Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 5/30/2008 [Archive]

A light rail at Big Transit -- Opinion

It was no place for a lone libertarian.

It was no place for anyone who prefers individual choice and private markets to government regulations and top-down control.

It was no place for someone who believes most of the damage done to America's big cities during the last half century has been caused by the slippery politicians, urban planners and civic power brokers who've been running them.

And it was certainly no friendly place for anyone who thinks wasteful government transportation monopolies like the Port Authority of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh are proof that America's 40-year-old experiment in socialized urban mass transit is a failure.

In fact, anyone who openly prefers cars to buses would have found himself feeling very alone during a recent salon dinner discussion on 'The Future of Urban Growth and Transportation' at the upscale restaurant Eleven in Pittsburgh's thriving Strip District.

The co-sponsors -- The Atlantic magazine and Siemens, aka the General Electric of Germany -- invited about 30 local and nonlocal people from government, business and academia to spend 90 minutes discussing urban growth and infrastructure/transportation problems.

The attendees were smart, accomplished, friendly and nice to a fault. But when Atlantic deputy managing editor Don Peck got the table talking, it quickly became clear to the lone libertarian that everyone else had commuted from another planet.

Around and around the comments went at the off-the-record event:

Mass public transit needs billions more in taxpayer subsidies from more sources. Portland's light-rail system is fabulous. Europe's urban transportation systems are superb; ours aren't but could be -- if we were tougher on car users and gave public transit more government money.

Gas taxes aren't high enough. Regional government is a good thing. So is anything that's sustainable. So is preserving agricultural land outside London, even if it raises real estate prices in the city. So is anything done to fight global warming ... .

Occasionally a voice of caution and/or realism was heard.

Someone declared that regional government -- though a good thing -- is a fantasy because regional politics often bring more highways and deprive cities of the additional tax funding they need for, you guessed it, mass transit, which about 96 percent of Americans don't use.

And a mass transit executive with a 1.2 mile, $450-million light-rail tunnel boondoggle on his mind reminded everyone that cars -- the transit mode of choice for most in attendance -- are still by far the dominant form of transportation and will remain so.

For an hour, the lone libertarian bit his tongue, praying that someone with a Ph.D. in something or other would say something critical about America's failed mass-transit model.

He waited in vain. No one mentioned a single one of Big Transit's many chronic/congenital defects -- that nearly every major city's system is obscenely expensive, inefficient, mismanaged, over-built, under-used and subsidizes middle-class commuters with costly light-rail lines.

When the lone libertarian finally found the nerve, he did his uncomfortable best to politely shame his fellow salon-goers for their blind acceptance of the third-rate transit industrial complex they each had a serious economic, ideological and/or spiritual stake in perpetuating.

He pointed out that Tokyo's gargantuan transit system -- arguably the world's best -- was about 90 percent private and mostly profitable.

He tried to point out that in progressive Europe governments are decentralizing the control and funding of mass transit and privatizing its bus and rail lines, as Stockholm and London have done.

The mini-debate that flared at the table was quickly extinguished by moderator Peck. Order was restored. Unconditional mass-transit love returned.

The lone libertarian had had his say. But he found no allies in the crowd and persuaded no one. No doubt most of his startled dinnermates were left wondering what mode of transport that strange journalist had used to commute from Mars.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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