The Motorcar vs. America

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… But back to reality. In one of cartoonist Al Capp’s weird realms the ruler adopts a cute little animal that the wise man at court warns in vain is a kingaroo. The beast grows mightily and in doing so develops a fearsome appetite, which at maturity it satisfies by making a meal of its benefactor. The beguiling little kingaroo that America adopted was the tin lizzie. Today, as Marquis Childs observes, the motor manufacturers and big oil companies, standing together, comprise “probably the most powerful economic-political bloc in the nation, and with the highway lobby a force that can move mountains, literally or figuratively.” Represented in the lobby are the rubber companies, the producers of cement and asphalt, manufacturers of construction machinery, building contractors, and assorted interests that reap the uncounted billions that annually go into motor traffic and its infrastructure. (In 1968 cars and car parts alone took 6.21 dollars out of every one hundred spent by the American people. With motorcar sales running at about ten million a year, or well over thirty billion dollars, and an annual repair bill of 8.8 billion dollars, Americans are spending more directly on their cars—leaving out gasoline, oil, insurance, parking fees, etc., not to mention highway construction and repair—than on public education.) The lobby has vigorous spokesmen in state highway commissioners and in the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads and the Federal Highway Administration, and powerful friends in the House Public Works Committee, which, as a prime source of pork, congressmen are not eager to antagonize.

Twice in the past several years the “road gang” has conspicuously demonstrated its might. When in November, 1966, as a means of reducing federal expenses and inflationary pressures, the Johnson administration announced that l.l billion dollars of the Highway Trust Fund would be held back, the outrage of the road gang was such that within seven months the administration had backed down all the way and released the entire amount withheld. In 1968 the Federal Aid Highway Bill showed the House of Representatives to be securely in the pocket of the highway men. (Key congressman had received seventy-five thousand dollars from the trucking lobby, according to Drew Pearson.)

The House bill, said Kentucky’s John Sherman Cooper of the Senate Public Works Committee, “was more anti-conservationist than any other bill I have seen come before this body. In at least three major sections, it attempted to strike down legislation which had been enacted by Congress in an effort to protect the natural resources and beauty of this country”—one specifically to protect public parks. The retrogressive measures were largely eliminated by Senator Cooper’s committee but not the highhanded provision commanding the District of Columbia, as if it were a felon before the bar, to commence work within thirty days on four new components of the freeway system “notwithstanding any other provisions of law, or any court decision or administration action to the contrary.” The package includes the North Central Freeway, which will plough through the Negro section of Washington with ten lanes, and the Three Sisters Bridge, which will destroy irreplaceable parkland and desolate one of the loveliest vistas of the Potomac while aiming straight up Glover-Archbold Park.

As the New York Times declared, “Apart from this proposed desecration of the capital, these bridge and freeway provisions set a most dangerous precedent for every city in the nation. If Congress can pick routes and choose bridge sites in Washington, D.C., and get away with it, there is nothing to prevent Congress from dictating similar decisions in other cities.”

That Congress is getting away with it is owing primarily to a lawgiver from Bowling Green, Kentucky, William H. Natcher, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the District of Columbia and errand boy of the highway lobby, as the New York Times describes him. Natcher ruled that until work on the extended freeway program had proceeded “beyond recall” no funds would be released for the city’s long-discussed subway, the only possible cure for its transportation ills. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield said on the floor of the Senate that “there is one issue on which almost every resident of the District agrees: opposition to more freeways,” and he thought it “inconceivable” that the proposed rapid-transit system “could be held hostage to more unwanted freeways.” It was, though. The city council, with two members in tears, finally knuckled under in a session marked by near riot.

But does it matter what decisions we come to about the motorcar? With the motor-age interests able to bend newspapers, governors, congressmen, and the United States government like pipe cleaners, has anyone a chance against them? And if anyone had, could the national economy afford a retreat from the motorcar in view of all the productive capacity and jobs that have been created to supply it and its wants?