Image: Nashville Transit
Think of Bus Rapid Transit as mass transportation done cyberpunk. Can't afford shiny new high-speed rail technology? Carve out a dedicated lane, roll out a ticketing app, and watch the bus beat the traffic. It's a high-tech idea executed with low-tech parts, at lower cost. If a bullet train is the $1,500 Google Glass, BRT is the $300 DIY version. It's the best kind of city hack. So it's too bad a pair of billionaires just helped shut down one of the most promising BRT startups in the nation.
Nashville was poised to become the proud owner of a new BRT line, called Amp. The concept has proved an overwhelming success in a number of cities abroad—Curitaba, Brazil, is maybe the most famous, but there are prominent lines in China, Argentina, and South Korea, as well as right here in the states, in Kansas City and New York.
The mayor of Nashville had secured plans to create a $175 million BRT system to increase citizen mobility and help thwart congestion as the city's population swelled. That might sound expensive, but for a transit project in a major city, it's a bargain—especially since BRT has repeatedly shown it stimulates economies and reduces pollution.
But even this relatively elegant transit solution attracted the ire of powerful interests that find public transit distasteful. Spurred on by the Koch brothers' influential political organization, Americans for Prosperity, Tennessee's state legislature has succeeded in passing an extraordinary new law that actually bans BRT.
That's specifically what the language of the law says; it specifically prevents the "constructing, maintaining, or operating any bus rapid transit system" in the state of Tennessee, unless specifically approved by legislation and the transit commissioner. It also requires that if "any state agency proposes to assist in funding the project with state or federal-aid funds or otherwise requests such funds for the project, then the project must also be approved by the general assembly." In other words, if any city wants federal funding for a local transit project, it must be approved by the state legislature. That makes it next to impossible to pass. This blows any of Uber's regulatory setbacks out of the water; anyone frustrated at government prohibition of ride-sharing should be outraged about this. It is, essentially, a law that makes a useful transit technology illegal.
Wired calls the legislation "mind-boggling," which it is, and "strangely specific," which it's less so—because it's exactly the language that AFP wanted placed into the bill. Alex Pareene points to the Tennessean, which explains how the anti-BRT law was first born: "StopAmp.org Inc., the leading opposition group, thanked AFP in a news release … and Andrew Ogles, AFP’s state director, said that the group didn’t back the effort financially but that the bill grew out of a conversation he had had with Sen. Jim Tracy, the sponsor."
This is politico-speak for 'the advocacy group asked a legislator to draft a law that would ban BRT and so he did'. 'Why' is another question altogether. Why would AFP bother? The short answer is: political activism. The Kochs and their organization, like many prominent conservative groups and pundits, are ideologically opposed to public transportation. Mass transit projects require government revenue—Amp was going to be made possible with help from federal funding—and mildly inconvenience drivers who share roads with them.
Still, why would a nationwide political organization get involved in a single municipality's proposed bus line?
“With supermajorities in both houses,” [Ogles] said, according to the Tennessean, “Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states.”
AFP is hoping to export this law to other states that are either aspiring to this affordable, hybrid brand of mass transit, or that already have it. That's why there was such a uniquely vehement movement to halt the BRT, why StopAmp.org lobbied so hard, built an eyesore of a website, and even commissioned a country-western protest song. Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Kansas—two conservative states currently running BRTs—may want to brace themselves.
It's cases like this that help paint the Koch brothers as villainous tycoons in the popular conception. Though David and Charles Koch are almost certainly not micro-managing this particular effort out of some all-consuming hatred for mass transit, their ideology is ultimately the animating force behind the grassroots efforts they finance. And there's no doubt that part of their preferred agenda is derailing transit. The AFP has previously campaigned to kill mass transit projects in other states. The Reason Foundation, another group supported by the Koch Brothers, lobbied Florida governor Rick Scott to kill the state's incoming high speed rail project. He did.
The Kochs and their advocates are pumping their dislike of mass transit into a public policy arena in a city where they themselves have little or no actual direct involvement. They're not just trying to keep public transit out of the town they live in—now, in fact, they are trying to ban an entire technological concept as widely as possible.
This, it bears reminding, is the new normal. Political scientists say our government now resembles not democracy, but 'economic elite domination'. So it shouldn't be too surprising that billionaires can influence the cancelation of a bus line in a city halfway across the country—and override the popular opinion that the BRT should go forward.
It's an unwelcome precedent, especially as it pertains to municipal governance. The city itself is one of humankind's greatest inventions, but it needs constant upgrading. It gets dirty, jammed up, and cluttered, and needs careful maintenance to ensure it continues running smoothly, efficiently, pleasantly. This maintenance work is best done by those most familiar with its mechanics, of course—the citizens who spend their time under the city's hood.
In a moment where elites living hundreds of miles away can impress their policy preferences on such a complex community, and the flow of influence and capital is unrestricted, we're at risk of total system failure. The corners of the tech world that get outraged when governments and entrenched interests stifle innovation should be protesting loudest of all—here's a clear-cut case of wanton overreach stamping out a truly viable and beneficial technology.
[This story has been updated to provide more information on the language of the new law. The headline has been updated to reflect the change.]