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Driving on the Right: America’s Polarized Transportation Policies

Highway construction receives bipartisan support, but Republican voters in Sun Belt cities have gained the most from the country’s car-centric transportation system, while transit is almost entirely backed by Democrats.

A highway interchange in Phoenix. The interstate highway system has been pivotal in the development of America's Sun Belt, which has become a Republican stronghold.
(Tim Roberts Photography/Shutterstock)
For a lot of Americans outside of cities like New York, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, most people don't use transit. Riding buses is something poor people do. But if it's understood that it's the Democratic position to support funding for transit, and that's something that all good Democrats in the suburbs believe they should be doing, that’s a way forward for people who want to assemble a winning coalition for better transit funding.

The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 was the largest peacetime public works program in American history. Approximately 42 billion tons of dirt were moved to create the interstate highway system, the equivalent of 116 Panama Canal projects. One million Americans were displaced from their homes as well, while annual federal spending on highways quadrupled in the years that followed.

Clayton Nall, an associate professor of political science at University of California, Santa Barbara, has sought to show that the interstate system also reshaped the political landscape of America, fueling extreme partisan polarization. In his 2018 book The Road To Inequality, he dives into historic survey data to show that predominantly Republican voters were far more likely to take advantage of further-flung locales opened up by new highways, creating a regional polarization that proved especially strong in Sun Belt areas that hadn’t substantially suburbanized before the 1950s.

Nall’s book also shows that as regional polarization grew, certain aspects of transportation policy became more contentious. Transit and other non-auto sources of spending increasingly polled like means tested anti-poverty programs, which are often unpopular among Republicans and conservative voters. (He finds that the more a transportation policy proposal would help city residents, or is specifically targeted to lower-income people, the less popular it is.) Highway spending, meanwhile, is beloved by all, like the universal welfare programs Social Security and Medicare.

Governing talked with Nall about why this process was so much more dramatic in the Sun Belt, the Obama-era surge in polarization around transit, and whether transportation reformers should hope that their policy issues don’t get attention in Congress.

Governing: You argue that the interstate highway system facilitated residential sorting and political polarization. How did the fruits of the 1956 act differ from the suburbanization processes that had already occurred, from streetcar suburbs to places like Levittown which had already been built before the mid-1950s?

Clayton Nall: Suburbanization was already happening prior to the construction of interstate highways. But the interstates were, in terms of volume, much more significant. They enable a degree of greenfield development in the outlying parts of metro areas that wouldn't have occurred on nearly the same scale absent federal funding and the construction of a large-scale highway system.

One of my case studies looked at the growth of suburbs in Milwaukee. A great example of this style of development that differs from the streetcar suburbs is the I-94 corridor west of Milwaukee. If you look at presidential election results across the period from the 1950s to the 1970s after I-94 went in around 1963-64, you see a sudden explosion of population along that corridor in Waukesha County, which is now one of the most important counties for Republicans nationwide.

Prior to that point there had been some suburbanization. But it wasn't anywhere near the scale enabled by the interstates. The goal of my project is not to argue that there's a single cause driving suburbanization or urban-suburban polarization, which did exist prior to the interstates. But interstates catalyzed that to a much greater degree than anybody had seen before.
Milwaukee. After I-94 was built around 1963-64, the metro area saw a sudden population explosion along its corridor in Waukesha County, which is now one of the most important Republican counties nationwide.
(Keith Homan/Shutterstock)
Governing: You find that this process was most marked in high-growth areas, like the Sun Belt, and especially in the South. What explains that? There’s still plenty of segregation and polarization in the industrial Midwest or the urban Northeast. Wisconsin was just your prime example there!

Nall: Even by the standards of the Rust Belt, Milwaukee is an unusually segregated city. Racial segregation is highly correlated with partisanship, and has become more correlated with partisanship, which helps explain why Milwaukee is such a significant case. But otherwise, particularly in the northeastern parts of the Rust Belt, there was a lot of suburbanization that had already taken place.

There wasn't any of that pre-existing development in, say, suburban Atlanta. Even in the 1950s, the Atlanta metro area was nothing compared to what it has become. Same with all these cities across the Sun Belt. The interstates are a lot more pivotal for the development of those areas. Take a look at a place like Minneapolis, which had already seen a bunch of development into the suburbs around Minneapolis and St. Paul. By the '60s, '70s, '80s, you're already seeing more expansion outward, where the inner suburbs are becoming more Democratic, the housing stock is depreciating and you're seeing some filtering out where more affluent households are moving out into more remote suburbs. The remaining housing left in these inner suburbs is becoming more diverse, more likely to be occupied by working-class families. Some of that is being picked up in the state and regional political differences.

Governing: How did this process affect partisan attitudes toward transportation policy? 

Nall: There are two things that are happening. The book relies heavily on data from this really terrific historical archive called the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, which has all sorts of historical surveys from Gallup and Roper. But they only started asking questions about transportation policy, transit and highways in the '70s. Prior to that, we don't know a lot about how people thought about highway construction or housing development, let alone what the U.S. should do about declining transit agencies or railroads.

We've seen a few things in the aftermath of the construction of interstate highways, though. One of the things that's gotten a lot worse in recent years is that some of these issues have become very polarized, perhaps as a result of almost no Republicans living in really urbanized areas anymore. Republicans no longer have a direct attachment to urban concerns.

The survey data that we have show that Republicans have become much more opposed to funding for transit. When you ask them about specifics around things like funding bus lines to low-income housing projects, they're extremely negative toward any approaches to transportation that involves targeting benefits to urban areas. However, there's still bipartisan consensus around highway spending.

Why would that be? Republicans are no longer urban and therefore have pretty much removed themselves from any direct concern with urban transit funding. Both Democrats and Republicans live in pretty suburban areas, both parties are relatively suburbanized and many subgroups of both parties support more spending on highways. You've seen this in the politics of recent highway bills. Democrats have talked a big game about climate change and developing alternatives to more road building. But when the chips are down, they're still supporting highway bills that reflect this consensus on highways.

Governing: You did not find distinctive rural, suburban or urban opinions around highway spending. Instead, you found broad support for it across Americans of all residential types. Where polarization really hits, increasingly in recent decades, is in Republican opposition to non-highway spending. Transit is becoming polarizing. 

Nall: I wonder if we would be looking at such a scenario if we were still fighting out these battles within cities. If fights over school desegregation and the other fights of the 1960s had not been resolved as a result of white flight? If these kinds of conflicts were still playing out in cities, you might see Democrats and Republicans engaged more directly on these issues, and there would be a lot more direct open conflict. Instead in federal transportation bills, there’s a log roll that's happened. Roughly 20 percent of the Highway Trust Fund now goes to transit programs, which are predominantly urban liberal places getting big grants to fund transit projects. Those urban areas [with] their own [votes] can never secure funding for transit services, so they're now vested in the perpetuation of the Highway Trust Fund. This log roll actually helps perpetuate the deal where highways get most of the money.

Democrats and Republicans have become more geographically polarized as a function of population density. Then, during the Tea Party backlash against Obama, elite messaging on transit and trains really turned against Obama early in his term. Folks like Scott Walker rejecting federal high-speed rail money. A bunch of Republican state leaders rejected those programs. You see that appear in some of our survey data as Republican voters started to respond to elite messages about how trains and transit are not something Republicans support. They wouldn't have got that message in the 1970s from the Republican leadership.
Chicago's elevated subway. During President Obama's administration, survey data showed Republican voters responded to messages about how trains and transit are not something they support. This was not the case 30 years earlier.
(Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock)
Governing: But this increasing polarization around transit hasn’t changed the 80/20 split of the Highway Trust Fund or other federal transportation policies. Why has there been such stasis at the national level, why hasn’t some enterprising Republican turned this into a cause célèbre on Fox News? 

Nall: There have been some attempts at such crusades. Freedom Caucus members have introduced bills to zero out transit's share of the Highway Trust Fund. In the 2012 Republican Party platform, there was a line put in by activists saying that Democrats want to use our transportation budget to engage in social engineering. Of course, the construction of the interstate highway system was social engineering too, but the kind Republicans like.

If you look at legislative activity, there are still a lot of bills that are passed on a bipartisan basis. This is just informed speculation, but one of the reasons transit has held on to funding is it's not a fight that excites the party bases. Democrats are trying to build majorities really dependent on the suburbs, so they’re not going to go out of their way to demand less money for highways.

The perfect symbol of this is Democrats pushing through legislation to provide things like national electric car charger networks on the interstate system. It's not going to offend swing suburban voters to see a bunch of electric chargers on the highways. But it also really doesn't do very much to facilitate changes in land use, doesn't do much to help urban residents who might want to not rely on driving or might not be able to drive. So, neither party has a strong interest in smashing the bipartisan deal where transit continues to get a cut of the action.

Governing: It seems like if there's more attention paid to these issues by prominent Democrats — like Obama with high-speed rail — the more it becomes a polarizing issue that Republicans will organize against. Part of the reason this hasn’t been polarized at the national level is that no one's really paying attention.

Nall: Planning and transportation policy can be really boring, and frequently doesn't involve clear-cut class or redistributive dimensions. It can be hard to see the clear winners or losers in the decisions that are made in the various congressional infrastructure committees.

Historically, the entire transportation bureaucracy up until the 1970s was white male engineers concerned with building roads, often dominated by rural interests. That was what it meant to be in transportation policy in the United States. Now there's more diversity and a realization within transportation departments that what they are doing is actually social policy. But it hasn't fully penetrated these agencies. They continue to be heavily dominated by people who think transportation policy equals highway building.

On the other side, progressive activists, other than those who are specifically really interested in transportation policy, have not really challenged the status quo. I didn't see a lot of activism from, say, the Sunrise Movement around transportation infrastructure bills of recent years. They've been focusing on the climate bill, but they haven't focused on legislation that is part of the routine operation of government that's having tremendous effects on carbon emissions.

Governing: But your research seems to show that they shouldn't do that. A lot of transportation reformers were unhappy with last year’s infrastructure act and its focus on highways, but things could have been a lot worse. If these trends continue, future infrastructure bills could zero out transit funding, or at least cut it, especially if this becomes a focus on Fox News or talk radio. Maybe it's better for those advocates to quietly accept the status quo.

Nall: There's another school of thought. Martin Wachs was a giant in transportation policy and civil engineering, one of the leading academics engaging with the politics of transportation. He thought about how federal transportation programs create a lot of perverse incentives for states to spend a lot of money on big projects that are wasteful, and ultimately, detrimental to effective and equitable transportation policy.

There's a libertarian, devolution argument that says perhaps now that the interstate highway system has been built, it should be on state highway departments to maintain and expand it.

Get rid of the federal gas tax, and just leave it to states to fund their own highways. The roads are already maintained by, and property of, the states. There's an enormous moral hazard that has resulted from such generous highway funding that in large share goes to just build more and more lanes. If states had to fund their own highways, they probably would not fund such extensive expansion. They would be more strongly considering various types of conservation measures, like congestion pricing, as opposed to just building more lanes.

It's an argument I've heard from both the left and the right: Perhaps a better solution is to not provide all this money for states to do gold-plated transit projects and highway expansions. Some of the projects built by state governments using federal transportation money are frequently gold-plated infrastructure projects, because the money is restricted to capital spending. They'll spend money on equipment that they maybe don't need. They'll build fancy new rail stations, big transit centers that don't actually have decent transit service. The Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco is a great example of this.

One of the things that happens is federal money comes down and then is allocated and spent by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that are responsive to a set of local pressures that can end up being biased against providing for transportation equity needs. That’s partly because the incentives that are built into federal transportation funding do not provide for a way to provide high-frequency reliable bus service between cities.

Governing: What would be a strong avenue for transportation reform advocates to push for change? It doesn't seem like major change at the federal level is likely. But in many Northeastern and Midwestern regions a lot of the suburbs are increasingly Democratic. Maybe a more advantageous route for change is to push for regional funding. Urban representatives could ally with partisan counterparts at the suburban level.

Nall: One of the ways out from political polarization is that the inner suburbs, in many metro areas, have become a lot more Democratic. If you look at the start of the housing life cycle, a lot of these areas have older housing stock which tends to be occupied by lower socioeconomic status groups. Immigrants who are moving to the U.S. and instead of settling in cities, they're settling in suburbs. They're diversifying those areas and making them a lot more Democratic.

There is definitely a coalition emerging in a lot of metro areas between inner suburbs and the central cities. Maybe those inner suburbs see their fate tied up with having a healthy and productive central city, with a more equitable transportation split, and providing transportation services that actually allow more efficient land use and frequent transit service. Maybe actually making transit something that's appealing to the middle class!

I think one of the main reasons people are opposed to certain types of transit spending is that in a lot of places it's treated as something like welfare. Providing bus service to low-income housing projects, the partisan split on that survey item was so huge. We're talking partisan attitudes toward welfare huge.

For a lot of Americans outside of cities like New York, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, most people don't use transit. Riding buses is something poor people do. But if it's understood that it's the Democratic position to support funding for transit, and that's something that all good Democrats in the suburbs believe they should be doing, that’s a way forward for people who want to assemble a winning coalition for better transit funding.

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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