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Week of 10.10.08

Transcript: Driven to Despair

BRANCACCIO: I'm just back from what are called the ex-urbs. These are American neighborhoods at the far off fringes of metropolitan areas where the mortgage crisis, high gas prices, and lousy transportation options have come together to produce desperate conditions for families. While the financial crisis has been getting lots of attention... whoever is elected president, will have to figure out what to do with America's neglected transportation networks that were laid out for an earlier time when gas was cheap.

Steve Brand produced our report, the first in a PBS-wide series on the nation's infrastructure that we call "Blueprint America".

At 4 am in Hemet, California, the sky still black with night, Robert Schleigh is beginning his daily commute from the fringes of riverside county to his job as a telecommunications technician in San Diego, 72 miles south.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: It's a nice drive, though, no traffic this early in the morning.

BRANCACCIO: Before hitting the road, he stops off 5 houses down to pick up his buddy Michael Lauridsen, with whom he's been carpooling for about a year now, ever since gas crossed $3 a gallon. Both men and their families have decided it's best they work the very early shift to avoid the region's notorious traffic jams which can easily turn an hour's drive into two or three.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH : Obviously if your car keeps movin' you get better gas mileage.

BRANCACCIO: But there are costs other than the gasoline.

CINDY LAURIDSEN: You know, my youngest son always asks, you know, "when's, you know—daddy's not home. Daddy's at work already? You know, it's still dark outside." yeah, daddy's—you know, daddy has to leave early, early in the morning.

BRANCACCIO: Hemet is so far out of the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego that you might call it—not a suburb—but an "exurb." And with pump prices so high Robert makes the most of filling up his hybrid with the least expensive gas he can find.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Every last drop.

BRANCACCIO: His buddy Michael is just glad to see the work week ending.

MICHAEL LAURIDSEN: Little tired. But it's Friday so I'll survive. Kick back for the weekend. Charger game Sunday. Go Chargers.

BRANCACCIO: It's not just people in car-crazy southern California who're surviving like this. How is it that so many Americans are stuck living so far away from their jobs with little choice but to fill her up and get driving if they want a paycheck? The answer has to do with planning - how we decide on the infrastructure linking our cities and towns.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: If we had known then what we know now, we would have—would not—

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: We probably would have stayed where we were.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH:—have done it, yeah.

BRANCACCIO: The fact that there was virtually no train or bus service just didn't factor into their thinking when Robert and his wife Debbie decided to buy a modest 4 bedroom house in Hemet seven years ago.

DEBBIE SCEIGH: We didn't realize how quickly we would run cars into the ground. We didn't realize how high gas prices would go.

BRANCACCIO: it was a classic American proposition, whether in San Diego, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, wherever: move way out to the exurbs, buy a dream house you could never have afforded close to work.

The commute would be the only hassle - something that looked like a small price to pay for a house with a decent back yard and a decent school for the kids. It's what millions of American families have done - never suspecting that being totally dependent on the automobile could one day radically alter their lives.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Seven years ago it was totally worth it. Gas was $2 a gallon. Housing prices were low. It—it paid—it paid to live here and work away from home.

BRANCACCIO: How's it been working out for you though?

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Well...

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Until about the last year, pretty good.

BRANCACCIO: Then gas prices topped 4 dollars a gallon.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: It's doubled.

BRANCACCIO: Probably when you were evaluating the house, you weren't—were you thinking much about transportation prices?

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Not at all.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: No.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: No.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: No.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: No.

BRANCACCIO: Today it's almost all they think about. Even though Robert's Prius gets 44 miles per gallon, the family's monthly transportation costs come to one thousand six hundred dollars.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Well, we don't do half the things we used to do. You know, we don't go to the movies anymore, don't go out to eat anymore. There's—there's a lot of things. Our food purchases are different.

BRANCACCIO: His carpool buddy Michael, who works as an auto mechanic, has pretty much abandoned his gas sucking SUV.

MICHAEL LAURIDSEN: If I had to drive my suburban every day to work, I'd be filling up every two days. 30 gallon tank and we'll keep the math simple, $4 a gallon, so $120 every two days, lookin' at $500 a week just in gas. I mean, who has an extra $500 a week they can throw away on gas, I don't. I've got three boys. The grocery bill alone's killin' me.

CINDY LAURIDSEN: I mean, during the summer we stayed home. We didn't get to go to the beach. We didn't get to go friend's house to play. We stayed home, played video games.

BRANCACCIO: Just to keep from having to fill up that vehicle—too regularly.

CINDY LAURIDSEN: Right.

BRANCACCIO: Their dream house in exurbia has become a kind of prison for them. Utopia, as imagined by older generations, it is not.

VIDEO NARRATION: This superb, one-direction highway, with its seven lanes accommodating traffic...

BRANCACCIO: Back at the 1939 world's fair in New York, the most popular exhibit by far was "Futurama," thrilling us with a vision of America centered around the automobile.

VIDEO NARRATION: Traffic may move safely, and easily, without loss of speed.

BRANCACCIO: Then in the 1950s, President Eisenhower made good on the vision, launching a massive infrastructure project: the interstate highway system.

But that's kind of where the planning stopped....and it wasn't all that long before this ideal gave way to this reality.

OHLAND: Because we've built so many roads, ever outward, we have covered the whole of this continent with residential suburban housing developments that are ever farther away from the urban core.

BRANCACCIO: And that was fine, when energy was cheap, and there was lots of it. But, apparently, those days are ending.

BRANCACCIO: Gloria Ohland is vice president of reconnecting America, a non-profit group that calls for a radical restructuring of the way Americans live and get to work—one that isn't centered around the car.

BRANCACCIO: What is wrong with sprawl? I mean it is the direction we, as Americans, have been going for many decades.

OHLAND: The problem is that we've sprawled too far out. So now the connection between jobs and housing has gotten to be very difficult. And now, of course, obviously, with a concern about climate change, and especially with concern about rising gas prices, it's not longer tenable for people to drive those kinds of distances.

BRANCACCIO: Ohland's group conducted a study which found that people living in far-out exurban communities were spending 25% of their income just on transportation.

OHLAND: Whereas people who live in more urban neighborhoods, where they're close to jobs. And where they have the option to take a bus or a train, or to walk or bike, spend only nine percent of their income on transportation. So that's a 16 percent savings.

BRANCACCIO: And there is evidence to suggest that transportation costs may be helping to drive the ongoing mortgage meltdown. Right about the time gas prices went over $2.00 a gallon, housing prices began to tank. And they dropped most heavily in suburban fringe areas around the country...places like Riverside County, where homeowners have the longest commutes. Things are so bad, some policy wonks are calling these distressed exurbs "rings of fire."

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: When we moved here, every house was full. A lot of families, a lot of kids. And—they're all moving away. I'm not sure where everybody's going. The house right across the street—that one's been empty for about two years. And the people on the other side of us—they'll be moving any day now. There's another house. And it's been empty for about a year now. It's been foreclosed on.

BRANCACCIO: More than 27, 000 homes in Riverside county have been repossessed since the beginning of 2008, and home prices have dropped by 35%.

Do you have one of those mortgages that changes?

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: We do have an ARM, yeah. Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: Is that becoming a problem?

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: In March.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: In March, it—it adjusts.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: It'll go up 2% to about $600 per month. And—

BRANCACCIO: It'll go up $600 more?

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Yes.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Uh-huh.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Wow. Is that gonna be tough?

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: It's going to be tough.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: We can't pay that. We can't. We can't refinance because we owe $335,000 and the house is worth $192,000.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: And a year ago our house was worth almost half a million dollars.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: It's worth less than what we originally bought it for. We're about a month behind on our mortgage. This is a credit card. Another credit card, another credit card.

BRANCACCIO: So what you don't need is paying more and more for gas. Even in the hybrid car.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: For Rob to get to work.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: It still adds up. But you know, we know we got ourselves into this.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: We do. A year ago we had excellent credit and it's pretty bad right now.

BRANCACCIO: So what was the thing that sort of tipped it over for you. You're cruising along, what sort of changed that outlook.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Um..

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Gasoline.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Gas.

BRANCACCIO: It was the gasoline prices?

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: It's the only thing I can think of.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: it was the gas. I mean, I mean. Gosh I don't even know, I mean it went up so fast, everything happened so fast, it was up 10 cents a week, 12 cents a day, whatever it was. I mean I remember driving by one day and saying "I can't believe it just went up 11 cents from this morning."

GLORIA OHLAND: We've become far too dependent on the car. We have to start considering building communities more like we used to build them.

BRANCACCIO: What Ohland and other transit advocates envision for our future are communities where houses and jobs and shops are located closer together; a community that encourages walking, biking and easy access to public transportation.

This South Pasadena neighborhood is a good example of what they have in mind. Through a public/private partnership, the area was rebuilt around a new light rail station.

DOLORES ROYBAL SALTARELLI: So you could walk to places, go to cafes, go to a restaurant.

BRANCACCIO: Dolores Roybal Saltarelli moved to this neighborhood three years ago. She has a 20 minute commute on the Metro Gold line to her job in L.A. where she works as a transportation planner.

DOLORES ROYBAL SALTARELLI: I grew up having a very long commute from where I went to school and where I lived. And—that—it took three hours—three hours out of my day. And I never really got to enjoy my neighborhood very much. So I said, as an adult, I really want something different. I don't want to make—commuting my life's—destiny, I guess.

D.J. SALTARELLI: And we decided that, for us—a little less space and—a lot less hassle was—was worth more to us than—having a five bedroom house.

BRANCACCIO: So they bought this two-bedroom condo in a new housing development just around the corner from the gold line.

DOLORES ROYBAL SALTARELLI: The scale is—is pedestrian. And so there's an intimacy that makes it feel like it's a small town.

D.J. SALTARELLI : We have a bakery, we have a video store—a grocery store...I mean, everything that—we really need to get to- a pharmacy.

BRANCACCIO: All so convenient the Saltarellis recently sold their second car.

D.J. SALTARELLI: When gas prices started to skyrocket, we just didn't really notice. We maybe spend $100 a month on gas... Out here in LA, you can't really get anywhere in the car anyway. So—you know, I see it as—as—something where I get on the train, I'm with a bunch of other people who have had that—that mental breakthrough that said, "What was I doing in the car going nowhere at five miles an hour for, when I could be here, enjoying my book or my iPod."

BRANCACCIO: The Saltarellis are not alone in abandoning the car culture. The federal highway administration found that since last November when gas hit $3.10 a gallon, Americans have driven 53 billion fewer miles than they did over the same period the year before. Many are trying out public transit—ridership around the country is the highest it's been in 50 years. That's music to the ears of Jane Reifer, a Southern California unpaid evangelist for public transit in Southern California.

BRANCACCIO: We're going to union station and then we're going to switch trains.

REIFER: Yes, and we're going to take the 8:34 from Fullerton.

BRANCACCIO: She offered to show me how easy it is to get from her home in Fullerton , here in Orange County, to Pasadena - a trip which can easily take an hour and a half by car during rush hour.

Our first leg: this Metrolink commuter train.

REIFER:So we'll be in L.A. In about 40 minutes.

BRANCACCIO: 40 minute trip.

REIFER: Yep. And it's a straight shot directly to L.A. So we'll get there faster than anyone can drive it.

BRANCACCIO: Reifer has lived and worked in southern California for the past 27 years. But in a very un-California way.

You do not have a driver's license?

REIFER: I do not have a driver's license. In California, that makes me a martian. And they're already thinking, "now she must have epilepsy, or she lost her license because she drinks too much," or whatever it is. But no, it's because I wanted to—to show that you can get around Southern California without a car.

BRANCACCIO: People who live in areas where public transit is more a part of life, let's say New York, may not fully understand what it's like in California.

REIFER: Yes.

BRANCACCIO: It's not - you're making the case that actually there is pretty good public transit options. But there's a cultural issue that has to be surmounted. That—

REIFER: Yes.

BRANCACCIO:—that's what you're saying?

REIFER: It's a cultural issue. But it's a—it's a choice that I—I'd like to see more people making.

BRANCACCIO: Turns out, there actually used to be a lot of public transit in Southern California.

REIFER: In the older areas, all through Southern California, transit was normal. It was a given. if you look at an old—Pacific Electric map, you'll be shocked at how much service there was in the '20s. Should I—should I show you that?

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, I'd like to see that.

REIFER: This is the old system.

BRANCACCIO: Now let's take a look at this. This would have been—

REIFER: 1926.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: 1926.

REIFER: And we're in—we were in Fullerton.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Oh my—this is unbelievable.

JANE REIFER: You can see that the service existed before freeways.

BRANCACCIO: Here's downtown Los Angeles. Look at this. This is—these were train lines and light rail.

REIFER: It's just unbelievable.

BRANCACCIO: So these were all the stops you could have taken back—

REIFER: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO:—In the day, as it were?

REIFER: Uh-huh.

BRANCACCIO: So some set of geniuses, at some point in Southern California's history, decided, "we're gonna remove all this and stick in freeways."

REIFER: It—it's kind of hard to believe, isn't it?

BRANCACCIO: At one time Los Angeles had one of the biggest streetcar systems in the country. Then in the 1940s, a holding company owned in part by GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum bought the streetcar lines.

Within 20 years all of them had been dismantled. And mass transit has been playing catch-up ever since.

GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: We can reduce the time that people spend in their cars and spend, of course, more time therefore with their families, while we are cutting down on traffic, on gridlock and on sprawl.

BRANCACCIO: Less than 2 weeks ago, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the most comprehensive anti-sprawl bill in the nation, rewarding housing and transportation projects that reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and driving time. And just last week, Congress got on board, approving a $13 billion dollar measure to fund Amtrak and mass transit. It includes money for safety improvements.

CALLER: It just collided with something. I don't know what.

BRANCACCIO: That was prompted in part by the recent fatal collision of a Metrolink commuter train with a freight train just outside Los Angeles. As horrific as that accident was, statistics still show that train travel remains much safer than driving an automobile. And while we're making comparisons here's another one: the amount of money Washington spends on mass transit does not hold a candle to what it spends on roads.

OHLAND: Public transportation has long been the—the poor stepchild of the American transportation system. We spend 80 percent of all federal transportation dollars on building roads, and 20 percent on building public transit.

BRANCACCIO: Gloria Ohland and other transit advocates would like to reverse that equation.

What you're saying is now is the time to think about this. The gas prices are up. People are focused on this issue.

OHLAND: And yet, it's surprising to me how neither presidential candidate is talking about these issues.

BRANCACCIO: Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama have made transportation a high priority as they seek out votes. When we reached out to their campaigns, each pointed us to their candidates' websites. And it turns out they do have very different positions. McCain calls for reducing our dependence on foreign oil by giving automakers incentives to come up with lower emissions cars. It says nothing explicitly about public transportation, although McCain voted against that Amtrak bill last week. Obama voted for it, and his platform calls for a $60 billion national infrastructure bank. That bank would support high speed trains similar to a 10 billion dollar project California voters will get to decide on in November.

HSR Video Narration: Moving at speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour ...

BRANCACCIO: The new line would cut a six hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco to 2 and 1/2 hours by high speed rail.

HSR VIDEO NARRATION: High speed trains are a clean technology. ...

brancaccio: Public opinion, currently in favor of the train, is being watched around the country as a bellweather for how seriously voters view a future less dependent on the automobile. Supporters see it as one answer to gridlock, dirty air, and a statewide population expected to grow past 45 million people by the year 2030. Opponents see it as a waste of money that can never, ever pay for itself.

MOORE: I think it's well intentioned, but very optimistic. And I don't believe it will come to fruition.

BRANCACCIO: Professor James Moore is a civil engineer and urban mass transit expert at the University of Southern California.

You think that money could be better used somewhere else when it comes to thinking about this state's transportation system?

MOORE: Almost anywhere else. If you really wanna support intercity travel, it's much cheaper to expand airports than to build precision guide ways that are hundreds of miles long.

BRANCACCIO: Moore is not a lover of large government projects. He believes in buses, especially bus routes run by private companies that can easily adapt to changing commuting patterns.

MOORE: We've gotten used to providing transportation services in a very inefficient way. We could accomplish a great deal when it comes to public transit simply by making it legal for entrepreneurs to sell transit services.

BRANCACCIO: Jane Reifer says it really doesn't matter to her whether it's publicly or privately financed, so long as mass transit is given the same priority as roads, new airports, sidewalks and streetlights.

BRANCACCIO: So where are we? Metro Red Line, but that's not what we want.

REIFER: We want the Gold Line.

BRANCACCIO: I think so - 'cause you wanna go to Pasadena, right?

REIFER: Yes. Uh-huh. And that's down here.

BRANCACCIO: By now, Jane and I have arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles, where we get off to switch trains. Our final leg: the L.A. Metro's Light Rail Line to Pasadena.

The entire travel time to get to our destination: about an hour. The cost of doing this every day with a monthly pass: $168.

REIFER: I think it's southern California's best kept secret how much public transit service there actually is.

BRANCACCIO: But spend time in the exurbs and you'll find that not every Californian is as enthusiastic about public transportation.

CINDY LAURIDSEN: I don't know about the bus, you know, or public transportation because I've never d—had to deal with it, or take it.

BRANCACCIO: Have you ever been on a bus?

Cindy lauridsen: No

BRANCACCIO: You've never set foot on a bus?

CINDY LAURIDSEN: No. I've never had to.

MICHAEL LAURIDSEN: I don't ride a bus, and I don't ride the trolley. I've been on a bus once in my life and—the trolley once. And—I was much younger than I am now.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Just not my cup of tea. I don't know. Surrounded by strangers—I don't know, just not my thing.

BRANCACCIO: In November you can vote for the government to borrow money—

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Right.

BRANCACCIO:—to start work on the high-speed train. This thing presumably would cruise right into San Diego. Could save you some time.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Actually, I mean, since we started talkin' about this—the last week or so, I mean, I considered, yeah, a train. Yeah, with a couple stops in between. That wouldn't be half bad.

BRANCACCIO: For many Americans around the country this election season, it's tough to contemplate a different future when just making ends meet now has become such a struggle.

MICHAEL LAURIDSEN: Your car's your freedom. You—you go where you want when you want but at $4 a gallon, you don't go many places anymore.

BRANCACCIO: Robert and Debbie have decided it may just be time to find a way out of the exurbs, and move closer to San Diego.

So remember back when you're thinking about this place, getting out to the fringe suburb where you could get an affordable house—some open space.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Lots of open space.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Yeah.

BRANCACCIO: Doesn't work out the way.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Not any more.

BRANCACCIO: I mean, you wanted to make it work.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Yeah.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: Uh-huh.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Yeah, I mean—we knew—

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: We planned to stay.

ROBERT SCHLEIGH: Yeah, we knew how much money we borrowed. And, you know, we're honest people. We want to pay our bills.

DEBBIE SCHLEIGH: And never knew that the bottom was gonna drop out.

BRANCACCIO: California is not the only state taking steps to deal with the infrastructure mess. There are innovative solutions popping up across the country—lots more public transit, for starters. But there's also a fascinating debate going on about how we live when energy costs are sky high. Do Americans need to make major changes in how they live and work? It's all on our website.

And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.


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