Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Bipartisan Transit Bashing

July 31, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Once upon a time, a leading right-wing criticism of public transit cast it as an unwarranted subsidy to the undeserving poor. To Margaret Thatcher, a bus rider beyond young adulthood was a failure; to George W. Bush, strap-hangers needed only enough work to afford a car.

Strangely, this argument lately has been turned on its head. It's fashionable now for conservatives to deride transit as a subsidy to the undeserving affluent. Even some Minnesota progressives have adopted this frame—speciously, in my view—in the ongoing debate over the proposed Southwest Green Line light rail extension to suburban Eden Prairie.

"Transit spends an inordinate share of its resources on suburban riders, short-changing the core city riders who cost transit agencies far less to serve and are also far more numerous," writes Heartland Institute senior fellow Wendell Cox, summarizing and expanding upon work, from a more moderate perspective, of Columbia University Prof. David King. "Transit policy has long been skewed in favor of the more affluent."

On the left side of this talking point, Michael Mcdowell, transit organizer at Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, bemoans the "lack of equity" in the Southwest LRT plan. "It remains unclear how this project will benefit the Northside communities it's running through," he adds, complaining that the Metropolitan Council's commitment to improve bus service and bus shelters in minority-majority north Minneapolis areas falls short of 100 percent coverage. 

Then, reversing field, Mcdowell takes an opposite tack on "a multibillion-dollar transit investment in our neighborhoods" that may increase "the likelihood of gentrification and residents being priced out of their neighborhoods as the light rail comes in." The way I read this, both too little transit investment and too much of it are equal evils, making it pretty hard for policymakers to please Mcdowell and the NOC.

A different strain of this criticism comes from south Minneapolis progressives, who want the light rail to run directly south of downtown, skirting both the underprivileged North Side and the overprivileged lakes district. Some of those critics live in the latter area, and blame a nefarious desire for faster travel times to the suburbs for the imminent disruption of their quiet Kenilworth neighborhood. Those suburbs, by the way, are rich in jobs that the light rail would give city-dwellers better access to, as Aaron Isaacs explains in a blog.

(The Nicollet Avenue route preferred by South Side critics would provide greater connectivity to city activity centers, but it was studied and rejected on grounds of not just longer travel time, but also cost and spacial-logistical challenges. Those who advocate a subway to solve the latter problem, show me the money to pay for it.)

Unfortunately, all this bickering among folks disposed to support transit, at least in concept, only emboldens the autocentric transit bashers on the right. The conservative Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment took a breather from its ongoing jihads against public employee pensions and smart metropolitan planning to rip the Twin Cities transit system for poorly connecting people to jobs and, in the next breath, call for shifting much of its funding—as well as that of other, unspecified government functions—to roads. 

Specifically, in their CAE report, lawyers Fritz Knaak and Amy Roberts contend that "congestion is the most visible challenge facing Minnesota drivers" and call for solving it by, among other things, stopping all light rail development because "the money would be better spent on improving the bus system."

Never mind that the federal half of light rail construction funding wouldn't be available for most buses. Knaak and Roberts do show some love for bus rapid transit, which they describe as "more flexible and less costly transit options." I'm mystified as to how BRT, with its dedicated guideways, is more flexible, and that wouldn't be much of an attraction anyway for developers seeking the permanence of 21st century transit improvements.

The CAE duo's "less costly" claim is questionable as well. Yes, BRT costs less to build, and it is appropriate for relatively lower-traffic corridors such as Cedar Avenue in Dakota County and Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. But operational costs and traffic impacts are a different story when it comes to the busiest routes, where trains with greatly more passenger capacity per driver, longer vehicle life spans, less wear on right-of-way infrastructure and less dependence on oil beat buses handily on operational and maintenance costs. 

According to William Lind, a rare conservative rail transit advocate, nationwide rail transit returns 50 percent of its operating costs in farebox and other revenue, compared with 28 percent for buses. That puts rail dead even on subsidies with roads and bridges, according to the conservative Tax Foundation.

Knaak and Roberts try to finesse this inconvenient truth by apparently cooking the books on projected operating costs of the new Green Line and the proposed Interstate Hwy. 35W BRT Orange Line. Neglecting $8.6 million in expected annual advertising income from the Green Line, they claimed it will be 30 percent more expensive per rider to run than the BRT. 

Wrong! Counting all the revenues, the light rail comes out cheaper. Besides, people who actually know something about transit planning say BRT on the Green Line's very high ridership route between the two downtowns would have required the unworkable stacking of buses end-to-end.

Meanwhile, the CAE is promoting an upcoming visit to Minnesota by Randal O'Toole, an inveterate transit basher with the libertarian Cato Institute.

In his latest screed, O'Toole rejects the label "anti-transit," but in the same opening paragraph concludes that "all government transit is wasteful transit." His focus is on increasing subsidies for transit—too much going to "unionized transit workers," he says—but he doesn't mention our nation's vastly greater subsidies for driving, the popularity of which is a direct function of the heavy hand of government that O'Toole, Cox, Knaak, Roberts et. al. abhor.  

Little wonder, then, that Lind and three fellow conservatives found no fewer than 52 "false or misleading statements" in just 16 pages of another O'Toole rant. 

This time, he cites King's work about who rides transit these days and concludes: "Between high rates of auto ownership even among low-income people, the growing use of shared rides and the soon-to-arrive self-driving car, there doesn't seem to be much use for transit anymore ... Even to the extent that some low-income households lack cars, it would cost a lot less to give each one car than to continue subsidizing transit at the rate we do."

In other words, transferring that subsidy to driving, increasing congestion and ramping up wear and tear on roads and bridges, not to mention reducing choice, a concept that right-wingers seem to embrace in every area but transportation. The car giveaway idea is a disingenuous canard once promoted by the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. It reminds me of the arguments tobacco lobbyists make against tougher regulation of their deadly products: "Why not just ban it? We know how well Prohibition worked!"

OK, OK. I'm getting worked up and off point. Sorry. Amid all this noise from both ends of the policy spectrum, let's remember the wisdom of Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, who introduced a hugely successful modern transit system to his city of nearly 8 million: "An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport."  

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Everett Flynn says:

    August 4, 2014 at 8:51 am

    I keep checking back to see if there are any comments on this column, Conrad.  I’m continually surprised that there aren’t any.  I just wanted to post something to thank you for the column and for your perspective.  This is an excellent column and I appreciate you delving into the peculiarities and subtleties of the variety of criticism out there when it comes to transportation issues and transit, in particular.  Best wishes.

    • Katie Rodriguez says:

      August 9, 2014 at 11:34 am


  • Bill Graham says:

    August 4, 2014 at 9:10 am

    Being involved with transit for many years, the arguments are all very familiar.  The answer, I think, is to keep building rail and busways as skillfully and economically as humanly possible, and to let the results speak for themselves.  In the short term, that demands that the Green Line’s signals be fixed without delay, so that it can build ridership and realize its potential.  In the long term year after year, we see the Hiawatha line trains running with good passenger loads in the mid-day and standing loads at rush hour.  Over time, the facts have put the lie to the conservatives’ arguments which they continue to trot out, having nothing original to say on the subject.

    It’s well to remember that transit wears its price tag on its sleeve which makes it an easy target.  We can measure all the costs precisely so that the opponents can take pot shots at them.  Transit lines are visually prominent as well.  Roads and highways are everywhere and can hide their costs among myriad jurisdictions and funding sources.  Who knows what it all costs, and so it’s easy for conservatives to argue that roads are universal.

    We probably also will have to improve the freeways.  Six lanes clearly isn’t enough on I-494 between Eden Prairie and the airport, for example.  Could there be a transit solution in this congested corridor?

    • Elliot Altbaum says:

      August 5, 2014 at 10:03 am

      I think some of the reason there is so much “bashing” on both sides is the lack of clearly defined priorities by which to gauge the success of failure of transit projects. As a graduate research fellow here at MN2020, I will be writing our Friday article to better define our transit priorities . You can find it Friday morning on our homepage at

      Bill: I think 6 lanes is enough between Eden Prairie and the airport. There is no reason to expand the number of lanes on our highways. That money should go to the transit solution you suggest. There is a possible BRT on American Blvd that would provide that transit option.