Monthly Archives: October 2009

Back to the Future

Internal FBI Memorandum

October 30, 1947

Miami Office

[name deleted], Miami, Florida, alleged that General Motors Corp. influenced decision of members of the City Council of St. Petersburg, Florida by gifts of Cadillac automobiles to abandon electric railways in favor of buses … (illegible)… the outgoing City Council hurriedly passes a resolution changing to bus transportation … the transition undertaken without regard to financial condition of the city and in spite of the fact streetcars provided adequate facilities and were financially remunerative.

“Wait a minute, this is a great opportunity. We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can somehow turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars. And if we don’t, then General Motors’ sales are just going to remain level”.

Alfred P. Sloan, President, General Motors, 1922 (attributed)

You wanna see some 14k hokum corporate masters employed to hoodwink the benumbed masses into abandoning a transportation system as good as the world had seen? Check out archival footage of “Futurama” the 1939 General Motors New York World’s Fair exhibit. l960 was s’pose to be some sort of petrochemical, Tom Swiftian Nirvana: undersea hotels, mono-pylon suspension bridges, moderne skyscrapers served by subterranean parkways carved through the very earth, below the grade level sidewalks. Roads, roads, roads to the corners of the world. Instead, we have something looking more and more like, I dunno, a version the Dominican Republic with machine guns and 500 porn channels.

The raison d’etre of this piece is a detail of the Hillsborough project, a brick median under which lies buried a long-disused transportation option, our local section of a “splendid” national electric railway system: Raleigh’s streetcars, formerly headquartered at the 1910 Raleigh Electric Company Powerhouse on West Street. As a kid I watched (and smelled) City Coach’s sulfur-stinkin’ GM’s humping over some of the old track leading from the now-demolished, cavernous barn structure. The streetcars were long gone but Raleigh’s parsimonious tendencies saved much of the system under a protective layer of asphalt.

streetcar

A turn of the century Raleigh streetcar. Photo from the NC Division of Archives and History.

You’ve heard allusions to Edwin J. Quinby and US Attorney Bradford Snell even if you’ve never heard their names.

But first, it’s true that mass transit has always had money problems beginning with wild over-optimistic capitalization in the “horse”power days. By the Great Depression its ratings were moribund, the misery exacerbated by ’20’s defections to the automobile as well as the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act that forced utilities to divest their streetcar companies to which they had been supplying subsidized power.

And it is also true Alfred Sloan of General Motors brilliantly exploited this as a business opportunity, banding with Firestone, Standard Oil and others to compete with electric rail via motorbuses. GM’s National City Lines snapped up, scrapped and converted electric interurbans and streetcars to buses in well over 100 markets … followed by a great statistical herd of former transportation customers who en-masse rejected balky, malodorous bus-based transit for private automobiles. It’s all about creating demand, baby.

Quinby, former Navy Commander and rail devotee conducted at his own expense an intricate, financial investigation, compiled and published the results and sent a 33-page memo to big city mayors. By the forties, the FBI and Justice had become interested. House hearings had GM fined $5,000 whole dollars, not for wrecking electric rail, there were no laws against that, but for monopolizing the infant bus biz.

Snell’s career followed the scuttling of transit and associated decline of US urban life. His “vehemently argued” (described by transportation expert David Jones) 1974 report, “American Ground Transport,” is worth a flip for the finger waggling, red faces and shouting it induces. Business decision? “Conspiracy”? Who cares. Semantics mostly serve to obscure. So does pavement.

One golden autumn morning I pedaled into the Oberlin road job-site as slabs of old road were pulled aside amid clouds of diesel. I ran the story with a worker. “Gimme that shovel,” I joshed.

“You’re right on time,” he laughed. He stabbed and scraped away ’til that shriek of steel on steel  — yup — ties, rails, the whole deal – the Hillsborough street line. Flush with a skootch of optimism, I called Will Mullet, the manager of New Orlean’s streetcar system,  my gracious, entertaining host of a tour of the barn and shops last year, the Big O among a handful of US cities who resisted the motorization juggernaut. I told him what I had seen.

IMGA0068

Workers on Hillsborough Street uncover long-forgotten streetcar tracks.

“New Orleans tore the tracks up. We had to relay.” I heard audible excitement behind a curtain of professional caution.

“If the roadbed’s there, that’s the largest part of the job.”

Hey, I’m not so goo goo to hold out for a restoration of the system, but let’s git us some of that Federal dough and plant a seedling on Fayetteville or Glenwood, where a forlorn shelter stands still at Wade. Raleigh’d be well served preparing to rebuild an urban rail system like the ones commonplace in every other major nation and increasingly in the US, now in 35 cities across the land. Portland, Oregon has attracted 10,000 new housing units and $3.5 billion in investments within 2 blocks of the streetcar alignment. Heck, Charlotte is getting ready to pull it off.

trolley-shelter

The old trolley shelter on Glenwood Avenue.

Time for Raleigh to step up, admit to having being schnookered and shake the trees with the aid of the end to the car’s automatic, unchallenged free ride. Ok. It’s a lot to ask of a city apparently welded to their cars, but doggone it, you have to dream. I’m just lighting a fuse. A system that spares riders irreplaceable hours stuck in traffic amid annual per-annum carnage of 50,000 will look very different when $4 a gallon plus or the equivalent returns.

Civilized nations recognize the downside costs and factor them into the expense of auto operation; Yewessians and Raleighstas are conditioned to overlook the human and environmental toll wrought by our seven league boots — bought off in essence via fuel discounted by federal tax subsidies and other unfactored externalities that would were they negated inflate fuel by 5 to 15 dollars. “Free market,” my ass. You’re paying for the monster and don’t even know it. My own mass transit initiative would include local fees to begin to address the fumes, oil dribbles, copper from brakes poisoning Pigeon House branch and the ubiquitous wreckage and heaps of collision debris. Live along a future transit corridor and insist on driving a lot?  Pay for it.

Sure, urban rail’s upfront costs are high. The savings come later via reduced operating expenses and fuel. Buses are generally good for 15 years or so. New Orleans RTA has kept their simple, robust original 1923 Perley A. Thomas cars in service for a nearly a hundred years and built in-house two dozen brand-new replicas that were destroyed by Katrina and subsequently restored. But there’s this bit of perfect local balance. The source for the original Streetcar Named Desire is still in High Point, North Carolina, the Thomas Bus division of Daimler. With 400 streetcars on their tally sheet following the collapse of the streetcar biz the Perley A.Thomas Car Works salvaged itself in 1936 with a line of bus bodies. It is time for the pendulum to swing the other way.

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Dust to Dust

I’ve been observing the ongoing theater of the beeg roundabout project. Like some gigantic, dusty, asphalt millipede, everyday, some new episode: monster track-hoes gouging deep into the earth, effacing NCSU’s Watauga Drive; a brief reappearance of a section of Raleigh’s buried streetcar system; Gus Gusler, proprietor of the storied Player’s Retreat setting Christmas lights to “lure customers in. Sort of like a landing strip,” said Gus indicating final approach with his hands.

I have accepted the inevitable changes amid the disruptions, but the dust from all the digging, dumping, cutting and so forth, a gritty “patina” all over buildings, street, trees, vehicles that the wind and rain just sort of seem to move about had become more than just a nuisance. Hamlett had been fined for not watering the roads, something the organizers of Burning Man manage to do twice a day amid all the group sex and hallucinogens, fer Christ’s sake.

I’ve done a fair hitch in construction world starting (illegally) at the tender age of 15, an exterior window job on a 13 story building at UNC, on to framing houses, roofing, painting and digging, yep, a lot of digging, so my empathy lies with the ordinary schleps with mud on their shoes and calluses on their hands. But I am sufficiently removed from the day to day of construction work (accompanied by a measure of pedestrian, abstract detachment) that a critical aspect of job-site practice escaped me — until last Tuesday.

Through a window at Sadlack’s I watched a worker noisily sawing bricks amid a great cloud of dust billowing around him and his compatriots. My bud, Ronnie Monroe, a wiry, easily ired fellow with 26 years in the paving business stood watching, nearly twitching. Finally, I was moved go outside and get a reading from a professional. Ronnie was mad as a bee, apoplectic.

“They need to get those boys some water!” Ronnie nearly yelled. “All this equipment and money and they can’t afford a fucking hose? This is an atrocity” I calmed him down to get him to expand on his point. It wasn’t about drinking water.

“That dust is fucking deadly.” Ronnie spat. That is true. Silica dust is just about the worst thing you can get into your lungs, “associated with development of silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airway diseases,” according to the NC Department of Labor, headquartered less than 2 miles distant. No one in the vicinity of the mini Mt. St. Helens across the street wore the correct, approved NIOSH 95 respirators, not even the saw operator, making do with a crummy, worthless homeowner’s “nuisance” particle mask. Back inside, the balance of the peanut gallery was in consensus.
“Dead men walking,” said one of the five o’clock crowd.

The next day included emails and phone calls to everyone with a dog in the fight, including this old Raleigh boy’s first trip to the 1885 Labor building. That afternoon I went up to Sad’s all ready to continue my tirade against someone and there, lo, across the street stood a 4 foot by 4 foot palletized, armored plastic water tank and hose feeding the all-important trickle of water to the brick saw. My crusade was blunted. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “You can actually accomplish good by using the system.” The next day, I contended with a barrage of calls and emails, one from a Terry Bunting, a safety consultant with the GC, Hamlett Construction, who thanked me for my response and for “paying attention.”

That was that, thought I, bearing for a time this small victory with a tad of pride attending a sort of new (for me) basic wisdom of using resources at hand instead of my standard all-too-common contentious attack-dog pattern. That lasted one whole day, until Wednesday evening. I watched one of the Hamlett crew tidying up after their day, clearing the same brick dust from the newly laid brick walk with a leaf blower, the hurricane speed wind unleashing a movie-set pall of red, ochre dust that hung in the air for blocks until I had enough and got out of there.

This situation is a fine perch to utilize the Suprapolitic, my own, pet term that points to the necessity of rising above the uselessness of our fake politic, the standard, profitless finger-pointing both the left and right are gulled into employing, you know, “It’s all (insert business or government)’s fault. In this case the cardboard cutout bogymen, business and government, Hamlett and at least two government jurisdictions failed utterly on a major job on a main drag of a capital city. North Carolina, Raleigh and Hamlett Construction have all proven (1) incompetent as regards training and administration of laws and regulations put in place to protect worker and public safety, and/or (2) that they simply doesn’t give a damn.

The collective insouciance about matters of health extends beyond their disposable, easily replaceable, migrant workers into the realm of public health. This cavalier lack of responsibility concerning this potent, hazardous substance has exposed thousands of Raleigh citizens, visitors, State kids, but especially workers and customers who spend a lot of time at Hillsborough Street’s restaurants and bars to a substance that adheres to delicate lung tissue forever, raising ones chances of coming down with a fatal illness. I have to make a special point of the latter as daily exposure to this stuff at one’s job would count as “occupational” if you are pouring beers at Sadlack’s or the PR. The stuff becomes part of your world, tracked in by any and everyone, distributed by HVAC systems.

It is inexcusable for these haphazard procedures to have become a problem at all. But that this egregious threat to public safety was allowed to continue day in, day out for months, even after being notified is beyond comprehension and begs a demand for redress, acknowledgment and more, some basic, palpable, consistent application of education and procedures. Contractors must be made to hold to basic requirements by making these sorts of issues part of the contract. All involved in a contract must make this part of the deal and governments spend less time chasing, say, nuisance parties and more on actual matters of substance. Since the only thing these yo-yos seem to understand is money perhaps a class action lawsuit handled by a good respiratory attorney might be in order.

We need more ears on the ground on this. I enjoin anyone who observes these sorts of slack-ass procedures to log a call to the NC Department of Labor. ( To start, try Kevin O’Barr, NCDOL standards supervisor, 919-807-2878.) With enough ants crawling up their legs, the contactors on this and any of the other myriad local, state, federal projects popping up might even be made to respond.

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