Saturday, April 25, 2009


We recently discovered that Merry's much beloved Subaru station wagon, the workhorse of our fleet, had a fatal leak in the head gasket. Repair cost would exceed the residual value of the car. Since moving to St. Louis we have rarely used both cars at the same time because I regularly take public transportation to work. We decided we would reduce the fleet to one and donate the Subaru to the local NPR station. They picked it up last Thursday.

Last Saturday Merry departed for her river trip down the mighty Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Logistics required she drive out. Merry's trip will take about three weeks. This left me without a car for the first extended period in my adult life. The situation has forced me to reflect on just how dependent I am on having a car at my disposal at all times.

In preparation I stocked up at the grocery store. I knew I could get to a near by supermarket by bus, but I wanted to avoid hauling heavy groceries on the bus if possible. Therefore I laid in a three week supply of dog food, canned goods, juice, spaghetti sauce and so on. I have adequate supplies to cook supper every night for myself and Merry also filled the freezer with several goodies – her famous macs & cheese, salmon loaf, chili. I have the choice of several good restaurants I can walk to if I want something fancier. I am set.

But what if we didn't have a car at all, could we get along? The answer to that question depends entirely on whether there is good, reliable public transportation.

At the beginning of this month St. Louis drastically reduced its public transportation system. Back in November there was a ballot item in St. Louis county encompassing the city's suburban area in Missouri that would have raised the county transit subsidy by a few cents per person. The timing was bad. Voters rejected the item, refusing to pay even a small amount in new taxes during a recession. The management of the transit system clearly believed that a small tax increase would pass without a problem so they did virtually nothing to sell the idea or plan for what would happen if the tax increase failed.

The regional transit system here consists of four parts: city buses, express buses from the suburbs, call-a-ride for disabled and the “MetroLink” light rail. MetroLink is a single long line stretching from Scott Air Force Base far out in Illinois on the eastern end through downtown to Lambert Airport well west of the city with a spur line to the near southwest suburbs. It runs pretty frequently and is on time almost all the time. It's dependable and quite easy to use, once you get to a station. The express buses connect further out communities to MetroLink stations and also directly to downtown. Metro has a contract with the Illinois county adjoining the city to provide express bus service, but no similar contract with St. Louis county in Missouri, the transit tax is supposed to cover that.

After the voters in St. Louis county rejected the transit tax increase, the whole thing unraveled. Metro officials announced that they would suspend all express bus service to St. Louis county, forcing thousands of those folks to drive to work. They also reduced the frequency of all city buses by one half. Every other bus driver was laid off as well as all express bus drivers, more that 500 in all. All bus routes within the central city were completely discontinued, meaning all downtown commuters like me would have to transfer to the MetroLink somewhere on the journey. Call-a-ride service was also reduced. The only services left intact are MetroLink light rail and the contract express buses from Illinois. For me the change adds ten minutes to my daily commute in both directions. For many others it's made commuting by public transit simply impossible or so onerous that they chose to drive instead.

Merry & I contacted numerous public officials quite awhile back to voice our concern over this turn of events. We received exactly two responses. One was from Russ Carnahan, our Democratic Congressman, who assured us he shared our concern and was doing all he could to help. The other was from W. Todd Akins, a Republican Congressman from a wealthy part of St. Louis county, who suggested that private enterprise would be the best way to solve the problem. Huh? I very much doubt Akins has ever felt the need to use public transportation. Since the meltdown the Missouri state legislature considered a supplemental appropriation but now has taken it off the table. No one appears to know what to do or where to get the money.

People simply won't think about a life without cars until they don't have one. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary we all assume we will always use personal automobiles. We assume we will always have the gas to run our cars. We assume gas will always be available and affordable. We neglect thinking about alternatives until it's late in the game. There's never any problem getting massive public money for highways, but public transit is always viewed as a mostly unnecessary frill. The reality is that we need to be dramatically expanding public transportation now. Instead, we go on blindly letting it shrink.

Human beings generally do a lousy job of planning for the future.

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