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The Hook: Political news, freshly caught

Could General Motors build streetcars?

VANCOUVER - This weekend the media awaited the demise of General Motors on Monday morning. But no one seemed to think GM might, in bankruptcy, atone for its past sins.

According to the Globe and Mail, Ottawa and Ontario will soon own 12% of whatever is left of GM. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, Washington will take 60%.

But the idea still seems to be to rebuild a company that makes cars and trucks that run on ever more expensive gas and oil.

Old-timers recall that within days of Pearl Harbor, Washington commanded GM and other automakers to stop producing sedans and start cranking out tanks and aircraft.

The automakers obeyed, with devastating results for Hitler, Mussolini, and Japan.

The question now arises: Given GM's enormous productive capacity, why ask it to make more cars? Why not build streetcars and light rail?

When GM went back to civilian car production in 1945, the first thing it did was to buy up municipal streetcar companies and trash them, obliging US and Canadian cities to buy GM buses. One recent historian of this decision is Bradford Snell.

The result was half a century of freeways, gas guzzlers, and suburban sprawl, not to mention global warming.

The Hook therefore wonders why Ottawa and Washington can't make it a condition of GM's rescue that it give up building SUVs and monster pickup trucks, and start building streetcars to replace the ones it drove off the market 60 years ago.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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