As I read the headlines this morning about the proposed US auto industry bailout — the latest version of which is this, according to the Boston Herald:
“Democrats want to use part of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout for emergency loans to help prop up the Big Three carmakers. General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC are seeking an infusion of $25 billion, a figure that several Senate Democrats embraced Sunday.
“Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation Monday attaching an auto bailout to a House-passed bill extending unemployment benefits. A vote was expected as early as Wednesday.
“Thereâ€™s a high degree of urgency” for federal action if GM is going to stave off a financial crisis, Rick Wagoner, GM chairman and chief executive, said Sunday in a joint appearance with United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger on WDIV-TV in Detroit.
“‘Itâ€™s really time to move on this,’ Wagoner said.”
That gets me thinking: The US auto industry is dying. It’s shown it can’t compete effectively with Japan and elsewhere for the manufacture of the kinds of personal cars people will be buying as the economy tightens.
Meanwhile, the lack of strong public transportation options is a growing problem in many parts of the US — particularly, lack of high-speed passenger rail networks, robust bus networks, and innovative flexible alternatives to car ownership (like car sharing programs and Zip Car hourly rentals). Exurban dwellers are notoriously hard hit by the transportation crisis.
So what if we bailed out the auto industry only if they shifted more of their production to vehicles that would suit these uses?
Yes, this would have to go hand-in-hand with a major shift in transportation policy that would support the expansion of public transit, especially outside urban cores and between non-urban-core locations. And so far local and state governments have been responsible for paying for public transit, and they haven’t had the cash.
Those are big, thorny issues — but they could shift. And if we’re even going to consider an auto-industry bailout, why shouldn’t we use it as an opportunity to fund a more sustainable transit system?
I suspect America’s “love affair with the car” might go the way of our love affair with cigarettes. It’s hard to stay in love with something that’s killing you and cutting off your children’s future.