A Tale of Three Lobbies

<p> 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. </p>

August 7, 2012, 10:41 AM PDT

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


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.   

 


Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

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