Derrick Z. Jackson

Another gift for the auto industry

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / February 7, 2009
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THE VERY DAY President Obama said he "screwed up" on Tom Daschle and the taxable car, the Senate screwed up on taxes and cars. Cars continue to tax common sense, screwing up the future.

Daschle lost his chance to run Health and Human Services over his unpaid luxury car-service taxes. Obama acknowledged the drama signaled "two sets of rules, you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."

That was the stand-up Obama people want to see. But the Senate undercut the candor by standing down for Detroit, standing down for an antiquated hulk of an industry that bought itself its own rules and freedom from a fuel-efficient future with nearly $135 million in campaign contributions since 1990 and $548 million of lobbying efforts since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Within the $900 billion economic stimulus bill, Democrat Barbara Mikulski of Maryland sponsored an amendment to give tax breaks to new-car buyers, for the first $49,500 of the car's price tag. According to Mikulski, individuals earning up to $125,000 and couples earning up to $250,000 could qualify, with a couple supposedly saving $1,533 on a $25,000 vehicle.

Mikulski mustered all the Chicken Little she could. "My amendment is not about bailouts," she said in a prepared statement. "It's about jobs, jobs, jobs. Six million jobs are at stake in the American car industry . . . The only way to save the Big Three is to get people into showrooms, but 1,000 dealerships could close this year. That's 53,000 jobs that could be lost just at the dealerships."

The amendment passed 71-26.

Just four hours earlier, the Senate considered an amendment sponsored by Democrat Patty Murray of Washington that would have pumped an extra $25 billion into public works projects, including $5 billion for mass transit. The $819 billion stimulus bill passed by the House includes $12 billion for mass transit. The Senate bill had only $8.4 billion. Bill cosponsor Dianne Feinstein of California also tried to say the sky was falling. "Our highways are jammed," she said. "People go to work in gridlock."

That amendment failed by two votes. Just when millions of Americans are weaning themselves from unsustainable ways, the pork-brained Senate - with no complaint yet from Obama - remains the slick sales rep for a spent industry.

In Massachusetts, MBTA ridership set a new record with a 4.3 percent rise and the average number of riders per week on commuter rail is the highest in its 44 years. Ridership gains were far more dramatic in cities with younger histories of mass transit.

Commuter rail ridership in the third quarter of 2008 rose between 17 percent and 36 percent in Los Angeles, Dallas, Portland, Maine, Oakland, and Albuquerque. Bus ridership was up between 10 percent and 24 percent in Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Orange County. Subway and elevated-train rides rose between 11 percent and 14 percent in Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles. Trolley and streetcar ridership rose between 13 percent and 20 percent in Memphis, Buffalo, Denver, Minneapolis, and Sacramento.

The stimulus package should boldly be stimulating public transportation. Based on the American Automobile Association estimates of driving costs, the American Public Transportation Association calculates that Americans who rely on public transportation can save $8,368 a year. Boston leads the United States in calculated annual savings, at $12,285.

That dwarfs a $1,500 tax credit. Mikulski's plan totals $11 billion. That is another bailout on top of the $17.4 billion General Motors and Chrysler received in December. As Americans sweat out pink slips, it is insane for the Senate to seduce consumers into more debt. It goes against everything Obama promised to prop up an industry that so bitterly fought the future that the top-five selling cars of 2008 belong to Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Mass transit needs far more stimulus help to offset local budget cuts, but cannot get it because some say buses, trolleys, and trains are not "shovel-ready." America's automakers keep getting aid, even when a bailout is only a shovel to dig their own grave.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at

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