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 Politics: U.S. Transportation Still In A Dream World

Travelby William A. Collins

Fight for highways,
Make a fuss;
But for me,
I need the bus.

The future of transportation in the U.S. is pretty murky, but luckily the recent spike in gas prices did give us a quick look down the road. Even though crude oil futures have now returned to a more civilized level, and even though gasoline itself has drifted back down a bit, the memory of that shock will not go away anytime soon. Drivers donít want to get caught short like that again.

Neither do the auto companies. Thus the Hummer may soon go the way of the brontosaurus, sacrificed at long last on the altar of fuel economy, and other SUVs and pickups are quickly sprouting hybrid engines. This will make their owners feel environmentally superior, but at the same time allow the manufacturers to hang onto the huge profit margins that attend such monster vehicles.

Then, to deal with those miserly drivers who really get testy about fuel costs, as well as those few tree-huggers who actually worry about the environment, Ford, GM, and Chrysler plan to import little cars designed for foreign roads from their own overseas plants. This seemingly cheap solution is unlikely to satisfy American drivers, however, and will give a boost to Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Subaru, Kia, etc. who have already established the quality of their cars on U.S. highways Thatís when we can expect to pay for the next auto industry bailout.

Elsewhere in the world a more common response to the gas crisis is to enhance mass transit. Not here. ...

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Even as gasoline price inflation was forcing us to cut back to watercress sandwiches in our homes, the federal DOT was again proposing reductions in Amtrak. Thatís because while we pay national homage to the need for more trains and buses, there is no monied lobby to make them happen. Instead Congress pumps an emergency $80 billion into the Highway Trust Fund to keep that concrete flowing. Bridge replacements are a good example. They are plainly more important to us than buses.

The White House solution to all this financial pressure for roads is quite simple. Tolls. Make drivers pay for roads, preferably by selling the highways off to private foreign investors. Indiana has already started. Letís get government out of the messy business of government. Sell it all off. Then if the high cost of driving reduces traffic and the owners of the roads can no longer afford to maintain them properly, bail them out. Drivers will demand it.

Meanwhile the price of fuel, driven upward by Wall Street manipulators, hits hardest at citizens of low income. Those in rural areas suffer most because they have the farthest to travel. But everyone who must drive to their job gets pounded too. Thatís often the poor who arenít allowed to live in the spiffy towns where they work.

The poor also get pounded at the store. Truckers are naturally socked by fuel costs too, and so prices go up for everything they cart. Like food. This too is especially hard on low income folks for whom food is the biggest part of their budget. In other lands much more freight moves by rail, which is cheaper, but in the U.S. we have not kept up with that investment, so trucks are our only recourse. Oil companies donít like investments in rail.

And now even the Environmental Protection Agency is getting into the act. It is suddenly requiring enormously stern reviews of proposed rail line improvements. This from a department that turns a blind eye to mining, clear cutting, and poisoning of the water. Such is the power of oil companies in this administration to hinder any projects that might reduce our addiction to highway travel.

And so while light rail gradually expands and transit ridership keeps nudging upward, the investment needed for seriously improving them both is lacking. New leadership in Washington will surely help, but the campaign to get Americans out of their cars and off the highways is going to be a long uphill slog.


Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.
Distributed by MinutemanMedia.org


[09 October 2008]

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