Published on Sunday, November 16, 2008 by CommonDreams.org
GM Must Re-Make the Mass Transit System it Murdered
by Harvey Wasserman
Bail out General Motors? The people who murdered our mass transit system?
First let them remake what they destroyed.
GM responded to the 1970s gas crisis by handing over the American market to energy-efficient Toyota and Honda.
GM met the rise of the hybrids with "light trucks."
GM built a small electric car, leased a pilot fleet to consumers who loved it, and then forcibly confiscated and trashed them all.
GM now wants to market a $40,000 electric Volt that looks like a cross between a Hummer and a Cadillac and will do nothing to meet the Solartopian needs of a green-powered Earth.
For this alone, GM's managers should never be allowed to make another car, let alone take our tax money to stay in business.
But there is also a trillion-dollar skeleton in GM's closet.
This is the company that murdered our mass transit system.
The assertion comes from Bradford Snell, a government researcher whose definitive report damning GM has been a vehicular lightening rod since its 1974 debut. Its attackers and defenders are legion. But some facts are irrefutable:
In a 1922 memo that will live in infamy, GM President Alfred P. Sloan established a unit aimed at dumping electrified mass transit in favor of gas-burning cars, trucks and buses.
Just one American family in 10 then owned an automobile. Instead, we loved our 44,000 miles of passenger rail routes managed by 1,200 companies employing 300,000 Americans who ran 15 billion annual trips generating an income of $1 billion. According to Snell, "virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system."
But GM lost $65 million in 1921. So Sloan enlisted Standard Oil (now Exxon), Philips Petroleum, glass and rubber companies and an army of financiers and politicians to kill mass transit.
The campaigns varied, as did the economic and technical health of many of the systems themselves. Some now argue that buses would have transcended many of the rail lines anyway. More likely, they would have hybridized and complemented each other.
But with a varied arsenal of political and financial subterfuges, GM helped gut the core of America's train and trolley systems. It was the murder of our rail systems that made our "love affair" with the car a tragedy of necessity.
In 1949 a complex federal prosecution for related crimes resulted in an anti-trust fine against GM of a whopping $5000. For years thereafter GM continued to bury electric rail systems by "bustituting" gas-fired vehicles.
Then came the interstates. After driving his Allied forces into Berlin on Hitler's Autobahn, Dwight Eisenhower brought home a passion for America's biggest public works project. Some 40,000 miles of vital eco-systems were eventually paved under.
In habitat destruction, oil addiction, global warming, outright traffic deaths (some 40,000/year and more), ancillary ailments and wars for oil, the automobile embodies the worst ecological catastrophe in human history.
Should current General Motors management be made to pay for the ancient sins of Alfred Sloan?
Since the 1880s, American corporations have claimed human rights under the law. Tasking one now with human responsibilities could set a great precedent.
GM has certainly proved itself unable to make cars that can compete while healing a global-warmed planet.
So let's convert the company's infrastructure to churn out trolley cars, monorails, passenger trains, truly green buses.
FDR forced Detroit to manufacture the tanks, planes and guns that won World War 2 (try buying a 1944 Chevrolet!). Now let a reinvented GM make the "weapons" to win the climate war and energy independence.
It demands re-tooling and re-training. But GM's special role in history must now evolve into using its infrastructure to restore the mass transit system---and ecological balance---it has helped destroy.
Harvey Wasserman is co-author, with Bob Fitrakis, of four books on election protection which are available at www.freepress.org, where this article first appeared. His HARVEY WASSERMAN's HISTORY OF THE US is at www.harveywasserman.com along with SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030.