Mass Transit, the Hope for the Future

Posted: Jul 12, 2006 12:01 AM
Mass Transit, the Hope for the Future

This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Defense Interstate Highway System. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. He figured he could not get authorization for an interstate highway system through the Congress unless he wrapped it around national defense. The idea was if we had to move large numbers of troops across the United States in a hurry we could not do so with the highways we had in 1956.

Prior to 1920 there were few paved roads outside of metropolitan areas. Then an underdog candidate for Governor of Iowa ran on the slogan "Get Iowa out of the mud." He won and with that victory a nationwide effort to build roads was on its way. The vast electric interurban network which had laced the nation beginning from 1895 through 1920 began to retrench as highways came on line and automobiles became affordable for the average family.

At that the United States road system was basically a series of regional roads linked together. I drove US Route 6 before much of the Interstate was complete. It ran from one small town to another. It was a great way to see America but only if you had lots of time.

I recall the big sign which went up on Highway 41, a major road between Milwaukee and Chicago. I lived between the two cities. The sign read: "Coming soon. Interstate 94." I was quite excited to see that sign. But my excitement declined when several years later the sign was still up but there was no sign of the Interstate.

Finally it was built and cars zoomed west of all the cities between Milwaukee and Chicago. Outside of some motels and a few restaurants you saw nothing but cattle grazing. There was no trace of the cities anymore except for the exit signs announcing them in so many miles.

The Interstate changed the character of the nation. Perhaps Ike knew what the consequences of the Interstate System would be. Perhaps not. Before the Interstate system, even the designated US highways were often two-lane affairs which linked local culture. Once the Interstate System was largely completed the uniqueness of small town America was bypassed. One could drive from one coast of the nation to the other without passing through a small town. No more corner diners, no more ethnic bakeries. Most of these died out in due course as truck traffic and through-routed automobile traffic never graced those communities again.

There is no doubt that the Interstate System has been helpful to commerce. We could not begin to think of the immense trade we have with other nations if we did not have the Interstate System. Yes, a few places had toll roads, such as the Pennsylvania Turnpike which opened in 1938, but freeways were the exception, not the rule.

In addition to providing the fast track for American automobiles, the Interstate System also hastened the end of the national rail-passenger network. Prior to the Interstate, most people who wanted to visit their cousins or just see the sights of America took the train. At that point air travel was too expensive. And without the Interstate buses were terribly slow and often got tangled up in local problems. Prior to 1958 trains went just about everywhere, so no problem.

As more highways were built more trains were discontinued. Today Amtrak has a skeleton of a national rail system. It carries a fraction of what trains carried 50 years ago.

To build and maintain the Interstate System, Congress established the Highway Trust Fund. Automobile drivers as well as trucks and buses were all taxed at the gas pump and money was plentiful. Then a decade and a half ago, Congress gave local communities the option to spend federal dollars on highways or mass transit.

Now a certain percentage of all federal Highway Trust Fund dollars goes to build primarily rail systems, although the Bush Administration has been pushing so-called bus rapid transit. Bus rapid transit is cheaper to build than rail but people don't like to ride buses and greatly prefer rail. Even if the so-called bus rapid transit were to become successful operating costs would continue to be far higher than rail. Cities such as San Diego, Sacramento and Portland run four-car articulated trains at rush hour. Each train can carry around 700 people. There is but one motorman. To carry the same number of people would require ten buses, each with a driver. With transit labor is where costs rise. In addition, with gasoline at $75 a barrel we are looking at close to $4 a gallon at the local pump. Rail systems almost all use electricity, which can be generated by coal or nuclear power. It is far less expensive than filling up the gas tank of a bus. Regardless, mass transit and highways have been forged into a partnership by the Congress and it was worked well. The problem is that the Highway Trust Fund is diminishing at just the time when costs for steel and cement and other components of both highways and rail are escalating.

Alternative sources of revenue need to be found if indeed the Interstate is to be enhanced and if transit is to continue to derive needed dollars for its projects.

The Congressional-chartered Commission upon which I serve is to offer recommendations in this regard. It won't be easy. In fifty years we have gone from no national highway system to one so crowded in major metropolitan areas that officials are seeking ways to build bypasses or even transit lines to get people out of their cars and on to light rail.

There are times I wish Ike had not been so successful with the Interstate System. But those are just times of nostalgia. The truth is we are a far better nation because of the Interstate System. And especially now that transit is part of the equation, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. That light is a rail car. It beckons us to leave our automobiles and to ride transit. No decent transit in your area, you say? Hopefully in the next 50 years we will remedy that.