bus rapid transit sketch
Will Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state legislature kill this proposed bus rapid transit line in Nashville?

As more cities come to terms with Americans’ shifting desires to get out of cars and onto mass transit, we are beginning to see bus and rail projects in some unexpected places. Mass transit isn’t just for your Europhile socialist coastal enclaves anymore. Cities in the Midwest and the Sun Belt are trying to develop well-planned transit systems such as light rail and bus rapid transit.

But there is a hitch: States tend to control both how transportation funds are raised and how they are spent. Even federal transportation dollars are mostly disbursed to states rather than localities. Many states, even liberal California and transit-rich New York, prohibit cities from levying most kinds of taxes without state permission, making it hard for metropolitan areas to raise funds for their own projects.

And, you’ll be shocked to discover, Republican state legislatures aren’t so keen on mass transit. In Indiana, for example, the counties in the Indianapolis region need state approval just to hold a referendum on whether to fund mass transit projects. And the state legislature would not give them that permission unless they dropped a light rail system from the proposal, and also dropped a corporate tax to pay for it.

The irony is that the business community itself had lobbied for the mass transit system, since they appreciate its economic value. But God forbid businesses should be asked to contribute to building the public goods they will benefit from! They lobbied against the corporate income tax that would have covered a mere 10 percent of the system’s cost, and it was removed. Conservatives, of course, then attacked the bill for shifting the cost onto taxpayers. But at least it finally passed.

Nashville may not be so lucky. The city wants to build a bus rapid transit line on one of its major, traffic-clogged corridors. The system would cut commute times, but suburbanites worry that by taking one of their precious car lanes it would cause traffic and safety problems. Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers–funded anti-government advocacy organization, has rallied support for a Tennessee state Senate bill that would prohibit dedicating any lane of traffic to buses, and late last month it passed. The bill’s fate in the state House is unclear.

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to rein in dangerous drivers to protect pedestrians and bicyclists may be thwarted by the state government. He needs Albany’s approval to post speeding cameras around the city, and the legislature did not include it in the state budget that just passed. It may be added later.

To some extent, these pro-car, anti-transit, and anti-pedestrian policies are just the natural byproduct of our bizarre federal system. In European or Asian countries with better subway systems and inter-city rail service, infrastructure policy is nationalized. National governments tend to appreciate cities and their vital economic importance. State politics, on the other hand, can be dominated by reactionary rural or suburban legislators who resent the prominence of their state’s biggest cities.

But some reforms are possible. Federal transportation dollars, for example, can go more to localities than states. President Obama has started to do this a little bit with his competitive TIGER grants program. And as more Southern and Midwestern cities push for transit, suburban and conservative resistance to it may soften. Until then, there is a lot of work to be done in statehouses.