Mass Transit in the Sun Belt: If You Build It, They Will Come - but Not If the System Is Skimpy and Unreliable

By Fitzgerald, Joan | The American Prospect, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

Mass Transit in the Sun Belt: If You Build It, They Will Come - but Not If the System Is Skimpy and Unreliable


Fitzgerald, Joan, The American Prospect


Even in car-dependent middle America, there is support for local mass transit in surprising places. Some of these are blue cities in red states, with City Hall governed by Democrats or pragmatic Republicans. In some, the local business elite backs transit initiatives out of frank acknowledgment that reliance on cars has reached its limits. This stance, however, puts them at odds with more ideologically antigovernment Republicans who typically control Sun Belt state legislatures. The pro-carbon obsession of the Trump administration largely eliminates federal funds, at least for now, as any sort of carrot.

The transit coalition is also fragile. With mass transit underdeveloped and inconvenient, many suburbanites view buses as transit of last resort for the poor and prefer commuting by car. And in some cities minority communities want more transit in principle, but don't trust that new rail lines will serve them when basic bus service in their communities is sporadic. Whether these aspiring cities prevail in their efforts to expand transit depends largely on the vagaries of political leadership, timing, and luck.

This article looks at three of them. In Houston, which famously has no zoning, planning of any kind is a challenge--and transit requires long-term planning. Although voters approved a light rail system plan and a regional transit agency to build it in 1978, the first light rail line didn't open until 2004. Adequate scale has been blocked by local opposition and hostile members of Congress, particularly Representatives Tom DeLay and John Culberson. While rail has been slowed, Houston has nonetheless managed an impressive revamping of its bus service.

Salt Lake City, despite a state that is rock-ribbed Republican in its governors and senators, often elects Democratic mayors. The mountain west has always been reliant on federal funding to aid development, and Republican legislators and governors in Utah tend to be less ideologically opposed to help from Washington than those in some other red states. Salt Lake City transit advocates are also helped by geography. The city is hemmed in by mountains on two sides and the Great Salt Lake on a third, so there are severe limits to highway expansion and suburban growth requires mass transit. Salt Lake City has also had competent local leadership that isn't opposed to planning.

In Nashville, by contrast, political bungling upended a far-reaching plan for a region-wide light rail system. Given extreme highway congestion, popular and elite support for expanded transit has grown in recent years. Yet different political and business leaders had rival visions of how to proceed. In 2017, a broad coalition managed to qualify a $5.4 billion ballot initiative that included 19 transit centers, expanded bus service, and five new tram lines, as well as sidewalk and bike infrastructure improvements. The proposal was backed by the Chamber of Commerce and Nashville's popular Democratic mayor, Megan Barry. But when she resigned in disgrace in a sex scandal, the transit plans died with her. The final nail in the coffin was financial support by the Koch brothers for a nasty media campaign against the plan.

Beyond the vagaries of local policies, efforts to catapult car-reliant cities into a mass-transit era are hobbled by the logic of building large transportation systems. These projects take decades. If you don't build it, they won't come. Federal and local subsidies for autos have a 70-year head start. The highway lobby is not at all averse to planning--for highways--and the existing pattern of development both reflects and reinforces the dominance of cars. By contrast, the incremental expansion of bus or light rail lines fails to change the basic dynamics of how people get to work or go shopping, or where development occurs. Local government that reflects fierce partisan, ideological, and interest-group contention typically produces stop-and-go transit plans. …

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