Why Do the Koch Brothers Care About Bus Rapid Transit?

Some laws don’t make a lot of sense to me. The Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would make bus rapid transit systems illegal in basically the only places in Tennessee where they are being proposed, including Nashville. It has recently come to light that the Tennessee branch of Americans for Prosperity (founded and funded by the Koch brothers) had a major hand in the bill’s creation and passage. But why?

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems are hybrid systems that combine the efficiency of rail systems with the economy of buses. No rails have to be constructed. Instead, buses are given dedicated lanes (often in the middle of roadways), fare is collected outside the bus, and nowadays, phone apps give real-time info on bus departure and arrival schedules. They have not grown popular in the United States, but in other countries around the world, they have proven extremely effective in reducing congestion and revitalizing urban centers.

BRT systems cost cities very little in comparison to building rail systems. The proposed BRT in Nashville was a 7.1 mile East-West system called the Amp which was slated to cost $174 million. Much of that funding would have been federal, but would not have constituted any additional funds from the federal government. Instead, the Amp would have been included in the state’s budget for federal allocations.

So far, I’m not seeing any peculiar reason why AFP should have shut down the Amp. Or why the Koch brothers would even care. In fact, why are conservatives so often against mass transit systems?

Most cities, especially in the South, suffer from urban sprawl, strip mall eye sores, the propagation of parking lot wastelands, and a general lack of local community. I live in Marietta, GA, a geographical oddity that is somehow thirty minutes drive from everywhere in the Metro Atlanta area. Because of the fact that everyone drives his own car everywhere (and basically has to), urban centers that would have typically included street-front businesses, cheaper lodging, historical architecture, etc., are instead largely populated by drab, rectangular, low-cost franchise outlets and miles and miles of parking lots and multi-lane expressways.

There is no way to downplay what a chilling effect this has had on communities. Most people can’t live where they work, which means they are not much invested in the community where they live. They often don’t know local business owners or their neighbors. The church they go to might be thirty minutes away, their family and friends might be scattered all over town. And all this sprawl just creates more sprawl. You need more lanes to ease traffic, so you flatten out a local community to put in another highway and another set of parking lots. Just look at what happened to Atlanta. Unless you make a major step toward a different urban system, that will never change. And the initial changes will be very difficult.

The website stopamp.org cites many reasons not to support Amp. For one, it says that it will take away two lanes of traffic (and parking spaces) from streets that are already congested. They think this will just make traffic worse. Fair point. It also says that the Tennessee Transit Authority does not expect the Amp to get enough additional commuter use to justify the expense or ease traffic. Also, a fair point. But why should that mean that BRT should be made illegal in Nashville altogether? Why not figure out a better plan?

And furthermore, any change toward a mass transit system will involve growing pains and a change in urban culture. Will the Amp be the end of small businesses in that corridor? Not necessarily. BRT has been very successful in other cities at generating small business growth. And if people were just willing commit to transit systems and tighter local communities, it would fix much of the congestion in the area. Who cares if you lose two lanes and parking spaces if you don’t need those two lanes or parking spaces? What you would create is the possibility of a pedestrian-friendly urban area populated by community shops and tenement buildings.

In other words, a place where you can walk from where you work to where you live to where you buy local goods to where you go to church to where your friends hang out. One of my good friends in Portland only recently bought a car after he had twins. Before then, he and his wife hadn’t needed one in two years. That’s just not possible in the South, yet. And with laws like the one that just passed, it becomes an even more remote possibility.

Do you know how inefficient our currently individualistic commute systems are? Our HOV lanes are ridiculously under-used (or are just becoming money-making lanes for greedy local governments, e.g., Peach Pass). I regularly drive in HOV lanes and pass line after line of cars stuck in traffic with single passengers in every car, many of which are “wilderness-ready” trucks and SUVs. Sure, they need a lot of lanes. But only because of their pigheaded dedication to urban sprawl, long-distance commuting, secluded cookie cutter subdivisions, and traffic.

Why would anyone want to perpetuate this? I don’t know. But the Tennessee Senate, in my opinion, has just created legislation that will likely be used as a model in other states to further shut down bus rapid transit systems. And for what? I really don’t know.

The only argument I could accept is that perhaps the Koch brothers are against anything being funded by the federal government. But shutting down the Amp doesn’t reduce the federal allotment going to Tennessee. It just means millions of those dollars won’t go to bus rapid transit. And this bill means it is more likely that Nashville will scrap Amp for a much more expensive solution. ((A GAO study found that (in 2000), Light Rail Transit systems cost between $12.4 million per mile (when built through rural land) to $118.8 million per mile (when built in urban areas). That would mean the proposed Nashville system would cost somewhere in the range of $6-700 million or more.)) I fail to see why this is a win for anyone.

Local communities are becoming a thing of the past. And there is no doubt that this lack of local community solidarity transfers power from local governments to the state and federal governments. Is it any wonder that local laws and regulations are being engineered by distant political forces and federal manipulation? The classic mantra of tyrants is “Divide and Conquer.” This is perhaps a strange idea to many, but urban sprawl is just the ticket tyrants need to keep this country on its knees.