Our Car Bias Costs Us


Dear Editor:

On the theme of looking for solutions, rather than debating causes, there’s an action going on here on the Shore which merits mention.

But first some history. Until about 1880, the Shore was functionally an island, and products coming on and going off were entirely on the water. Then, Alexander Cassatt, brother of the impressionist painter and maybe the son of the head of the Penn. RR, came down here, located the spine of the peninsula, and in came the railroad, totally transforming the Shore, and turning it into an economic powerhouse, with both the seafood, its traditional product, and now farm products, finding huge markets, and this area had one of the highest per capita incomes in the nation until the interstates and the central valley of California. Italian workers laid the rails, and it’s a conjecture that Melfa is an elision of Amalfi, where lots of them came from.

The action that I mentioned is that right now, that railroad is being taken up, bobcats up and down the line, piles of rails and other piles of ties, and the empty road bed. Of course this is a tragedy for the old-timers, who remember the rail line as a vital part of the community. But the economics simply weren’t there.

Several years ago, Dr. Billy Greer, interim president of the Eastern Shore Community College, asked me to study the possibility of turning the line into a commuter line, specifically for the college. I duly interviewed Larry LeMond, the last president of the railroad, having cut his chops running coal delivery railroads, first in Indiana, then here. The clinker was that creosote-soaked ties are $100 per, which meant that to get the line up and running would have been around $8 million, machinery not included.

I thought of trying to get uber-rightwinger Tim Mellon interested, as his hobby is restoring old railroads, but, per what’s going on now, nothing. And who cares, apart from the oldsters who bemoan the end of an era.

And yet, if you tried to come up with a dumber, more counterproductive approach to climate change, as well as the abysmal poverty around here, you’d be hard-pressed to outdo dismantling the railroad. Not long ago I trained for the local STARS bus system, ultimately not being hired because I’m a threat to society behind the wheel, but during training, I drove 16 trips to Chincoteague, with a total of one passenger — once. One Haitian gent would grab a ride from the Tyson plant in Temperanceville, and a few, our only real customers, at Perdue. At both of whose plants, there are literally hundreds of cars. None of these workers can really afford a car, rather, they’re working to support it.

None of this is an accident, going back to the dismantling of the Pacific Electric Railway Red Cars in Los Angeles after WWII. What one does see around here on our only “freeway,” two lanes each way, is car upon car with one driver, one motor, the very least efficient use of a nonrenewable asset. The mindset is so against public transportation that virtually no mention has been made of rescuing the system, or providing an alternative. And yet Zurich, a big, busy city, is entirely livable with no car, and even dear old Boston can (sort of) be navigated without.

Probably nothing will be done to shift this prejudice away from cars and toward public transportation, but as the greatest polluters, our absurd mismanagement of our resources is a head scratcher.

And if we’re so bad at a simple problem, what possible hope have we of
taking on the more difficult ones?

Van Smith,

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