How The Right Embraces Rail

When I started this blog at the close of 2014, political divisions in transportation and development were clear. Team Red was auto-oriented, suburban and rural; Team Blue was urban and pedestrian. But the Trump presidency is busy annexing territory that was Team Blue’s for decades, while simultaneously abandoning regions that were long the province of the GOP. He won Pennsylvania; he lost Fort Bend County. The political affiliation of transportation and urban development issues may get a bit murkier.

The Left is unlikely to absorb a large number of staunch suburbanists. Trump’s energy policy is Palin-esque – drill, baby, drill – and the industrial sectors which benefit the most from sprawl and open roads will be firmly in the Trump party.

But the Right will likely end up with quite a bit more urbanists. A few threads feed into this.

First, Trumpism owes a large debt to Paleoconservatism. In many sense the Trump platform is a reboot of the Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot campaigns, delivered with WWE bombast. And the Paleos always loved trains. Until recently, the Wikipedia article for Bill Lind described him as “an American monarchist, paleoconservative, columnist, Christian, and light rail enthusiast.” An iconoclastic combination if ever there was one. Lind and Paul Weyrich founded a magazine to promote transit to conservatives, and were major boosters of heritage streetcar systems.

Second, assuming Trump succeeds in remaking the GOP in his image, he will have absorbed a group of predominantly Catholic white ethnics who’ve never held the anti-urban prejudices common to America’s Protestant founders. The suburban/urban divide was a Protestant/Catholic, Nuclear/Extended, West-of-Hajnal/East-of-Hajnal divide long before it was a white/black one, which is why exclusionary zoning existed in 1925 even though racially restrictive covenants were legal until 1948 (and quietly enforced for some time after that).

Third, the official position of the urbanist left – RESIST, NOT MY PRESIDENT, etc – doesn’t offer much for the architect, planner, or engineer. The view of the greater transit blogosphere on Trump can be summarized by Yonah Freemark quoting Ben Fried: “enabling any aspect of the Trump policy platform will grease the skids for enacting the entire Trump worldview.” Apparently we are to quit our jobs and do something else – be a barista, perhaps – lest we be complicit in the next Holocaust which is surely coming down the pike.

I doubt this will appeal to many. Moreover, I think if Trump makes good on his infrastructure promises, he will win some converts. Back in November, I was in the comments of that Yonah Freemark post arguing that Trump would likely promote high speed rail. Since then, McClatchy has leaked a “top 50” infrastructure document which includes not just Texas Central and the ARC/Gateway project (as I would have assumed), but also various light rail projects, commuter rail to Fort Worth (!), and the Second Avenue Subway (!!).

All of which still has to get through a GOP-controlled congress, who could conceivably strip the entire package of its rail elements and leave the same sort of toll-roads-and-more-toll-roads framework which the lefty blogosphere fears/hopes for. But that seems increasingly unlikely.

One thought on “How The Right Embraces Rail”

  1. I disagree with this. Yes, Trump won Pennsylvania… by running up the margin in the Appalachian parts of it. Clinton won the commuter suburbs with the SEPTA stations. She actually overperformed in them – she won Chester County, which Obama lost in 2012 (but won in 2008).

    Now, it’s true Trump is proposing some transit infrastructure, at least per one leak (there are leaks saying contradictory things, like that he wants to zero out transit funding from the gas tax fund). But if we take the list leaked to McClatchy at face value, he’s still not proposing good transit infrastructure. The list of transit projects does not include a single line that a) is not already funded, and b) has even a semi-decent projected cost per rider. The GLX in Boston satisfies criterion b, but is already funded, the governor of Massachusetts is just looking for reasons to cut its budget. SAS is still looking for funding, but current cost projection is $60,000 per weekday rider, which is almost enough to temporarily turn me into Randall O’Toole.

    Fundamentally, Trump is not really fixing the big problem facing US transit, which is cost control. Arbitrarily threatening companies on Twitter only makes contractors more reluctant to deal with the public sector, which is likely to make New York’s one-bid contract problem even worse than it already is. He is unconcerned with policy (he got this list by asking governors for their wishlists), so he won’t care about solving agency turf standoffs. There’s already an ecosystem of sycophants clamoring for a strong autocrat who’ll bash heads together, many of whom are anti-Trump, for example Thomas Friedman; Robert Moses’s reputation has been on the upswing among mainline Democrats in New York going back to Eliot Spitzer. The probability anyone who actually understands anything about why US transit is so expensive will get through to the administration is about zero.

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