Freeways to Rails

Submitted by David Hafer

A prominent ecologist was once asked at an Earth Day event to name the most serious environmental problem facing the United States. His answer was General Motors.

To anyone familiar with monumental pollution problems created by cars and trucks, his answer was right on target. General Motors symbolizes the giant corporate members of the highway lobby – the powerful interests who have pushed the United States to abandon its energy efficient rail system in favor of an abysmally inefficient, polluting and socially disruptive highway system.

Beginning in 1925, GM, along with Standard Oil and Firestone Rubber, conspired to buy out more than a hundred streetcar systems in forty cities. Then dismantled and paved them over to make room for automobiles. This systemic campaign to destroy the electric trolley systems lasted until 1949 when GM was indicted for criminal conspiracy.

The corporate conspirators eventually pleaded guilty and paid a fine of five thousand dollars for destroying a non-polluting mass transit system that would cost billions of dollars to replace. The dismantling of rail transit followed by decades of unrestrained government spending for highway construction has left the U.S. with a legacy of pollution and an insatiable need for petroleum.

Consider the pollution problems created by our unhealthy dependence on motor vehicles. Cars and trucks produce thirty percent of the carbon dioxide that contributes to the greenhouse effect, causing global warming. The average car on the road today gets twenty seven and a half miles per gallon and produces thirty eight tons of emissions over its lifetime. The emissions for motor vehicles include forty percent of the nitrogen oxides that contribute to acid rain, and eighty percent of the carbon monoxide that creates smog.

Massive air pollution is one problem; the highway system’s impact on land use is equally destructive. Sixty percent of our urban areas are paved for highways and parking lots. So much land area is devoted to highways that automobiles seem to be pushing people out of their living space.

In addition to the destruction of open space, wildlife habitat and farmland, highway development fragments communities. Neighborhoods are divided and highway strip development takes retail business away from downtown contributing to economic decline in cities and towns.

An increasing sense of isolation and alienation in our society can be traced to the fact that people are forced to spend more time with their cars than with their families. The average car on the road has one occupant – the driver. It has been estimated that anyone who commutes an hour a day in each direction spends seven weeks of the year sitting in his or her car.

In contrast to the isolation of the motorist, rail passengers experience a sense of community. Train travel is more conducive to socializing. People can relax, read a book or take a nap – pleasant experiences that are lacking when one is stuck in a car during the rush hour traffic jam. So much for the myth of the “freedom of the road.”

Keeping its energy-guzzling highway system functioning has forced the U.S. into a desperate dependence on cheap imported oil. According to Department of Energy data, in 2007 we used 2.68 trillion barrels a day almost sixty percent of which was imported. This staggering amount represents approximately twenty five percent of the world’s annual supply of gasoline and we use seventy percent of it for transportation alone.

It is not hard to see that our oil dependence is unsustainable. At the current level of consumption, geologists estimate that known oil reserves should last about twenty years. Our transportation policy makers should be thinking about what we are going to do with our enormous network of highways, freeways and parking lots when the gas runs out. Instead we are chronically faced with a multitude of proposals for new highway and bypass construction that will supposedly eliminate traffic congestion. We should be asking our highway planners if it is really wise to pave farmland in Snyder County, destroy pristine streams and forest land in Centre County or fragment an historic neighborhood in Pittsburgh for the sake of a transportation system that is doomed to run out of gas in twenty years.

Rail transit can provide a transportation alternative that would save land, conserve energy and reduce pollution. Two railroad tracks can carry as much as sixteen lanes of highway. A half empty passenger train is still three times more efficient than a small car carrying one or two passengers on the freeway. According to the World Watch Foundation, “on a per mile basis, a light rail line carries seventy times as many people as a highway, generates only one percent of the hydrocarbons and costs one-tenth as much to build.”

Unfortunately, thanks to generous campaign contributions from the highway lobby, politicians are reluctant to support alternatives to the highway mode of transportation. They will argue that rail transit loses money and must be subsidized by the taxpayer. They neglect the fact that highways never earn a profit. In fact, highways are publicly owned and continuously lose money to the tune of an estimated three hundred billion dollars a year. This estimate included the cost of construction and maintenance as well as pollution, accidents, military protection of foreign oil sources and social costs.

Returning to an energy-saving, environmentally sound rail-based transportation system will mean convincing transportation policy makers and legislators to stop the massive subsides for the highway system. If government is to subsidize transportation, then it makes good sense to support the mode of transportation that is most compatible with energy conservation, environmental protection and social cohesion.

If only a modest portion of the huge stimulus bill recently passed is directed to expanding Amtrak and providing funds for inter-urban rail transit, we will have taken a significant step towards creating a practical and sustainable alternative to our congested freeways. However, we must begin now, while the political climate is conducive to funding public works projects.

If we can convince our elected officials at both the State and Federal level to get off the highway bandwagon, then perhaps there is reason to believe that someday this country will have a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and socially cohesive system that puts us on track to a sustainable future rather than speeding us down the freeway to environmental ruin.

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One thought on “Freeways to Rails

  1. Dave Hafer has written a timely assessment of the great burden of our automobile-centered transportation system on the environment and on our general well-being. One part of his article gives a brief version of a story we all should know. This is a tale about how, beginning in the 1930s, GM led a corporate conspiracy that systematically destroyed the auto’s principal competitor, the network of trolley systems that existed in many large cities. By then, the auto industry had already begun its eventual triumphant campaign to persuade governments at all levels to build a system of roads and highways that,literally, paved the way to the tangled catastrophe that is now our transportation system. This story exemplifies well Marx’s comment that if the rate of return is high enough there are capitalists lurking about who will do anything imaginable to make it their own, including criminal behavior that will usher some of them to prison. (“Taken for a Ride,” a documentary film, tells the dreary and irritating details of GM’s conspiracy, for those interested in it or in the annals of corporate criminality.)

    Hafer closes his article with sound advice and a dire warning that we ignore at our own peril: “If we can convince our elected officials at both the State and Federal level to get off the highway bandwagon, then perhaps there is reason to believe that someday this country will have a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly and socially cohesive system that puts us on track to a sustainable future rather than speeding us down the freeway to environmental ruin.”

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