Roads--Motor and Rail
THERE is very uncommon sense in the pithy saying, ‘Our fundamental need is not the elucidation of the mysterious, but an appreciation of the significance of the obvious.’ This writing is but a modest attempt to promote appreciation of some significant aspects of the obvious facts as to our motor and rail transportation problems.
We may well start our comparison of the two rival methods of moving us and our belongings from somewhere to somewhere else, with the dollar test — the common though frequently misleading measure in American thinking. The value of our railroads, as tentatively estimated by the Interstate Commerce Commission, is about $20,000,000,000. Tested by sales of slocks and bonds, the market value has, for perhaps live years, been from $12,000,000,000 to $15,000,000,000. The railroad securities outstanding, eliminating the intercompany holdings of over $5,000,000,000, are about. $18,255,000,000. This is $2,000,000,000 to $3,000,000,000 less than the popular view, based on misleading railroad propaganda, which has long sought to induce public belief that our railroads are capitalized for several billions more than they are, and are worth still more. Nearly forty per cent or about $7,000,000,000 of outstanding stock has long been nondividend-paying; it has had, in the main, but speculative or control value. The railroad revenue in 1923, including nonoperating income, was a little over $6,500,000,000. The estimated value of our agricultural product for that year was about $8,000,000,000. Railroad mileage is now about 250,000 miles, approximately 4000 miles less than six years ago. On these rail highways we have about 2,700,000 freight cars (including private cars), and about 60,000 passenger and baggage and express cars, moved by about 70,000 locomotives. The passenger cars have a seating-capacity for about 2,250,000 people. Railroad employees are about 1,750,000.
But the railroad industry covers more than the properties included in the reports to the Commission — mainly, of course, engineand carbuilding concerns. Including these, the value of the railroad industry is probably not far from $20,000,000,000, and its annual income not far from the $8,000,000,000 estimated as the value of our agricultural production in 1923. Roughly, we spend $75 per year, per person, in the railroad industry.
This rail-highway-carrier industry is the development of just under a century. Within the first quarter of its career, this new transportation system had demonstrated its overwhelming superiority over its chief competitors, the internal water-highway-carriers — river and canal; and by the middle of the century had gone far toward destroying traffic on these water highways. The outstanding fact as to the rail highway was its adaptability. It could, as the water highways could not, go almost anywhere — along valleys, over or through mountains — wherever industries were for various reasons located.
But within the last quarter of the century now ending there has come, in the mobility of mankind, a development more revolutionary than had resulted from all previous transportation methods since the dawn of history — and we are dealing now only with transportation on the earth, not through the air.
The statistics as to the motor industry are less easily obtained, less accurate, and more belated, than those as to rail transportation. Our chief reliance must be data put out by the Federal Bureau of Public Roads in the Department of Agriculture, publications of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, and certain other official sources. We now have in the United States about 17,000,000 registered motor cars and trucks. Their present value can only be estimated. But the average retail price of automobiles, not including trucks, sold in 1924 is stated as $814. About half the cars and trucks are Fords. The wholesale value of the cars and trucks put out in 1924 was about $2,250,000,000. The present value of these motor vehicles can hardly be less than $7,000,000,000 to $8,000,000,000 — an average of less than $500 per vehicle. The gross expenditure of automobilists in 1923 is estimated to exceed $6,000,000,000 — close to the gross revenue of the railroads.
Manifestly the surfaced roads are in the main a part of, or at any rate a result from, the motor-car industry. We have approximately 450,000 miles of surfaced rural roads, now about double our decreasing railroad mileage, and rapidly increasing. The available figures do not, both as to mileage and expenditures, include the streets in cities and incorporated towns. Our general conclusions from available data are therefore likely to be under rather than over the facts. Motor roads — costing over $60,000 a mile — practically parallel railroads costing originally not more than $30,000 a mile. These surfaced roads must be worth, on the average, $15,000 a mile, or about $7,000,000,000. This view is sustained by the facts that the 35,156.9 miles of completed ‘Federal Aid Roads’ cost $602,326,380.21 — an average of about $17,000 a mile; and that the average cost of Massachusetts State highways is about $33,000 a mile. Our motor roads and vehicles together are worth as much as our railroads — say $15,000,000,000. Our rural highway expenditures are now over $1,000,000,000 a year, and rapidly increasing. It is stated that the automobile industry (not apparently including roads) gives employment to 2,750,000 people — nearly 1,000,000 more than the employees of the railroads.
In general, without further elaboration of figures and analysis, the conclusion is warranted that the motor transportation industry is now somewhat larger than the railroad transportation industry. It is about one fourth the age of the railroad industry — a lusty growing youth.
But the railroads show many signs of decaying old age. There has been no substantial improvement in railroad equipment or management in twenty years or more. The actual abandonment of about 4000 miles discloses but a small part of the discouraging facts shown by an examination of train schedules and other indicia of the decadent condition of the thin lines. While we have tens of thousands of miles of railroads that never ought to have been built, few of them should be abandoned. But many thousands of miles now moribund — financially, and nearly so functionally — will be abandoned unless we have, very soon, radical changes in organization, equipment, and management. Our railroads need an intelligent conservation programme as much as do our forests.
The astounding proposition, coming from a highly intelligent and responsible source, of abandoning 1000 miles (almost one half the mileage) of the Boston & Maine Railroad System should be enough to arouse the public to the immediate need of radical changes in both public and corporation railroad policy. The situation is critically bad and rapidly growing worse. But this junking proposition should not be accepted without a struggle to avoid such an appalling waste.
A related, though in essence a different, situation exists as to trolleys. In Massachusetts alone we have abandoned about 570 miles. Many of these lines were, of course, improvidently built; but it is at least doubtful whether the abandonment has not gone to the extent of being serious waste.
Let us turn from dollars to functions. The seating-capacity of our motor-cars and omnibuses must be at least 70,000,000 — about thirty times the seating-capacity of our railroad cars. We could move two thirds of our population of 110,000,000 at one time, thirty miles an hour, on very good roads, from coast to coast; and we have passable unsurfaced roads available for motor traffic of about 2,500,000 miles more. As carriers of mankind, the automobile has already passed the rail carrier, although accurate figures cannot be obtained as to motor-carpassenger mileage. It is plain that passenger rail movement is, in relation to population, already substantially decreased, and is tending downward; and that the movement of mankind in motor-cars has not only absorbed what would otherwise have been a movement on the rails, but has enormously increased the general mobility of humanity. No people ever began to move about as we do.
Some cynic has said, ‘In America nobody stays at home. Americans live mostly in their automobiles. Mr. Henry Ford has put, not only the American railroads, but the American homes, into the discard.’ There is exaggeration in this statement, but exaggeration sometimes helps toward an appreciation of the significance of the obvious.
Turning from passenger traffic to freight and package movement, the salient facts are difficult of ascertainment. The encroachment on railroad traffic, measured by tons, is not alarming. Measured by its importance and potency for profit, as it should be, it is serious. But when prompt and reliable movement of high-class merchandise from door to door is required, the truck is the more efficient and economical transportation agency. Efficient railroading would limit motor freighthandling to this comparatively narrow field.
Less and less does the commonly used ton-mile performance of our railroads test their aggregate serviceability in the transportation field. Over half of their tonnage is the products of mines, mostly coal, a large part of which should go by water or not at all; it should be transmuted into power at the mine mouth and be delivered by copper wire. Consider also the rapidly increasing hydroelectrics. We should cherish no delusions grounded on the recent, much advertised, ton-mile showings of our railroads. Most substantial manufacturing and mercantile concerns years ago largely abandoned the use of the rail carriers for handling light freight and express packages. They now own and operate, for most shorthaul business, their own transportation equipment. Statistics as to the comparative cost are not now available, but are greatly needed. Apart from the privately owned and operated motor equipment, we have a rapidly,increasing number of lines of public motor transportation concerns, moving in competition with each other and with the rail lines all over the country. This movement is, to a large degree, seasonal; and the competition with the rail lines is grossly unfair. We cannot justify a public policy that permits road-destroying trucks, moving over free rights of way, to take the cream of the business in the most favorable season, remitting the rail lines to an unremunerative, but enforced, service in bad weather — while we compel the rail lines to pay exorbitant taxes, which go in substantial part to create the free roads on which trucking concerns, frequently financially irresponsible, carry, damage, or lose goods.
It is pretty clear that much of the trucking business is now parasitic; that it. pays taxes disproportionate to its road-destroying achievements; and that it calls for such regulation as will greatly reduce its unfair seasonal competition with regular and reliable transportation service.
It is also clear that there is a pressing need of increased efficiency in the equipment and management of the rail service so as to meet the just demand for quick and reliable service for highclass freight. When the railroads seek from the legislatures, as they should, protection against unfair competition, they should be able to make a better showing as to their own capacity to meet public business needs. Not a little of the surge toward the truck is due directly to the failure of rail managers properly to equip and handle their lines. Such a stream of trucks, carrying cotton and wool, as moves from Boston to the Merrimack River cities, from side track to side track, is irrefutable evidence of inefficiency in railroad equipment and management.
The motor roads, motor car, telephone, and now the radio, have, as we all know, radically changed living conditions in the country. Hardly less significant are the changed conditions in our cities. Here the horse and his resultant street filth, with the block stone paving for his foothold, have been almost eliminated. Our streets are infinitely cleaner and smoother than twenty years ago. The air is cleaner — hardly quieter, though the quality of the noise has changed. We are tearing up city as well as country rails and substituting jitneys — and cabs, now serving at rates comparable to those that have long obtained in European cities.
But these changes are not all gain. The motor car, moving or parked, is an extravagant consumer of street space. Exact figures are not available; but compare the street area, lateral and longitudinal, taken by our business or shopping population moving in or out of a city in automobiles, with the street space required by the same number riding in steam or trolley cars. Ten to one is not a reckless estimate. An ordinary automobile is over ten feet long, and must have at least ten feet safety leeway, before and aft. It ordinarily carries in this space of thirty feet not over three persons, of whom one is frequently merely the chauffeur. Think of the conditions if the bulk of the present trolley riders became automobile passengers. The Boston trolley system handles about a million passengers a day, say a third of a million, in and out. All of us riders in automobiles owe these trolley riders a debt of gratitude for letting us have so much more street space than they use. Yet in 1923 these trolley riders paid in taxes almost one half a cent for each ride. They ought to be subsidized, not taxed, because they are not using their proportionate share of the street space. Informing statistics based on careful counts of motorand railpassenger street movement, are greatly needed. It. is plain enough that we automobile riders are ‘road-hogs’ of necessity; and that we ought to pay the sardine-packed rail-riders something for keeping out of our way.
This tremendous demand for more street room has compelled numerous and expensive street widenings — imposing a heavy burden on the general taxpayer, of which the railroads and trolley companies are among the very largest.
In Massachusetts these companies paid, in 1923, $12,490,764.99 in taxes. We still cherish the delusion that the rail carriers are such moneymakers that they should be compelled to disgorge copiously. These taxes are grossly unjust. Investors in New England rail lines have, in say fifteen years, lost probably more than $500,000,000. Roughly, one half of this loss may be attributed to unsound public policy, and one half to management so incredibly bad as to endanger the reputation for veracity of any person who knows and dares tell the truth about it.
But the auto has determined that the city of the future shall give less of its area to buildings and more to streets and open spaces. Very likely buildings will, because of the resultant increase in air and light, go higher — a vertical offset to a lateral loss.
Another little-considered expense of motor traffic is a large but unascertainable increase in the cost of our police service. Without the frequent trafficofficer, pedestrian movement in our streets would be practically impossible during the rush hours of the day. Twenty-five years ago we were struggling, strenuously and expensively, to get rid of railroad grade-crossings because of their obvious danger to life and limb. Motor cars have to-day made thousands of miles of our city streets, for all practical purposes, grade crossings; indeed, in many respects, worse than grade crossings, for the rail tells us where the steam engine and cars are going, whereas the motor car is very frequently found where the pedestrian does not fairly expect it. Our streets are to all pedestrians a memento mori in action.
Most financial and social phenomena are grounded on physical facts. What are the outstanding physical facts of rail and motor transportation? When, about one hundred years ago, the rail highway began to assume its dominant position in transportation, the outstanding physical facts were two: —
1. A great reduction in the friction of the vehicle movement. Iron rolling on iron — now steel on steel — increased enormously the efficiency of the motive power. Now that we have substituted smooth, well-surfaced motor-roads for the old tracks of mud, sand, or ordinary dirt, and the powerful gasoline engine for the slow and comparatively feeble horse, this friction-reducing factor has sunk into comparative insignificance.
2. The second distinction was that the rail highway steered its vehicle. This fact, always important, has, with the growth of motor-road traffic, become increasingly important. Its significance has mostly escaped observation and comment. It is the central and dominating physical fact in our present transportation problem. Its importance can hardly be exaggerated.
We have, perhaps, 100,000 locomotive engineers in this country — a highly trained and experienced class. Their functions are to start, control the speed of, and stop their engines. The tracks determine where their engines and attached vehicles will go. Except as they must observe signals and switches, they have no steering function to perform. Their highway does the steering — an operation as vital as, and calling for far more skill and continuous attention than, starting, stopping, or speed-regulating.
Look now at the motor vehicles on the motor roads — the nonsteering roads. With 17,000,000 vehicles, we probably have at least 20,000,000 drivers. They must not only start, control the speed, and stop their locomotives, — for every automobile is a combined locomotive and car, — but they must steer their vehicles with reference to all the curves and obstacles in the highway as well as with reference to other steerers of like locomotives. The function of the ordinary chauffeur is, in dominant aspects, more difficult, more dangerous to himself and to other users of the motor highway, than the function of the locomotive engineer. But, instead of having on our nonsteering roads only a carefully selected and experienced set of trained men, we have millions of ‘engineers’ of both sexes — some of them frequently drunk, a considerable part of them financially irresponsible.
The problem is intrinsic. It cannot be escaped or, in fundamentals, changed. Zealous and competent officials may do their utmost to eliminate the drunks and the unfit; we may install signal systems on our main streets analogous to those now used on the railroads; multiply traffic-officers; guard against defective brakes; regulate blinding headlights; compel all automobileowners to carry insurance for the benefit of accident victims, in analogy to compensation acts for industrial accidents — these and other protective devices may help, but they will not cure.
The outstanding factors will remain unchanged; we are undertaking to move, on nonsteering highways, locomotives whose course, and not merely speed, is dependent upon human intelligence, alertness, and action.
In essence, the problem is insoluble. Almost as soon as locomotives began to run on the rail highways, monopoly control was, for safety’s sake, given to the operating companies. The public use was prohibited; to walk on the rail highway is to trespass, not because it is private property, — for it is not, — but in order to prevent accidents. We cannot exclude pedestrians from our streets.
The inevitable result of 17,000,000 high-powered motor cars, moving on nonsteering highways, in destruction of life and limb, would shock us, if the World War had not taught us to disregard the killing and maiming of human beings.
Compare the achievements of the railroads with those of the motor cars in this killing and maiming field. The figures as to railroad accidents are pretty complete and reliable. They show that in slaughter the railroads reached their maximum in 1913, when they killed 10,964 and injured 200,308; but in 1923 they killed only 7385 and injured only 171,712. The decreased number of trains may be accountable for a part of this apparent improvement.
The published figures as to motor slaughter and maiming are not complete. But it seems clear that the fatal accidents in 1924 were not less than 17,000 — about forty-three a day; and the nonfatal accidents were about thirty times as many, or, roughly, 500,000. That motor accidents are from two to four times the railroad accidents is plain. While the figures published indicate some decrease in accidents per 100,000 registered cars, there is good reason to fear a reverse of this apparent tendency, as better rural roads augment the average rate of speed, and the increasing number of cars in city streets requires more rapid movement between the frequently enforced stops, in order to prevent jams from backing up the current. Thirty-five miles an hour is now commonly permitted on country motorroads. Cars must move at nearly that rate in our city streets. A few years ago the prevailing legal opinion probably was that a speed of twenty-five miles an hour in a city street was negligence, per se, making the driver prima facie liable for any accident occurring. No such legal doctrine can now be applied. The city pedestrian must watch signals, if there are any, as must a locomotive engineer; failing signals, he must look and listen, and run and dodge for his life. We sardonically say, ‘ It is the quick — or the dead.’
Our streets are unfit for the use to which they must be put by the confusing mixture of pedestrians, motor cars, busses, and — on some of them — trolley cars. The situation is almost intolerable.
It is plain enough that the greatest single step toward solving our motortraffic problems lies in conserving our rail lines and in promoting their increased use. The recent traffic-conference in Washington seems to have overlooked this vital point. Only on the steering road can a teeming population move with comparative safety and reasonable economy. To increase motor roads and the number of motor cars is, in controlling respects, but to exaggerate the risks and costs now almost intolerable. The better the road, the greater the speed, the larger the risk. We shall shortly build by-pass roads to divert through motor-traffic from intervening cities like Worcester, Springfield, or Portsmouth. This will relieve the city streets, but it will speed up through traffic and appreciably increase its danger.
But, fundamentally, the steering road is far and away the best road ever yet devised, for rapid and safe human movement. Our policy of making these steering roads toll roads has confused our thinking and involved us in all sorts of stupid, function-destroying methods of development, equipment, and use. On the steering road only can swift movement of great numbers of human beings be allowed with approximate safety.
The one-man car and an intelligent application of service-at-cost financial methods have — so far — saved a lot of our Massachusetts trolley lines. Like intelligence is sadly needed with respect to our steam rail-lines. For a long time our railroad policies and management have been marked by excessive intellectual frugality. We must free the railroads from banker and supply-concern control, and give the brains of the operating staff a chance. No other great industry is so hampered by worship of mouldy myths.
But checking tendencies in motor-car use are in sight. Some of us who do not want to die, in public and unseemly fashion, however desirable our deaths may from the standpoint of others be, are going back to the rails, the steering road — for safety and for nervous comfort.
Except under nearly ideal conditions of weather, roads, and traffic thereon, and of car and driver, there is no fair comparison, in the comfort of riding as far as one hundred miles, in an automobile, or in a good train, particularly a Pullman train. It is the door-to-door flexibility of the motor car — going when the traveler wants to go, and not on train schedule — that entices him from the rail service. It eliminates cab service at the ends of the journey, and caters to our individualism — a sort of egotism. Besides, present rail-rates drive family movement to the automobile, in which the cost, at least the immediate and apparent cost, is much less. We may roughly reckon that a $300 Ford car can, before worn out, carry five people 30,000 miles for 300 worth of gasoline and, say, $150 for tires, repairs, and so forth; $750 gross, or two and one-half cents a mile — half a cent a mile per person. In common use, of course, no such results are obtained. But these possibilities contrast with passenger railroad-rates of substantially 3.6 cents per mile outside of the commutation zones and about two cents per mile within these zones. The immediate cash cost of a country trip for a family of five, in a Ford or in a train, is eighteen cents per mile by train, and about one cent per mile by Ford.
But the well-to-do citizen, furnishing a sedan such as a Cadillac or a Peerless and a chauffeur for his family, will find, year in and year out, his car-mile cost not far from twenty-five cents. Of course, his passenger-mile costs will depend on the size and riding-habits of his family. The efficient citizen who drives and cares for his own car, and uses a lower-priced car, can reckon on a mileage cost of about eight to ten cents. Consequently, this citizen, carrying three or more, is beating the railroad in his expense.
And it is pleasanter to ride, rubber on concrete, than steel on steel. The unnecessarily loud and unpleasantly grinding noise of our American rail vehicles has tended to alienate our affections from our rail carriers, and increased the popularity of automobiles on the nonsteering highways. So have freedom from cinders and approximate freedom from dust.
The English trains are much quieter than ours. Why does not someone invent a rubber-rimmed wheel that will run safely on the rail, the steering road? There is a deserved fortune for the man who will put a noiseless, or nearly noiseless, wheel under our rail vehicles.
Turning again to countervailing advantages accruing from the steering road: On this road it is practicable to use long trains operated by a single engine — an enormous advantage in handling both passengers and freight. On the nonsteering road, trains are impracticable; at least, without interposing at frequent intervals vehicles with steering apparatus and operators therefor. On the nonsteering road, a train operated from a head engine would be wrecked at the first sharp curve.
Plainly the motor roads can never compete successfully with the rail roads in handling heavy freight or passengers in concentrated form.
Another contrast is that, so far, passengers moving on the nonsteering roads have been furnished transportation only — plus some protection against wind and weather. But the passenger rail-carriers furnish us heat, light, toilet facilities, sleeping-accommodations, and expensive station service. A modern American Pullman train is almost a moving set of hotels — undoubtedly the most comfortable form of long-distance transportation ever yet devised; also the most expensive, if all the items of cost were properly reckoned, as in practice they never are. To ride on such a train is like using a Rolls-Royce for a baby carriage; it carries the baby comfortably enough, but the weight and expense are disproportionate to the job.
But without further balancing the advantages and disadvantages of the two rival forms of transportation — it is obvious that motor traffic easily reaches the saturation stage, somewhat as does the single-track railroad. There has been no pleasure or comfort in riding downtown in one’s automobile for two or three years. Increasingly, there is neither pleasure nor comfort nor safety in country trips.
The general conclusion is that motor traffic is unsafe, unpleasant, and generally undesirable, unless kept within moderate limits. We are now at or near the saturation stage.
But, on the other hand, the steering roads, the rail carriers, can handle a practically unlimited amount of traffic; for, by multiplying tracks, order, safety, and efficiency arise in the vehicle movement on the steering road.
Turning back from functions to finance, we find an interesting contrast between the methods under which our rail-highway carriers were created, and the method of financing motor cars and motor roads. In general we have financed our rail system, both roads and vehicles, on credit based chiefly on tolls, supplemented by large contributions of public money and still more of public land. But the rail carriers have been so organized and managed as to result in a constant, unwarranted increase of the capital charge. Banker management, and the failure of the rules of the Interstate Commerce Commission to require proper charges for depreciation and nonrevenue-producing improvements, have been the two chief sources of this unsound system.
But rail highways, like all other roads, as well as schoolhouses and other public buildings, are nothing but social furnishings, in which depreciation and obsolescence are large factors. Witness the fate of investments in our canals. No people having a proper regard for their children will load them down with heavy debts or fixed charges for furnishings, family or social. We should pay as we go, or at least provide for the pretty rapid discharge of the debts we incur. Investments in railroads should have been treated as, in essence, public debts — to be shouldered by the generation that incurred them.
The only alternatives to such a policy are confiscation, open or disguised, or an unjust inheritance by our posterity of taxation for ancestral foolishness and selfishness. In practice, we confiscate; witness the New Haven and the Boston & Maine.
This is but a generalization. Historically, our railroad financings have been so mixed up with fraud, waste, stock-watering, bad management, and division of responsibility between investors and Government, that it is not surprising that there is little clear thinking as to the nature and extent of public responsibility for the money so used. Our methods of financing our rail-highway carriers have always been indefensibly and stupidly unsound and wasteful.
So far, our methods of financing our motor roads are in pleasing contrast. These roads have, throughout the country, been built from public moneys — taxation, present and prospective. They are thus, to the user, free roads. The only exceptions seem to be a few remaining toll-roads in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and some toll-bridges, necessary parts of the highway. But the tendency is toward eliminating all tolls on the nonsteering roads. And these roads are, in general, built to meet an intelligently and honestly ascertained public need — not to make profits for some construction company, or to float stocks and bonds grounded on tolled traffic. Of course, politics and graft have not been entirely eliminated. But in fundamentals the system is sound. For our motor-road financial policy at least tends to put money into needed roads only; while our railroad financial policy tended to create speculative, unneeded, strike roads, now in process of abandonment.
In this extensive work of motor-road construction we have been combining Federal, state, and municipal taxation and administration. Since 1916, the Federal Government has appropriated about $600,000,000, allotted to the states on a scheme intended to contribute to a real, national highway system. This combination fairly and effectually recognizes that highways, originally and primarily for local use, are increasingly for general, national use. The national work is carried on under the Bureau of Public Roads in the Department of Agriculture. A study — not very profound — of the methods evolved leaves, in general, a pleasant impression of intelligent and sound direction and administration. The Federal Bureau seems to have rendered efficient and economical service in working out the many difficult new problems, and in furnishing in the states and its subdivisions suggestions as to sound methods of construction, maintenance, and financing. The monthly periodical, Public Roads, contains data of the greatest value to all officials and road engineers.
A few figures are worth noting as to the origin and destination of our money going into motor roads. Most of the following are found in Public Roads, Vol. 5, No. 4. While, unfortunately, most of the figures are nearly three years old, they show instructive facts and tendencies.
In the nine years from 1914 to 1923, the percentage of highway expenditures derived from motor-vehicle and gasoline taxes increased from 5.1 to about 19 — a most wholesome tendency. Per capita expenditures for rural roads were $10.90 in 1921, thus derived: from motor taxes, $1.17; from bonds, $4.15; from Federal aid, $.75; from general taxes, $4.83. About one eighth of all general taxes went for roads.
The methods of financing motor roads vary substantially in different sections of the country. To one familiar with the black and dismal history of New England railroad financing, it is pleasant to write that our New England methods of financing our motor roads are the best in the United States. As noted above, in 1921 the country as a whole raised $10.90 per capita for rural highways; but in New England it was only $6.25. Our denser population probably accounts for our less per capita cost of highways. But the average tax per motor car was, in the United States, $11.80, in New England, $16.40. More important is the fact that in the country as a whole the percentage of the total highway revenue from taxes derived from motor and gasoline was only 10.6 per cent, whereas in New England it was over 25 per cent — more than double the average for the country. In the nation, 38 per cent, or $438,000,000, of the expenditures for motor roads was raised on bonds; but in New England only 12.7 per cent — one third the proportion of the country at large. Our sounder system resulted in having in New England a per capita annual charge for bond interest of only $.80 as compared with $4.10 in the country as a whole. Clearly our posterity will have, by comparison, good reasons to think well of us.
It thus appears that we in New England are doing better than the rest of the country in making the owners of the new vehicles pay their just proportion of the cost of the roads and streets they make us build and maintain for their use. But they are still paying less than their full share. It is a pity the gasoline tax was defeated in the Massachusetts referendum at the last election. It was a wise law.
We must stand firmly against the political pressure motor interests show menacing signs of bringing against making this industry pay its just dues. Our sad experience with unsound methods of financing our rail transportation system should be an effective lesson.
To discuss the significance of this tremendous development of a new and rapidly growing transportation system in its relation to our railroad problem would call for another long article. A few brief observations only. Five years ago we were assured that the Transportation Act of 1920 had ‘solved the railroad question’; that it was ‘the greatest output of modern constructive statesmanship’; that under it we were to ‘have a few’ great railroad systems,’competing and coördinating, synchronously and harmoniously, in accordance with a plan to be completed in not more than one year by the Interstate Commerce Commission; that a new Labor Board was to give us peace and efficient cooperation between managerial and operating staffs; that railroad credit would be restored, and investments, old and new, properly protected and rewarded. Five years have passed; no consolidation plan has been adopted by the Commission. The project, is practically abandoned, or might as well be. For about three years the prevailing view was that, pending the adoption of such plan, the law froze the status quo, so that the Commission would not approve any consolidation. Then, by a majority of one, the Commission, in the Nickel Plate Case, rejected that view and approved securities to facilitate a consolidation.
Only a decision by the Supreme Court can determine whether the majority or the minority are right in this later construction of the act. But statesmanship that creates such differences of opinion as to their powers among competent administrative officials lacks constructive efficiency.
Under the Labor Board we have had one of the worst strikes in railroad history. At present there seems to be a truce in the labor war — apparently because neither management nor operating staff desires further intervention by that Board. With much higher rates the average net earnings for the five years are about $670,000,000, as contrasted with about $950,000,000 for the three years ending June 30, 1917, taken as a basis for Government contracts during Federal control.
High rates, poor net earnings, no consolidations worth mentioning, one new Government bureaucracy added to the forty-eight previously struggling with railroad problems — these are the achievements of the Esch-Cummins Act in five years. It is no wonder that hundreds of railroad bills are now pending before Congress. Very likely none of them ought to pass, or will pass.
The railroad problem is not solved. But it may be that the motor-road carrier and water transportation will yet solve it, by making railroad traffic so unprofitable that the confusing scramble over tolls — the essence of our railroad problem — will end, as it has over trolley fares in Massachusetts. Death solves many problems.
It always becomes ‘ a public function’ to provide essential roads and necessary public carrier service thereon, when, charging what tolls the traffic will bear, the undertaking is not money-making. If it is money-making, then the job belongs ‘in the field of efficient private initiative.’ We may be nearing that stage in dealing with our railroad problems.
At any rate, as our railroads come to their centennial celebration, and view their political, taxation, financial, competitive, and functional status, they may well consider how ‘queer’ Doctor Holmes’s ‘One-horse Shay’ felt and looked on a like occasion: —
Wakes on the morn of its hundredth year
Without both feeling and looking queer.
There are few signs that the forces in control of our railroads, either in Washington or in the corporations, are appreciating the significance of the obvious.