TCS Daily

Perils of Gridlock

By Brock Yates - December 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Thomas Friedman, the highly-respected, award-winning foreign policy wonk for New York Times is, like the rest of his fellow liberal staff members, fretting about our dependence on Middle-Eastern oil. It is a concern, one might be reminded, that has drifted through Georgetown salons and other Washington and New York intellectual power centers since the OPEC mullahs first shut off the spigots in the mid 1970's.

Thirty years of high-minded pontificating has produced little in the way of solutions, save for the truly idiotic and universally ignored 55 mph national speed limit and fuel-mileage CAFE standards that have had zero effect on reducing the nation's appetite for petroleum. The most futile efforts come from the elitists at the Times and other left-wing Chicken Littles in the form of demonizing Sport Utility Vehicles as the paradigm of American gluttony and Veblenesque conspicuous consumption. A new ad campaign will even suggest that driving an SUV offers tacit support to terrorists.

The nation has responded by driving SUV sales and light truck sales to over half the domestic market while horsepower ratings for all brands soar near or past 300 horsepower and fuel economy plunges to below 15 miles-per-gallon. And what, might one ask, is to be expected of the nation's drivers as they find advantages in the safety and utility of these vehicles while, more important, gasoline prices remain stable at about $1.30 a gallon?

Mr. Friedman recently proposed a Manhattan Project to deal with our long-term energy needs. The centerpiece of the effort would be to relieve our dependence on foreign oil. Byproducts would be stabilizing our economy and perhaps settling our differences with the Arab world and the festering boil in Israel.

This is a grand idea, no doubt leading to hydrogen-based fuel cells powering our automobiles and our homes while 1000-foot super-tankers rust away before their scrappage on Indonesian beaches. Of course one wonders about the unintended consequences of, say, plunging the Middle East even deeper into poverty and despair once their oil revenues are cut off. But that is apparently of little concern to our great thinkers, who remain transfixed on the idea that all problems will be instantly solved as soon as the dreaded gas-guzzlers are excised from our highways.

To which I say, humbug. The SUV and other bugaboos of the political left are but one tiny element of a massive problem that remains ignored by the solons in Washington. It is the gridlock of our transportation system that poses a potential Gordian Knot around our entire economy.

While our Transportation Department fascinates itself with shakedowns of Grandmas at airport gates, they and the pols on both sides of the aisle and in the White House choose to ignore several alarming realities to wit:

  • The major cities of the nation are being strangled by traffic. Yet, commuting by automobile increases while public transit - often, filthy, slow and expensive - flounders in a sea of bureaucratic and labor union sloth.

  • No alternative plans have been put forth, and any discussion of adding traffic lanes for trucks, more tunnels, bridges, extra parking, etc. is immediately crushed in a screech-fest of environmental jibberish.

  • Meanwhile the major airlines wobble in a miasma of dim-bulb leadership, obsolete fleets and a hub mentality that is clearly outdated.

  • The railroads, once the major arteries for freight movement in this nation, are running on rotting roadbeds and on trackage that is tens of thousands of miles shorter than when the system was in its pre-World War II prime. Amtrak, the bureaucrat's version of the Toonerville Trolley, remains bankrupt with no solution in sight, save for more Federal bail-outs.

As our diplomats and politicos grapple with critical war and peace issues, we must also seriously deal with the broad-spectrum problem of getting our transportation network in order.

The movement of goods and services is the lifeblood of this mobile, versatile and highly creative economy. We cannot depend on the ever-increasing fleet of diesel-powered tractor trailers - which now number over 60 million - to haul intercity freight over crowded, crumbling interstates that in the last twenty years have seen traffic loads almost double (now involving 220 million motor vehicles) while road mileage has increased a paltry six percent. Add to that a weakened, smaller network of railroad freight capacity, suburban sprawl (motivated by high crime and other unpleasantries in our city centers), lousy rail and commuter bus systems and an airline industry that is, with a few exceptions like Jet Blue, on the rocks and we face disaster.

Yet as our transportation capability crumbles, we fascinate ourselves with such cosmic questions as to whether Senator Lott is a closet Klanner or if Augusta National ought to install ladies tees.

You want a Manhattan Project, Mr. Friedman? It starts on the fuming, traffic-clogged West 43rd street outside your office window.



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