Light Rail

New York Times Goes Off the Rails With Claims About Secret Koch Plot to Kill Public Transit

A failed ballot initiative in Nashville had much more to do with hum-drum local factors than shadowy billionaire-backed conspiracies.

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Matt Leonard/Flickr

A light rail ballot initiative in Nashville, Tennessee, went down in flames last month when two-thirds of voters rejected a $9 billion transit plan that would have hiked taxes on sales, hotels, car rentals, and businesses to pay for 20-plus miles of light rail and new bus rapid transit lines.

Apparently, it's all the Kochs' fault.

That's according to The New York Times, whose subtly-titled Tuesday article, "How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country," lays the blame for the defeat of this ballot measure—and a handful of other failed local transit initiatives—squarely at the feet of the billionaire brothers.

According to the Times, the Kochs have been deploying an army of Astroturf activists from Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Koch-funded group, to successfully stop otherwise necessary and popular transportation measures that run against the pairs' ideological and financial self-interest. (Charles and David Koch also support Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason.)

"The Kochs' opposition to transit spending stems from their longstanding free-market, libertarian philosophy. It also dovetails with their financial interests," writes the Times. "One of the mainstay companies of Koch Industries, the Kochs' conglomerate, is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts."

Fearful that demand for these products would fall should Nashville build a light rail network, the theory goes, the Kochs' tapped their Tennessee AFP chapter to wage a get out the vote campaign that saw activists make 42,000 phone calls and knock on some 6,000 doors. This activism flipped what was supposed to be a slam dunk into a crushing defeat.

It's a deliciously plausible narrative for those who see nefarious machinations behind anything remotely connected to the Kochs. It's also a story that falls apart upon a closer examination of the details.

For starters, it's hard to believe that the canvassing operation of a single organization—no matter how effective—would be able to produce a landslide victory for a "no" campaign that was going up against some pretty stacked odds. (As the Times noted, the light rail expansion "was backed by the city's popular mayor and a coalition of businesses. Its supporters had outspent the opposition, and Nashville was choking on cars.")

Indeed, when the Tennessean's Nashville reporter Joey Garrison analyzed the reasons for the campaign's defeat, the Kochs and AFP didn't even make the list. Instead, he pinned the blame on things like the decision to put the light rail initiative on the low-turnout May ballot; opposition from black leaders and voters concerned about light rail–spurred gentrification; a muddled promise-all-things message from the "yes" campaign; and the untimely mid-campaign resignation of Nashville mayor and light rail superfan Megan Barry, who was forced out of office over a sordid sex-and-spending scandal.

Former Nashville City Councilwoman Emily Evans likewise failed to mention the Kochs in her rundown of what went wrong for Nashville transit enthusiasts.

"There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments)," said Evans in an email to CityLab.

These are more plausible explanations, but they lack the dramatic appeal of shadowy monied interests subverting democracy from afar.

This is not to say that AFP had no effect. The Times article describes an effective outreach campaign that focused on contacting suburban voters likely to bristle at the idea of a massive tax increase to pay for a light rail system few of them would use. (Nashville's light rail plan would have boosted sales taxes to the highest rate in the nation.)

This is hardly as conniving as the Times story makes it out to be. Instead, AFP's actions show the benefit of money in politics as a way to boost voter engagement in what would have otherwise been a low-turnout, low-information election.

Contrast that with Seattle's $54 billion Sound Transit 3 light rail initiative that easily coasted to victory over a practically non-existent opposition and is now facing a fierce public backlash from voters who missed the fine print about all the taxes and fees included in the initiative. Had a more effective opposition campaign been mounted, the electorate might have been more cognizant of these costs when they voted.

More ludicrous still is the idea that the Kochs are taking special interest in light rail initiatives in an attempt to shore up demand for gas and auto parts. Despite increasing transit spending by all levels of government, car sales continue to trend comfortably upwards as do vehicle miles travelled. Fuel consumption is down from a pre-recession high, but that has a lot more to do with increasing fuel efficiency than a sudden popularity of mass transit. (With the exception of growing and densifying Seattle, transit ridership is down in real terms across the country.)

Indeed, were the Times looking to find a clear profit motive in Nashville's light rail fight, it should have taken a closer look at the "yes" side.

One of the main contributors to that campaign was the Citizens for Greater Mobility PAC, which spent roughly $2.1 million on the initiative, nearly double the money spent by the "no" side.

According to campaign finance disclosure reports, donors to Greater Mobility included a number of engineering firms who offer transportation expertise, including CDM Smith (who gave $55,000) and CH2M Hill ($15,000), HDR Inc ($25,000), and Smith Seckman Reid, Inc. ($25,000). The National Association of Realtors kicked $150,000 to the PAC. (Real estate prices tend to go up when a light rail line goes in.)

Even industries the Times intimates have a financial interest in fighting light rail chipped in to the pro side, including tire company Bridgestone, which gave $100,000 to the Greater Mobility PAC. Apparently the benefit of having a major transit station installed a couple blocks from its national headquarters and right in front of a hockey arena that bears its name—as the Nashville light rail plan called for—outweighed the lost revenue from new train takers no longer needing tires.

Which is not to say that there is anything necessarily unseemly about these donations either. Transportation ballot initiatives represent interest group politics in their rawest form, pitting suburban drivers (and sometimes urban bus riders) against city rail riders, downtown property owners, and anyone who stands a chance of landing a construction contract on the coming project.

Rather than portraying Nashville's transit fight for what it really was, however, The New York Times chose instead to craft an unsupported and unconvincing narrative about shadowy billionaires pursuing a vague financial interest.

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  1. Instead, he pinned the blame on things like the decision to put the light rail initiative on the low-turnout May ballot; opposition from black leaders and voters concerned about light rail?spurred gentrification; a muddled promise-all-things message from the “yes” campaign; and the untimely mid-campaign resignation of Nashville mayor and light rail superfan Megan Barry, who was forced out of office over a sordid sex-and-spending scandal.

    AND WHO DO YOU THINK ENGINEERED ALL OF THESE THINGS FROM SMOKY BACK ROOMS? I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with toke. Or maybe with lock. Perhaps with notch. You know, I’ve never been totally sure how they pronounce it.

    1. Throatwarbler Mangrove.

      1. lol

    2. I think it rhymes with coke. Coincidence? Don’t be a damned fool.

  2. And we’re supposed to believe a Koch-backed propaganda outlet is going to give us the straight dope on plutocrats rigging elections?

    1. Wait, wait, forget I said that. I thought they stopped sending me my check for posting here, turns out it had fallen behind the divan. The Kochs are fine wonderful folks and there’s nothing suspicious about their behavior whatsoever.

      1. *removes silencer, re-holsters pistol, backs slowly away from Jerryskids, unnoticed*

      2. This is suspicious.
        They should be sending your shekels in Ethereum.

  3. There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments)

    So – pretty much every single thing about it.

  4. A light rail ballot initiative in Nashville, Tennessee, went down in flames last month when two-thirds of voters rejected a $9 billion transit plan…

    +

    …shadowy monied [sic] interests subverting democracy…

    = ?

  5. Loonies on the right “It’s all a giant conspiracy funded by Soros!!!!”

    Loonies on the left (which apparently includes the NYT) “It’s all a giant conspiracy funded by the Kochs!!!!”

    The two sides are more alike than they are different, but their blind spots don’t allow them to see it.

    1. The two sides are more alike than they are different, but their blind spots don’t allow them to see it.

      ^ This.

    2. If I were them, I’d be doing my damnedest to start the Koch-Soros Foundation, then starting funding all sorts of random shit and just sit back with some popcorn.

      1. I’d be doing my damnedest to start the Koch-Soros Foundation

        I believe it already exists. It’s called Congress.

    3. Except that Soros through the open society fund or whatever it is spends about a hundred times more money on politics world wide than the Kochs ever dreamed of. There really are such things as “Soros Funded Candidates”. They are running for DA all over the country. The Kochs do nothing like that.

      Pretending they are the same is just lying. They are not. The facts are what they are.

      1. And don’t forget Bloomberg spending millions of dollars to support gun control initiatives.

        1. And Tom Steyer and his global warming nonsense. All three of them send orders of magnitude more money on politics than the Kochs.

          1. But when they spend money it is good because they want more government control over our lives. The Kochs are evil because they support liberty.

            And that is what the left actually believes. They want the government to control people. They mock the idea of liberty because they honestly believe people simply can’t be trusted to live their lives without asking permission and obeying orders.

            1. Don’t forget Bloomberg’s war on Big Gulp!

              Speaking of big soda, have you seen what I think is one funny commercial? It is the one with the chubby 10 year old kid, playing his video games, watching TV, and then using the phone to call his grandmother, who is in the kitchen, in order to tell her to bring him another soda.

              1. Nope. I only have a couple streaming services, so I couldn’t watch commercials if I wanted to.

                1. If you know what to look for, you can usually find them on YouTube, if you really want to.

                2. “I couldn’t watch commercials if I wanted to”
                  Now you can:
                  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db6vGo7QJ9M

              2. Bloomturd also kicked in a couple million to ban flavored tobacco/vape in SF. He wants everyone to be super healthy, so they can grow to be an old lonely sack of shit like himself.

              3. I LOVE that commercial.

      2. Don’t forget Soros’s Secretary of State project:

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Secretary_of_State_Project

        It was one of those bastards that put Al Franken in the Senate.

    4. On left-leaning sites, I’m regularly denounced as a paid dupe for the Kochs. On right-leaning sites, I’m branded a shill for Soros. Between them, I should be rich by now. Where the hell are my checks?

  6. The Kochs have always seemed like a weird choice for the boogeyman of the left. Especially now that they have not liking Trump very much in common.

    1. They’re rich and they donate money to the “wrong causes,” unlike St. George Soros.

  7. And this isn’t going to be getting you a lot of cocktail party invites, Britches.

    1. He’s too aloof to go to those. He probably smokes a pipe in the office while everybody is out getting tipsy, masturbating to the thought of taking down the daily “Roundup” like he did with the A.M./P.M. links.

  8. “voters rejected a $9 billion transit plan that would have hiked taxes on sales, hotels, car rentals, and businesses to pay for 20-plus miles of light rail and new bus rapid transit lines.”

    Well, if not them, where else would the money come from? It’s not like transit riders are going to be willing to pay for it.

    1. Why the hell do you think the initiative was supported by the Natl Assn of Realtors.

      Because Real estate prices tend to go up when a light rail line goes in.

      So any funding that makes others pay – riders, random strangers, etc – is perfect for them

      1. Thanks for pointing that out, Capt. Obvious.

        1. You’re welcome

    1. NY Times writes another bad article is more like it.

      1. Ny Times writes YET ANOTHER bad article.

        1. Dog bites man.

          Or rather, “dog barks annoyingly.”

          1. The NYTimes has too much Koch in its mouth.

  9. Not the Koch Brothers! You mean those dastardly rich guys who WANT TO LEAVE YOU ALONE??? The horror! Why don’t they use their money to promote statism, like the enlightened rich do?

    1. The guys who want unlimited migration including taxpayer-funded refugee resettlement. The guys who want corporate welfare and a transnational intellectual property police. The guys who want a VAT. Yeah why can’t those guys just stop leaving people alone and become statists!

  10. Why do these skin-fuckers always downplay an increase of taxes as something that’s inconsequential; it boggles my fucking mind. I also how like this fucking article is placed in their “climate” section. The NYT has some good stuff, but it hurts their brand to publish this shit. At best this should be an opinion piece.

    1. Why do these skin-fuckers always downplay an increase of taxes as something that’s inconsequential

      Because to the smug, self satisfied, limousine liberals of the NYT editorial board and increase of taxes is inconsequential because they’re rich enough to afford the increased taxes.

      “What, you don’t have enough money to afford the higher taxes? You really should get some more money… Wait, you’re not one of those icky poor people I keep hearing about are you?” *tazes Yellow Tony, calls NYPD to deal with the riff-raff* /NYT progtard

      1. More right then you know.

      2. Even worse, Tennessee has no income tax and already has about 10% sales tax, plus local jurisdictions can add their own sales tax on top, which makes their tax system “regressive”, a supposed anathema to the “caring left.”

      3. “to the smug, self satisfied, limousine liberals of the NYT editorial board and increase of taxes is inconsequential because they’re rich enough to afford the increased taxes.”

        Unless you’re taking away their ability to deduct exorbitant state and local taxes.

  11. $9 billion for 20 miles of light rail???? A half billion per mile and it’s the Kochs that are responsible for it failing?

    1. $85k per linear foot. But the rails are made of vibranium.

      1. $7,100 per inch, before cost overruns.

        Serious question: How can I become a crony and get in on this action?

        1. Well. You have to keep company with politicians. I’m not sure it equals out in the end, honestly.

          1. If you keep writing them checks, you may one day break even.

    2. Claimed 9 billion.
      Most likely true cost is closer to 20 billion

      1. Indeed.

        There has never been any such thing as a government public works project that ever came in on time or on budget.

    3. It’s light rail — they have to make it out of aluminum or titanium or some faggy alloy. If you ask me, the good old heavy rail made from steel did the job perfectly fine. I just don’t understand people anymore.

  12. If a Koch plot to kill public transit is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.

    1. Jesus, even the Seattle Times has doubts.

  13. Look. Progressives are correct in all things, and everyone agrees with them. The only possible way they can be defeated is by a grand conspiracy. In this case it was the KKKoch brothers who nefariously convinced stupid people to vote against what was good for them. In the presidential election it was the Russians who convinced stupid people to vote for Trump instead of their rightful ruler, Her Majesty Queen Hillary. Whenever they win, the people have spoken and all debate is over. When they lose it was because the election was stolen from them, and they will continue to fight for the true will of the people. Because only they know what is good for us.

    1. Short version: Progressives are superheros. Therefore if they fail at anything it must be because they were thwarted by a supervillain.

  14. But, the NYT liked you.

  15. I live in Nashville and few believed the numbers, most knew that it would cost four to five times projections, and all recognized that these rail lines and special bus corridors were coming at the expense of existing overcrowded roads and were promoted by those who want to put an end to cars and to force everyone onto bike paths and the like. That does not represent most locals, at all.
    The only chance the proposal ever had was riding the enormous popularity of Mayor Berry, the Progressive Female Champion, and her getting caught knockin’ boots with her bodyguard and then the nude photo came out, and—-well hell, blame the Koch Brothers!

    1. Did they take the photo, or what?

    2. Why do these people hate cars?

    3. Remember that is prog 101. The worst thing that happened to the progressive movement and ended their utopia was the invention of the car and after WW2 the suburb. There urban planned society utopia ended when people escaped their political machines and moved to single family homes. It was their dream after WW2 of us all shuffling along from our cookie cutter apartments via mass transit and pedestrian lifestyle to our jobs to shop at the quaint little market on the way home for this nights meal. All the while our wise a benevolent planners watched over. But the working man said screw that and took their families from the crime and corruption of big cities. We were thinking on our own driving to work shopping for the week at the grocery store. “How dare they” they thought. Do they not see the enlightened life of the urban pedestrian. So their goal every since has been to end the evil car and get us back on their plan.

      1. You hit the nail on the head

      2. Damn. That’s some serious insight there.

        I bet Al Gore regrets inventing the Internet now, given the ability of suburbanites to telecommute now.

        1. PJ O’Rouke talks about it at length.

    4. I had no idea who she is, so I checked Wiki, where she is called a ‘business woman and a politician”. According to Wiki, here’s her background in “business”:

      “Barry worked in business ethics and corporate responsibility for the multinational telecommunications firm Nortel Networks.[7] From 2003 to 2012, Barry was vice president of ethics and compliance at Premier, Inc., a health-care group purchasing organization.[7] She also worked as principal of Barry & Associates, an independent consulting organization to multinational corporations on issues dealing with business ethics and corporate social responsibility.[7]”

      One goddam token ‘position’ after the other, and after she filled her Rolodex, she set up her own protection operation, much like Jesse Jackson.
      Pathetic.

      1. “Barry was vice president of ethics and compliance at Premier, Inc., a health-care group purchasing organization”

        Stop and ponder, for a moment, the level of stupidity that such a position as a “vice president of ethics” actually exists anywhere on earth.

        1. Only two words separating vice and ethics. I could probably make some sort of moralistic point about that.

  16. But comrades. If it’s ‘secret’ how do you know?

  17. I also read this lame hit piece in the NYT, what a waste of 5 minutes. Did CB try to contact the author of this claptrap to ask why they are so paranoid about a Koch conspiracy?

  18. I don’t think highly of NYT to begin with, but wow…

  19. One need look no further than the DC Metro to see why mass transit typically ends up a colossal failure. There is the H Street streetcar too, how many millions per mile? Recently, they’ve blamed Uber for why ridership keeps falling, but they had it wrong-it’s been those evil Koch brothers who have caused the fires, derailments, constant fare hikes, delays and broken escalators. My sister-in-law refused to send my nephew to one of the DC charter schools because she found out that one of the board members had ties to a Koch organization, so now they are spending a king’s ransom to send him to a private school. Kochphobia really is a mental illness.

    1. And the Metro has been saying they don’t want to take over the Silver Line extension to Dulles because they can’t afford to maintain it (even though the airport authority is building it from its own funding). That’s probably a Koch conspiracy too, as was the decision not to put in a parking garage at any of the existing stops on that line.

  20. When will The NYT merge with Mad Magazine and be done with it already?

    It’s a joke.

    1. “It’s a joke.”

      You’re right; Mad is much more reliable.

  21. The only mass transit the Koch’s approve of is illegals across the border.

  22. They knocked on SIX THOUSAND DOORS , People. SIX THOUSAND DOORS.
    That totally explains the vote margin of 35,000
    The Kochs personally kicked in a dozen red tshirts, some Hardees coupons, and an Ipad, and took Nashville down quicker than Uysses S Grant

    1. The fiendishly clever Kochs picked six thousand fundamentalist households, each with a man, woman, and at least 4 adult children – none of whom would have thought to get out and vote against this mass-transit boondoggle on their own.

      (For the really slow thinkers – this is satire, as I’m sure the post above it is.)

  23. “That’s according to The New York Times, whose subtly-titled Tuesday article, “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country,” lays the blame for the defeat of this ballot measure?and a handful of other failed local transit initiatives?squarely at the feet of the billionaire brothers.”

    Funny how the New York Times isn’t the least bit concerned when George Soros, Micheal Bloomberg or Tom Steyer spend boatloads of money trying to influence elections all around the country but those evil Koch brothers are an outrage!

  24. Lol. Well as long as someone on the Koch payroll says so it must be true!

  25. “There were a host of reasons [the proposal failed], like the cost ($9 billion), the scale (20 plus miles of light rail), the funding source (sales tax increase) and the financing structure (a decade of interest-only payments),” said Evans in an email to CityLab.

    Only morons would believe this is a good deal. Hooray for Nashville!! If City Leaders can make proposals such as this, their entire agenda must be scrutinized.

  26. I don’t get the left’s fetish with mass transit. Is it because we call it “public” transportation. Would they support private mass transit companies?

    1. Besides the unionized construction jobs, the unionized – and usually government – jobs running it, the opportunities for graft and favoritism, and the expectation that most of the beneficiaries will vote for leftist politicians? There’s also the social engineering – mass transit means government control of where you go and when. It’s only practical when workers commute from huge individuality-crushing apartment complexes to huge individuality-crushing corporate work sites. If they could force the whole package down our throats, they’d get rid a a lot of pesky individualism among the work force, and make it difficult for those darned independent (and usually conservative) small businesses to hire workers or even get their stuff delivered.

      1. Sure, light rail creates union jobs. But it creates far fewer union jobs than the alternative, the bus!

        One easy to see example can be found out in Salt Lake City. In 2016 their buses essentially moved the same number of rides as did their light rail system; 19.468 million rides vs. 19.220 million respectively. Yet to move those rides their bus division needed 1,024 employees and their light rail division needed 563 employees.

        It’s thanks in part to that huge disparity in employees that Salt Lake spent basically double running those buses as it did light rail; $128.663 Million vs. $67.203 Million.

        By the way, smart small business owners know to locate their businesses near rail lines for two reasons. !) They can rely on the line to deliver their employees to work. 2) They know that they can rely on the line to deliver customers to their store.

    2. I suspect that they would support private mass transit companies, if there were any.

      Alas, thanks to the massive subsidies provided to those of us who drive cars, there are no private companies anymore. They can’t charge enough to compete with the low cost of driving thanks to the subsidies given to drivers.

      That was one of the reasons that the late President Ronald Reagan helped to create the Mass Transit Fund to help fund bus & rail projects.

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