Koch brothers vs. a bus: Why two billionaires hate a transit project in Nashville

A bus rapid transit project is imperiled because a couple of rich guys love meddling

Published April 1, 2014 6:28PM (EDT)

The Koch brothers
The Koch brothers

Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are useful villains for the Democratic Party. The brothers spend millions on influencing elections and policy, but they also seek to avoid all scrutiny of their activities, making it easy to paint them as the shadowy men behind the curtain of the Republican Party. Sometimes (their defenders would say often) Democratic attacks on the Kochs go too far. It is easy to misrepresent their agenda and how they work to advance that agenda. They don't "buy" politicians, in the traditional sense. They instead build and fund organizations that further their goals at just about every level of American politics, from issue advocacy groups to super PACs to think tanks to grass-roots activist organizations.

Koch defenders will frequently point to some of those organizations that work with some degree of independence or do work on issues that aren't strictly conservative goals -- the Kochs are pro-civil liberties! -- but it is a fact that much of the brothers' political spending is nakedly devoted to protecting their economic interests and shielding their business from regulation and oversight. And their business is a toxic and destructive one that is hastening our planet's destruction, which, admittedly, is pretty textbook villainous. It doesn't help when David Koch does something like use his economic influence over a public television affiliate to attempt to bury a documentary that is critical of him. And sometimes, the Kochs do something that just seems like dickish villainy for the hell of it. Like, why is Americans for Prosperity lobbying hard against a mass transit project in Nashville, Tenn.?

The Amp is a 7-mile-long proposed Bus Rapid Transit project connecting East and West Nashville. It is essentially Nashville's first major mass transit project, which is unsurprising considering that the state of Tennessee is never going to fund transit projects, leaving the city to look to the feds for all project funding. At its best, Bus Rapid Transit is an affordable and effective alternative to expensive rail mass transit. It's cheaper to build than light rail, and if implemented effectively it's much faster and more efficient than traditional bus service. In cities with dire mass transit needs but without the funding or political support for new rail projects, BRT can be a great alternative. In order for it to be effective, it requires dedicated bus lanes and traffic signal priority.

Naturally, this usually makes drivers annoyed, because drivers hate losing one single lane of traffic to drive on anywhere at any time. Property owners often worry, too, that mass transit projects will make it easier for undesirable elements (poor people and black and Latino city residents) to travel to rich neighborhoods.* That is why the project has become "oddly ugly," in the words of Atlantic Cities. The ugliness is actually understandable for anyone who follows urban transit politics. What doesn't quite make sense is why Americans for Prosperity, one of the Koch brothers' largest political organizations, is now lobbying against the project.

[*There are also more sympathetic criticisms of the project from residents of working-class neighborhoods, who believe that the city is prioritizing transit for tourists over essential transit upgrades for low-income residents. But it's always easier to find funding for projects connecting already thriving commercial districts than for projects connecting poor people to that commercial activity.]

The Tennessean reports that the Tennessee office of Americans for Prosperity was involved in the drafting of a state Senate bill that would "make it illegal for buses to pick up or drop off passengers in the center lane of a state road," effectively banning Nashville from creating Amp along the route that it has been planned to operate on since it was first proposed years ago.

StopAmp.org Inc., the leading opposition group, thanked AFP in a news release Thursday, 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.

In other words, AFP suggested the bill and a friendly legislator sponsored it.

According to Ogles, Americans for Prosperity-Tennessee was founded nine months ago, with a "sizable" undisclosed budget and three employees (two of whom are registered lobbyists). Why Tennessee, a state that the Kochs have no personal interest in? Well, it's just a good environment for their agenda:

"With supermajorities in both houses," [Ogles] said, "Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states."

So, this is not "the Kochs" doing this, in the cartoonish sense of David or Charles calling up a henchman and saying "kill that new bus line in Nashville," and then cackling and dipping an orphan in fracking runoff and using it to light a cigar. But this is the story of how billionaires dedicated to advancing an agenda at every level of government can do so with practically no one noticing until they've already won. Because a couple of energy moguls are constitutionally opposed to mass transit spending based on a very self-serving definition of "liberty," Nashville, a city neither of them spends any significant amount of time in, may not get a new bus line. "All politics is local" means something a bit different in this age of unregulated free-for-all political spending.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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