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The conservative case for more rail transit

Noted for the record.


As conservatives, we find it odd that many people expect us to oppose public transportation, especially rail. In fact, high-quality transit, which usually means rail, benefits conservatives in a number of important ways. It spurs development, something conservatives generally favor, especially in Texas. It saves people, including conservatives, precious time, because those who ride rail transit can work or read on the train instead of wasting hours stuck in traffic. Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs, which conservatives prefer over paying welfare. And rail transit, especially streetcars, helps support retail in downtowns by increasing the number of middle-class people on sidewalks.

Libertarians’ arguments against rail transit mostly boil down to one criticism: It’s subsidized. Yes, it is. So is all other transportation. Highway user fees now cover only 47.5 percent of the cost of highways. Nationally, rail transit of all types covers 50 percent of its operating costs from fares. It’s a veritable wash. In contrast, bus systems, which libertarians often favor over rail, cover only 28 percent of their operating costs from the farebox.

Regrettably, conservatives’ tendency to accept libertarians’ arguments against rail transit (without checking their numbers) may deprive Texas conservatives of more chances to escape traffic congestion. Austin, for instance, may be different from other Texas cities in many ways, but not when it comes to traffic. The city’s rapidly growing population has packed its freeways at rush hours. And as other cities have found, building more freeways is not the answer. New lanes fill up as soon as they’re opened, and limited-access freeways in urban areas slice up and kill surrounding communities.


As rail transit spreads throughout the state, Texans also have another big transit opportunity on the horizon: connecting cities with high-speed rail. A private company, Texas Central Railway, plans to build a line that will connect Dallas and Houston (though projects connecting other cities could follow). Unlike the massive government boondoggle in California, which we oppose, the Texas line will be built without government money. And it’s not just any company providing the technology; it’s Central Japan Railway Co., which runs the world’s first and most successful high-speed rail line, the Shinkasen, connecting Tokyo and Osaka in Japan.

By every standard, Texas’ high-speed rail proposal is something conservatives should support enthusiastically. It exemplifies what conservatives like best: private enterprise acting to make money by providing a service people want and need.

If you’re thinking that most of this sounds a lot like the progressive/liberal case for rail transit, I would agree with you. Objectively good ideas ought to cross ideological boundaries. For those of you who followed the legislative session at all, the opposition to the proposed high speed rail line came almost exclusively from Republicans, though to be fair that’s because the mostly rural areas (plus Montgomery County) that led the opposition are represented in the Lege entirely by Republicans. Where there were votes case, Dallas-area Republicans supported the Texas Central Railway proposal, and if there were any Democratic reps or Senators in the affected areas I’m sure they would have voted with their constituents. Given the pushback some inner Loopers have given here to possible routes into downtown, we might have seen some votes against by Houston-area Dems if it had come to that. Anyway, there’s nothing really new here – hardcore movement conservatives like Paul Weyrich have long supported rail transit for the same kind of reasons authors Lind and Bottoms outline in this piece – just a reminder that support for rail isn’t and needn’t be a partisan issue.

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  1. Jules says:

    I’d love for these conservatives to further expound on “Transit of all kinds helps poor people get to jobs” in relation to an approximate $300 HSR roundtrip.

    Charles, I’m curious as to your reasons you think HSR is a good idea in Texas. Would you feel the same way if it was your house and your neighborhood they were planning on ruining?

  2. les says:

    All civic projects are equal opportunity neighborhood destroyers so nimbyism is no excuse to single out a mode of transportation for criticism. And I always found HSR tickets in Europe very reasonable compared to flying. And since I’m no fan of flying I’m always willing to pay more for a train if I must.

    What bothers me is when conservatives shoot down HSR because of Obama’s promotion of it, but would praise it if someone like Reagan were to support it.

  3. Tory says:

    Public transportation investments shouldn’t be partisan. Move the most people for the least taxpayer money. That’s it. Rail can do that in rare cases (like the original Main St. LRT), but usually freeways, managed lanes, and buses win in newer, multi-centric, post-WW2 cities.