Transportation history didn’t end with mass production of automobiles


Did transportation history end with mass production of automobiles? Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, argues as much in a recent opinion post.

Krinkie declares that “transportation in America was changed forever” by Henry Ford’s Model T. This is the basis for Dr. No Clue’s unsurprising but wrong-headed attack on the proposed restoration of the St. Paul Union Depot as a multimodal transit hub. To Krinkie, rail travel is a relic of the benighted past and the $240 million depot project nothing but “a foolish idea and a gigantic waste of taxpayer money.”

First, a little perspective: The depot price tag may seem steep, but it’s less than the recent cost of rebuilding any of these three freeway links: the 35W and 494 bridges over the Mississippi River and the Crosstown Commons interchange. Together, they ate up nearly $1 billion for a few miles of pavement.

Second, despite Krinkie’s implication that all other forms of travel were rendered obsolete when Ford gave “middle-class Americans affordable, personal transportation,” not everyone can afford that luxury, many are unable to drive and some don’t even prefer it. Simple fairness, as well as economic efficiency, dictates that society should provide more ways to get around than the expensive option of the private car on expensive, congested public motorways.

Krinkie tells us that Ford obliterated every mode of mobility that came before the automobile. But it ain’t necessarily so. The Union Depot will be the linchpin of a broad network of alternative travel modes: light rail, commuter rail, local and intercity buses and fast, frequent trains to Chicago and beyond.

But here Krinkie plays Nostradamus and assures us that it “will never be a transportation hub.” That will come true only if the anti-tax crowd succeeds in stopping public investments in 21st century infrastructure. Unfortunately, despite their praises for the private car, they’ve already done a pretty thorough disinvestment job on that 20th century innovation.

According to a recent article in USA Today, hardly a left-wing mouthpiece, Americans are now spending less on the fuel taxes that support roadways than at any other time since the government started keeping track in 1929. The current effective tax rate of $19 per 1,000 miles driven is an inflation-adjusted low for the nation, half what drivers paid in 1975. It’s even less in Minnesota. USA Today pegged the U.S. average state and local gasoline tax at 30 cents a gallon. We’re at 27.5 cents, even after the 2008 increases denounced by self-avowed car-lover Krinkie.

“The history lesson here is that it takes free enterprise innovation, not government elected officials, to create economic prosperity,” he wrote. But I have to wonder how far Mr. Ford’s Model T would have gone to change American history without the roads built by tax dollars and those loathed government officials.