Why do the best transit projects face the strongest opposition?


During a recent Coalition for Smarter Growth event, Houston-based transit planner and author Christof Spieler succinctly described the best way to design new rail and bus routes: identify the places people live, work, and play, then draw lines between them.

Similarly-practical approaches to connectivity have worked pretty well for other forms of physical infrastructure in America, such as roads and power lines.

But seemingly every proposal to improve our country’s transit systems faces powerful opposition.

Spieler explained that some cities, including Dallas and Austin, TX, have designed their systems in a manner intended to minimize this opposition. One common tactic he highlighted is routing new lines via pre-existing rights of way, such as freight rail corridors or freeway medians.

Because such rights of way are often not conducive to transit-oriented land uses, these routes may not effectively serve the locations where demand for mobility is greatest. For example, Austin’s diesel multiple unit trains make a beeline from the region’s northern suburbs toward the University of Texas and the state capitol. But before they draw close enough to those should-be hubs, they suddenly veer to the east and traverse a semicircle that avoids them.

To give more Americans access to safe, reliable, efficient, and equitable mobility, we must prevent transit opponents from harming the quality of the end product the public receives.

Why do people oppose the best transit projects?

In my experience with transit, I’ve observed that opponents fall into three main categories: corporate, fiscal, and self-interested. While these categories can overlap, each of them offers insight into the reasons the most promising projects face such fierce opposition.

Corporate opponents: These opponents are concerned that better transit could reduce their businesses’ profits. They are concentrated in the auto and oil industries that transit systems compete against for customers.

Fiscal opponents: These opponents feel that large-scale government expenditures, such as major transit improvements, needlessly disrupt the free market, comprising a form of unnatural “social engineering.”

Self-interested opponents: These opponents, better known as NIMBYs, worry that any substantial changes to their surroundings, such as a new transit route, will ruin the quality of their day-to-day lives.

Spieler made comparable observations in his recent book, citing concerns regarding cost, crime, government expenditures, gentrification, impacts to car infrastructure, and race as common drivers of opposition to transit.

Actions of transit opponents punish the public

To alleviate the three forms of opposition described above, transit planners often decide to make compromises. But the resulting harm catalyzes far-reaching problems that can hinder our mobility for decades. Examples include:

Rail expansion in Maryland: WMATA decided to situate its College Park Metro station, which opened in 1993, adjacent to CSX freight tracks that pass well to the east of the University of Maryland’s campus. The choice to sacrifice ridership was made in part to alleviate opposition fueled by racism. Locals failed to follow the lead of Berkeley, CA, which 20 years earlier helped fund an underground BART line that serves a bustling station located just a block from the Cal campus.

More than 25 years later, on-campus rail service is finally on its way to College Park, but only after Gov. Larry Hogan reduced planned Purple Line headways, citing fiscal concerns. This will make travel more challenging for riders who, thanks to the original Metro station’s location, will need to change trains to get to and from campus.

At the same time he slashed planned Purple Line service, Hogan cut Baltimore’s proposed Red Line entirely. As a lower-cost compromise, Baltimore got a questionable bus system redesign, but most funding originally intended for the canceled rail line was re-allocated to car infrastructure.

High-speed rail in America: After becoming Florida’s governor in 2010, Rick Scott rejected federal funding for a planned high-speed rail project that would have connected Tampa, Orlando, and Miami, citing risks to taxpayers. Instead, the state got Brightline, a rail route that shares much of its West Palm Beach (eventually Orlando)-to-Miami route with Florida East Coast Railway freight trains.

Following Scott’s decision, the federal government redirected much of Florida’s funding to California’s now-under construction high-speed line. But sustained NIMBY opposition from agricultural interests in that state’s Central Valley has contributed substantially to delays and cost overruns that the Trump administration used to justify its recent threat to de-fund the project.

Meanwhile, designers of the Texas Central Railway have strived to distinguish their high-speed rail project from criticized aspects of California’s. Two highly apparent compromises they’ve made:

  • In California, a combination of local and express trains will serve numerous communities, but Texas’s line has just one planned intermediate stop, meaning benefits will be confined mostly to Dallas and Houston.
  • California’s “blended system” approach will allow trains to reach centrally located, transit-friendly stations via existing tracks, but Texas’s planned stations will be surrounded primarily by highways and parking.

Riders should never be pawns in the battle against transit opponents

Relentless opposition to needed projects makes transit planning much more difficult than it should be. But by sticking to our values through persistence, analysis, and accountability, we can ensure that, even if it takes a little more time and effort, we get the job done in the end.

Persistence: If transit opponents can teach us anything, it’s their persistence. In California, high-speed rail has won again and again at the polls and in the courts, yet the naysayers remain as loud and confident as ever. And decades after auto and oil interests failed to plow highwaysthrough DC, their anti-WMATA efforts likely helped pave the way for substantial region-wide transit service cuts in 2017 that pushed more people to car-based options.

Persistency can pay off for transit proponents too, however. For example, voters in Los Angelesand Seattle both passed large-scale transit referenda in 2016 after prior attempts came up short. In San Diego, a 2016 ballot measure that would have funded a combination of transit improvements and highway expansions failed, but the region’s Metropolitan Transit System is preparing an even more ambitious set of projects that could go before voters as soon as 2020. Other places that have experienced recent setbacks, like Nashville and Detroit, should take note.

Analysis:  Persistence does not mean simply rushing to bring every pie-in-the-sky transit idea to fruition. When transit routes are built just for the sake of expansion (often of a specific mode, such as a mixed-traffic streetcar) rather than to meet specific connectivity needs, they do not perform well. Transit opponents then highlight such poorly planned routes’ shortcomings in their efforts to block more promising projects – not just in the region at hand, but throughout the country.

To reduce this risk, planners must conduct the analysis needed to follow Spieler’s aforementioned advice: find out where people need to go, identify how they currently get there, and analyze how we can make that trip more convenient, affordable, and sustainable. Such analysis should involve not just new transit routes, but also zoning adjustments that would allow cities to maximize the utility of those routes and enhance quality of life in the neighborhoods they serve.

Accountability: Transit skeptics work quite hard to publicize issues with providers’ financial and managerial practices. However, their proposed “solutions” typically involve de-funding agencies like WMATA and the California High Speed Rail Authority, if not dissolving them altogether. If they were to succeed, the public would be worse off than it was before the issues were revealed.

Instead of accepting periodic scandals as part of their day-to-day operations, transit agencies should make identifying and addressing administrative problems a more prominent aspect of their missions. Not only could this directly make more money available for the mobility product that taxpayers fund them to provide, but it also could reduce the amount of fodder available to opponents, helping get needed projects completed in a timelier, more efficient manner.

Because in the end, we all – even transit opponents – must get where we need to go.

Photo of Houston’s light rail line by Mike Lapidakis on Flickr’s Creative Commons


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