Do Conservatives and Libertarians Hate Trains?

Randal O’Toole has an excellent blog post over at the Antiplanner taking on the myth that Conservatives (and libertarians) hate trains. It’s an odd charge, since both Randal O’Toole and Bob Poole, two of the most visible critics of transit on a national level, are train enthusiasts.

The myth becomes a convenient foil for many transit advocates since it suggests, even if inaccurately, opponents are basing their position on pure uninformed political demagoguery. In fact, the conservative/libertarian critique of rail transit, including high-speed rail, is one of the least ideological arrows in their quiver. For transit projects, it’s about dollars, not values, except in the case where opposing wasteful government programs represents a shared political value. As Randal points out,

“The real answer is: they don’t. They just hate subsidies, at least if they are fiscal conservatives (as opposed to social conservatives like the late Paul Weyrich).

“Case in point: San Francisco’s Central Subway, which, as the Wall Street Journal points out, is going to cost at least $1.6 billion for 1.7 miles of rail that (as the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, Tom Rubin, points out) will actually be slower than the buses it replaces (because it will require people to make more transfers). If you don’t have a Wall Street Journal subscription, which I don’t, you can read about it here, here, and here, among other places.”

And I would point out that it’s not that conservatives/libertarians hate subsidies. They hate public subsidies because it implies a forecible transfer of wealth from one group to another. In the case of high-speed rail and mass transit, the transfer is to a very small minority of transit users (and in the case of rail often relatively wealthy users). If a private company or individual wanted to build the train with their own money, without public subsidy, conservatives and libertarians wouldn’t object (and they don’t).

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.