- Some enemies of mass transit work here.
This week, 25 U.S. senators issued a call for more transportation funding throughout America. "We implore the [Senate Finance] Committee to strengthen the Mass Transit Account's fair share of funding in the next surface transportation authorization to guarantee that our economic recovery continues," the senators' letter declares (PDF). The note speaks of how mass transit systems create jobs, how they connect the rural with the urban, the high gas prices and how demand for public transit systems is higher than ever--and will likely continue to soar. Finally, the letter notes, downcast, that upward of 80% of public transit systems have seen flat or declining funds from various government sources, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
All struck me as a compelling enough plea, but one fact stood out to me as I read the letter ... 24 of the 25 signatories were Democrats, and the 25th senator was an Independent. Again the age-old question returns: Why does the subject of mass transit split so often on party lines?
In one sense, the answer seems obvious. Mass transit evokes the idea of big government and of urban life, neither of which are really big draws for Republicans. This chart from Transport Politic compares the population densities of U.S. Congressional districts with their politicians' voting records, and the results are compelling. As Transport Politics said in the accompanying text, the divide is more notable in the House than Senate, but overall sentiment about public transportation seem to cut across political lines, despite many exceptions that of course exist.
Liberal talk show The Young Turks considered Tea Party opposition to public transportation--and the irony of this position, given support for subsidized autos--back in 2009:
The priorities on transportation do seem to shake out accordingly on a national level. When Republicans entered the House last year, one of their first big proposal was to cut public transportation across the country, as the non-profit American Transportation Association objected to back in January. It would cut 200,000 jobs, the organization argued.
But is the political divide even a true one? Perhaps not. A Yale study from May of this year conducted some polling that shows that 74% of Republicans support bike paths and installing bicycle lanes and 80% support increasing the availability of public transportation "in your county" (PDF). Democrats do support those priorities more, with 85% in favor of the bike paths and 88% supporting increased availability of public transit, but is the difference so huge?
The objection to public transportation, then, may lie more between Democratic and Republican politicians and not with the people. Some conservatives have, in fact, argued that the goals of public transit harmonize well with broader conservative principles of national security and economic development (check out the 2009 book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation for this case).
What do you think drives the partisan divide on mass transit and does the political debate reflect the country's real thoughts? In D.C., it's hard to say, but I'm curious how others feel the split plays out around them.