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What Drives Republican Opposition to Transit?

GOP state lawmakers have often opposed new spending and infrastructure for public transit. The reasons have as much to do with the urban-rural divide as partisan ideology.

IndyGo's Red Line at a station in Indianapolis
The Red Line in Indianapolis has served fewer passengers than promised, says one GOP critic.
Miguel Martinez/TNS
In Brief:
  • Local efforts to expand public transit often run into opposition from Republican state lawmakers.

  • Partisanship plays a role, but geography is a key factor.

  • The politics of transportation follow the urban-rural divide, with conservative politicians representing more rural areas, where transit is less cost-efficient to operate.

  • In 2016, Marion County, Ind., held a referendum proposing a small tax increase on residents' income, which would pay for expanded bus service in Indianapolis and the surrounding area. Voting against it, says Aaron Freeman, was the easiest thing he ever did.

    “You’re gonna tax folks that I represent for a service they will never use,” says Freeman, then a member of the City-County Council representing suburban parts of the county. “This is 101-level politics here.”

    Freeman is now an Indiana state senator representing parts of Marion and Johnson counties. He still has a complicated relationship with public transit. Earlier this year, Freeman sponsored a bill that would have prevented IndyGo, a local transit agency, from running buses in dedicated lanes, insisting instead that buses share lanes with cars. The bill would have essentially canceled the Blue Line, a bus rapid transit project that IndyGo had been planning since the 2016 referendum.

    Freeman's bill got far enough in the state Legislature to scare local leaders and project planners and raise the ire of transit advocates all over the country. It was just one in a series of recent episodes in which Republican state lawmakers have sought to interfere with transit expansion plans or block new investment in their operations.

    Transit agencies are struggling to recover from ridership losses they suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing shift to remote work. They’re also trying to seize on new opportunities for capital funding in the federal infrastructure law. But in many places, transit plans are running up against opposition from Republican lawmakers who question the value of public transit in general or its usefulness to their constituents.

    It’s not a perfect partisan divide — transit investments have Republican supporters and Democratic detractors — but it’s been a feature of transportation planning going back decades. The reason for it has as much to do with geography as politics. “It’s a state-local split, and it’s often a rural-urban split,” says Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America.

    Where Transit Doesn't Go

    There are lots of reasons why Republicans are generally more skeptical about transit investment than Democrats. Ideology is part of the mix, with conservatives generally professing more support for individual choice and liberals being generally more amenable to public investment in shared amenities.

    “People love their personal automobiles,” Arizona state Sen. Jake Hoffman said earlier this year after backing a measure to block intercity rail service from Phoenix to Tucson. “They love the freedom that it entails them, they love the ability to go when they want, where they want, how they want.” In response to an interview request, Hoffman asked for written questions, then didn’t respond to them.

    Republicans may also be less receptive to environmental arguments in favor of public transit than Democrats. But the ideological lines are messy: Advocates often point out that transit service gives people more choices for how to get around, while roads designed for private vehicles require huge public investments, too.

    The most salient factor is probably the one tied most closely to political incentives. Transit service works best, and is most used, in dense urban areas. Those tend to be represented by Democrats. “I don’t think it’s a partisan divide as much as it is a geographic divide,” says Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pittman, the majority leader of the state Senate, who represents rural areas in the western part of the state.

    When Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro announced a plan to boost state funding for struggling transit agencies, especially SEPTA in Philadelphia, Pittman said it would be “a challenging argument to make.” He says the state should have a broader discussion about transportation needs in rural and suburban areas as well as big cities like Philadelphia.

    “It’s hard for me, in the district that I represent, to explain to my constituents why state taxpayers should be investing in a transit network that is four hours away and has no real, discernible impact on the communities that I represent,” Pittman says.

    The urban-rural divide influences lots of public debates. Conflicts between state governments run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats are on the rise. That split has contributed to growing polarization around transportation issues. Clayton Nall, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Governing in 2022, “Republicans no longer have a direct attachment to urban concerns.”

    But it isn’t just a disinterest in big-city issues that makes transit a tough sell for rural legislators. “Rural communities have a much more difficult time generating the local match [for federal funding of capital projects]," Pittman says, "and they have a much more difficult time making public transit cost-effective."
    Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro delivers his State of the State address in 2024
    Shapiro's plan to increase funding for transit ran into opposition from GOP lawmakers.
    Tom Gralish/TNS

    State Support Needed

    States and cities may be led by distinct coalitions, but they aren’t on separate paths. Even when cities aren’t seeking additional state subsidies, they often need enabling legislation from the states to raise local taxes to support transit.

    Tennessee lawmakers laid the groundwork for local investment in public transit with the IMPROVE Act in 2017. Leaders in Nashville tried to jump on the opportunity right away and proposed a massive investment in light rail and other transit services that would transform the city. It may have had as much to do with cementing Nashville’s big-city identity as anything else, says Ron Shultis, policy director at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. “On the left of center, there is this idea that a city hasn’t made it until it has a mass transit system,” Shultis says.

    The city’s 2018 referendum failed by a big margin. Nashville’s new mayor, Freddie O’Connell, has pledged to put another transit-funding referendum on this year’s ballot. He says it will be focused more on basic improvements to transportation infrastructure and less on signature projects like light rail.

    The Beacon Center hasn’t taken a position on the next referendum yet, because the plan hasn’t been fully developed. But for Shultis, the key question in any transit plan is whether it will get a good return on the public investment.

    That can make for tough math in a place like Nashville, where low-density suburbs surround a still relatively small urban core. It comes down to geography, he says. “If you want to be like Chicago,” Shultis says, “you have to be like Chicago in all the ways to make something like transit work — high rises everywhere and things like that.”

    Charlotte is currently facing that dilemma. The city has developed a $13.5 billion plan to invest in multimodal transportation, including new bike trails, bus lines and rail projects. But North Carolina's Republican-led Legislature has so far failed to pass laws that would allow the city to raise funds for the plan.

    “I think we really need to be looking at road construction,” Tim Moore, the Republican House speaker, said about the plan earlier this year. “If you get out and you drive anywhere, and 95 percent of people are driving a car, they are not riding a bike. They are not riding a bus.” Moore did not respond to an interview request.

    Not Anti-Transit

    In Indiana, Freeman’s bill would have banned new bus-only lanes throughout Indiana. It wasn’t the first time Freeman introduced it, but it did get closer to passage this year than it has in the past. His bill was approved by two legislative committees. It was eventually dropped after IndyGo agreed to use shared traffic lanes “whenever possible” on the Blue Line route.

    Freeman says he’s not anti-transit. He acknowledges that bus service plays an important role in Indianapolis. He takes transit himself when he visits Washington, D.C. “I was in New York recently and took the subway three days in a row and enjoyed the hell out of it,” he says.

    But he's against favoring transit at the expense of drivers. “Transit is a needed method of transport for many of us,” Freeman says. “I’m not trying to take away buses or [cut] budgets. I’m not trying to do anything but say the folks that are using their cars … they have to be able to use the roadway too.”

    Freeman says the Red Line, IndyGo’s first bus rapid transit line with a dedicated bus-only lane, has gotten far lower ridership and revenue than had been projected in the planning stage. The prospect of adding new bus-only lanes felt to him like an inconvenience to drivers that offers no major improvement to the overall transportation network.

    “The Red Line is nowhere close to what was promised,” Freeman says. “It has not provided any benefit as opposed to a shared lane. Anyone who says different, I just fundamentally disagree with.”
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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