A road map to battle of cars vs. trains

July 12, 1994|By Larry Fish | Larry Fish,Knight-Ridder News Service

It was not many years ago that it seemed quite possible to imagine an America with no railroads left at all, and no need for them, so thoroughly had the illusory dream of the open road beguiled us.

Each year, the percentage of the nation's goods that moved by rail -- a figure that was once just about 100 percent -- dwindled still further. The only people who considered traveling by train were the odd or the nearly destitute.

It seemed as if an obsolete technology was headed the way of the canal boat or the prairie schooner.

But what has become increasingly clear is that rail technology was eclipsed not because of any innate shortcoming but because, for decades, every instrument of public policy has been used to promote "private" transportation by automobile and truck, at the expense of "public" transport by local or long-distance rail or other means.

"Getting There," by Stephen B. Goddard, is a credible attempt to chart U.S. transportation policy, to show how road-building came to be the answer to nearly any perceived transportation problem by the middle of the 20th century.

Readers of this book would have been better served if the author had not claimed to see "craven conspiracy" lurking behind every pro-highway development. But it remains a readable and concise overview of how U.S. transportation came to its current state. Mr. Goddard, a lawyer and former journalist, tells a good story, and aside from a few overwrought phrases, the book is generally free of polemics.

It begins about 1830, with the birth of the railroads. In a young republic that was just beginning to experience the wrenching changes of the Industrial Revolution, the new-born steam locomotive came on the scene at a time when few thought that government's proper role extended much beyond repelling foreign invasions.

So America's railroads -- the only real alternative for overland transportation in the sprawling new country -- were built and operated by private capital.

U.S. railroads were hugely successful, and like all monopolies they were justly feared and resented. They charged monopoly ** rates and gave grudging monopolistic service.

The motor car, by contrast, was born at a time when Americans were broadening their view of what government ought to do for its citizens. It was also a time when nearly everyone yearned for some sort of relief from -- indeed, vengeance upon -- the railroads.

Mr. Goddard is at his best when recounting the complex and interesting history of what has come to be called "the highway lobby."

Beginning before World War I, he writes, lobbyists hit upon the vivid phrase that dramatized the need for better roads by calculating the "mud tax" that farmers paid by being unable to drive their produce to more distant and profitable markets. It was the kind of thing that made roads seem cheap.

Just about the time that trucks and cars began to offer serious competition to rails, about 1930, the federal government finally achieved both the will and the means to begin genuine regulation of the railroads.

The result was that the Interstate Commerce Commission, operating with a 19th-century world view in which railroads were all-powerful monopolies, began shackling them just at the time they most needed to be able to meet the new challenge.

State highway departments, meanwhile, worked hand-in-glove with truckers, auto manufacturers and others to build what Mr. Goddard calls "perpetual motion machines," such as the Interstate Highway Trust Fund.

With proceeds from gasoline, tire and car taxes pledged exclusively to build more highways, the fund -- and state versions of the same thing -- became a closed loop. More car traffic bred more taxes to build more roads to generate more car traffic.

Many people believe that those taxes pay for all those roads, and that highways are unsubsidized. Mr. Goddard shows that such taxes don't even cover construction costs, let alone such incidental expenses as highway patrols.

In one of the most valuable, and probably contentious, passages of the book, he calculates the hidden subsidies that all Americans pay in taxes for road building to equal $2.25 per gallon of gasoline sold.

Because it is not collected at the pump, he says, we don't recognize those subsidies for what they are, and we continue to think of roads as "free." Many will no doubt quibble with his reckoning of those subsidies, but no one having read the book will be able to explain that figure away entirely.

In its summary of 20th century transportation policy, "Getting There" is the best I've read.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century"

Author: Stephen B. Goddard

Publisher: Basic Books

Length, price: 352 pages, $28

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