Wes Vernon
January 21, 2008
America's crumbling transportation system: Back channel political gamesmanship--and the national security implications
By Wes Vernon

This is the story of what may turn out to be another chapter in the nearly 90-year-long crusade by the Highway Lobby to stifle dissent on the part of anyone who dares to challenge its right to the mindless paving over of America. What is at stake: America grinding to a virtual halt, as our enemies use oil to blackmail us to our knees.

Some background

For two years, a 12-member panel the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission (NSTPRSC) wrestled with the far-reaching consequences of America's crumbling transportation infrastructure, a crisis most dramatically symbolized by last year's collapse of a major bridge in Minneapolis during rush hour.

The commission has held open hearings here in Washington and in major cities throughout the country seeking grassroots input on dealing with the calamity that is surely coming in the absence of taking effective (and expensive) action.

But out of the sight of the public...

Behind its closed doors, however, the commission has been plagued by bitter controversy. On the one side has been what amounts to an all-highways all the time faction led by Transportation Secretary Mary Peters. The other faction believes that with overcrowded airport runways, delayed flights, and increasingly unacceptable congestion on city streets and inter-city highways, it is well past time America put more emphasis on the third leg of the transportation stool the nations' railroads freight and passenger.

Secretary Peters as commission chairman has tried to maneuver the panel members to her administration's pro-highway point of view. But the pro-rail faction under the bipartisan prodding of Free Congress Foundation President Paul Weyrich (R) and Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi (D and head of States for Passenger Rail) have blown the whistle every time Peters' bureaucrats tried to do an end-run around the deliberations of the commissioners. The end result was that an angry Peters and two other commissioners in her tiny minority boycotted the news conference this past week unveiling the final commission report. All nine majority members were there. (BTW, forging that majority was a long process of negotiation.)

But intrigue persists, it seems...

Following the news conference, a very unhappy Weyrich told this column that a section of the report for which he was responsible titled The Case for Public Transportation had been deleted. This happened, he told us in an interview, after the final report had been legally approved on a 9-to-3 vote. Weyrich says he was told by NSTPRSC Executive director Susan J. Binder (who works for Peters) that the deletion was made at the behest of Weyrich's fellow majority commissioner Steve Heminger from the San Francisco bay area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). That regional group's website says MTC is responsible for updating the blueprint "for the development of mass transit, highway, airport, seaport, railroad, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities" in the community. So Heminger is apparently involved in all modes, but his 9-county entity with a reach extending well beyond rail-centric San Francisco and its closer-in suburbs is steeped in bus and toll-road issues.

Sources close to the workings of the commission insist that no one lone commissioner could have acted alone in the deletion.

William S. Lind, who heads Free Congress's Center for Cultural Conservatism and who has co-authored with Weyrich several studies on mass transit says he was told by two separate sources of Heminger's role. (Attempts within 48 hours of this column's deadline to reach Heminger twice by phone and once by e-mail for his comment were unsuccessful.)

Raising more questions than answers

Assuming Lind's sources are accurate, he asks in our interview with him, "Why was [any] one commissioner allowed to rewrite the report removing a section that had been voted on and supported by nine members?" Or, "Who allowed Heminger to do it" if indeed it was his handiwork?

Susan Binder says the deletion was the result of "editing."

"Which it was not," scoffed Lind. "Editing cannot change the meaning of something. This is censorship. Furthermore," he added, "this was never raised, I mean there was never discussion of it [the deletion] in the meeting. No vote [on the deletion] was ever taken. [No commissioner] was ... given that authority to completely rewrite and remove whole sections from a volume."

Which means?

"The staff had to allow that to happen," Lind insists. But does it necessarily end there? Therein lies another interesting part of the trail. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and the other two on the panel's minority submitted dissenting views advocating a system of "public-private partnerships," whose primary emphasis would be roads with little or no attention to rebuilding America's rail system. Though Peters was in the minority, she still controlled the bureaucrats and commission staff. So the direction to the staff to make the deletion would have had to come from the secretary, right?

It could come from Mary Peters, Lind says adding cryptically "or in Washington, it could come from someone else altogether outside the formal process."

You mean the White House? He was asked.

"Could be. All I know is that if it was Heminger who did it, then he could not have acted alone."

A "virtual" volume?

On Friday, this column spoke with commission vice chairman Jack Shenendorf, a lawyer from the prominent Washington firm Covington & Burling, who indicated there would be a "virtual" Volume 3, which would be shown on the Internet. He indicated that any approved segments of the report that did not appear in Volumes 1 &2 would end up there. That is one goal Weyrich is now pursuing. But he stresses it was deleted from the hard copy of the first two volumes, and those were the volumes which were released to the media last week. The Internet is wildly popular, but in situations like this, hard copy still counts. It's the hard copy that ends up on the desks of the movers and shakers in government and industry people who can actually do something about the problem. So at best, Weyrich's vitally important section on public transit gets shunted off to second-tier status "played down," in journalist jargon.

Vice Chairman Shenendorf in a Saturday e-mail to this column said without the benefit of access to his notes (he was out of town at the time), his recollection was that "we agreed at a meeting several months ago to include Paul's language in [Volume 2], 'subject to normal editing process.'" As mentioned above, Weyrich and Lind do not believe "editing" was a relevant factor in the deletion. Shenendorf says "editing" could include "individual commissioners sending their comments to staff" after which "staff would then decide on which revisions to make." The vice chairman promised to get to the bottom of this in the week ahead during a scheduled conference call with other majority commission members. He also strongly vouched for Heminger as a "transit advocate," and "of the highest integrity." As new facts in this mystery come to light, we will keep you informed.

Now for the substance

Regardless of who or what factors led to the deletion of Weyrich's section of the report, one can understand why some highway interests would view it as too hot to handle.

The General Motors legend Alfred P. Sloan back in the twenties hatched a plot to destroy America's electric rail systems in cities all across America (for which his company was ultimately convicted in 1949 and given what amounted to a slap on the wrist). Highway interests meanwhile have moved heaven and earth to see that Americans were denied development choices that were hospitable to anything other than auto transport. You want to pick up a prescription or a quart of milk? Chances are you have no choice other than to haul up to a couple of tons of steel and rubber to do it. In pre-World War II America, most Americans could conveniently walk to accomplish small errands. Walkable neighborhoods are transit-friendly, especially when that transit mode is rail. You may be old enough to remember when there was an electric "trolley" line (called "light rail" in its present incarnation) in your town that was destroyed. Here is a telling paragraph in Weyrich's deleted section:

"[Many of America's] cities once had electric railways. They lost them not to the free market, but to massive government intervention in favor of highways and cars. As early as 1921, government was pouring $1.4 billion into highways. In contrast, the vast majority of electric railways were privately owned, received no government assistance and had to pay taxes. Further, their fares were often controlled by local governments, which did not allow them to rise despite inflation. As a result, by 1919, one-third of the country's streetcar companies were bankrupt. After World War II, many local governments completed the destruction of their community's electric railways by pressuring transit companies to convert to buses. Bus conversion in turn led many former transit riders to drive instead."

There are powerful people who would like Americans to accept the notion that highways as the be-all and end-all in transportation are the natural order of things. One of the minority commissioners, Rick Geddes of Cornell University (allied with Secretary Peters), testified at a congressional hearing this past week (the only minority member to show up). In his prepared 3-page statement he mentioned "roads" or "highways" no fewer than 25 times. The words "rail" or "railroads" appeared nowhere in his remarks.

Again what is at stake

But this is not merely a matter of cutesy games involving a politically-appointed federal commission. The campaign for energy efficient transportation in this country goes to the issue of urgent national security. Americans are vulnerable to the threat of blackmail from oil-rich Middle East Islamofascists who hate us. And don't think for a minute that won't happen when the day of reckoning arrives.

© Wes Vernon


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