Angie Schmitt

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

33 thoughts on “Streetsblog: Koch Agenda Wants No Federal Funds for Walking, Biking, Transit”

  1. mbradleyc says:

    We need both cars and alternatives. I rely on both. My car is broken down so I walk a mile to the station and take the train to work until I can get it fixed. We as a nation need every option for transportation. We can afford them. We are rich. It just needs leadership.
    I have no interest in or respect for divisive politics on any side. We must work together.
    Posting pictures that make a guy look like Leonard Lawrence when he was about to shoot the drill instructor don’t foster genial discussion. I suppose looking like that in the first place doesn’t help either.

    Who will take the first step?

  2. Jaime Ogas says:

    I don’t drive, so I depend on riding a bicycle to get around the area. I’m opposed to the streetcar because the infrastructure all has to be built from scratch, and the proposed lines won’t go far beyond the downtown area, and redundanly along the same routes as the established bus transit system. The bike share system is by far cheaper to implement, expand and maintain than the steetcars. I think the money spent ought to go toward more bike infrastructure, and the buses.

  3. D says:

    That dude looks like a straight up Bond henchman.

  4. Bruce Thompson says:

    I have to question how seriously the Koch groups are about supporting the streetcar if they continue to leave up that link to a purported right to work petition. Their strategy makes no sense to me.

  5. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    These are all local decisions, the money needs to go for our beatup highways, our country runs by truck. I ride thousand miles per year, taught bike racing, my family won 27 state championships but Wisconsin is never going to see huge biking to work cause of roads and weather. Look at what happened in Sheboygan county with 28 million dollars for this stuff. Nothing.

  6. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Hilgemann was UW football player, great guy. Damn smart.

  7. PMD says:

    WCD, people are driving less every year in this country. That’s a fact. So doesn’t it make sense to not pour every single dollar into roads? And again, no matter how many times you insist otherwise, Sheboygan saw positive results. Unless you are saying that improving safety and health is meaningless. I doubt that’s what you’re saying.

  8. Kyle says:

    PMD, I feel like any defense of the Sheboygan results should require the disclaimer that despite the massive percentage increase, we’re talking about less than 100 people.

  9. PMD says:

    And another disclaimer is that a marketing campaign has only recently been implemented, so it’s too early to judge its success. I just don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s been a failure with no positive results whatsoever.

  10. Kyle says:

    I’m actually a fan of recreational trails, but I just find the numbers of this particularly initiative to be laughably low. To have your biking 3-year average lower than your baseline year after 7 years isn’t good, even if you are about to start a media campaign. And the 85% increase in walkers is 68 people annually.

    And in the spirit of nitpicking, you should probably start hedging your “people are driving less every year” bit. 2014 saw a fairly significant increase in total vehicle miles in the US (and even an increase in the population adjusted version).

  11. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I agree the biking trails are great, heavily used. Riding on busy streets with out pushing safety, strobe lights, brilliant clothes is suicide. especially in this wether. during summer how many people can come to work sweating, and in suits etc.??/

  12. PMD says:

    Because total miles are up, does that automatically mean more people are driving, or just that those driving drove more miles? Plus, even if more people did drive in 2014, the trend over a longer period of time is less driving. Just Google something like “Americans driving less” and you’ll see a ton of stories about this.

  13. Kyle says:

    I can google “Obama birth certificate” and get a long list of results too. And total miles doesn’t automatically mean more people are driving, but in 2014, the per capita miles travelled was up. Besides, when it comes to highway planning, total miles matters more for system capacity than per capita miles anyway. Not that this should be the only supported mode of transportation, but we’re only down 1.24% of total miles from the pre-recession peak, with 50 billion more miles annually than measured in mid-2013.

  14. PMD says:

    Ha that is true Kyle. I shared some links.

  15. PMD says:

    Also, Millenials are driving way less than previous generations, and they are getting a driver’s license at rates far less than previous generations. They profess a strong desire for public transportation and driving alternatives. So I think it’s a trend that could continue for a very long time.

  16. David says:

    Is it so wrong to invest in trails and public transportation to ENCOURAGE people to ride bikes and save gas? Higher densities, healthier lifestyles, less pollution, less dependent on fossil fuels, more social interaction, saving of wetlands, etc. Sounds like reason enough to invest in alternative modes of transportation. AND no, this will not force people out of their cars and onto a bus. Its a common sense balanced approach.

  17. AG says:

    I don’t know that you can strictly infer that long term patterns will shift as much as you think, PMD. A large contribution to the decline in miles driven by Millenials is the fact that young people are employed at a dramatically lower rate than their predecessors. No job, no car. So while drivrs license carrying high school seniors may be down by 10-15 percent? That may largely be due to the fact that something like 30% more do not have a job.

    Once the millenials begin to earn a living, things may change more towards the norm than many in the anti-auto crowd are hoping for.

    *I’m just pulling these numbers from memory, so consider them estimates at best.

  18. Kyle says:

    For what it’s worth, I agree with the generational trends that more individuals will drive less. I just don’t think the total miles traveled will go down much. Grocery delivery services and Amazon’s same day delivery (and probably a dozen services I haven’t even heard of yet) will raise to take the place of individual trips to closer destinations. Those services, which cater specifically to people to who don’t drive much, will continue to rely on the freeway system to deliver goods.

    David, thanks for the laugh. I hadn’t thought of all the advantages of the higher population densities in Sheboygan County. I’ll have to look up exactly where this trail was built so I can better understand just how many dozens of people’s lives have been improved (even if they haven’t all realized it yet).

  19. PMD says:

    Was he speaking generally or Kyle or specifically about Sheboygan County?

    That is possible AG, and we could find out soon if the economy keeps improving. And I for one am not anti-auto. Believing in investments in walking/biking/transit doesn’t make one a hater of automobiles.

  20. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    David, under that reasoning let us try building scooter trails, maybe some glider trails, those lines that you can ride over hed from the top to the highest church out to Mayfair. When there obviously is not a big demand you want the city to go out spend millions while the crime rates is in top ten, MPS cannot teach kids to read and the streets are going to hell. What sense does that make.?
    With crime the way it is in inner city you think peopel will walk through there or ride bikes?

  21. Observer says:

    The Koch brother overlords have spoken. All Bob’s must obey their decisions.

  22. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Observer is there any limit to your stupidity?

  23. Observer says:

    BD, the bar keeps getting lowered.

  24. Kyle says:

    I know it’s completely off topic, but I really want to hear how Observer justifies his all Bob’s obeying the Koch brother overlords stance without resorting to base racial stereotypes.

    PMD, I’m sure he was talking about the overall benefits and not specifically Sheboygan County. It just arrived when we’d been focusing on a particular project where the key argument is that the population density doesn’t justify the cost on its own. I was mostly laughing at the incongruence. I could have attacked some of his benefits of public transportation had I wanted to take his point seriously. The forced social interactions of the MCTS are one of the three reasons I no longer ride the bus.

  25. PMD says:

    What are the other two?

  26. Michael says:

    Kyle – Change in driving behavior will decrease highway capacity needs, even if total miles increases.

    Consider this: Most highways are designed for the peak rush hour capacity, with near empty highways in between. If less people are driving more miles, especially at off-peak times, the need for the extra highway lanes will decreases.

  27. Jaime Ogas says:

    WCD You’re right, it’s necessary to go out on a bike with lights and bright reflective clothing on the streets at night. Just like it’s necessary to have working headlights and taillights when driving your car. As for riding to work in the summer, I would ride in one set of clothes, carrying my work clothes in my panniers, along with baby wipes and deodorant and change into clean clothes when I arrive at work. I would also pack rain gear in case of wet weather. It could be possible that a workplace might provide showers for those who bike commute, but I don’t expect that.

  28. Kyle says:

    PMD – Primarily it was time. Driving instead of taking the bus gets me an extra hour with my kids every work day. Second, though somewhat related, was the inconsistency of the ride. I arrived motion sick and nauseated more times than not, which eliminated my ability to make use of my time of the bus. I loved it when I had a good driver, but that was the exception, not the rule. Third, and a fair deal behind the first two, was the other people. One person clipped their nails for 30 mintues once a week. And nothing makes motion sickness better than 60 minutes of hearing how great the Lord is (or how awful the Governor is).

    Michael – I’ll concede that it’s a complex relationship between capacity needs and miles driven. If only we had an agency, like a department of transportation, to study the relationship, project the needs, and plan for addressing those needs…. Oh, wait…

    Jaime – You’re right that there are lots of ways to accommodate biking to work, but it helps if your employer is supportive. The availability of showers, or at the very least a place to change, would go a long way toward making it seem like a viable option. Not everyone considers the handicap stall to be a reasonable place to dress for the day.

  29. Observer says:

    Kyle, I’ll try not to bring race into this (????). Our two Bob’s are Dornan and Donovan. Here’s the Koch overlords webpage that includes their agenda in their own words. Feel free to point out where the Bob’s disagree.

  30. Kyle says:

    I didn’t realize that “All Bob’s” would be reduced down to two that quickly. I assumed there were more than two. Like Bob Bauman. Or maybe Bob Barker. My point on race was that I didn’t think you could lump every single Bob into a group without assuming that they’re all old white men, because any self respecting Robert outside that group would go by a different name. I did not consider that All Bobs was a group of two. My mistake.

    Also, how is Bob Dornan “our” Bob? I thought if you were going to limit it to two, you’d at least have included Bob Dohnal of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest.

  31. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    it is interesting to hear the white liberal racists talk about Conservatives and racism. In my case I have volunteered to work in inner city for 20 years, working nursing homes where half the staff was minority. they hug you, cll you dear, sweetheart all day long and have apts. look like UN and have campaigned for 30 years to bust up MPS, run by the Left that destroy more kids every year. I have encouraed Kooyenga and Dalring on this program casue the Left is very happy to keep Blacks and Hispanics in bondage.

  32. Observer says:

    Thank you for pointing out my non-Freudian mistake. Of course I meant Bob Dohnal. I’m not aware of any other Bob’s taking part of Urban Milwaukee hence the lumping of all things Bob.

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