Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Pulfer: Billions for cars, cheap cup holder in return

My sister-in-law has a Mini Cooper. This little automobile is so cute I can't walk past without patting its little bumper.

I haven't felt this way since my Corvair, a 1966 Monza, which was fully equipped. Meaning it had an AM radio and vinyl bucket seats. No air bags, no seat belts. My Corvair did not promise to be safe at any speed, but it would start in the morning and sip gasoline.

When I lived in Chicago, neighborhood delinquents so admired my Corvair that they boosted it twice. They'd drive it until it ran out of gas, then police would return it to me like a bedraggled lost puppy. I'd clean out the beer cans and cigarette butts, shampoo the floor mats and put that puppy back on the road the next day.

I loved that car.

Maybe the memories of my Corvair are so fond because it took me to drive-in movies and carside service at Frisch's. It hauled my laundry home from college. The Supremes and the Beach Boys sang to me in that car. I could fill up the tank with a $5 bill and have enough left for a bag of chips and a Coke.

Now I drive a geezer sedan that looks like an undercover police car. Undistinguished, but roomy enough for a couple of kids, a dog and the remains of three or four Happy Meals. A glove compartment filled with Tic Tacs and napkins. It cost more than our first house. Worse, I am no longer in charge of the car. I am its servant.

We Americans work hard to support our cars in the manner to which they have become accustomed, spending on average 20 percent of our income on them. Sometimes more if our cars are in need of temporary storage, such as a downtown parking space. Or new pavement.

Consider newly designed Fort Washington Way. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for truckers cost $328 million. The state is considering reconstruction of Interstate 75 in Southwest Ohio, a project now estimated at about $500 million. The Eastern Corridor proposal, which would include several projects in eastern Hamilton County and western Clermont County, has a preliminary price tag of $800 million.

In March, Congress began work on a bill deciding how to spend an estimated $375 billion for highways, bridges and transit over the next six years. Precious little of it will be for "transit." Greater Cincinnati's wish list for a portion of the money includes nearly $650 million, including $502 million to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, $31 million to rebuild the viaduct linking Sixth Street to the West Side, widening Red Bank Road for $25 million and $15 million for three interchanges along I-75. A modest $2.5 million has been requested for bus hubs.

And when I say "preliminary" and "estimate," I mean, of course, "less money than it will actually cost."

This is not to mention the human cost. Did you enjoy doing the Orange Barrel Polka again this summer? Were you invigorated by the haze of pollution? If you went out of town last weekend for the holiday, did you wonder why everybody else in the Tristate had the same idea?

Yet, were you tempted to insist on public transportation? Of course not. We love our cars with a slavish devotion. We buy them billions of dollars worth of gifts, and they reciprocate with cheap cup holders.

You have to wonder who is really in the driver's seat.


E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com or phone 768-8393.

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