The invisible imperative

I must admit, it's hard to be in two places at once.

When a business (such as mine) essentially exists as a one man band, how can the opening of a satellite office be justified? Yet, here I am in San Antonio, rationalising my decision to do just that.

I have a wonderful sister who's willing to keep the Dallas fires burning. Concurrently, I'm chasing some contracts down south and, all to often, traveling back and forth along the Texas Triangle's western edge.

Those journeys (usually by train or automobile) are sometimes fun, sometimes monotonous and sometimes terrifically frustrating. They also, sometimes, provide a respite where my mind can safely wander - a brief interval I tend to call "contemplating the universe." It was during a recent contemplation that my mind focused on alternative transport futures - a brief interval I tend to call "a busman's holiday of the brain."

No matter the day or date, travelers of every sort join me in my quest to move. They crowd airfields, stretch out in coaches and hit the road, with impunity. Their frantic pace, especially along Interstate 35, is never-ending. My fellow man and I race along toward myriad destinations and, once achieved, race back home again. The more complex itineraries may see several intermediate points, but the general purpose remains the same: a sort of great circle, representing life in miniature, powered by hydrocarbons, courtesy of various public agencies.

Impressive, to be sure; but, why consciously acknowledge something so complex when it can be so easily taken for granted?

The roadways, for example, are just...there. They exist solely for our use, with little but a few pennies of tax requested in return. Oh, we may complain - incessantly - concerning our plight ("it'd be fine if they'd just widen the thing"); but, seemingly, nothing substantive ever gets done. I suppose streets are a lot like the weather in that regard.

When I first arrived in San Antonio and began to set up shop, I researched local media to gain a better feel for the way Bexar County transportation plans are being viewed by the citizenry. VIA Metropolitan Transit is discussing a starter streetcar service downtown, along with "Bus Rapid Transit" and other initiatives. The Texas D.O.T. is paving here and there (as is their wont), while openly proposing toll facilities. Every discussion, every idea - train, bus, auto - includes the word "controversial," presumably because the taxpayer's money is involved.

Just the other day, I stumbled across a newcomer's guide to Dallas. The same sort of controversies were being outlined. Once traffic congestion levels were recognised and air quality issues admitted, the inevitable call came for continued low taxes. Finally, the seeds of fear - These are unproven concepts! What if they really don't work? How can I live without my car?! - were firmly planted. A nod was made toward the future and its new-and-improved personal vehicles, which will evidently be powered by good intentions and emit only warm fuzzys. Status quo was nicely illustrated by a four-colour freeway map. A turn of the page, then on to shopping and fine dining.

Dallas' magazine went one step too far, however; tipping its hand with a brief but telling series of mini-interviews. New transplants were asked to ennumerate the most important things which influenced their move to north central Texas. They talked about what they liked best and their sources of greatest displeasure. A total of 28 individuals were queried.

The usual suspects found their way into the respondant's overviews: good schools, low crime, nice parks, classic stores and great restaurants. The downtown and inner-city residents mentioned walkable destinations; otherwise, transportation (of any sort - even the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport) was never broached. BUT, asked to list their disappointments, 21 of the 28 - a clean 75% - referenced the metro-region's traffic troubles. Interestingly, most of the interviewees had chosen a suburban lifestyle; in fact, only eight were living within the DART service area.

Apparently, in this 21st century world, transportation is not meant to be enjoyed; rather, it is to be endured, as a necessary evil. There is no reasonable alternative to the motorway. Rail-based options are idealistic, unproven and prohibitively expensive. Ozone alert days mean nothing more than "get your children inside, since they can't safely play and breathe at the same time." A low property tax rate is of paramount concern. An individual's vehicle defines who that person really is, deep down inside.

The safe and efficient movement of people and products is an undeniable imperative within any industrialised society. Unfortunately, it tends to blend into the scenery so well that it becomes practically invisible - only of concern when it ends up not working at all.

So, we continue along the same pathway, as if we know what we're doing. All the while, frustration mounts. Including mine.

By the way, according to a recent study, the most oft' used action verb in a typical drive-time radio traffic report is "avoid."

I just thought y'all might like to know.


  • Thanks for a thoughtful blog post, Garl.  We need all the thouhtfulness we can get and there hasn't been much of that lately.

    Transportation is not meant to be enjoyed.  It is the result of a demand-derived world.  People don't wake up in the morning saying "I feel great.  Maybe I'll buy some freight today."  Transportation is a cost, and one that cannot be avoided.  Customers want their freight moved safely and efficiently from where it is to where they want it to be.  The same can be said for those whose focus is passenger transportation.  People don't buy tickets on airplanes just for the sensation of flying.  They do it to get from where they are to where they want to be.

    It should be interesting to watch the Congress and the White House spar over the Sept. 30 expiration of the surface transportation authorization.  Absent some legislation, the federal diesel and gasoline tax expires on that date.  If that is allowed to expire, let's see if the oil companies pass along the tax they no longer will be collecting for the federal government.  The airlines certainly did not when the FAA was shut down.  And, if the program is allowed to expire, the number of people who will be out of work will make the FAA shutdown look like child's play.

    Some advocate returning the highway program to the states and getting the "feds" out of the game.  The states never could be counted upon to build and maintain the highways our society demands, which is why we have a federal highway program.  Railroads, of course, own and maintain their own rights-of-way and pay property taxes for the privilege.  While a motor carrier with an operating ratio of 95 may think he's died and gone to Heaven, there is a technical term for a railroad with an OR of 95.  It's "bankrupt."

    As I said, Garl, thanks for a thoughtful post.  It was thought-provoking.

  • Garl, it is nice to see another thoughtful post from you, good luck with San Antonio..nice place. I am on a small island off the coast of Maine at my family summer cottage of over 50 years looking at an old pier which once was a destination for small coastal steamers coming up from Portland & ports further south/west. Apparently this was a great way to travel: board in the evening, have dinner, sleep, wake up at your destination. Water routes are far more direct than land routes here because of the ragged coast line so the time spend traveling was much shorter. And, aside from lighthouses, the cost to the public was zero, coastal water routes are free ( some dredging maybe). But, there are no coastal passenger or freight service today although a fellow has just started a small ship container service from Halifax to Portland & Boston which shows promise. Sometimes, the most logical way just does not appeal to folks when they have super convenience with virtually no apparent costs ...I am beginning to like a mileage tax as is being experimented with such as the London inner city fee for cars & trucks.  Larry, I love your incisive comments combined with Garls broad thinking!

  • Thanks for the kind words, oa.  The best way to get to Nova Scotia still is to take the overnight steamer from Portland.  I like your comments about taxes and what's free.  I think it's a fundamental truth that if something is presented as "free," the immediate response is to want a whole lot more of it.  A mileage tax, or variant, would be the smart way to fund our infrastructure needs, but the simple fact that it is smart probably means it won't happen.  Technologically, there is no problem keeping electronic track of the mileage traveled, and the rate could be quite easily adjusted to reflect changing needs.  It's obvious, by the fact that the Highway Trust Fund has required addition funding by Congress, that the fuel tax, which has not been adjusted since 1993, just isn't producing enough money to do what's needed.  Cars get better mileage than in 1993, and with gasoline costing close to $4/gallon, that tax is producing less just when we need more.  Congress needs to confront the stupidity or cupidity conundrum.  Which are you, Congressman or Senator, just stupid or dishonest?

    Here endeth the (latest) rant.

  • Larry, unfortunately the Scotia Prince stopped service some years ago and the high speed catamaran which replaced her was dropped last can't get there from here anymore! You do rant well Larry, it is a lost art for the most part. Saying it as you see it no longer seems in fashion. There seems to be a pervasive atmosphere of not wanting to take risks, work hard to get something great accomplished or take responsiblity for what you say and I just getting old?

  • oa:  Are you just getting old?  I sure hope not. I'll be 75 later this month.  I finally figured out that it's just a number and without knowing what 75 is supposed to feel like, I take position that I don't feel like I'm just about 75.

    Just a bit more seriously, I have spent much of my professional life in the news business.  There, you put your name on your work every day and you learn to accept responsibility for what you do and write.  I found the rail culture also encouraged accepting responsibility.  

  • The Bluenose out of Bar Harbor still runs, doesn't it?  I-95 to Bangor, I-395 across the river, US 1A to Ellsworth, straight ahead up the hill on ME 3, bear left off the bridge onto the island, pick up the Bluenose to Yarmouth, NS.

  • SPRAWL-CIALISM was hatched by fiendish AUTO-CENTRIC minds from DETROIT. State Subsidiy of Sprawl was the engine of economic growth that fueled far flung subdivisions, strip and mega malls.

    75,500 railway passenger stations, terminals, depots, yards and sheds left to rot to be replaced by 175,000 gazzoline stations...are you fueling good today?

    Just think of a great big donut---lots of dough on the outside---a gaping hole in the middle. yum-yum-eat em up!

  • As usual, Railwayist prattles on.  He sees methodical plots where most rational people see only happenstance.  Anyone think the crystal ball was so clear in Detroit and the oil industry that World War II, the GI Bill, and other such events were the result of careful - and accurate - plotting?  Your credibility is so bad, Railwayist, that I don't even accept the accuracy of your alleged data.