Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why conservatives should love streetcars

"'For cities, conservatives' banner should read, 'Bring Back the Streetcars!' "

Read on. It's from an article in The American Conservative, "What's so conservative about federal highways?" by William S. Lind, director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and coauthor of Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation. Reader Mason Hicks, who grew up in Lancaster County, S.C., but now lives in Paris (France) shared it with me recently.

Lind's piece talks about the folly of a national transportation system that requires us to depend on foreign oil, and on only one transportation mode, and points out how it was government intervention in the marketplace (via billions spent on highways) that helped kill the passenger rail business.

And here's another provocative excerpt: "The greatest threat to a revival of attractive public transportation is not the libertarian transit critics. It is an unnecessary escalation of construction costs, usually driven by consultants who know nothing of rail and traction history, are often in cahoots with the suppliers, and gold-plate everything."

He writes of the importance of "avoiding the foxfire allure of high technology," and says, "All the technology needed to run electric railways, and run them fast, was in place 100 years ago. It was simple, rugged, dependable, and relatively cheap. In the 1930s, many of America’s passenger trains, running behind steam locomotives, were faster than they are now. (After World War II, the federal government slapped speed limits on them.)"

It's a provocative piece, especially in light of the Charlotte debate over whether the city should accept a $25 million Federal Transit Administration grant to help it start building a proposed streetcar line. Here's what the Charlotte Observer's editorial board said in today's newspaper:
"Think streetcar vote was hard? Just wait."


Larry said...

Mary, Mary, Mary.... Reverse Psychology.... Really come on.... Really.

Can we please get at lest one conservative writer and editorial board member at the Observer.

I will work for free.

KRON said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KRON said...

Interesting. A few observations after reading the article. First, I'm very curious how the town in Wisconsin pulled off a $4 million line.

Second, I thought the point about cost per mile was good - $10 million per mile for street car. Obviously, every project is different, but the first 1.5 miles is slated at $24 per mile million here? Did I mess up the math there?

wiley said...

This is not a liberal or conservative issue.

It is a common sense issue and if you use common sense, this farce of a project with its cost is not justifiable.

Cody said...

Oh please Larry! Enough with the tired, worn, argument of the liberal media. If you think Newsome's article doesnt make valid points-say why. Leave the tit-for-tats for the children on the playground. The article should give you pause to think about why conservatives want to bust a blood vessel over everything to do with spending. Is there no basis for conservative thinking other than money? Being conservative should mean more to you than just an opportunity to gripe about the media and Democrats.

Thank you Mary!

Sensible said...

Please Mary follow up with why the Streetcar is helpful, and why when the library, teacher cutbacks that is a staple of "non-consercatives" is not a priority over this project? We can't have everything that everyone wants whenever we want it. Very sad Very sad piece

David said...

Oh Cody please. If you followed his link you would see why he's opposed. Here's a clue WASTEFUL GOVERNMENT SPENDING!!! This line is one not funded, we received a $10M grant, we are responsible for the other $32M. Secondly, their is currently no funds to operate the line once it is running. Thirdly, KRON is correct, $24M per mile for this project, a project that will serve literally no one. And oh by the way it is already served by a bus route. I am not against mass transit, I used it regularly when i lived in San Fran. But I am aganist our politicians not exercising common sense.

Sam said...

Just what I need. An extreme left wing lib Charlotte Observer editor telling me how I should feel. I hate the idea of a street car even more now.

Ghoul said...

I'd be all for a street car, light rail, or Star trek transporters if the riders paid 100% of the operating costs, but then who would pay $30 a ticket.

Ghoul said...

I'd be all for a street car, light rail, or Star trek transporters if the riders paid 100% of the operating costs, but then who would pay $30 a ticket.

John said...

If I Google "The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation" I get nine, count 'em, NINE hits. And ALL of them are in reference to this one article.

I'm doubting if this "Center" is anything more than one guy and a Tax ID.

Karl said...

You sure got hold of the wrong end of the stick on this one, Mary.

Conservatives are about two things:

1) NOT SPENDING TAXPAYER MONEY FOOLISHLY. The streetcar runs on the same roadbed currently used by buses, but will cost many millions of dollars to build and operate -- much, much more than the buses do.

2) FREEDOM. With the streetcar (or light rail, for that matter), you can only go where the State deems it OK -- and you have to do it on THEIR schedule. Buses are at least better than trains and streetcars because they're not stuck on a fixed path. Cars are better because WE decide where WE want to go, WHEN we want to go.

The liberal mindset, on the other hand, is all about spending OTHER peoples' money on nonsense and dictating to people what they can and cannot do.

So do yourself a favor, Mary: Stop trying to convince conservatives that we should agree with you on anything. It's like trying to convince the sane that being insane is cool. It isn't.

Larry said...

Cody, Cody, Cody. First when you go to my profile you can see just who I am and contact me. Larry Bumgarner of Mint Hill so I stand behind my comments. (not like some people, tee hee) In fact i see Mary out at the Farmers Market and we say hi so she knows I am not too much of a nut.

But she knows I want the best for Charlotte just like she does.

So as I have said over and over I think the Observer is so biased that it reeks. my site skewers them and it widely read by a lot of them and hated by a few but you know I think I make a difference up there. I have seen some positive changes and things done that I have seen as a result of a complaint I have made on my site.

So again I say get at least one conservative writer and editorial writer at the Observer.

Oh and if you want my main reason for not listing to this researcher, he lives in Paris and if that is not enough be sure to go and check out his other research and stories.

Archiguy said...

It's funny how the definition of "conservative" has changed over the years. Now, it has come to mean absence of progress and all too often, absence of common sense. Let's look at what the modern conservative movement has given us:
War without end and a blissful nonchalance about how to pay for them.
Beginning with the Reagan revolution in the '80s, a reversal of the oversight and safeguards that kept the country free from damaging boom/bust cycles since the Great Depression, with the predictable results shattering the economy in '08.
Vociferous denial of the very real data on the very real progression of global warming that has probably cost us the opportunity to stall or reverse its effects, kept us dependent on foreign oil, and caused us to fall behind on R&D on alternative energy, the growth industry of the 21st century.
Vociferous opposition to President Obama and the Democrats who WE VOTED FOR to clean up the mess created by 8 disastrous years of failed leadership and calamatous decisions by the last group in power.
Opposition to health care reform which was desperately needed.
And on and on.

Conservatives have given us nothing but incivility and stubborn opposition to every effort to improve living conditions and create opportunities for business to flouish. They oppose a level playing field because Republican political philosophy demands it be tilted in the favor of the wealthy and powerful.

That so many so-called conservatives fail to see the truth in each of these statements is a testiment to the power of right-wing propaganda and a "me first" attitude that is, literally, destroying this country. God help us if they take power again.

Mary Newsom said...

Let me clarify a few things. The article I link to is written by another writer, for a conservative magazine. I'm not saying I agree with all of it or disagree with all of it. I thought it was an interesting look at the subject that others would also find interesting.

Re the part about paying teachers: If the city government paid for teachers and instead chose to build the streetcar I'd be appalled, too. It doesn't. N.C. law doesn't let cities fund county school systems other than in a very few ways. Not spending the $12 million (NOT $32 million as David writes) for a streetcar doesn't provide a penny more for school teachers or libraries.

The grant is for $25 million. The total estimated project (1.4 miles) is $37 million. City money would total $12 million.

And Larry's right, we do know each other and say Hi at the Farmers Market. We just disagree on a lot of political and policy matters.

John said...

Ms. Newsom,

While it's nice that you hopped in to "clarify" things, you failed to address the issue I raised:

Googling "American Conservative Center for Public Transportation" returns NINE hits, ALL of which have some relation to this ONE article of Mr. Lind's.

It appears that this "Center" has:

- no website
- no street address
- no phone number
- no members other than Mr. Lind

Can you provide any evidence at all that the "Center" is a genuine and authentic organization?

Anonymous said...

1) NOT SPENDING TAXPAYER MONEY FOOLISHLY. The streetcar runs on the same roadbed currently used by buses, but will cost many millions of dollars to build and operate -- much, much more than the buses do.

That roadbed will wear out in 8 years. The buses will shake themselves to pieces within 12 years. The trolleys and trolley tracks, however, will last decades.

There are 100 year old American trolleys still running in Cairo, Egypt, and 50 year old American PCC trolleys still running all over the world. Our roads and buses will wear out way quicker than that. So who's the one spending foolishly?

Anonymous said...


2) FREEDOM. With the streetcar (or light rail, for that matter), you can only go where the State deems it OK -- and you have to do it on THEIR schedule."

With a car, you need a driver's license.
Which is a privilege, not a right.

With a streetcar, you need a few bucks.

So whcih is better for freedom, again?

Jumper said...

For once, I think the price on this is okay. The "conservatives" didn't do much legwork in keeping cost of previous light rail down, except for being agin' it. Peak oil, baby, peak oil. I'd rather pay Duke for the go power, even at the cost of using coal. Some of it will be nuke, and hydro, which we already have. Saudi Arabia is significantly invested in Fox News.

'Course, this fine charcoal-powered motorcycle may make a comeback.

consultant said...

Something about mass transit gets the blood moving.

Congress just approved 69 BILLION for the "wars". 69 BILLION! On top of how many other BILLIONS? How many?????


Okay, turn up the sound. Do you hear the crickets chirping? It's real quiet isn't it?

Let's face it folks, people (meaning most white people) don't want to support mass transit because we hate, I mean we just hate pouring our hard earned tax money into something that might benefit other people too. Meaning black folks might get to ride on the trains.

Here's a test: If all of a sudden a bunch of black contractors sprung up and started to compete for big military contracts, all of sudden white people would be against war. We would become the biggest pacifists on the planet. Anything to keep all that tax money from going to black people.

I keep telling Karl and his buddies, race prejudice is the big obstacle to building mass transit in this country. All this other stuff is just the excuses we whites come up with to mask our prejudices.

And if you aren't prejudiced, you're embarrassed by your friends, families and co-workers who are.

So billions upon billions (actually trillions) are spent on all kinds of silly, dangerous, weird, gangster stuff, and it's okay as long as the money and benefits are kept among white people. But as soon as someone says let black people in the circle, all hell breaks loose. What was perfectly acceptable becomes unworkable. In fact, it gets the blood moving.

Karl said...

Aaaaaand "consultant" plays the race card again.

You lose.

consultant said...


The country loses. The country loses. Charlotte loses. Atlanta loses. Kansas City loses. Orlando loses.

"We" lose Karl.

I'm going to have to get back my civics kick again.

Karl I'm going to start running online classes for you and your buddies. Teach you civics and stuff.

I've already signed up that Bribart fellow. You know the one who went and smeared that good lady. What's her name? Sherrod?

Anyway, I hope to have him, you and all your cousins in the class. In it you'll learn what it takes to make a democracy work and what it means to be a citizen.

Since this stuff is new to you and the other participants, I ask that you don't drink for 48 hours before and after the class.

Also, I'm asking all participants to pass a reading & comprehension test. It's not too hard. I have it normed against 5th graders. You'll be okay. Right Karl?

FKACato said...

Let's face it folks, people (meaning most white people) don't want to support mass transit because we hate, I mean we just hate pouring our hard earned tax money into something that might benefit other people too. Meaning black folks might get to ride on the trains.

You're really grasping here. If anything, most (white) conservatives are skeptical of rail not because they dread black ridership, but because they see rail projects as frivolous toys for preening (and just as white) upper-income progressives who, despite their endless fretting over saving the planet, can't bear to sully their precious posteriors on a bus seat.

In fact, some real live black people think so too. In LA in the 1990s, a group representing black bus riders sued the city transit authority for discrimination by over-prioritizing rail (largely utilized by white choice riders) at the expense of buses (largely used by black and latino dependent riders). Here in Charlotte, the black political leadership has expressed similar misgivings about rail crowding out bus services.

Here's a recap of the LA story.

Further, ask most transit boosters (including our gracious host) about the effects of transit on congestion and commute times, and they'll usually agree the effects are meager. But, they counter, fixed transit provides "economic development" to immediately surrounding areas. Which, if history is any guide, usually means uprooting existing communities of poor minorities to make things nice and safe for (again, sigh, white) gentrification. Oh, they'll set aside enough affordable housing and patronize enough ethnic restaurants to keep their consciences clear. But for the most part, the effect is one of ethnic cleansing.

Or, let me pose a test for you. Portland, OR is easily the most cited example of a city that provides generous transit options for its residents. Its residents are also, by and large, exquisitely progressive, ostensibly (ostentatiously?) about all matters, including race.

It's also one of the whitest metropolitan areas in the country.

Are you suggesting that if more blacks were to move to Portland (which sort of raises the question of why all those good, diversiphile white liberals would want to, but I digress), would they stop being as supportive of transit (and other progressive goals)? Is modern white progressivism so fragile that it can't withstand contact with something as commonplace as a minority community without abandoning its ideals?

FKACato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

As usual Consultant has NOTHING to add to the debate so he/she/it resorts to ad hominem attacks and disgusting racebaiting.

Mary, either you AGREE with Consultant's idiocy and immaturity, or you BAN him once and for all.


Escapist said...

I'm a little bit late to this, but I wanted to post a link to the PDF collection that comprised this article.

We're spending a LOT of time arguing over black and white issues (all for/all against), when I wish we were having a civil conversation about middle-ground solutions. There are more articles than one in this PDF, and some of them make suggestions about how the two sides could set priorities and find common ground.

I have suggested the idea of privatizing stations on some/certain transit lines. This would save a LOT of money, and allow the free market to influence the project.

(PS: I assume Mary couldn't post the link to the PDF due to the fact that it is from a pay site)

consultant said...


That was some good writin'. I'm going to give you a scholarship to take my online civics class and make you a discussion leader after you pass a course in logic.

I'm going to put Karl and John together in a study group and put you in charge of monitoring their blood pressure and alcohol intake.

Conservatives keep talking about how they want to save money, and that's good stuff. But you have to separate conservatives from modern Republicans and when you do that you're left with maybe 1,234 people scattered around the country.

Conservatives not wanting to spend money is the biggest hoot of the last 40 years (see my previous comments about war). The conservatives just want to spend money on stuff "they" want-like roads and war. Especially war. Oh, and trips to Argentina to visit their soulmate.

Today's fiscal conservative is like a working prostitute advocating abstinence. Folks it's called hypocrisy! I plan to cover that in the second week of the class. I'll have a fiscal conservative (brought in from Kansas) and a working prostitute (from the Charlotte Country Club) as guest speakers.

So if you're conservative, I'd like to be the one to kill repairs on the road right in front of your house or place of business, because you know we've got to cut costs and lower our taxes. Above all we must lower our taxes, since lowering our taxes is the new Republican answer to all problems including curing cancer, global warming, better sex and getting Mary to ban the Consultant.

consultant said...

Correction: that should read the Metro Charlotte Country Club.


Jumper said...

To get serious, I think of the streetcar (and light rail) as a long-term investment. Perhaps a very long-term investment. I DO think it will pay for itself, but over a time span longer than many other types of investment.

I do see a disconnect between this concept and conservatives, who ought to be good at long-term thinking, yet who tend to be very immediate in public forums, such as wanting balanced budgets in bad times, yet are such slavish supporters of bubbles during good times that sober thinking goes out the window. When mutual funds were making 8- 26% a year, an increase in taxes was shouted down. Yet who's better off now?

In hindsight, I wish the light rail had been delayed until exactly now. The price of land would have not been overinflated as it was in the bubble. Bids would have been substantially lower. I wish people would learn, because all during this decade, I saw it coming. And my only real ability to do so was simply living through the late '80s; no special skill required except paying attention.

FKACato said...


That was some good writin'.

Thanks! I enjoyed it my own self.

FKACato said...

But seriously,

One fact that's constantly ignored in Charlotte's transit discussions is that Ron Tober - who oversaw the implementation of the current line - is on the record saying that in order for Charlotte's rail plans to be cost effective, we needed 100,000 jobs uptown.

He made this statement in 2006 when the bloom was still fresh on Charlotte's rose. But even then, uptown would have had to double its job growth rate for twenty years. Instead, since we've been hit particularly hard by the recession (Mecklenburg is no longer NC's leader in jobs), we've actually seen jobs decline. Which, of course means that job growth will have to be even higher than double the boom years of the past decade in order to make rail worthwhile by 2025. Again, this is according to the guy who oversaw its implementation. (

And this is to be done with one less major corporate headquarters uptown, and with physical location growing less important to financial and other technocratic work every day. Huge numbers of people (particularly those in the higher income brackets) can now work from anywhere with wi-fi and cell phone reception.

Do rail/streetcar proponents think Tober's estimate was wrong? If so, how so? If not, do you think it's realistic in the current environment?

Anonymous said...

That article was an interesting take, but it was somewhat flawed. We can't ever hope to have rail transit like the 1930s because the government isn't about to take those speed limits off.

The problem with streetcars, as well as buses, is their (lack of) speed, even moreso than money. Anyone who has ever rode CATS route 17 knows what I mean. And our current streetcar plan further ignores the speed and money issues more than any other project we have taken on. Turning Trade St into a 2-lane road and putting in a slow streetcar that has to wrestle with 2 lanes of traffic that has been shoehorned into 1 lane, not having much of a destination, and no plan on where to find the money to operate it is just plain silly to me.

Consultant - nice try, using white guilt as a rationalization for your radical left-wing agenda. I'm not falling for it.

And you misfired on your shot at conservatives. True conservatives are just as disgusted with the Republican Party as they are with the Democrat Party. The only difference between the two is that Democrats want to tax and spend, and Republicans want to borrow and spend.

And while you're recruiting people for a civics class, make sure to educate yourself. The USA was designed to be a REPUBLIC, not a democracy. Look it up.