Why Conservatives Hate Trains

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 9 2011 8:08 AM

Why Conservatives Hate Trains

I tried to answer this question , from the obvious reasons to the reasons that seem obvious but aren't, in my new piece.

"You need to distinguish between Republicans and conservatives and libertarians when you look at this," says William Lind, the director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation . "It's the libertarians who push this crap."

Libertarians, of course, have no problem with trains (see, e.g., Atlas Shrugged ). They do have a problem with federal spending on transportation, as do many Republicans. Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957; Amtrak took over the rails in 1971. Since then, conservatives will sing the praises of private rail projects but criticize federally funded projects that don't meet the ideal. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., for example, pushed a high-speed rail initiative through Congress in 2008. By 2010, he was denouncing "the Soviet-style Amtrak operation" that had "trumped true high-speed service" in Florida. In 2011, as the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, he is interested in saving the Orlando-Tampa project by building 21 miles between the airport and Disney World. This is about 21 miles farther than local Republicans want to go.

For more than a decade, Lind and a conservative movement icon, Paul Weyrich, collaborated on papers about why conservatives should support rail. Their 2001 paper, " Twelve Anti-Transit Myths: A Conservative Critique ," actually tackled 34 "myths" about rail, including "rail transit is a federal conspiracy" and "trains are noisy." It ended with Lind and Weyrich declaring of their foes: "THESE PEOPLE DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT!" Weyrich died in 2008, effectively cutting the number of conservative rail prophets in half.

"Conservatives used to be in favor of a civilized way of doing things," says Lind. "Board a train and you don't have the TSA groping you. If you think our greatest vulnerability is a dependence on foreign oil, here's a way to get around that can run on coal or electrified rails."

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David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.