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Why Are the Koch Brothers Messing With Nashville?

By 2035, Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, will have an additional one million residents. If you're planning for that many more citizens - providing them with water, sewer, power, police and fire services, schools - as a city planner and administrator you have one of two choices :

OPTION A: You plan for low-density sprawl and multilane highways that cost tens of millions of dollars a mile and stretch city services and budgets beyond the breaking point, unless taxes per household are increased to compensate. Good luck with that!

Sprawl, of course, also means more gasoline sales.

OR

OPTION B: You start planning for higher-density, transit-oriented, walkable community development that reduces the need for ever larger, more costly city infrastructure while spreading the tax load across a larger number of people per square mile, thereby reducing individual tax burdens.

Option B also reduces the need for automobiles and the fuel they burn, and herein, it would appear from my personal perspective, is the reason why the Koch Brothers, those 'useful villains of the Democratic Party' appear to be using their paid henchmen to kill Nashville's Bus Rapid Transit system.

Called AMP, the 7-mile long bus route that's been five years in the planning would be the beginning leg of a larger regional public transit system, notes the progressive web site, Think Progress. BRT systems, as they are known, are a cheaper alternative to light rail, costing on a per mile basis, a fraction of what a fixed rail line would run. Using conventional buses, it counts on dedicated lanes, traffic signal prioritization, and rapid passenger processing for its success.

One of the important elements of that third point - passenger processing - is the use of center lane passenger stations designed to expedite boardings. The key to running a successful BRT system is frequency of service: buses every, say, 10 minutes. Think subway, but above ground. Equip the buses with GPS and telematics, and waiting riders will know when the next bus arrives. Such frequency and dependability are important to attracting ridership and revenues.

So, if you were going to kill a BRT project, forcing city fathers, by default, into the all-too-last-century sprawl development model, and thereby insuring a stable and growing market for your refineries' gasoline, where do you attack it? You have your privately funded lobbyists -- in this case, the Tennessee chapter of the Americans for Prosperity -- write a bill that forbids buses loading and unloading passengers in the center lane of a highway. Then get a friendly legislator to sponsor it.

Next, your playbook would include a strategy to convince other state legislators who don't live in and around Nashville, how unfair it is for the city to hog all that federal transit money for a $174 million system designed primarily to cater to tourists when their own districts need it so badly for their own projects: projects that are pretty much gasoline automobile-focused: highway improvements like lane widening, road repair, traffic light upgrades, etc., etc.

If successful, the Tennessee Senate will approve -- which they just did -- the bill forbidding the center lane passenger boarding component of the AMP project: buses won't be allowed to stop to load and unload passengers, which effectively negates one of the key elements to the system: fast, efficient transport. Move boarding to the outside lanes and now buses have to fight with car traffic to get back onto the road. That pisses off car drivers, frustrates bus riders, and generally fucks up the whole idea.

Soooo... here's the central question: why do a couple rich guys from Wichita, Kansas, both born with silver spoons in their mouths and worth an estimated $80,000,000,000 (yes, that many zeros), and who spend little if any time in Nashville, care about a transit project in Tennessee?

[Side Note: The entire AMP project represents just two one-hundredth - 0.002% - of their personal wealth. It is, figuratively, 'pocket lint' to them.]

Why mess with Nashville? Because Tennessee is a politically-cosy environment in which conservatives like the Kochs and their surrogates can operate. Reports The Tennessean newspaper, AFP's Tennessee state director, Andrew Ogles, openly admitted:

"With supermajorities in both houses, Tennessee is a great state to pass model legislation that can be leveraged in other states."

If the Kochs can kill AMP in Nashville, their other state chapters are in a position to do the same in their respective jurisdictions, effectively ensuring sprawl remains profitable for them, if not the city's they are inexorably driving toward bankruptcy. It also enables them to pass other legislation that conforms to their personal agendas at the expense of others.

Writing in Salon, Alex Pareene sums the situation up this way:

"This is the story of how billionaires dedicated to advancing an agenda at every level of government can do so with practically no one noticing until they’ve already won. Because a couple of energy moguls are constitutionally opposed to mass transit spending based on a very self-serving definition of 'liberty,' Nashville, a city neither of them spends any significant amount of time in, may not get a new bus line. 'All politics is local' means something a bit different in this age of unregulated free-for-all political spending."

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