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Posted on Apr 15, 2013
Illustration by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The deterioration of the nation’s public transportation, like the deterioration of health care, education, social services, public utilities, bridges and roads, is part of the relentless seizing and harvesting of public resources and programs by corporations. These corporations are steadily stripping the American infrastructure. Public-sector unions are being broken. Wages and benefits are being slashed. Workers are forced to put in longer hours in unsafe workplaces, often jeopardizing public safety. The communities that need public services most are losing them, and where public service is continued it is reduced or substandard and costlier. Only the security and surveillance network and the military are permitted to function with efficiency in their role as the guardians of corporate power. We now resemble the developing world: We have small pockets of obscene wealth, ailing infrastructure and public service, huge swaths of grinding poverty, and militarized police and internal security.

The assault on public transportation, which has devastating consequences for the poor who cannot get to work or the doctor’s office without it, is not new. General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire and Rubber, B.F. Phillips Petroleum and Mack Manufacturing set up companies in the 1930s—first United Cities Motor Transit and later National City Lines—in order to rip up city trolley tracks and replace them with bus and car routes. These corporations, joined by companies such as Greyhound, pushed through the national highway grid. City bus companies, as riders turned to cars, began to go bankrupt. The federal government in 1964 approved the Urban Mass Transit Act, which provided capital and operating funds for mass transit to keep it on life support. The corporations, meanwhile, pushed through huge urban renewal plans, all funded by the taxpayer, which focused exclusively on highways, tunnels and bridges and further sidelined public transportation. Jane Jacobs, who wrote the 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” presciently understood and fought these corporate forces, led in New York City by Robert Moses, who forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of residents and demolished neighborhoods to cater to the demands of the car and fossil fuel industries. Robert A. Caro in his biography of Moses, “The Power Broker,” exposed this relentless process in depressing detail.

This process of destroying our public transportation system is largely complete. Our bus and rail system, compared to Europe’s or Japan’s, is a joke. But an even more insidious process has begun. Multinational corporations, many of them foreign, are slowly consolidating transportation systems into a few private hands. Of the top three multinationals that control transport in the U.S. only one, MV Transportation, is based here. FirstGroup, a multibillion-dollar corporation headquartered in the United Kingdom and a product of Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of British mass transit, now owns First Student, which operates 54,000 school buses in 38 states and nine Canadian provinces and has 6 million student riders. FirstGroup also has a controlling stake in Greyhound. Veolia Transportation, a subsidiary of Transdev, a conglomerate headquartered in France, has 150 contracts to run mass transit systems in the United States. It was Veolia, after Hurricane Katrina, that took over the New Orleans bus system. And Veolia did what it has done elsewhere. It stripped bus workers of their pensions. New York’s Nassau County bus service, once part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), was turned over to Veolia after the French corporation hired former three-term Sen. Al D’Amato of New York as its lobbyist. Veolia—which when it takes over a U.S. property, as in New Orleans or Nassau County, refuses to give workers a defined-benefit plan—is partly owned by a pension fund that covers one-third of French citizens. U.S. workers are losing their benefit plans to a company created to provide benefit plans for the French. Veolia is currently lobbying Rhode Island and Atlanta to privatize their bus services. 

“Our money is meaningless in politics,” Larry Hanley, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), lamented when we met in his office here in Washington. “It is still sought after, but it really has no weight in determining anything.”

“For 50 years we have been trained to negotiate, trained to litigate, trained to arbitrate, trained to legislate, all the things society requires of a good, well-trained, well-groomed union,” Hanley said. “And then all of a sudden they said, guess what, we are going to pull the plug. You are no longer even going to have the right to negotiate. We are going to take away your bargaining rights. What good is it to have 500 well-trained officers in my union who know how to arbitrate a grievance when you haven’t got a contract and you have no grievance procedure?”

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The battles in towns and cities across the country usually pit 100 or 200 beleaguered union workers in a local bus system against a powerful multinational and its lobbyists in firms such as Patton Boggs. Former Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Rodney Slater, a secretary of transportation under Bill Clinton, work for these multinational transportation firms as Patton Boggs lobbyists. Armed with buckets of corporate cash, Lott and Slater lobbied the Senate last year to insert a call for privatization into a highway bill on behalf of the multinational corporations. The provision, which was inserted without hearings, public debate, documented evidence or prior approval by either the House or the Senate, mandates the federal government to undertake feasibility studies to privatize the nation’s mass transit on behalf of French, British and American transportation corporations.


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