The Coastal Post - September, 1997

Getting There: Light Rail?


As we enter the 21st Century, will Marin lead the pack or lag behind? As America rediscovers mass transit, will we be locked into the present frustrating system, our tax dollars constructing more bottlenecks in southern Marin? Or will we seize the moment and free ourselves once and for all from that expensive madness created by General Motors and Madison Avenue? Is anyone truly in charge, locked for hours behind the wheel of a gas-guzzling machine, breathing poison in that stop and crawl to and from the City? Does anyone ask WHY, in all those TV auto ads, the car is always alone on the road or in the country?

The commuting Frenchman sips his aperitif in the air-conditioned comfort of le train grande vitesse, reading the afternoon edition as the countryside whizzes past at over 285 Kilo/Meters an hour, while his Japanese counterpart, homeward-bound from Osaka to Tokyo, naps in the comfort of the Shinkansen, where the 185 Kilo/Meters per hour barely ripples the sake at this side. Meanwhile, their American counterpart, crawling along in the exhaust stench of 100 cars, will finally make it home more frustrated from his commute than his day at the office.

Few face the real cost of commuting to the City. A balance sheet suggests a minimum of two to three hours a day, or some 15 hours a week or 750 hours a year. Divided by eight, that equals 94 working days wasted behind that wheel. Add to this the real cost of driving: CAL AAA's figures for 1996 average 62.6 cents a mile (includes auto, insurance, depreciation, maintenance, etc.), bridge tolls at $3 dollars a day or $15 a week, and parking? A quick check shows today's spread from Shorenstein's (financial district) at $335/month to an uptown open lot at $120-150. Even if your business owns the building, you pay indirectly for your space in tax.

A few years back, when my friend Representative Bill Filante was alive and the cost of retrofitting the Golden Gate Bridge was debated in Sacramento, we talked of insuring that the contract would include either a second rail deck or a monorail. Filante felt political support for a rail system was lacking. The auto-bus lobby was too powerful. Has the climate changed?

Few Americans understand why those quiet, non-polluting electric rail system (trolleys) which once served all our major cities suddenly disappeared like the dinosaurs, and most accept the automobile as the evolutionary replacement. However, no asteroid from outer space wiped out America's trolleys. It was General Motors.

In 1922 only one American family in 10 owned an auto. Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., GM's president, decided to change this. With friends at Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck, Sloan began secretly, first to buy up and then destroy the rail systems in America's cities. To hide his campaign from the public eye, he hired an unknown, E. Roy Fitzgerald, as a figurehead, advertising him as an entrepreneur from the sticks. They formed a company, National City Lines, and quickly purchased Yellow Bus, America's largest diesel bus builder, and Omnibus, a bus-operating company.

National City Lines, headed by Fitzgerald, but privately funded by a consortium organized by Sloan and friends began buying up the rail systems in America's cities, one by one. Their approach was simple: using political know-how and money to influence city councils, while they paid Madison Avenue to tell the country "the trend was away from rail," they systematically destroyed America's clean, electric rail systems, replacing them with their polluting diesel buses. By 1941, National City Lines owned the transportation system in over 83 American cities across the country.

The day National City Lines signed a purchase agreement, their staff took over. Rail management was fired, and the process of piecemeal destruction set in motion: Fares were increased, routes cancelled and trolleys were taken out of service, schedules were reduced, salaries of workers cut, maintenance neglected. As rail systems thus self-destructed, a nationwide media campaign offered "modern, non-polluting diesels." Eventually, the last trolley disappeared, along with the tracks. An independent observer, Commander Edwin Quinby, caught onto GM's plot and took it upon himself to warn the city fathers across the country. At his own expense, he mailed out a 31-page brochure, outlining the takeover plan. GM hoisted an expensive public-relations campaign to discredit Quinby. Some readers, however, got the news, and a grassroots protest finally brought an investigation by the Justice Department.

In 1936, National City Lines, along with General Motors, was found guilty. The two were fined $5,000 apiece, while their management staff were fined $1 each. Later Justice Department investigations got nowhere, because by 1932 GM had created the National Highway Users Conference, a powerful Washington lobby to push for more freeways and silence discussion of diesel or gasoline pollution. Alfred P. Sloan headed the conference for 30 years until another GM man took over.

With the post-WWII boom in home construction, President Eisenhower, in 1953, appointed the then-president of General Motors, Charles Wilson, as Secretary of Defense and DuPont's chief, Secretary of Transportation (DuPont was GM's biggest investor). These two set out to pave over America for the auto. DuPont got Eisenhower to set up the Highway Trust Fund which funnelled gasoline tax money into highway construction. Two thirds of these funds went to build inner-city freeways. Meanwhile, GM, recognizing the limits of bus sales as contrasted with automobiles, changed its tactics, and in 1972, convinced the House of Representatives to deny all funding for public transportation, hoping to reduce bus service. The money was diverted to freeways. By the 1950's buses were disappearing and everyone wanted a car. Thus while post-war Europe and Japan were rebuilding their rail transit, America was destroying hers.

Though the House of Representatives in 1972 blocked monies for rapid transit, public pressure was making itself heard. San Francisco's Mayor Alioto, in the 1974 Senate hearings, publicly questioned whether what was good for General Motors was good for the country. By 1992, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) allowed local input into transit decisions, and by 1991, 25 cities across the country were experimenting with light rail systems.

Today the question of light rail both from Marin to the City and northward is being vigorously debated. 1997 marks the 60th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, which now carries over 40 million vehicles a year. The last bridge construction bonds were retired in 1971, representing $35 million in principal and nearly $39 million in interest. They were financed entirely from bridge tolls.

Today the Golden Gate Bridge is in excellent shape. Through the years, in addition to routine maintenance with constant repainting, it has undergone a whole series of extensive and costly improvements, including the replacement of suspending cables, deck reconstruction and widening, tower lighting and toll plaza reconstruction. The Bridge District has also added both bus and ferry services.

There is no question that the Golden Gate Bridge in its present condition can support either a complete second deck with rail system or a monorail slung beneath the present deck. there have been a series of extensive engineering studies aimed at answering this question and a total of five rail transit alternatives have been evaluated for implementation on the bridge, the latest one, T.Y. Lin International (1990). All agree on both the bridge's integrity and ability to carry a light rail. The four-year, $13.3 million seismic retrofit is scheduled to begin this summer, and will create some 3,100 jobs overall. Today's engineers who can diddle with a tinker-toy on the surface of Mars can surely hang a monorail on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The previous success in funding the bridge demonstrates there will be plenty of money available for this light rail system from the north through Marin and into the City. What is needed is a combination of direction and enthusiasm. Marin's entrepreneurs who sell California wines in Europe and desktop computers in China can also convince our tourists that a ride on a monorail slung under the bridge, 220 feet above the Golden Gate, heading into Mendocino and the wine country or north to Eureka would begin a perfect weekend. Let's get started!

(I am indebted to Martha Olson and Jim Klein, producers of the PBS documentary Taken for a Ride, for much of the transit history, and to the Golden Gate Bridge office and California AA for statistics.)