Why Republicans Will Soon Need Transit
It is rumored that, on Mars, legislators make decisions based on what is good for the planet. On earth, they make decisions and take positions based on what is good for their careers. While it is useful to present Republican legislators with the facts about public transportation, they are likely to revise their opposition to transit and passenger trains only when doing so will get them more votes.
Thanks to the rise in gas prices, that situation is imminent. As gas hits four dollars a gallon, with five or even six in prospect, Republicans’ constituents (along with everybody else) are looking for ways to use less gas. If the disorder in the Middle East spreads to the Persian Gulf, we may find gas is unobtainable at any price (remember 1973 and 1979?). At that point, everyone will need to get around by some means other than driving. Unless we are going to learn to use pogo sticks, we will all need public transportation, both within and between cities.
When this happens, which could be this summer, imagine that you are a Republican legislator who has always opposed transit. You crusaded against both high speed rail and light rail. You voted to de-fund Amtrak. You have given speech after speech saying no one wants to ride trains or other transit. You call for all subsidies (except those to highways) to be eliminated. What are you going to say to all those people in your state or district who are screaming that they cannot get to work, to school, or even to the grocery store? Let them eat cake?
At present, fully half of the American people have no public transportation of any kind available to them. Of the half that do, only half even rate it as “satisfactory.” The relatively few passenger trains, commuter trains, light rail vehicles and streetcars we have, and even the buses, will be full to bursting. Do you think your opponent at the next election is going to overlook the gift you have given him? He is going to remind the voters in every speech that it was you who voted to leave them high and dry when the gas ran out or became unaffordable.
Wise Republicans might want to start thinking about the politics of this scenario now, before they face outraged voters. You don’t have to take “liberal” positions in order to support public transportation, including passenger rail. On this website and in the books I co-authored with Paul Weyrich, Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation and The Next Conservatism, we outline a conservative approach to public transportation. Instead of high speed rail, which the country cannot afford, we call for higher speed rail, trains running on existing tracks that go fast enough to compete with the journey time by automobile, not by airplane. We recommend using proven technologies, existing rights-of-way and simplicity to keep costs down when building streetcars or light rail lines. Conservatives have a very important role to play as cost-conscious advocates of rail transit; at present, cots control has almost no voice in the debate.
Infrastructure cannot be built overnight. If the country is going to have public transportation infrastructure it needs to maintain mobility when people cannot afford or cannot get gas, politicians need to approve and advance projects now. Those who do so will have a record they can point to when the crisis hits. Those who don’t will have a record their opponent can and will point to. Which of those situations would Republicans rather be in?