[Marxism] re: General Motors trampled mass transit

tylerk at ucla.edu tylerk at ucla.edu
Mon Oct 17 19:23:31 MDT 2005


So I despise GM as much as the next person, but let's expand this story.  GM was
not convicted of conspiracy to dismantle US inter-urban trolleys as many people
incorrectly assume. The author of this post didn't actually say that but in
reading the post I thought some folks might assume it to be true. The reason GM
(as National City Lines) was able to dismantle so many lines was that all
surface "public" transit systems (with some exceptions, maybe philly? and
subway and elevated systems were publicly owned) began as private operations,
usually developed and maintained by real estate companies looking to sell plots
of land and houses away from the central city and needed to provide a way to get
home buyers to and from their jobs downtown.  In the following years cars became
more affordable and the real estate developers no longer had a reason to run the
trolley lines b/c they had developed and sold the land. They weren't money
makers as city commissions forced companies to hold fares lower than they
needed to cover operations.  So the trolley lines went neglected, in disrepair
and didn't run as often or as fast as riders needed. Those that could afford
them turned to the automobile and ridership declined. So the private companies
wanted out and offered to sell the lines to whatever city they were located in.
What is that, like first right of refusal or something?  Most cities refused to
buy the lines because of the Red Scare. No kidding. It was considered
socialist/communist to provide publicly-funded transportation in most places
(this is where I am fuzzy-I want to say that SF and at least one or two others
did take over private systems). When City Hall said no, GM/Nat'l City Lines
said yes and started to dismantle. So yes, GM=bad. But local city governments
created this situation, and now that we are willing to publicly finance transit
(and every city wants a light rail line even if it goes nowhere the transit
dependent need to go) it is crazy expensive and competitive, so only a few
lines get built a year and bus systems that are packed with people who have no
other option are strapped for cash and cut service. Since the topic of transit
came up (I am a transportation planner and this is not my area but I am trying
to learn more) I want to offer a potential local solution to financing transit
systems. Almost all transit agencies levy sales taxes to fund part of their
operations. Sales taxes are regressive and hurt the poor most so they aren't
the best idea. Tri-Met in Portland, OR is one of the only system to levy a
payroll tax for this purpose. So for every $1,000 of payroll an employer has to
pay a percentage to Tri-Met (yes, the employer-not employees). This came about
in the 70s when Tri-Met was created b/c Oregon has no sales tax so they
couldn't go the way of other agencies in other states. This model actually came
from the Communist Party of France, and it is how the Paris Metro is funded. The
idea being that public transportation is a subsidy to employers and they should
pay! Brilliant, no? I am wondering why this model isn't more widely adopted
around the states and the answer most people I talk to give me is "it's too
fair" compared with sales taxes so it will never fly. Any ideas out there? Any
public finance economists on this list? I would love to talk about this with
folks.
Keri




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