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The politics of transit: two interrelated problems


Jacob Ambinder had a great piece on the failing politics of transit last week, well worth a read if you’re interested in that sort of thing. I particularly appreciate the way he gives a much smarter and more sophisticated response to Brian Rosenthal’s important reporting on the wildly inflated cost of the second avenue subway. A frustratingly common response seemed to be “Oh no it turns out UNIONS ARE BAD after all!” But the rampant featherbedding isn’t so much the problem as it is a symptom of a greater problem: that politicians and bureaucrats whose incentives to build good transit infrastructure efficiently are not as great as their incentives to do otherwise. As Ambinder notes, the politics of transit advocacy is partly to blame for this: in our enthusiasm to defend the very idea of funding mass transit, we tend to turn a blind eye to the political failures of transit agencies and the politicians who support them. We need a political movement for transit that can imagine and combat multiple enemies simultaneously–those who oppose significant public investment, on the one hand, and those who treat the investments we do make as an opportunity to pursue goals other than improving transit, on the other. Ambinder:

This is the crux of the urban mobility crisis: not broken infrastructure, but a broken political economy—one that includes transit but extends to issues far beyond it. Many thousands of voters do care about having fast, reliable trains and buses, and good advocacy organizations work to support their cause. But the number of politicians who believe the quality of the transit their constituents use will affect their chance of re-election seems to dwindle by the year. Such has long been the case, of course, in the many cities that run public transportation in the grand tradition of American social safety-net programs—so minimally as to prod people to stop using them the moment they can afford to do so. Alarmingly, however, the last few years have shown that even in the large coastal cities facing major issues with their buses and trains, we lack mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable for systemic problems within the large bureaucracies that run public transportation. The implications of this problem suggest that progressives in urban America must not content themselves to effect change within the institutions of local government as they currently exist. Rather, they must articulate a vision for the future of their cities that begins with a wholesale reexamination of the structure of urban government itself.


As Zach Goldhammer wrote in these pages a few months ago, liberals have embraced the notion that there is no societal problem that “minor technocratic tweaks” cannot solve as a way of rebutting conservative attempts to discredit government entirely. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that the bureaucracies that oversee the technocrats are necessarily competent, their interests basically aligned with the public’s, and are threatened only by conservative and centrist austerity. It is the same worldview that proposes we “invest more in infrastructure” and other bromides that assume the institutions doing the investing are fundamentally sound.

The transit crisis, however, has made the limitations of this ideology immediately, laughably clear. It does not accommodate the notion that a major transit agency might itself be a political actor, with goals and interests that could conflict with those of the public. In other words, politicians in our major transit-reliant cities have been able to avoid responsibility for poor transit service because current progressive ideology does not explain why a government institution might inherently lack the ability to improve its provision of a public service.

Identifying a plausible path out of this political dilemma isn’t easy. The transit agency I follow most closely, Sound Transit, fares pretty well compared to Boston and New York, but has problems of its own in this respect. Their structure is one that produces far less isolation from political actors than we see with the MTA and the Port Authority–the Sound Transit board is made up primarily of elected officials from cities and counties served. This produces plenty of problems of its own–I won’t bore you with a recitation of all of ST’s false moves, but one in particular provides good example. Everett, a city of about 100,000 people about 30 miles north of Seattle, will be connected to Seattle by light rail eventually, thanks to 2016’s Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. The delivery of light rail to Everett will be delayed by several years and will take eventual commuters an extra seven minutes each way to get to Seattle, because the light rail will deviate to Paine field, a sprawling industrial park and airfield to the NW of Everett. There is precious little evidence for anything approaching the kind of demand that would justify light rail. But political leaders of Snohomish county, who harbor grandiose dreams (delusions?) about Paine Field growth–including becoming a secondary commercial airport for the region–are more important to them than providing good and timely service for the many thousands of commuters who want to get to Seattle. Transit advocates tried to sound the alarm about the absurdity of this deviation, even pointing out that a spur to Paine Field would cost less and save the vast majority of Snohomish County riders from sacrificing 14 minutes a day to indulge the delusions of their political elites, but it was to no avail. The politics of ST3 in Snohomish County never got much more sophisticated than “should we pay for this thing or not?” (ST3 passed overall 54-46, an in Snohomish 51-49), and county leaders met minimal resistance to their Paine Field idiocy.

This is, of course, another example of politicians using scarce transit resources to pursue goals other than building high-quality mass transit. The most common form of this sort of thing is found in the modern streetcar revival, which is often more about placemaking and development than moving people comfortably and efficiently from point A to point B. Making matters worse, political actors who should be, given their avowed commitments and priorities, on the side of good transit find bizarre reasons not to be. Take, for example, The Sierra Club of California. Scott Weiner’s proposed SB 827 in California is at once perhaps the most important proposal currently on the table for climate politics, as well as California’s devastating housing shortage, largely by taking away local governments’ capacity to restrict housing near frequent transit. Local control of land use policy allows for the worst kind of NIMBY rent-seeking and opportunity hoarding that keeps people from living near good transit, because they people who go their first don’t want to let more people live there. Addressing this obstacle to high quality transit is an important one. The Sierra Club of California’s opposition (rebutted effectively enough here) could be explained two ways. More generously, we might label this a ham-fisted effort to show their growth to the environmental justice cause, by taking a maximally (but almost certainly ineffectively) “anti-displacement” position. Less generously (and, in my view, more plausibly), it could reflect the antiquated priorities of an aging membership base that equates any and all growth with a betrayal of the environmental cause, conveniently ignoring the sprawl-growth their preferred policies would inspire, when successfully pursued in urban and transit-rich environments. (One reason I consider this more plausible is the appalling conduct of the SF Bay branch, which has morphed into what can only be described as an objectively pro-global warming organization. The environment is not so much their cause as it is their tool to attempt to create immigration restrictions for their city.) Either way, it’s an astonishing betrayal of their core mission (as the national organization has made very clear). Whatever the reason for it, it’s an astounding position; there are few things we can do (at least at the level of state politics) more important for climate mitigation than ensuring our future built environments are less auto-dependent, and virtually all the secondary effects, environmental and social, of legalizing considerably potentially car-free and/or car-light living are positive. That a group that, by dint of thier avowed core mission, should be a natural ally of transit advocates is willing to come out against making sure good transit and abundant housing for people who would like to use it go together is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go and the obstacles we face in building an effective and powerful political movement for effective transit.

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