Why Weyrich?

Art by Bob AulArchconservative Paul Weyrich has spent most of his adult life bemoaning the decline of American civilization, choking back the sharp taste of bile and shaping his disgust into three pillars of modern conservatism:he was founding president of the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and he launched the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress in 1977 and the Moral Majority two years later. Sowing popular disdain for liberals, Weyrich helped harvest a bumper crop of angry white males during Ronald Reagan's successful 1980 run for the White House.

Weyrich's rage peaked early this year when Congress failed to remove Bill Clinton from office. Polling data showed that most Americans disapproved of getting head in the White House and then lying about it, but few wanted the president fired for it. While other conservative pundits tried to twist such data into a conservative consensus and engaged in tortured analyses of the ways in which polling questions are asked, Weyrich simply admitted defeat.

"I no longer believe that there is a moral majority," Weyrich announced in a February letter to conservatives. "I do not believe that a majority of Americans actually shares our values."

Weyrich concluded that Clinton's acquittal was a signal for the Christian Right to surrender the culture war to liberals—to "drop out of the culture," as he put it. "We need some sort of quarantine."

The quarantine is already lifted. Sort of. On Monday, Weyrich will appear at UC Irvine in a debate over one of the most contentious issues facing Orange County today—not abortion or gay rights or immigration, but light rail.

He's for it. It turns out that the man who rails against liberal values wants all of us to value rail. At UCI, Weyrich will defend the Orange County Transportation Authority's plan for a 28-mile rail system from Fullerton to Irvine.

Bringing in Weyrich seems a weird move on the first glance—and a highly political one on the second. County officials might have drafted Jay Laessi, executive director of Auto-Free Orange County. Or Irvine Councilman Larry Agran, who, while mayor in the 1980s, engineered passage of a multimillion-dollar state grant for construction of the city's own light-rail system. Or Sarah L. Catz, the Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA) board member and high-profile light-rail advocate.

But Orange County is famously conservative, and the county's plan has already run into predictable opposition among critics who see trains as relics of Rooseveltian socialism. Ask the libertarian Cato Institute, the editorial writers at The Orange County Register or the Wall Street Journal about rail and you'll get something approaching perfect harmony: rail is an inefficient government-run transit program that costs more and more money while it carries fewer and fewer passengers. Despite huge government investments in rail over the course of a decade, the libertarian Reason Foundation recently concluded, "public transit accounted for just 2.5 percent of all person trips in 1990 vs. 2.3 percent in 1983."

Bringing in Weyrich (the OCTA calls him a "nationally known conservative advocate") to defend rail might therefore seem tactically brilliant—like sending Nixon to China. But OCTA officials swear they're not that clever.

"It wasn't a matter of picking him because, 'Hey, he's a conservative,'" said Alice Rogan, OCTA's community-relations manager. "Paul Weyrich is known nationally for his transportation perspectives."

"I've heard of Weyrich in the context of Christian values and all that, but I've never heard of him in a transportation context," said light-rail critic Wayne King, a founding member of the OC-based Drivers for Highway Safety.

But beneath Weyrich's bluster about homosexuals, scatological art and cultural warfare beats the heart of a small boy fascinated by trains—or a flinty-eyed grown-up who believes rail might prove the engine of a conservative rebirth. Ronald Reagan appointed Weyrich to the Amtrak board of directors in 1987; Weyrich stayed there until Clinton came to town. Eighteen months ago, Mississippi Senator Trent "Homosexuality is an illness, like kleptomania" Lott appointed Weyrich to Congress' 11-member Amtrak Reform Council.

Weyrich may hang around extremists, in other words, and may indeed be one himself, but he's the conservatives' go-to guy on rail, and he defends trains on entirely conservative grounds. He begins by attacking the notion that automobile dominance is the natural outcome of millions of free-market choices. In fact, he points out, the car's success is "the result of massive government intervention" in the form of road-building subsidies, among many others.

But Weyrich is one of those conservatives for whom big government is only evil when it serves the interests of liberals. It turns out that big government support for trains is okay because it serves conservative political goals. Well-funded, high-quality trains (buses won't do; too many members of the unwashed) frequently carry middle-class suburbanites—the sort who tend to vote Republican. "Conservative politicians who disdain any mass transit are neglecting part of their base," Weyrich has written.

Because they serve the suburbs, trains also shore up "community," though it's unclear precisely what "community" means to Weyrich, a man whose interest in long, thin things rushing into dark tunnels has generally concerned the carnal.

Weyrich acknowledges that the centerpiece of the typical conservative critique of trains comes down to numbers, what he calls the "1 percent argument": almost nowhere in the U.S. does rail account for more than 1 percent of all the trips people take in a day.

And, indeed, rail critics like King have argued that the county's CenterLine rail will haul just 60,000 people, a small fraction of the 10 million car trips a day county officials project for the year 2020. Weyrich says the flaw in such "anti-transit conservative studies" is that they "ask the wrong question. . . . What percentage of total trips does transit carry?" Weyrich proposes a different standard of measurement ("transit-competitive trips") and a different question: "If we ask what percentage transit carries of the trips for which it can compete, we get a very different picture, one that accords much more closely with the real importance of mass transit in urban areas."

The battle forms around definitions, then. If you believe that transit should account for a huge percentage of all the trips someone takes in a day—including that short trip to pick up hooch and porn at the 7-Eleven—then mass transit performs poorly. If you consider only the trips for which mass transit is designed—commuting to work or to recreation and entertainment—it performs better. Not all trips are created equal, in other words; many trips (for example, shopping) "were never transit competitive, not even in transit's heyday," Weyrich writes. "Measuring transit by counting trips it cannot compete for is like asking how much orange juice you can get from a bushel of apples."

Light-rail opponent King figures it's all a numbers game brought to you by the same people who wrongly predicted high-volume traffic on the toll roads and who now say the county needs a bigger airport—to replace one that is nowhere near capacity. He suggests an alternative to light rail: "I propose that with a half-million dollars—instead of the couple of billion they plan to spend on rail—we could buy a bunch of buses and run those along the proposed light-rail route," King said. "If it doesn't work, we can at least use the buses elsewhere—or sell them. But if they build this rail line, we're stuck with it."


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