Rail: Neither Right Nor Left, But Forward

Rejecting passenger rail on ideological grounds is like rejecting the fork or the screwdriver as “too liberal.” Passenger rail is a tool – one that works very well for some purposes in some situations, and less well for others. Many conservatives understand this well.

I hate to call attention to George Will’s latest column – a psycho-political portrait that seeks to explain why liberals supposedly adore high-speed rail. It’s an asinine column, for sure. But it is asinine in a particularly instructive way. For while Will seeks to shine a light on the workings of the progressive mind, he winds up shining a light into his own – and into the minds of the current crop of rail haters. 

To sum up Will’s argument, let’s quote the man himself: “[T]he real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.”

Got that? Will tells us that backers of rail are “blinded by ideology” in supporting a technology that “was the future two centuries ago.” Their motivation? Nothing less than the “modification of (other people’s) behavior.” 

It’s worthwhile to take a brief moment to disassemble Will’s argument, if for no other reason than that versions of it seem constantly to appear in the subtext of the national debate over high-speed rail. The column raises three important questions for me: First, is support for rail a liberal/conservative issue at all? Second, if it’s not, why are folks like Will so knee-jerkily (read, ideologically) opposed to pretty much any investment in passenger rail? And third, if the goal of transportation reformers is not world domination and mind control, what exactly is it?

1.    Is rail a liberal/conservative issue?
Rejecting passenger rail on ideological grounds is like rejecting the fork or the screwdriver as “too liberal.” Passenger rail is a tool – one that works very well for some purposes in some situations, and less well for others. 

Many conservatives understand this well. William Lind and the folks at the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation have long argued that there is nothing inherently conservative about America’s car-centered transportation system. The group’s web page states:

Not every conservative — not even every libertarian – believes America’s unofficial motto should be “drive or die.” There is a long conservative tradition of not wanting to see America reduced to nothing but strip malls, gas stations and pavement.”

This is a view that is shared by other conservatives as well. The Infrastructurist blog recently reported on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans in states with high-speed rail projects support the use of state funds for those projects. Not to mention the fact that Britain’s Conservative Party – the party of Margaret Thatcher – actually campaigned on a platform of high-speed rail in the last election.

Of course, folks like William Lind disagree in important ways with more liberal backers of transit and rail. Lind, for example, supports greater investment in incremental improvements in passenger rail service, rather than the construction of true high-speed bullet trains (an argument that I don’t agree with 100 percent, but which has a fair amount of merit). Pro-rail conservatives also support a greater role for private enterprise in rail construction and operation and a smaller role for unions – positions that one would fully expect a conservative to take.
In other words, conservatives and liberal supporters of transit and rail disagree about how to diversify our transportation infrastructure. But both sides see passenger rail as a perfectly legitimate transportation choice for America.

2.    So what, then, is George Will going on about?
Knee-jerk opposition to passenger rail is not a conservative-liberal issue, but it is an ideological issue. How else can one explain the self-destructive decisions of politicians like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Gov. Rick Scott in Florida to cancel high-speed rail projects in the face of all good sense and the support for those projects of leaders from across the political spectrum in their states?

The folks at the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation chalk up the reflexive hatred of rail transit to the influence of libertarianism. They write:

How is it then that so many prominent conservative voices are violently opposed to public transportation, especially rail? Part of the answer is that many of those “conservatives” are actually libertarians who profess to believe that “drive or die” represents a free market outcome.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The dominance of automobiles and highways is a product of massive government intervention. For decades, government at all levels poured money into roads while taxing competing railways. After World War II, government also established building codes that mandated suburban sprawl. Today, almost everywhere in the country, if a developer wants to build a traditional neighborhood of the type easily served by streetcars, the law won’t let him.”

I think this explanation gives anti-rail “libertarians” a bit too much credit. The notion that our current transportation/land-use system is a free market outcome is patently absurd, and the need to defend that idea leads libertarian outfits such as the Reason Institute down some pretty ridiculous intellectual paths, such as their ardent defense of the biggest government-run infrastructure program of all time – the Interstate Highway System – and their continued argument, in the presence of concrete evidence to the contrary, that roads somehow “pay for themselves.”

There’s something else going on here, and it is this: anti-rail libertarians have come to see the ability to go anywhere at any time – especially, if not exclusively, by car – as the supreme American freedom, which must be defended at every turn and at virtually any cost to the rest of society. Will’s piece validates this notion. He writes:

Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they—unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted—are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Riding a bus, in Will’s view, is just one step away from submitting to government mind control. It reminds me of former Colorado gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes’ claim that a Denver bike-sharing program was a United Nations plot that could “threaten our personal freedoms.”

The dangers of this kind of thinking are pretty profound, since it leads to viewing transportation decisions not as questions of how to move people and goods most efficiently at the lowest cost to society – now and in the future – but rather as questions of how to best breed freedom-loving citizens. Perhaps this ideologically based view of transportation is why some libertarians elevate personal mobility above virtually every other societal value – including the efficient expenditure of public resources, the preservation of healthy, safe and vibrant communities, environmental protection, or even national security. To this crowd, any public policy that fails to bow obsequiously to the primacy of the automobile – say, by diverting even a token amount of resources to transit or rail or slowing down vehicular travel for even a millisecond (witness the libertarian jihad against livability metrics, bike lanes and “traffic calming”) – is immediately suspect. 

3.    What do transportation reformers really want?
Most transportation reformers recognize that cars are useful tools and will be an important – perhaps even primary – part of our transportation future going forward. Some of us even find a good word from time to time for particularly well-designed suburbs. We don’t, in the common right-wing complaint, want everyone to live in Manhattan or to become mindless, train-riding drones.

Our critique – one that is shared by pro-rail liberals and conservatives –  is that our nation’s massive investment in highways and suburban sprawl, to the recent near exclusion of all other forms of transportation and development, has resulted in our nation having more cars (being driven more miles) and more sprawl-style developments than Americans actually desire or that are societally optimal. We see the economic toll imposed by congestion, accidents, fossil fuel dependence, and the need to own and maintain private vehicles. We are concerned about the massive impacts of our transportation system on our air, our water, our landscape and the global climate. And we look down the road at a future in which oil is increasingly scarce, environmental concerns are increasingly pressing, and the cost of building or expanding highways (particularly in congested metropolitan areas) continues to rise. We wonder, given those circumstances, if perhaps there aren’t other tools that can better address our transportation challenges.

The large investments President Obama and others are calling for in passenger rail, public transportation and other alternatives – and the changes many of us seek to make in public policy to encourage the construction of walkable, transit-oriented communities – result from the need to bring long-overdue balance to our transportation system, including correcting our country’s woeful neglect of passenger rail, which plays a useful role in transportation systems throughout the world. Those investments and policy changes are particularly urgent now, since the challenges America faces at the start of the 21st century are far different from the ones we faced in the mid-20th century.

Pieces like George Will’s anti-rail rant actually give me a bit of hope. They underscore the weakness of the factual case and the intellectual arguments of the all-roads-everywhere-all-the-time crowd. With such a weak hand to play, their only refuge is to make support for rail an ideological issue – something it clearly is not. 

Let’s hope that thoughtful conservatives will continue to push back against the demonization of rail by folks such as George Will, and work together with those from across the political spectrum seeking to address America’s real transportation challenges.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.