One of the many ways in which some libertarian transit critics falsify statistics about public transportation is to take initial ridership of a new rail transit line and compare it to projected ridership years in the future. An article on Los Angeles’ Expo Light Rail line by Axel Hellman in the May 1, 2013 Annenberg digital news edition caught them again at that dishonest game. It reported,
When the Expo line, Los Angeles Metro’s newest light rail line, opened in April, 2012, initial ridership numbers were low, starting at about 11,000 per average weekday . . . One libertarian think tank even used these numbers to argue that light rail systems in general should not be built.
But now, one year later, the picture is very different. Ridership on weekdays has been increasing at a steady clip of about 1,000 per month, reaching an estimated 26,000 per day during the week. Given that Metro projected about 27,000 riders per day by the year 2020, that number is very good. The number of people riding the Expo line may pass that benchmark in the coming months.
Quelle surprise! The libertarians will, no doubt, be quick to admit their mistake and correct their statements about the failure of the Expo line. Sadly, they won’t, because like all ideologues, “truth” is determined by their ideology, not by facts.
As bad numbers, distortions, and at times bald-faced lies about rail transit continue to pour forth from some libertarian transit critics, the question should be, why does anyone take these people’s work seriously? The sad answer is that it is all too easy to fool the press and the public on issues they know little or nothing about. Just roll into town, spew lots of wrong numbers and then leave before anyone can say, “Wait a minute . . .”
The reality of rising rail transit ridership, even in car-centric LA, is a fact. The Annenberg article states,
A Metro spokesperson [ed: that’s “spokesman” in English], Jesse Simon, disputed the line’s naysayers, cautioning that ridership will rise with time. “A favorite tactic of rail critics used to be [ed: they still do it] to take statistics from a year or two after the opening date of a rail [line] to show that out-year estimates of rail patronage were grossly exaggerated. But changing to rail involves a longer process of changing habits. Our experience with rail patronage, and I believe experience elsewhere, is that rail growth is incremental.”
Simon said that in the long term, ridership has been slowly increasing on Metro‘s other rail lines. “Rail patronage has increased steadily almost every year since the first line opened in 1990; and not only because more lines came on line – – within each line then growth has been steady and it has not reached a stable endpoint.”
Could LA’s Metro perhaps coax Jack Webb of Dragnet fame to make an earthly appearance to say to libertarian rail critics, “Just the facts, ma’am?”
Both the people of Boston and the police handled the bombing of the marathon well. Transit was another matter, although what happened was not the T’s fault. The state government ordered the entire Boston transit system – – trains, trolleys, buses, all of it – – to shut down. This order was not given before the bombing (if some evidence of the plot had been uncovered), when it might have made some sense, but after it. Amtrak even shut down passenger rail service to the city!
All this happened not because al Qaeda was thought to have a suitcase nuke in the city, but because of one 19-year old kid with a gun – - who turned out to be wounded and hors de combat. Boston contains more than one teenager with a gun and evil intent every day. But the magic word “terrorism” was uttered, so everyone was essentially told by their brave government to go hide under the bed.
This response was wrong on two levels. First, it was bad transit policy. Transit should make every effort to keep operating in times of emergency. That may be when people need it most. For a variety of possible reasons, cars may be unsafe, unavailable or inoperable. Some semblance of normal life can nonetheless be preserved if people can take transit. And no matter what the situation, some people will need to go someplace, even if only out of the city (Amtrak take note).
The bad transit policy ordered by the state government points to the second mistake, bad security policy. In the face of terrorism, one thing government should not do is serve as the terrorists’ megaphone. That is what they want. Publicity is at least half of the game for them, and over-reaction gives them more publicity than they could ever buy. Arguably, the two Chechens’ (Russia could have told us all about Chechens, had we bothered to ask (or to listen since the Russians did contact the FBI)); just why are there Chechens in America, anyway?) biggest success was not the bombing itself but shutting down the city of Boston for a whole day. That success came wholly from government over-reaction.
Yes, the injuries and loss of life in Boston were tragic. But West, Texas lost more dead when the fertilizer plant blew up. The over-reaction in Boston came not from the event itself, but from one word, “terrorism.” Ironically, we often allow terrorism to terrify us, which is exactly what the terrorist want and what terror-wise governments should refuse to permit.
In his weekly address, President Obama said, “Americans refuse to be terrorized. Ultimately, that’s what we’ll remember from this week.” That was true of the police and the public, but not the government of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It lost its cool, and in the process made a very bad decision about public transit.
Transportation Readings for American Conservatives – How did we get in such a Mess? – From Guest Author Dr. Eric Sibul
The following is a list of books conservatives should read to understand how we got in our current transportation cul-de-sac. After reading this selection one cannot help but think our current situation is a big mess created by greed, corruption, incompetence and hopelessly misguided progressivism. The inspiration for this list came from “the canon” developed by my friend William S. Lind for the U.S. Marine Corps to further understanding of the development of the four generations of modern warfare. The canon, consisting of seven books, if read in the prescribed order will take the reader through the first, second, third and fourth generation warfare. As a friend of mine in the US Marines remarked on the list, “Even if the guy is a total rock, he’ll get it after reading the canon.” The transportation reading list revealed in this paper is still a work in progress, so the order is not so precise and story not yet fully chronicled in a critical way. Yet, the accounts cited below should convey to the reader a general sense of how we reached our current dilemma (or debacle, if you will).
The best place to start is with the development of the railroad industry, where misguided progressivism, corruption and statist mentalities almost totally destroyed what should be considered a crown jewel of the American free enterprise system. Two books by Albro Martin provide a good overview of the rise, decline and revitalization of American railroad industry: Enterprise denied; origins of the decline of American railroads, 1897-1917 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971) and Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992). While the federal government assisted the construction of private railroads with land grants, this was not without a price as railroads had to carry government cargoes (mails and military supplies) and personnel at reduced cost. Railroads also paid income taxes and property taxes, perhaps making them the only form of transportation to be profitable to federal and state governments.
Corrupt politicians such as Frank Hague in New Jersey used railroads running through their states as personal piggybanks, robbing them as they saw fit. The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) emerged as a draconian regulatory agency that long blocked the railroads from developing coordinated transportation, in other words, integrated rail, road, air and water passenger transport and intermodal freight shipping.
American railroads were quite amazing. They maintained their own infrastructure including major urban passenger terminals, provided for their own security with their own police forces, provided health care for their own employees with their own hospitals and surgeons, cleaned up their own accidents, and even maintained a cadre of transportation specialists at their own expense to stand ready for military mobilization during national emergencies. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 finally abolished the ICC. Correspondingly, railroads recovered magnificently after the 1980s as efficient freight carriers. Privately operated passenger rail service may see its emergence in the state of Florida, although in a limited way, in the next two years.
Conservatives should recall that federal road building has long been part of the left wing/progressive agenda, always in part directed against the private ownership of transportation infrastructure. The rise to primacy of the petroleum powered motor vehicle in America was in part due to the destruction of privately owned and operated electric interurban and street railways. The CEO of General Motors (GM), Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., came to the conclusion in 1923 that the American automobile market was saturated – those who wanted cars already owned them. As a result, from the 1920s to the 1950s GM used its sizeable financial muscle through a Byzantine network of subsidiaries and holding companies to buy privately owned electric railway systems throughout the United States and systematically dismantle them, forcing former users no other alternative but to purchase automobiles. While GM and their co-conspirators, Standard Oil, Mack Trucks and Firestone Tire Company, were caught red-handed at this, they received only token fines. Stephen Goddard’s Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Rail and Rail in the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) provides a good overview of the rise of the federal highway system as well as the destruction of privately owned electric rail transit in America. Helen Leavitt’s Superhighway – Superhoax (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Press, 1970) also deals with the rise of the federal highway system, but her book addresses actual national defense needs and federal interstate highways in a stronger way than Goddard’s Getting There.
While ’robber baron’ has been an oft-misused moniker, it does well describe many of the powerful and corrupt government bureaucrats and politicians associated with highway construction. Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1975) gives a good insight into the character of such men through his study of the notorious Robert Moses.
The federal interstate highway system was perhaps the greatest American defense fraud of the twentieth century. According to Leavitt, labeling the interstate highway system as vital to national defense “was simply a ‘sweetening’ device to gain support for the program back in 1956.” From reading General James A. Van Fleet’s monograph Rail Transport and the Winning of War (Washington, DC: Association of American Railroads, 1956), one sees that highway transportation was actually more vulnerable in an atomic attack and interstate highway construction for defense purposes was counter to the transportation lessons learned in the Korean War where Van Fleet was commander of the Eighth Army. Both sides in the Korean conflict were heavily reliant on rail transport. Despite strategic bombing, the North Koreans and Chinese were able to keep their railroads running, supplying new offensives against the United Nations forces. Reading Robert Goralski’s and Russell W. Freeburg’s Oil & War: How the Deadly Struggle for Fuel in WWII Meant Victory or Defeat (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1978) clearly shows the overall strategic stupidity of developing a national transportation system increasingly dependent on the consumption of petroleum. By the 1950s, the United States was an importer rather than an exporter of petroleum, increasingly dependent on distant sea lanes that could be disrupted as shown by the Suez Crisis of 1956. The virtue of rail transport from a strategic perspective has been (and still is) that it is about three times more energy efficient than motor transportation. Railroads could also be powered electrically from alternative sources such as coal, hydro, or nuclear power.
The long term effects of the destruction of privately owned rail mass transit systems and the federal interstate highway gosplan is well covered in James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994). The effects can hardly make conservatives happy as it has meant the destruction of the traditional sense of community on a large scale. It also shows that a national economic policy based on continuously encouraging construction of patches of McMansions connected to the interstate highway system is not sustainable or fiscally sound. What can be done? Some ideas are provided in Paul M. Weyrich’s and William S. Lind’s Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation (Washington, DC: Reconnecting America, 2009).
There is a lack of critical books on the development of American air transportation in the post-World War II era. In the weeks after September 11, 2001, critics of George W. Bush’s plan to bail out the airlines affected by the attack, pointed out that with the federal financing of airport construction, operation of the air traffic control system and numerous bailouts of bankrupt airlines (justified for national defense purposes), the aviation industry has been a money loser for the federal government since 1945. If such a book is written, it will be a sorry tale of greedy airline executives, corrupt politicians and unscrupulous lobbyists – all with a winner take all mentality towards their favored mode of transport, none of it boding well for the development of an integrated national transportation system or balanced federal budgets. The result is a lack of choice and convenience in intercity travel, jack-booted federal security at airports and, overall, to the traveling public, domestic air travel akin to how hogs for many years traveled to the Union Stockyards in Chicago.
Dr. Eric Sibul is a professor at the Baltic Defense College in Tartu, Estonia