Need for light rail and a little history lesson on collusion – a reprise from 2012

The following was written in 2012, but it provides a history lesson of why we need to dig deeper to understand sources of information. There is a reason collusion is such an ugly term. It should be noted cities are sharing ideas to make traffic flow more easily to lessen congestion and smog.

With the needs for better traffic planning in larger cities to alleviate congestion, diminish smog and let people move more freely, there has been a growing push for light rail lines. These lines are electrified trains that run adjacent and across traffic at crossing lights. They have tended to be more economical to build and run than the major subway and elevated train lines serving our largest cities. With the environmental concerns over global warming and the need for less fossil fuel usage, you would think these developments would be a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, projects like these are fighting uphill battles as part of the budget cuts and cost estimates. Unlike an operational budget issue, these capital projects are building assets that would benefit the communities and address the issues noted above. There is no doubt we need the best cost estimates possible to make these things happen and we should blend federal, state and local money to do so, but we should not be making this so hard. For some reason, the conservative right has latched onto this issue and for the reasons noted above have been more adamant against their development. The skeptic in me thinks there is more to this than just the budget issues, as we want to continue our focus on driving rather than riding. To me, a vibrant transit system is needed for a cosmopolitan area. Otherwise, we are just creating a congested, environmental problem.

What is interesting to me is a significant number of cities in the US had electric rail systems before they were destroyed and replaced by buses and cars in the 1930’s and 40’s. What is disturbing is how this came about. I would like to say this was done with good stewardship, but the unfortunate reason is several companies with a vested interest in the outcome, colluded to monopolize the bus industry and replace the destroyed electric rail or trolley system with their buses and cars. In 1949, after the fact, GM, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil of CA, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Trucks were found guilty of “conspiring to monopolize” the bus industry and using buses and cars to replace the electric trolley system that companies they owned had bought up. This conviction was upheld in appeal.

Wikipedia has a good summary of how these companies went about it. Search on “General Motors Conspiracy” and you can pull it up.  In fact, GM set in motion this plan to “motorize” the mass transit system dating back to 1922. And, if you look at the names of the fellow conspirators, you will note that two are oil/ gas companies, one is a tire company, one is a maker of buses and one is a maker of cars and trucks. These motorized road vehicles companies and fuel companies conspired to destroy an electric, rail based system that relieved congestion and smog. Even if their motives were altruistic, this would not seem like good transit planning.

Why do I mention all of this now? Two reasons. First, I want people to know why it is important to look beneath the source of information and data on any issue, but especially those which include oil and gas. There is too much money at stake and, as noted above, stranger things have happened. Just today, it was announced the President is supporting fracking to my chagrin, but is wanting the chemicals used by the oil/ gas developers to be disclosed. Yet, the industry lobbyists have battled down this ruling to be they only need to disclose this after the fact. So, they will be permitted to frack and only disclose the toxic chemicals that could leak into the water supply afterwards. To be candid, we need to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as we can. The best way to do that is to drive less with those oil/ gas-powered vehicles. Electric rail systems are a key part of that strategy.

Second, I mention this as conservatives are asking for fewer regulations and the elimination of some agencies. I worked in business and can say with certainty – businesses need to be regulated – it is that simple. If we don’t they will take advantage of situations to maximize short-term profit. The collusion verdict noted above was too late. Industries pay lobbyists a great deal to take the teeth out of regulation. The EPA has been fighting an uphill battle for years. We actually need the EPA to do more, not less. And, nowadays industries need only contribute to campaigns to share their viewpoints and push their desired outcomes. It costs too much money to run for office. This makes the lobbyists work easier.

In closing, I would ask that we all try to understand the stories beneath the news. When we see people against ideas that seem to be for the greater good, we should ask  ourselves why and look into it. Otherwise, we will miss the more elegant solutions and may avoid finding out who is more interested in an outcome than others. Not everyone is altruistic.

22 thoughts on “Need for light rail and a little history lesson on collusion – a reprise from 2012

  1. Every one has it in them to be selfish, which proper set-ups act to preclude where possible and quickly detect. In a large enough population (statistics term) you will get some that are malicious, and maybe of the kind that work -against- a rational desire. If someone is strongly pro- or anti-something and provably disinterested in the subject/outcome, that does not -prove- they are honest, though it is more likely I think than people with benefits at stake.

    • FC, well said. Groups with conflicts of interest need to bare that information as it matters. The flame retardant industry used a faulty study about another subject as evidence their product works. The author of the study found out and said that his study should not be used for that purpose. The industry was also funding firefighter groups. The punch line to all of this is the flame retardant chemicals in the fabric were proven to cause cancer in pregnant mothers and children who laid down on the couches And, when burned, firefighters were getting cancer as well. All of this for about seven seconds of retardant time. When the courts found out about the conflicts and misinformation, they started ruling against the industry. Keith

      • I’m going to drop a reference to the “Lime Street fire” and request you (plural) look at WikipediA about it. The article and its sources are short and readable but related to your (singular) example.

  2. A good post Keith.
    We have all read a great deal of breathless commentary on how governments are trying to coerce us and manipulate our minds, and yet many folk seem to overlook the way commercial outfits do the same, until it sinks into the public consciousness.
    Take this for instance. In how man films or TV equivalents have you watched a scene on a ‘bus’ with the inference that only ‘poor’ people who can’t afford cars, or socially undesirable folk use buses. In other words, if you have to use public transport there is something lacking in you.
    Also by the same media outlets notice how the car is often shown as the means by which the central character or characters expresses their freedom by driving off into some distance, or the standard air shot of them driving along a wide road.
    Cars = freedom and social mobility. We know, because we see it in the media (or on cd compilation covers)

    • Well said. Your next to last sentence is the marketing pitch. There is a consortium of about 800 cities who are addressing climate change actions, especially related to movement of people and goods and highlighting pedestrian areas. We need more of that. There is a good book called “Climate of Hope” by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg, where they alternate chapters on positive actions that are being taken.

    • Where I live somewhat recently changed their public transportation system name to try and suppress some of that, as the old name was associated with POOR PEOPLE OMGomg (vapours).

      • @determined: Even worse, reading turn of last century lit, a common expression was “you are a trump” as in trump card. Even without the capital T its going to be as confusing reading as “niggardly”.

  3. Wow. 2012. Things haven’t changed much, have they Keith. Excellent post. Here’s the thing. The Republican Party is bought and paid for by the fossil fuel industry. Been that way for years. Until we can change our campaign finance laws and make elections publicly financed, I see nothing changing. Light rail is awesome. High-speed rail would be awesome in certain spots in the country. Yet, all we get is a big fat NO from the right. I won’t even mention Texas in this because you and I both know what’s going on there. It’s the old saying…why can’t we have nice things? There’s your answer. Progress is stymied, seemingly at every turn. Something’s got to change. Fast.

    • Jeff, cost effective mass transit is essential and riders come from all walks of life. Charlotte and Denver have benefitted from light rail. Charlotte is trying to build its 3rd phase due north. Keith

      • Maybe now we can get serious about it. Mayor Pete is the kind of skillful and intelligent Transportation Secretary who might be able to pull off something big like this. Maybe ‘infrastructure week’ will finally become a real thing.

  4. It is unbelievable what power the oil lobby is or has. As you said, there were already electric cars but could not survive due to the oil mafia. I don’t know what it a World Expo, where cars were produced that already ran on hydrogen, to transport the people around the expo area. But after the expo, all of those cars were destroyed again.

    • Erika, good example. GM could have owned the electric business with their EV1 which were piloted back in the early 2000s through car leases. When a collusive effort forced GM to stop the program, they collected the cars and shredded them. The leasers wanted to buy them, but they would not sell them The Board of Directors even asked them why saying isn’t this the future? Now, they are catching up. They started making gas guzzling Hummers instead at the plants. Keith

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