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.