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The real cause of gridlock: politics

By Daniel G. Jennings
web posted July 8, 2002

In the last few weeks the media has been full of stories about the problem of gridlock: the jammed freeways and slow moving traffic that have turned America's highway system, once the envy of the world, into a slow moving hell on wheels. Some of these stories try to pinpoint the cause of gridlock and usually blame increasing population, and a few of them contain quotes from traffic experts who offer solutions. Unfortunately, almost none of these stories addresses the real cause of gridlock: politics, and the real reason why little or nothing is being done to solve the problem of gridlock: politics.

GridlockA prime example of how politics causes gridlock is the city of Los Angeles, which has had the nation's worst traffic for over 40 years. For decades engineers and other experts have been proposing various solutions to the City of Angels' traffic problems and have seen their efforts sabotaged or destroyed by political pressures.

In the late 1980s, for example; experts with the California Department of Transportation proposed the building of a light rail line between Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley and Downtown LA as a way to relieve congestion on the Hollywood, Ventura and Golden State freeways. This low cost solution, which would have utilized an existing railroad right of way, could have been built cheaply and quickly and been up and running in a few years but politics intervened. Some San Fernando Valley residents objected to light rail vehicles moving through their neighborhood so politicians substituted plans for an expensive subway line for the light rail. The subway cost $100 million a mile to build and ended up as something of a national disgrace absorbing billions in tax money and disrupting entire neighborhoods with construction. Eventually, Los Angeles County voters got so fed up with the wasteful subway project that they passed a referendum making it illegal for politicians to build more subway lines. Fifteen years after the light rail project was first proposed, traffic on the LA freeways is worse than ever and the $100 million a mile subway only connects Downtown Los Angeles and North Hollywood. San Fernando Valley residents now have to drive on the freeway to reach the subway station if they want to take the subway, hardly a solution to gridlock.

Politics also put a halt to another much needed transit project in Los Angeles, a subway line between Downtown LA and Santa Monica, something that's been on the drawing boards since 1907. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman had federal law amended so the subway couldn't be built west of Western Boulevard.

Nor is Los Angeles the only American city in which politics is holding up progress in fighting gridlock. In Seattle, the construction of a much-needed light rail line is held because city council members in the suburb of Tukiwila can't agree on the light rail line's route. Some of them want it to run along a freeway, others want it to run through the downtown of their community and close to local businesses in an effort to spur economic development and increase property values.

Beyond the political battles over individual transportation projects, there is the mindless and close to idiotic opposition to rail based transportation systems from ideologues of both left and right. Even though electric powered light rail trains and streetcars are among the cheapest and best methods for greatly increasing the capacity of our transportation system and reducing gridlock on the freeways. Such systems can move more people than freeway and buses and are almost as fast as expensive subway systems. Yet, self-proclaimed conservatives and libertarians fight almost every effort to create rail based transit with well organized propaganda campaigns.

Left-wing ideologues have labeled rail based transit racist and tried to fight efforts to build rail systems in the courts.

We have the technology, the money and the resources to solve the problem of gridlock. And many American communities are trying to solve this problem; cities like San Diego, Sacramento, Portland, Ore., Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas and St. Louis have created successful light rail lines and cities like Minneapolis, Charlotte, Seattle, Houston and Phoenix are trying to create new light rail lines. Portland is also experimenting with a new streetcar line. Unfortunately, these efforts are isolated and limited because of our present political climate.

The solution to gridlock is not to adopt some super new technology but to change the political climate so we can use the technology, money and resources at our disposal to solve the problem of gridlock. The question is how much gridlock do Americans have to put with before the politicians solve the problem of gridlock.

Daniel G. Jennings is a freelance writer and journalist who lives and works in Denver, CO. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in five states.

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