Can the Highway Lobby Be Beaten?

Meet the transportation lobbying gorilla in the stimulus.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.