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A mass transit budget battle is about rural fear of urban power - Elf M. Sternberg
A mass transit budget battle is about rural fear of urban power
It could be serendipity, or it could be the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, but the issue of mass transit has come across my radar three times in the past two days. The biggest, of course, is Motherboard's article The Immoble Masses: Why Traffic Is Awful and Public Transit Is Worse. The second is a case of serious pushback from conservative forces in the greater Seattle metropolitan area against a proposed collection of tax increases that would allow our highly successful light rail system to extend from a basic downtown-to-the-airport route to a full mass-transit system linking all of Seattle's major districts and burbs. And the third was an article (which I can't now find, dammit) about Wisconsin's urban/rural divide, and how it's now gotten to the point where the rural legislators view their urban counterparts not only as illegitimate, but actually dangerous to the culture, morals, and financial well-being of the rest of the state.

Rural districts see the success of the non-white, non-Christian, non-straight city as a dangerous state of affairs. It gives a city a significant amount of moral capital and financial power in the legislature. Control of the transit budget lets rural districts keep their cities on a short leash.
I can't talk to the financial status of Milwaukee or Wisconsin, but I do know a little about my own home state, and the greater metropolitan region known as the Puget Sound, which includes the cities of Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett in a three-county mass-transit administrative region. My wife is a politician, and I frequently find myself in a room with congressmen, senators, and state legislators. At one event last year, I asked a former state legislator about Seattle's mass-transit battles, and she laid it out clearly.

The Puget Sound Management Region has several different mass-transit authorities, including King County Metro, Snohomish County Community Transit, Pierce County Transit, and Sound Transit. Sound Transit has a mixed allocation scheme in that it has the authority to raise money in the three counties in which it operates; it's job is to get people moving between the major cities. But the other three (King Metro, Snohomish, and Pierce), which are each centered on an anchor city, are funded strictly by a state-level allocation, and there are laws on the books that prevent counties from funding their own transit systems.

The reason for this, my legislator avowed, is because it lets the rural districts "keep Seattle on a leash." Seattle is a net-positive-revenue region: we generate more money for the state coffers than we cost the state to administer. Far-flung rural counties with good roads and clean water have Seattle to thank for making up the annual revenue shortfalls that would allow those facilities to fall into disrepair. The rural districts see this as a dangerous state of affairs, in that it gives Seattle a significant amount of moral capital and financial power in the legislature.

But legislatural seats are allocated not only on population, but on a mix of population density and territory size; as such, rural districts often have a majority number of votes in the state legislature compared to urban districts. Rural districts are deeply suspicious of urban districts, with their multi-colored, multi-cultural take on things, their embrace of many different ways to live, their ability to give people niches small enough to hide in and big enough to live in. "Urban" is a code for non-Christian, non-straight, non-white. Those people can't be allowed to have too much power. They can't even be allowed to have more power.

How do you remind a city that it's the rural districts' servant, and not their master?

If you cut off a city's water supply, people die. If you cut off electricity, people die. Cut off garbage, people get sick and die. But if you cut off mass-transit: "Eh." People will get around by cars. Traffic will be horrible, but so what? You live in the city, you get what's coming to you. The goal of legislative control of city mass transit is to provide just enough so that cleaners, cooks, clerks, delivery people, and so on can barely make it to their jobs, and to remind the city on an annual basis that the basic labor infrastructure of the city could be snarled and wrecked at the whim of the legislature. A transit budget battle doesn't sound like a life-or-death issue, so it can be sold as "just another budget issue."

When you hear about a transit budget battle and the region is a net-positive-revenue source for the state, consider what's really going on behind the scenes: rural districts are trying to figure out how much they can tighten the leash on their urban population before their annual budget starts to suffer.

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Current Mood: annoyed annoyed

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(Deleted comment)
elfs From: elfs Date: March 27th, 2016 07:30 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: ...

Feel free!
gipsieee From: gipsieee Date: March 29th, 2016 02:55 am (UTC) (Link)
Ugh. So many good points that I really don't like very much.
In Baltimore the main reason that the red line (the first (only) east/west light rail connector) is getting scrapped is because it comes from the suburbs through the ghetto to the rapidly gentrifying areas and don't you know, that will bring the rabble into the gentrification to cause mischief... I hate to break it to them that the distance between gentrified/gentrifying and utter decay is a matter of several blocks in places and bus service already connects them, it just takes a few minutes longer to take a bus than light rail. Sigh.
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