Angie Schmitt
Streetsblog

Koch Agenda Wants No Federal Funds for Walking, Biking, Transit

All federal transportation dollars should go for auto transportation, Koch-funded groups demand. They've also opposed streetcars in cities like Milwaukee.

By , Streetsblog - Jan 31st, 2015 01:17 pm
In 2012 Luke Hilgemann, then the Wisconsin Director of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-funded organization, shared the podium with Ald. Donovan to speak about the release of a new anti-streetcar online petition. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

In 2012 Luke Hilgemann, then the Wisconsin Director of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-funded organization, shared the podium with Ald. Donovan to speak about the release of a new anti-streetcar online petition. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

You know it’s time to fight over the federal transportation bill when the fossil fuel-soaked elements of the conservative movement start agitating to stop funding for everything except auto infrastructure.

Recently, a coalition of 50 groups, several funded by the Koch brothers, sent a letter to Congress arguing that the way to fix federal transportation funding is to cut the small portion that goes to walking, biking, and transit [PDF]. The signatories do not want Congress to even think about raising the gas tax, which has been steadily eaten away by inflation since 1993.

The coalition membership includes many stalwarts of the Koch network, including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Partners, and the Club for Growth. The Koch brothers recently went public with plans to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections.

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives is pretending that the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

As inflation eats away at the gas tax, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. But a group of conservatives insists the problem is transit and “squirrel sanctuaries.” Image: Brookings

The billionaire-friendly coalition is trying to play the populist card. Raising the gas tax to pay for roads, they say, is “regressive” because poor people will pay more than rich people if the gas tax is increased. But eliminating all funding for transit, biking, and walking, which people who can’t afford a car rely on? Not a problem to these guys.

“This scorched-earth proposal would eliminate the ability of local transportation agencies to invest in their own transportation priorities and lock us all into a 1950’s — style highway- and car-only mentality that flies in the face of common sense — not to mention economics and what the free market and simple demographics have been telling us for years,” wrote Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists.

Eliminating federal funding for transit would devastate many American cities, where transit agency budgets would be thrown into turmoil. And while federal funding for biking and walking can make a big difference because the infrastructure is so cost efficient, killing those programs won’t affect the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund. The savings wouldn’t even be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding a single interchange in Wisconsin.

Congressional Republicans tried this maneuver before, during the last transportation bill reauthorization battle and were unsuccessful, although they did eventually whittle away secure funding for programs like Safe Routes to School. That didn’t actually solve any problems, but it was a fine way for the GOP to pretend the country can go on spending like a drunken sailor on highways.

Koch in Milwaukee?

Bruce Murphy recently reported the involvement of the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity in the petition drive calling for a referendum on all City of Milwaukee rail projects over $20 million, in particular the streetcar project. David Fladeboe, state director of the AFP told him, “Our field teams are working with several coalition partners to gather the required signatures to have a referendum in Milwaukee. We have both paid staff and volunteers working on this project.”

And this isn’t new: back in 2012 Jeramey Jannene captured some of Ald. Bob Donovan‘s anti-streetcar friends at a press conference at City Hall announcing an online petition drive to stop the streetcar. Luke Hilgemann, then the state director of Americans for Prosperity and who is now the Chief Executive Officer of the AFP, spoke about the release of a new anti-streetcar online petition. The online campaign, entitled A Streetcar Named Disaster, resided on the AFP website, and as Bruce Thompson noted in a recent story, the link now takes you to a petition to support right to work legislation.

Koch-funded groups have gotten involved in other local transportation efforts, as Murphy has reported, opposing a streetcar in San Antonio and transit projects in Nashville and Indiana.

2012 Press Conference Photo Gallery

Story by Angie Schmitt with additional contributions from Dave Reid of Urban Milwaukee. A version of this story originally ran on Streetsblog. Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at Rustwire.com.

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