The oil baron billionaires Charles and David Koch are bankrolling astroturf campaigns across the United States to kill investment in public transit, according to a "must-read" investigation published Tuesday by the New York Times.
"Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry. But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them."
—Ashley Robbins, Virginia Tech transportation researcher
"Since 2015, Americans for Prosperity has coordinated door-to-door anti-transit canvassing campaigns for at least seven local or state-level ballots. In the majority, the Kochs were on the winning side," the Times reports, referencing the political advocacy organization funded by the Koch Brothers.
David Koch served as chair of Americans for Prosperity until he stepped down from his political and business roles earlier this month due to his declining health.
"Americans for Prosperity and other Koch-backed groups have also opposed more than two dozen other transit-related measures—including many states' bids to raise gas taxes to fund transit or transportation infrastructure—by organizing phone banks, running advertising campaigns, staging public forums, issuing reports, and writing opinion pieces in local publications," the report continues.
The development of public transit, particularly when it is sustainably powered, is often seen as positive for both impoverished communities and the environment—especially considering that transportation is the largest contributor to the nation's total greenhouse gas emissions. As the Times notes, "the paucity of federal funding for transit projects means that local ballots are critical in shaping how Americans travel."
As environmental and anti-poverty advocates have pushed for spending tax dollars on rail and bus programs in communities across the country, Americans for Prosperity's anti-transit organizing efforts have also targeted cities and counties nationwide—from Phoenix, Arizona and central Utah, to Little Rock, Arkansas and southeast Michigan, to Nashville, Tennessee.
And while the brothers' opposition to investment in public transit aligns with their far-right, libertarian ideals, as the Times points out, "it also dovetails with their financial interests, which benefit from automobiles and highways."
As the newspaper explains: "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. Even as Americans for Prosperity opposes public investment in transit, it supports spending tax money on highways and roads."
A spokesman for Koch Industries told Times that the company does not control Americans for Prosperity's activities and that the group's efforts to kill public transit are not connected to the company's interests. Critics and readers were not so convinced. "Stopping higher taxes is their rallying cry," Ashley Robbins, a transportation researcher at Virginia Tech, told the newspaper. "But at the end of the day, fuel consumption helps them."
New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer, author of the book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, tweeted:
Excellent story showing how Kochs push their oil biz interests, disguised as philosophy, all over the U.S., killing majority support for mass transit with swarms of paid, hi-tech-armed operatives https://t.co/NhdTTR4Pib
— Jane Mayer (@JaneMayerNYer) June 19, 2018
No matter the role the billionaire brothers' financial interests play in setting the agendas of Americans for Prosperity's state chapters, the local campaigns they fund are certainly having an impact.
In Nashville, for example, campaigners armed with iPads featuring a data service called i360—which profiles local voters who may be susceptible to their arguments based on public registration information—went door-to-door to convince residents to reject a sweeping $5.4 billion transit spending plan that was backed by the mayor and several local businesses.
"The boldest municipal transit plan in recent memory," as CityLab detailed in May, "would have launched five light-rail lines, one downtown tunnel, four bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown buses, and more than a dozen transit centers around the city."
"The ramifications of the plan's failure—which followed the failure of a big bus rapid transit scheme called AMP in 2015—could be larger, culturally, and politically,"CityLab added, noting that residents rejected the plan by a 2-to-1 margin. "Another transit initiative may not be in the offing soon."