Reconnecting America and Smart Growth America

If APTA represents the bootleggers, Reconnecting America and Smart Growth America represent the Baptists who supposedly support transit for moral reasons. Reconnecting America spends between $3 million and $4 million a year to “link transportation networks and the communities they serve.” Despite this innocuous mission, the only transportation networks Reconnecting America cares about are transit, and it completely ignores or is hostile to the automobile as a form of transportation.

Reconnecting America has two divisions: the Center for Transit-Oriented Development, which promotes high-density developments along transit lines and near rail stations, and Transportation 4 America, which focuses on promoting transit and devaluing automobiles. Reconnecting America gets most of its money from grants, including government grants, and most of the rest comes from contracts, mostly with government agencies. In other words, a large share of its funds are from your tax dollars that are effectively used to lobby governments to tax you even more to subsidize transit.

Smart Growth America’s mission is to promote “the environment, historic preservation, social equity, land conservation, neighborhood redevelopment, farmland protection, labor and town planning.” It’s one-size-fits-all solution to all of these issues is “compact” or high-density development, including increasing the share of people living in multi-family housing, especially housing located on transit lines. The group’s anti-auto, anti-suburb agenda is covered by a patina of euphemisms such as complete streets, sustainability, and farmland preservation.

From a pure technical viewpoint, there is no reason why Reconnecting America’s and Smart Growth America’s goals could not be achieved using bus transit. But politically, rail transit forms an essential part of their programs for the simple reason that rail transit is so much more expensive than buses. Buses are a commodity; several bus manufacturers make a wide range of buses in a competitive environment that keeps costs low. Every rail line, on the other hand, is a one-off, custom-made, custom-designed project that requires tens of millions of dollars of planning, tens of millions of dollars of design work, tens of millions of dollars of engineering, and hundreds of millions of dollars of construction work.

This means that smart-growth advocates depend on rail contractors, the bootleggers, for their political and financial support. Moreover, it is easier to persuade a city council that the land near a rail station should be rezoned for high-density development and that subsidies should be given to that development than to do the same for a bus stop. This is especially true because the Federal Transit Administration uses cities’ willingness to do such rezoning as one of the criteria for deciding whether rail projects deserve federal funding.