By Angie Schmitt, October 3, 2014
David and Charles Koch (Photo: Screenshot from The Koch Brothers Exposed film).
This post first appeared at StreetsBlog USA.
advocates around the country were transfixed by a story in Tennessee
this April, when the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity made a
bid to pre-emptively kill Nashville bus rapid transit.
It was an especially brazen attempt by Charles and David Koch’s
political network to strong-arm local transportation policy makers. But
it was far from the only time the Kochs and their surrogates have taken
aim at transit.
The Koch brothers, who owe their fortune to fossil fuels, are best known for funding global warming deniers
and Republican insurgents aligned with the Tea Party. With their
political influence under greater scrutiny during election season, now’s
a good time to pull together the various strands of Koch anti-transit
The Kochs fund a wide-ranging network of “think tanks,”
nonprofits and political organizations. Their best-known political arm
is Americans for Prosperity and its various offshoots and subsidiaries.
David Koch was founding chairman of Americans for Prosperity, and both
brothers provided funding for its launch. Among other activities, the
group does plenty to manufacture Agenda
21 paranoia, which has cable subscribers around the country convinced
that smart growth is a United Nations conspiracy that will lead to
The Kochs also have plenty of ties to widely
quoted, transit-bashing pundits like Randall O’Toole, Wendell Cox and
Stanley Kurtz — people employed by organizations that receive Koch
funding, like the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation, and who
spout the same talking points against walkability and smart growth.
experts like O’Toole and Cox have been making the rounds for ages, but
the Nashville BRT story raised new questions. How many local transit
projects are drawing fire from the Koch political network? And what
impact is it having?
Robbins, policy manager at the Center for Transportation Excellence,
which supports transit ballot measures around the country, said the
Nashville case was an eye-opener. “We’re definitely going to be watching
it as we see more conservative efforts pop up in Milwaukee and Oregon
as well,” she said. “We’re starting to keep an eye out to see if it’s
going to be a trend.”
In Tennessee, the local Americans for
Prosperity chapter failed to enact the transit lane ban, but it did
undermine and weaken the Nashville BRT project, which won’t be as robust
as first planned. The Nashville example got us wondering where else
Koch-backed groups are attacking local transit projects.
Here are a few more examples we turned up:
Americans for Prosperity Indiana was a leading opponent of
efforts to expand transit in the Indianapolis region. The group lobbied
state officials to kill legislation that allows Indianapolis to hold a
tax referendum to expand its transit network.
Prosperity was unsuccessful in completely stopping the Indiana
legislation, but it made its mark. The language of the bill that
eventually passed was amended to forbid the Indianapolis region from
pursuing light rail with any funds raised from the tax. Americans for
Prosperity has been especially critical of rail, citing a Cato Institute
study [PDF] that says rail projects are likely to run over budget (which road projects never do, of course).
Americans for Prosperity Virginia fought a new tax in
Loudoun County to pay for Metro’s Silver Line extension. The
organization issued robo-calls calling the extension a “bail-out to
rail-station developers,’’ according to the Washington Post. The county Board of Supervisors voted to proceed with the project anyway.
report by the Pioneer Institute created a “manufactured controversy”
over the costs of service at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation
Authority, Ellen Dannin wrote in Truthout earlier this year.
Pioneer Institute is part of the State Policy Network, a group of think
tanks with “deep ties to the Koch brothers” according to the Center for
Media and Democracy [PDF]. According
to one of the institute’s studies, maintenance costs at the MBTA are
“out-of-control,” but Dannin, an author of two books on labor issues,
wrote in Truthout that Pioneer relied on metrics that were bound to
arrive at a predetermined outcome. For example, it chose to compare bus
maintenance costs on a per-mile basis, a standard that puts a dense,
crowded city like Boston at a disadvantage.
“Pioneer must have
been aware that choosing a cost-per-mile standard would put the worst
face on the MBTA’s performance and that neither a bus driver nor a
mechanic could do anything to change that situation,” wrote Dannin.
report also relied on some suspect comparisons. As the basis for its
claims that MBTA’s pay was “out of control,” Pioneer compared costs with
less expensive cities like Spokane, Washington, where the cost of
living is about 22 percent lower than Boston’s.
organizations were instrumental in sinking Florida’s high-speed rail
plans. In 2000, Sunshine State voters passed an amendment to the state’s
constitution requiring the state to establish high-speed rail exceeding
120 mph linking its five major cities.
But when Governor Rick
Scott was elected in 2010 in a wave of Tea Party governors, he fell in
line with fellow members of the Republican Governors Association who
were killing rail projects on Ohio, Wisconsin and New Jersey.
hired the Reason Foundation — where David Koch is a trustee — to write a
report about the proposal. To the surprise of no one, the foundation’s
Wendell Cox found the project would cost way more than projected [PDF]. Scott used Cox’s dubious claims as the basis for killing the project.
that time, private investors have taken up the project, which is, in
itself, pretty compelling evidence of the financial feasibility of the
Reason Foundation was also critical of the Los Angeles Exposition Line
extension, a $2.5 billion, 15-mile light rail line that will connect
Santa Monica to downtown. In May 2012, the week the first phase opened,
Reason conducted a “study”
in which staff went to Expo Line stations and counted passengers.
Researchers counted 13,000 passengers, short of the 27,000 daily
ridership forecast for 2020. The organization concluded that even by
“the most optimistic figure Reason can come up with,” ridership
projections had been “vastly inflated.”
Proponents of the line
argued that counting passengers during the first week of service wasn’t a
fair way to measure its long term success. And they were right. The
following year, the Expo Line exceeded anticipated 2020 daily ridership, seven years sooner than expected.
study by the University of Southern California reinforced the success
of the project, finding that those living within a half mile of the
station had reduced their driving by 40 percent. A little bit less of their paychecks will end up in the Kochs’ pockets.