FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Taken for a Ride on the Interstate Highway System

The 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s signing of the Interstate Highway Act is a good time to dust off this review of the PBS documentary, “Taken for a Ride” that I wrote 10 years ago when President Clinton visited my city during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Riding a “Presidential Special” from Columbus to Toledo on tracks that no longer carry passenger trains, Clinton crowed, “I’m goin’ to Chicago (for the Democratic Party convention) and I’m goin’ on a train!”

I wanted to ask him why the rest of us could no longer travel to our state capital by train; why we are the only industrialized nation on earth that refuses to subsidize its passenger rail system? And I asked a question that makes me sick to my stomach to read 10 years later: “How many more billions of dollars and how many more lives will we pay for Mideast oil.?”

Of course I never got to ask him those questions in person, but luckily, two fellow Ohioans, Dayton-area independent filmmakers, Jim Klein and Martha Olson, replied with their film, “Taken for a Ride.”

Their documentary tells the dramatic story of how America’s passenger trains and streetcars were systematically and deliberately killed by what we now call the “highway lobby.” What makes their film so important is that it goes beyond vague conspiracy theories to name names.

Klein and Olson weave General Motors promotional films, Congressional archives, interviews with citizen activists, and Department of Justice memos into a compelling pattern of events that make it clear: we didn’t get into the traffic jam we’re in today by accident.

For example, “Ride” explains, the oft-scorned highway lobby was not born of fuzzy environmentalist folklore. The “most powerful pressure group in Washington,” began in June, 1932, when GM President, Alfred P. Sloan, created the National Highway Users Conference, inviting oil and rubber firms to help GM bankroll a propaganda and lobbying effort that continues to this day.

Sloan, unhappy with a transportation system in which the majority of people rode streetcars and trains, not automobiles, bought out Omnibus Corp., the nation’s largest bus operating company, and Yellow Coach, the largest bus manufacturer. With these, he began a campaign to “modernize” New York City’s railways with buses.

With New York as an example, GM formed National City Lines in 1936 and the assault on mass transit across America began with a vengeance.

Within ten years, NCL controlled transit systems in over 80 cities. GM denied any control of NCL, but the bus line’s Director of Operations came from Yellow Coach, and board members came from Greyhound, a company founded by GM. Later, Standard Oil of California, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Firestone joined GM’s support of NCL.

If you’ve inched through traffic on a city bus or followed one for any distance, you know why people abandoned NCL’s buses for cars whenever they could. It doesn’t take a rabid conspiracy nut to see the subsequent benefit to GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil.

“Ride” is most compelling when it documents how the U.S. Justice Department prosecuted NCL, General Motors, and other companies for combining to destroy America’s transit systems.

Brad Snell, an auto industry historian who spent 16 years researching GM, said that key lawyers involved with the case told him “there wasn’t a scintilla of doubt that the defendants had set out to destroy the streetcars.”

For eliminating a system “worth $300 billion today,” Snell laments, the corporations were eventually found guilty and fined $5,000. Key individuals, such as the Treasurer of GM, were fined one dollar.

The post-war boom in housing, suburbs, and freeways is a familiar story. Not so familiar is the highway lobby’s high-level efforts to determine our transportation future.

In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed then-GM President Charles Wilson as his Secretary of Defense, who pushed relentlessly for a system of interstate highways. Francis DuPont, whose family owned the largest share of GM stock, was appointed chief administrator of federal highways.

Funding for this largest of all U.S. public works programs came from the Highway Trust Fund’s tax on gasoline, to be used only for highways. Its formula assured that more highways meant more driving, more money from the gasoline tax, and more highways.

Helping to keep the driving spirit alive, Dow Chemical, producer of asphalt, entered the PR campaign with a film featuring a staged testimonial from a grade school teacher standing up to her anti-highway neighbors with quiet indignation. “Can’t you see this highway means a whole new way of life for the children?”

Citizens might agree that highways meant a whole new way of life, but not necessarily for the better. The wrecking ball cleared whole neighborhoods for the interstate highways and public protestgrew accordingly. One Washington, D.C. activist recalls, “this was a brutal period in our history; a very brutal period.”

The documentary concludes with a peek into the future, interviewing corporate sponsors of the Intelligent Vehicle Highway System, a computer-controlled vision of travel which currently receives the lion’s share of federal transportation research funding.

“Taken for a Ride” is more timely today than when it was made a decade ago.

Watch it.

MIKE FERNER served as a Navy Corpsman during Vietnam and is a member of Veterans For Peace, whose slogan is “Abolish War!” He can be reached at: mike.ferner@sbcglobal.net

 

 

 

More articles by:

Mike Ferner is a writer from Ohio and former president of Veterans For Peace.  You can reach him at mike.ferner@sbcglobal.net

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

April 24, 2019
Susan Babbitt
Disdain and Dignity: An Old (Anti-Imperialist) Story
Adam Jonas Horowitz
Letter to the Emperor
Lawrence Davidson
A Decisive Struggle For Our Future
John Steppling
The Mandate for Israel: Keep the Arabs Down
Victor Grossman
Many Feet
Cira Pascual Marquina
The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy: a Conversation with Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune
Binoy Kampmark
Failed States and Militias: General Khalifa Haftar Moves on Tripoli
Dean Baker
Payments to Hospitals Aren’t Going to Hospital Buildings
Alvaro Huerta
Top Ten List in Defense of MEChA
Colin Todhunter
As the 2019 Indian General Election Takes Place, Are the Nation’s Farmers Being Dealt a Knock-Out Blow?
Charlie Gers
Trump’s Transgender Troops Ban is un-American and Inhumane
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Just Another Spring in Progress?
Thomas Knapp
On Obstruction, the Mueller Report is Clintonesque
Elliot Sperber
Every Truck’s a Garbage Truck
April 23, 2019
Peter Bolton
The Monroe Doctrine is Back, and as the Latest US Attack on Cuba Shows, Its Purpose is to Serve the Neoliberal Order
David Schultz
The Mueller Report: Trump Too Inept to Obstruct Justice
Geoff Beckman
Crazy Uncle Joe and the Can’t We All Just Get Along Democrats
Medea Benjamin
Activists Protect DC Venezuelan Embassy from US-supported Coup
Patrick Cockburn
What Revolutionaries in the Middle East Have Learned Since the Arab Spring
Jim Goodman
Don’t Fall for the Hype of Free Trade Agreements
Lance Olsen
Climate and Forests: Land Managers Must Adapt, and Conservationists, Too
William Minter
The Coming Ebola Epidemic
Tony McKenna
Stephen King’s IT: a 2019 Retrospective
David Swanson
Pentagon Claims 1,100 High Schools Bar Recruiters; Peace Activists Offer $1,000 Award If Any Such School Can Be Found
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
April 22, 2019
Melvin Goodman
The NYTs Tries to Rehabilitate Bloody Gina Haspel
Robert Fisk
After ISIS, a Divided Iraq, Wounded and Grief-Stricken
Binoy Kampmark
Julian Assange as Neuroses
John Laforge
Chernobyl’s Deadly Effects Estimates Vary
Kenneth Surin
Mueller Time? Not for Now
Cesar Chelala
Yemen: The Triumph of Barbarism
Kerron Ó Luain
What the “White Irish Slaves” Meme Tells Us About Identity Politics
Andy Piascik
Grocery Store Workers Take on Billion Dollar Multinational
Seiji Yamada – Gregory G. Maskarinec
Health as a Human Right: No Migrants Need Apply
Howard Lisnoff
Loose Bullets and Loose Cannons
Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada
Dreaming in Miami
Graham Peebles
Consuming Stuff: The Polluting World of Fashion
Robert Dodge
Earth Day: Our Planet in Peril
Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail