People standing outside the entrance to Berryessa Transit Center
VTA workers have broken ground on the six-mile BART expansion through San Jose to Santa Clara. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

As a transit advocate, I’ve seen the positive impact advocacy can have on our community. However, a growing trend threatens the future of transit: the influence of anti-transit organizations posing as pro-transit experts.

Anyone who regularly reads Bay Area newspapers has likely seen articles written by Marc Joffe of the Cato Institute. Organizations such as the Cato Institute and the Reason Foundation claim to support transit reform, but their true aim is often to undermine public transportation. This deceptive strategy is detrimental to transit advocacy and policy.

These organizations present themselves as advocates for fiscal responsibility and efficiency for transit projects and services. They publish reports, conduct studies and engage in public discourse under the guise of seeking improvement. In many cases, they use language popular among transit advocates.

However, a closer look at their recommendations reveals a different agenda. Their proposals often focus on reducing investment in transit, promoting privatization and scaling back transit projects and service.

A prime example of this deceptive framing can be seen in Mercury News op-eds from Joffe. One suggests BART should not ask for additional public funding without addressing inefficiencies first. On the surface, this seems like a fairly reasonable argument for fiscal responsibility. However, the recommendations offered — such as cutting service and privatizing operations — are clearly aimed at weakening public transit rather than setting it up for success.

One of the key tactics of the Cato Institute and similar organizations is to exploit legitimate concerns about the current state of transit. By highlighting issues such as rising costs and delays, they build a case against transit investment.

While these are genuine challenges that should be addressed, the solutions proposed by anti-transit organizations do more harm than good. They advocate for reducing funding, scaling back service and shifting resources to private transit, which would only exacerbate current problems. These cuts can lead to what is known as the “transit death spiral,” where decreasing service results in declining ridership, which further reduces fare revenue and justifies more cuts.

The deceptive nature of these organizations is particularly harmful since it can sway public opinion and undermine genuine transit advocacy. Since these organizations are not blatantly anti-transit, they are able to gain credibility and influence even in the transit space. I regularly see other advocates who want transit expanded but repeat talking points from these organizations, especially around scaling back projects.

This makes it harder for genuine transit advocates to rally support for necessary investments and improvements in public transportation. In the Bay Area, it’s common to advocate against transit projects due to cost, even though highway and road projects are experiencing similar cost escalation due to the increasing price of construction materials and the broader impacts of inflation.

To counteract this influence, transit supporters should work to reframe the conversation around transit. Instead of getting caught up in negative rhetoric and misleading arguments by anti-transit organizations, we need to use our influence to highlight the benefits of transit, including reducing traffic, lowering emissions and improving mobility and access to opportunities.

Transit is complicated and time is limited, but we need to raise the bar when it comes to being informed. Listen to a variety of perspectives, read official documents if you can, ask tough questions and be thoughtful. I promise that it’s worth it.

San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.

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