In the early 1990s, transportation politics at both the state and federal levels was often fairly simple: an all-powerful Road Gang (made up of real estate developers and road contractors) typically got whatever it wanted, rolling over a much weaker pro-transit coalition of environmentalists and urban politicians.
But in the past year or so, I have noticed different sets of alignments. At the federal level, road and transit supporters alike rallied (mostly successfully) against a right-wing attempt to cut all transportation spending. And in my hometown of Atlanta, road and transit lobbies both sought a regional tax increase for transportation, which was defeated by a coalition including groups as diverse as Tea Party organizations, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP.
Why are road and transit lobbies working together? And why can't they always win?
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the money for transportation ran out - that is, the recession has reduced state and local revenues, which means transportation lobbies often cannot get increased spending without getting increased taxes. And at the federal level, gas tax revenues are also stagnant. So neither the road nor the transit lobby can get increased spending without raising revenue.
And when transportation lobbies ask for increased taxes, they attract opposition from a third group: the anti-tax/spending coalition that dominates Republican politics (if not American politics generally).
So we now have a three-cornered politics: roads vs. transit vs. antitax/Tea Party. At the federal level, the road and transit lobbies were able to pass a transportation bill, but to do it they had to split the antitax Republican majority by limiting spending increases to more or less the rate of inflation, and by sacrificing a few smaller programs. In Atlanta, the road/transit coalition failed because they were not unified. The antitax coalition was able to split both the road and the transit lobbies; pro-road suburbanites thought too much was going to transit, and pro-transit voters thought too much was going to roads (or to transit in another side of town).
So the lesson of 2012 is: neither the road lobby nor the transit lobby can get very much on its own anymore. They have to work together and even they may have to split the antitax vote. Conversely, the antitax lobby can't always win on its own either, but can win if it splits the other coalitions.