The New Transportation Lobby October 14th, 2009
Editorial By Noel T. Braymer
I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone on TV or Radio says something like “The Government can’t do anything right!” Life is never perfect, but we depend on many government services which generally work fine. An example of this would be indoor plumbing. These are basic services which government provides. Government is also good at raising tax dollars in large amounts to pay for needed projects which private industry wouldn’t find profitable. We take clean water and sanitation for granted. But 100 years ago indoor plumbing wasn’t universal in this country. Poor countries to this day often don’t have clean water or proper sanitation. The result is water borne bacteria are a leading cause for illness and death in poor countries.
When there are problems with government, politics usually is at the heart of the issue. There isn’t much political fighting over sewers. I think this is because most people use water and toilets and the cost for such service is reasonable. Usually when politics rears its head the issue is usually over money. People will fight about paying for something they don’t use or think doesn’t benefit them. Anything that can be considered a form of welfare by some groups will get opposition. A major problem for public transportation is that it is seen by many as a form of welfare. Many people feel riding a bus is degrading.
The period after World War II was the high point of road construction. During this time there was much talk about the “Highway Lobby”. The Highway Lobby is usually thought to be the auto makers, oil companies and road builders. Actually support for road building goes much deeper. Transportation is at the heart of economic growth. Transportation opens up land for development. Bankers get business from developers building houses and commercial buildings. Development brings tax revenues to local government. Many people have jobs linked to transportation based development. At this time new roads fueled much of the economic growth after the war. At the same time efforts to improve rail service or public transportation largely went nowhere. This was a period of intense competition for tax dollars. The “Highway Lobby” dominated this era and left rail and transit mostly in the dust.
But by the end of the 1970’s the road building boom was largely coming to halt. The country was shocked by two oil embargos at this time which exposed the Nation’s dependence on oil. Recessions at this time reduced revenue and the need for highway construction. And despite massive road building traffic congestion was getting worse not better. In California at this time because of Prop 13 a 2/3 majority was needed to pass any tax increases on a ballot measure. Counties turned to raising local sales taxes by ballot measure to raise money for transportation projects. In order to get the widest support possible these ballot measures proposed both highway improvements and rail projects. This was the beginning of turning the Highway Lobby into the Transportation Lobby.
A problem with cars is they don’t carry many people, particularly when only one person is in one. For an example just go to any suburban elementary school on a school day and you will find a traffic jam from parents dropping off or picking up their children. A double tracked railroad can carry more people and freight than a ten lane freeway. The best place for business is where it is busy, where there is lots of foot traffic; where the action is. Depending on cars can leave activity centers in gridlock. Traditional downtowns in the past didn’t have these problems because they were well served with rail and transit. Today there are complaints that the Los Angeles Coliseum doesn’t have enough parking for a professional football team. Yet between 1932 and 1962 the Coliseum had many events at full capacity of over 102,000 with no problems. The reason was the Coliseum was well served with streetcar service until 1963. Increasingly commercial property owners and civic leaders are discovering that rail service can bring in more people to an area than cars alone.
The California High Speed Rail Project is more a development project than a transportation project. This has always been true of transportation. Go to the CHSRA web site or youtube and look up California High Speed Rail and look at the videos. There are plans for major development around most of the stations. High Speed Rail has the potential to create economic growth, increase ridership for all forms of public transit and do it in an economical way. But, to do this HSR service has to have connections to all of California. I live in San Diego County and have family in Sacramento. The first segment of the HSR project will serve neither. But I should be able to buy a ticket and leave Oceanside, make quick guaranteed connections to Sacramento on day one the HSR trains are running and get to Sacramento in less time than it takes to drive. Anyone should be able to do the same to go almost anywhere they want in California when the first segment of HSR is running.
Rail service has to be convenient, widely used by the public and economical much like indoor plumbing is today to stop being a political football. The question is, are the operators up to the challenge? Most public transportation service providers are used to acting like a welfare service and often being on the defensive. They see other transportation providers as competitors for public funding, not as business partners. But to get the level of service to make rail service usable for most people and high numbers of riders the services need to connect. This is understood in countries with good public transportation.