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Automobile conspiracies

By Daniel G. Jennings
web posted April 28, 2003

Like the American Right in the 1950s and the American Left in the present-day, advocates of rail-transit in the United States have become obsessed by conspiracy theories. Instead of working to create new transit systems or lobbying for more money from the government, rail backers, new urbanists and auto critics spend much of their time charting and plotting conspiracies. Worse, they often refuse to take action to make many of their dreams come true because they are afraid of an imaginary boogeyman called the "highway lobby."

A quick visit to the web sites of many transit advocates verifies this obsession with conspiracy theories. The websites of transit advocates are full of conspiracy theory talk, complete with charts and graphs that demonstrate how certain highway contractors are funding think tanks that issue anti-transit propaganda. Essays point out the connections between transit foes and large corporations that have historically opposed transit. And there are plenty of history lessons about how General Motors and Standard Oil of California (Chevron) ripped out the trolley lines in many American cities.

As with all good conspiracy theories there is quite a bit of truth to this talk. A lot of people have gotten rich off of highway contracting and car companies, and highway contractors and others do spend big money to finance anti-transit lobbying and propaganda. And, yes, big oil and Detroit did conspire to destroy the streetcars.

The problem is that transit backers seem to be spending all or most of their time on these conspiracy theories. Instead of going out and making their case to the public or lobbying elected representatives for more funding, transit backers are sitting in front of computers banging out conspiracy theory stories. In particular, they spend much of their time warning the public about an evil, all-powerful monster known as the "Highway Lobby" that can influence government and kill transit projects with the blink of an eye.

Yes, the highway lobby is real but it's far from all-powerful. If the highway lobby is so powerful, why have more than a dozen cities, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Denver, San Diego, San Jose, Dallas, Portland, Los Angeles, Buffalo, Newark, Sacramento, San Francisco, Baltimore and Washington D.C., built new rail transit lines in the last twenty years? Why are cities like Houston, Minneapolis, Seattle, Las Vegas and Charlotte building new rail lines? The highway lobby was unable to stop massive new light rail and subway projects all over the country. If the highway lobby is so powerful, why couldn't it stop Congress from appropriating billions of dollars to pay for new rail lines and voters from approving new rail lines in several cities. In Seattle, voters even approved a monorail project.

The highway lobby is far from unbeatable. When transit backers are prepared to enter the political arena and fight, they can win. Such victories take hard work, getting out the vote, meeting with political officials, petition campaigns and other political work. Unfortunately, sitting around and griping about the evil highway lobby conspiracy is a lot easier than campaigning for new transit systems.

Transit backers today are like conservatives were in the 1950s. They spend all of their time talking about conspiracy theories, and get nothing accomplished. When the conservatives forgot all about conspiracy theories in the 1960s and started working for real political change, they started to make real accomplishments. If transit backers can learn to forego their fascination with conspiracy theories and start to work in earnest to accomplish real change, I predict that they will be able to win big, getting dozens of new rail transit lines built all over the United States.

Daniel G. Jennings is a freelance writer and journalist who lives and works in Denver, CO. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in five states.

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