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LA Quake Displays Need for Mass Transit

By Anders W. Hove

Associate Opinion Editor

When most of us think about big government, we conjure up images of some dark, smoky room where fat, ugly Washington pols would gather to figure out the best way to screw their constituents. Well I've got news for you. Looking for big government? It's right under your tires.

In 1956 Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act. The Interstates had been promoted by an irresistible array of interests, including the automobile, steel, tire, asphalt and cement industries. Because the new roads would link almost every city of over 50,000 people, the bill had the support of almost everyone in Congress. It is significant that the largest public works project in the history of government was proposed by a republican president, Dwight Eisenhower. Under the provisions of the 1956 law, 41,000 miles of divided, limited access, multi-lane highway were laid down. Hundreds of thousands of people worked, and still work, to make sure that middle class constituents in almost every congressional district have somewhere to drive their cars. Government poured more concrete than would be needed to build Los Angeles hundreds of times over.

By building the Interstates, government twisted the free market in several important ways. Of course, no private firm has ever constructed a freeway. But before the government began subsidizing automobile firms and trucking companies by building their roads for them, the country did have a perfectly viable transportation system: the railroads and streetcars that had driven the economy for fifty years. Private corporations - the railroads - somehow managed to ship both goods and people all around the country in a timely and efficient manner. People in many towns used to set their clocks by the whistle of a train. By 1970, almost all commercial passenger lines had gone out of business, and so had a number of key freight lines. The government became worried that its freeways would put the railroads out of business altogether - so worried, in fact, that it got into the railroading business itself. Fruit is now shipped from LA to Boston on government trains; the Conrail tracks are right over here by Vassar Street.

Government did not run private transit out of business on its own. In 1925 General Motors began its campaign to drive American streetcar lines out of business. It succeeded in buying up and tearing out streetcar lines in such cities as Portland and New York. In 1938, GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire & Rubber formed a subsidiary called �Pacific City Lines� to dismantle lines in San Jose, Stockton and Fresno. In 1943 the same three companies bought out the tracks in 19 more cities, including the �Big Red� line in Los Angeles. In 1949 a federal grand jury indicted GM for criminal conspiracy in the �Big Red� case, and threatened further legal action. Nevertheless, GM managed to rip out over 100 streetcar systems nationwide by 1950. By the time antitrust investigators could go to work, the deed was done. American mass-transit was dead.

There is no question that freeways changed the way we live today. Instead of staying rooted in close-knit central cities, wealthier residents fled to the suburbs that sprung up all along the new ribbons of concrete, taking their tax dollars with them. Since most of the city�s money followed this �white flight,� malls, office and industrial �parks� were also thrown up near interstate on ramps. Inner cities became ghettos inhabited only by those too poor to flee. What economic activity remained was suppressed by the high taxes needed to sustain the services that the central cities performed for their poorest citizens, and to continue building new freeways on the fringes. Soon the suburbs themselves became intolerable, and the flight to �exurbia� began, driving the need for more pavement, and still more cars.

Urban sprawl is so endemic today that it would be ridiculous to suggest discarding our national freeway system. But what would happen if all those freeways were to simply disappear? What would today's policy makers do if they had to start all over again, only without the wide-open space that surrounded most cities before 1950? As post-quake Los Angeles indicates, some changes would be made.

According to the Department of Transportation, it will be more than six months before LA's five severely damaged freeways can be rebuilt. Meanwhile, some lucky commuters may avoid the automotive gridlock. Transportation Secretary Frederico Pena visited the city on Tuesday to inaugurate a new 84-mile commuter railway connecting Lancaster and Palmdale with downtown Los Angeles. 15,000 people went to work on the new trains on their first day of service. The instant success of the line is even more incredible when one considers that it was built in four days, stations and all. Officials of the California Transportation Authority simply borrowed private freight lines and purchased a few passenger cars on cheaply � a simple matter compared with the billions of dollars it will take to rebuild those collapsed freeways. The ease with which the line was opened begs the question: Why don't we build more such lines?

Californian policy makers had been working on rail-transit long before last week's quake. In 1991 eager Angelenos packed the city�s newly opened 114-mile �Metro Link,� built entirely with public funds. Though fares were high, the system took an estimated 40,000 cars off the roads �per peak traffic period.� The $1 billion price tag on a complete, 450-mile system shocked some; while others made price comparisons with construction on the valley's freeways. The cost issue was driven home in 1992, after the completion of the 10-mile, $10 billion �Century Freeway.� When the new route opened, transit authority officials announced that no major freeway would ever be constructed in the greater Los Angeles area again.

Massachusetts officials made a similar announcement in the 1960s, after proposals for a concrete corridor linking Beacon Hill and Needham were scrapped even after the groundbreaking. Instead the already bulldozed route was planted with trees. Roxbury Community College was constructed at what would have been an interchange. With the Century Freeway, it seemed that policy makers in another U.S. city had learned their lesson.

Federal lawmakers have yet to learn. This year Congress appropriated $305 million for transportation �demonstration projects.� Most of those projects, according to Congressional Quarterly, demonstrated nothing more �than the ability of a new or larger road to carry more traffic.� Meanwhile Congress spends about $15 billion for construction and maintenance on federal and state highways. Only $4.5 billion goes to mass transit. There is still nothing a Member of Congress enjoys more than cutting the ribbon on a new, federally-funded freeway.

Boston stopped building new freeways in the 1960s, Los Angeles in the 1990s. Now who will stop the feds?