Saturday, May 26, 2012

Public Transportation?

In a time so long ago that there were three television networks, most Americans trusted their president, and I traveled exclusively in the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile, I remember standing up in the back seat of that car and playing the “License Plate Game” with my brother.  We would look for out of state plates and the very rare foreign car—while we had not yet heard of Toyota or Nissan, occasionally we would see a Volkswagen.  And I remember seeing lots of government vehicles.

Government vehicles came in two flavors: either they were olive colored Army Jeeps and huge 4x6 trucks or Chrysler sedans for what we still quaintly called civil servants.  Those Chrysler sedans were modestly inexpensive, and plain.  Hell, they rarely had air conditioners and almost all of them were either hospital green or khaki brown.  I asked my dad why the government bought all their cars from Chrysler.  “Because they last forever,” he said.  “They rarely break down, and they are easy to repair.”   I can remember wondering why we owned an Oldsmobile if Chryslers were so good.

Actually, for the time, those Chryslers weren’t bad cars.  The only real quirk with them was the weird lug nuts on the right-hand wheels.  Chrysler reasoned that since the right-hand wheels were rotating in the same direction as the threads on the lug nuts, eventually, the vibration would loosen the nuts and the wheel might fall off.  So, Chrysler reversed the threads on the nuts on the right side of the car.  In the case of a flat tire, if you didn’t know this, you could heave on that tire wrench until your vision turned black and your intestines were lying on the side of the road, but that nut wouldn’t budge.  Tens of thousands of people learned this bit of automotive trivia the hard way.  (One of those was my son, What’s-His-Name, not The-Other-One.  I bought him an old Jeep when he was 16.  While trying to do a brake job, the poor kid worked half an hour trying to remove a wheel before I suddenly remembered to tell him about those reverse threads.)

Eventually, Chrysler noticed that Fords and Chevrolets weren’t littering the ditches of every highway in America and stopped manufacturing those reverse thread nuts and bolts.  Then for years, tens of thousands of people gave themselves a rupture because they hadn’t learned that Chrysler had made the change.  It’s a wonder that Chrysler isn’t a slang word for hernia.

Still, for government vehicles, those Jeeps and Chrysler sedans were wonderful.  They didn’t cost much, were built tough, economical, and easy to repair.  A mechanic with a screwdriver and a half-inch wrench could disassemble the entire engine.  I think the only nut under the hood bigger than a half inch was the engine mount.  I’m not a mechanical genius, but even I could rebuild the transmission on a Jeep—just stack the gears so the biggest ones are on the bottom and the little ones are on top.

Unfortunately, this is not the way our government buys vehicles today.  Now, I could be wrong (there’s always a first time for everything), but it seems to me that the average federal vehicle today is a four wheel drive Suburban being driven by a petite woman.  Where the hell is she going that she needs to drive a three ton truck with seats for 8?  And if you see them get out of this massive four wheel drive truck at a gas station—this land yacht drinks gasoline faster than grad students quaff beer—she is invariably wearing high heels.  I would be willing to bet this woman has never driven off road in her life.

In the last few weeks, I have noticed a new trend: the federal government has started to buy Jeeps again.  Not for the Army--they use incredibly expensive Humvees that evidently aren’t suitable for combat.  Why this is an improvement is probably a military top secret.  No, for the transportation needs of the office-bound bureaucrat, the government is now purchasing those new 4-door Jeeps that look like giant station wagons.  While the original Jeep was small, versatile, and cheap, the new 4-door version is an expensive boxy car suitable for soccer moms who couldn’t quite afford a Lexus.  These vehicles are big, heavy, and designed for the rugged challenges of a slightly muddy mall parking lot.

Government vehicles aren’t cheap anymore, either to purchase or operate--and I don’t see many old government vehicles on the road.  They all seem to be built in the last few years and to have cost more than the average civilian vehicle.

When did our civil servants become our public masters?  Does cost no longer matter to anyone but the poor taxpayer?  Even as our masters drive to work in air-conditioned luxury, they are busily designing public transportation systems for every community larger than a highway truck stop.  Even my home town has a shiny new public bus system.  Every day, I see the buses driving around town with about a maximum load of 5 passengers.  There is no way that bus system is earning enough money to pay for the fuel they use, much less the cost of running a fleet of modern buses.

I have a small suggestion.  Let’s take the name of every poor taxpayer riding around in those nearly empty buses and give them one of those government Suburbans and 4-door Jeeps.  The reduced cost of maintenance and operation will be enormous.

Then force the bureaucrats to ride the bus system.

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