Apparently some transit will survive in the stimulus, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not nearly enough, and remember, this thing still has to pass the Senate, which is even more tilted toward rural interests.
Consider the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, which includes Robert Byrd, Byron Dorgan, Pat Leahy, Tim Johnson, and Tom Harkin–all of whom will fight against it. And Dianne Feinstein, who can always be counted on to sell out her constituents. And then the Republicans, who rely on rural votes and detest cities in any event. That’s a very formidable combination.
More importantly, though, it’s less a matter of personnel than of the way in which lobbies are structured. Yesterday here at UCLA Law School, we had a symposium on SB 375, California’s landmark smart growth bill. Although hailed around the world as the start of new planning thinking, it’s important to realize that it nearly didn’t pass–Schwarzenegger came very close to vetoing it.
Why? The highway lobby hates transit and smart growth. It nearly persuaded Arnold to deep-six the thing, even though he claims that he wants vigorous action on climate change.
And think of who was in favor of SB 375: it was endorsed by the environmentalists, the housing lobby, the builders’ lobby, and most of the labor unions in the state. It still nearly lost, and then it passed only after getting watered down at the last minute. The highway lobby is that powerful.
Transit advocates need to assembly a lobby that can at least be in the same ballpark with highways. And so far, we haven’t. One environmental advocate explained to me that the “operating engineers” — the guys who drive the bulldozers — usually give candidates of both parties between $3-4 million per election cycle just in California. The highway contractors have locked down legislators throughout the state and the nation. The building trades prefer highways to transit because they believe (I don’t know whether it’s true) that there are more jobs doing rebar than building rail. Local transportation agencies ally closely with them because they dole out the cash, giving them political power.
And all of this is exacerbated by timing: because the nation has not committed to transit, the transit contractors are not anywhere near as powerful as the highwaymen. That’s the old LBJ formula: you give someone a subsidy, they make money, they contribute to your campaign, you win, and then you give them more subsidy. Transit folks have not gotten on that gravy train — er, highway — yet.
But we are going to have to figure out how to do it. Otherwise, it will be a losing battle every year.