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An Alternative to the Auto Bailout

Reede Stockton

As the Big Three US automakers ramp up their pressure on Congress to cough up $25 billion in bailout money, the absence of a long term vision for economic recovery has never been more clear.

The outgoing Bush administration and Congress are careening from bailout proposal to bailout proposal, putting hundreds of billions into the hands of the same people that created this toxic economic brew.  Naomi Klein has recently detailed the horrifying parallels between the "free-fraud" zone created by the Bush administration in Iraq and the Treasury Department's handling of the bank bailout (

As tempting as it is to offer bailout money to the US automakers in return for fleet-wide mileage reductions, changes in the mix of their fleets to include more hybrids and electric vehicles, and to support labor, it would be the wrong thing to do under current conditions.  Imports from foreign automakers have backed up in American ports over the last few months and now represent roughly double the normal inventory, so the difficulties faced by automakers are not limited to US firms.  US automakers, however, have additional problems because their fleets are dominated by too-large, fuel-inefficient models.  That fleet makeup cannot be quickly changed.

No matter what Congress does, US automakers are unlikely to survive this economic crisis as major car manufacturers.  Over the years they have consistently made decisions that wedded themselves to the cheap oil past. And now, unsurprisingly, Congress is legitimately concerned that the $25 billion the industry wants will just postpone the inevitable.

We need an alternative vision of economic development that is fully articulated and backed by a long term plan that builds momentum for a new green economy.  Each new stimulus proposal must be evaluated in the context of its contribution to building green infrastructure, providing training for green careers and furthering a vision to build our local green economies. In that context, it is easy to see how wasteful $25 billion for the US auto industry would really be.

Obama has already signaled that he understands massive expenditures will be required over the next several years to avoid economic catastrophe.  No single issue gets to the heart of what is clearly an unsustainable American lifestyle as effectively as transportation.  We should be prepared to spend 3-4 trillion dollars over the next 20 years, much of it front-loaded to have maximum impact upon the current economic downturn, to massively overhaul the structure of transportation in this country in a way that supports local green space, local agriculture, local artisans, local industry, relies solely upon clean energy, and improves the livability of American towns and cities.

The federal government should rebuild passenger rail systems throughout the country and should offer to pay 100% of the cost for transit systems (including bus, light rail, train, subway, jitney, whatever) in any area with population over 10,000.  The conditions for 100% subsidy of a local transit system should be that transportation must be FREE, it must rely solely upon clean energy, and coverage in terms of both hours and geography must be adequate to offer a complete replacement for automobile ownership for those who wish to abandon their cars.

Why free?  For years and years, the US has encouraged automobile usage and suburban/exurban sprawl by subsidizing cheap oil and providing massive sums for interstate highway construction.  The result has been an ecological and human catastrophe.  Providing free mass transit amounts to reversal of that tax benefit in a way that encourages, but does not require, the abandonment of the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation in the US.

Imagine metropolitan areas with 50% or more of the acreage currently devoted to individual cars suddenly available for green space, pedestrian malls, community gardens, and bike paths.  Imagine urban agriculture zones and walkable neighborhoods.  Imagine a sharp reduction in CO2 emissions from transportation.  All of this and more will happen when we move away from the individual auto.

The needs of this country and the world are so huge after 8 years of Bush that it will be very difficult for Obama to avoid being pulled all over the map by competing interests.  It is tremendously important that he and Congress understand which initiatives are the key, momentum-building, transformative proposals.

For Obama and the incoming Congress, it's important to forego the bailout of the Big Three and develop a bold transportation alternative that reverses the dysfunctional growth of our autombile-driven economy.

Reede Stockton works on Climate Equity and coordinates Online Activism for Global Exchange, and international human rights organization based in San Francisco.

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