worse. Fair point. It also says that the Tennessee Transit Authority does not expect the Amp to get enough additional commuter use to justify the expense or ease traffic. Also, a fair point. But why should that mean that BRT should be made illegal in Nashville altogether? Why not figure out a better plan?

And furthermore, any change toward a mass transit system will involve growing pains and a change in urban culture. Will the Amp be the end of small businesses in that corridor? Not necessarily. BRT has been very successful in other cities at generating small business growth. And if people were just willing commit to transit systems and tighter local communities, it would fix much of the congestion in the area. Who cares if you lose two lanes and parking spaces if you don’t need those two lanes or parking spaces? What you would create is the possibility of a pedestrian-friendly urban area populated by community shops and tenement buildings.

In other words, a place where you can walk from where you work to where you live to where you buy local goods to where you go to church to where your friends hang out. One of my good friends in Portland only recently bought a car after he had twins. Before then, he and his wife hadn’t needed one in two years. That’s just not possible in the South, yet. And with laws like the one that just passed, it becomes an even more remote possibility.

Do you know how inefficient our currently individualistic commute systems are? Our HOV lanes are ridiculously under-used (or are just becoming money-making lanes for greedy local governments, e.g., Peach Pass). I regularly drive in HOV lanes and pass line after line of cars stuck in traffic with single passengers in every car, many of which are “wilderness-ready” trucks and SUVs. Sure, they need a lot of lanes. But only because of their pigheaded dedication to urban sprawl, long-distance commuting, secluded cookie cutter subdivisions, and traffic.

Why would anyone want to perpetuate this? I don’t know. But the Tennessee Senate, in my opinion, has just created legislation that will likely be used as a model in other states to further shut down bus rapid transit systems. And for what? I really don’t know.

The only argument I could accept is that perhaps the Koch brothers are against anything being funded by the federal government. But shutting down the Amp doesn’t reduce the federal allotment going to Tennessee. It just means millions of those dollars won’t go to bus rapid transit. And this bill means it is more likely that Nashville will scrap Amp for a much more expensive solution. ((A GAO study found that (in 2000), Light Rail Transit systems cost between $12.4 million per mile (when built through rural land) to $118.8 million per mile (when built in urban areas). That would mean the proposed Nashville system would cost somewhere in the range of $6-700 million or more.)) I fail to see why this is a win for anyone.

Local communities are becoming a thing of the past. And there is no doubt that this lack of local community solidarity transfers power from local governments to the state and federal governments. Is it any wonder that local laws and regulations are being engineered by distant political forces and federal manipulation? The classic mantra of tyrants is “Divide and Conquer.” This is perhaps a strange idea to many, but urban sprawl is just the ticket tyrants need to keep this country on its knees.

36 responses

  1. BRT systems are an horrendous waste of resources. These bus lanes displace cars carrying thousands with an occasional bus carrying maybe 80 people. The epitome of liberal agenda stupidity.

  2. Read the Constitution. Article I Section 8 lists what the Federal governemnt is allowed to do. Any Constitutionalist will be against the federal government being involved in anything that falls outside of that list. See the 10th amendment.

    • Right on Jim, and… there is no such thing as federal money. It ALL comes from YOU, every penny is taxed from the consumer>

          • “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” 10th Amendment, US Constitution

            “I find, from looking into the amendments proposed by the State conventions, that several are particularly anxious that it should be declared in the Constitution, that the powers not therein delegated should be reserved to the several States. Perhaps words which may define this more precisely than the whole of the instrument now does, may be considered as superfluous. I admit they may be deemed unnecessary: but there can be no harm in making such a declaration, if gentlemen will allow that the fact is as stated. I am sure I understand it so, and do therefore propose it.” James Madison

          • “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” Thomas Jefferson

      • The Constitution has significant restrictions on what the federal government can do. What is not listed in Article I Section 8 is left for the states or individuals (10th amendment). It certailny does not prohibit mass transit, it prohibits federal involvement in mass transit.

      • “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” Thomas Jefferson

      • amd 10: The powers not delegate3d to the United States by teh Constitution, nor prohibited by it to hte states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

    • Do you pay for all of the pavement that you drive on? Do you pay for all traffic signs, safe food to eat, building standards, inspection of elevators, the police force, the fire dept. & street lights? Do you pay for all of the electricity in every store that you visit?
      You use your environment in a productive way because we ALL pay taxes for it. Your shallow comment reveals that you are buying into what any extreme right “personality” tells you to believe.

      • Actually we do pay for all of it.
        We pay for the roads (all costs) when we purchase our fuel through a road use tax and in some case also pay a toll.
        Building standards are completely covered through permit fees. In fact some building inspection departments run a surplus.
        We pay property taxes to pay for our police, fire, etc from our city.
        The cost of electricity for every store is built into the price they charge me when I purchase items there.
        Jim is pointing out that money collected by the Federal government is not allowed for this purpose.

      • I don’t expect you to rely on anything that I say. You need to check it out for yourself by reading and understanding the Constitution.

  3. The main problem I have with ANY “mass” or “rapid” transit system is they don’t pay for themselves. The initial cost you stated in your piece is for the CONSTRUCTION of the system. After that, you have maintenance and upkeep. I don’t care what it is — light rail, bus, or BRT — they always have to be subsidized with taxpayer monies, either at the local level, or federally. My rule of thumb is this: If the private sector isn’t trying to build it already, it’s probably going to be just another money drain. Taxpayer money. Now, if the local areas — re: State, or Municipal — want to raise local levies for a bond issue or such, that is up to them, and IMO constitutional. Using federal monies for LOCAL construction is a violation of our constitution. I don’t care that the money is already “allocated” funds. Unless it is for upkeep of the interstate highway system, it shouldn’t be “allocated” in the first place. If we are truly about shrinking the size of government, we have to be willing to shrink it everywhere.

    • The New York subways were built privately. The governemnt took it over when the company was going to increase the price to more than a nickel. But the government raised the price anyway and has been relying on public funding ever since.

      • I usually don’t like to “split hairs” LA, but with you, I will. Actually, the private sector did ALL of the construction on our highway system. It was FUNDED by the feds. Big difference. As to your question. We haven’t had a “conservative” who has had the luxury of having a “conservative” Congress to work with. Reagan fought a Democrat Congress for both of his terms, and he was the closest thing we’ve had to anyone serious about shrinking the size of government. You want to really shrink government? Do away with “baseline” budgeting. You do know what that is, don’t you? Simply, “baseline” budgeting starts from the assumption that what you spent LAST year is your starting point for THIS year. Imagine if you ran your family budget that way, LA. Baseline budgeting, installed by liberal Democrats, is the biggest impediment to shrinking government we have. And until anyone, so-called “conservative” or not, introduces legislation to do away with baseline budgeting, we aren’t going to solve our budget problems.

  4. The oil industry depends on more Americans to buy as much gas as possible. Using transit is not in their profitable interest.

  5. “The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not” Thomas Jefferson

  6. I can tell you exactly why we don’t want bus or rail systems. Yes, people who live in the suburbs could ride these buses to their jobs in the city. BUT, it works the other way, too. Inner city people can take these buses into the suburbs. I lived in an Atlanta suburb for many years. When a bus system became available, inner city folks invaded our suburban malls and crimes were committed at alarming rates. Finally the stores in the malls had to install alarms if a thief tried to leave without paying for goods. Next, the dresses were literally chained to the circular rack from which they hung. You needed a clerk to unlock the chain if you wanted to try on a dress. More people had to guard the dressing rooms. The guards gave you a number to correspond to the number of items you wanted to try on. If you wanted to try on 3 dresses and 2 pairs of slacks, you were given a number 5. When you came out of the dressing room, the guard took the number 5 along with the 5 items you had tried on unless you were buying one or more items. CRIME is the reason most cities and suburbs don’t want bus or rail systems.

    • Crime in the south is MUCH worse than the statistics would even indicate because even the best forensic teams are unable to catch Hillbillies committing crime. The reason being (1) Hillbillies all share the same DNA & (2) They have no dental records!

  7. “…had a major hand in the bill’s creation and passage. …” What exactly does this mean? The Tennessean article makes the same statement, but doesn’t really say what a “major hand” looks like. What measurement determines a “major hand”.

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