The Great Transpo Expo

Transpo ’72 was first planned as an air show, by the late Mendel Rivers of the House Committee on Armed Services. For a modest $750,000 of federal money, it would stimulate foreigners to buy American airplanes, and it would attract visitors to Dulles airport outside Washington, where it was to be staged.

The exposition, as held last month, had moments of aeronautical interest. The opening ceremonies at Dulles were performed by the president of Boeing and the astronaut Michael Collins, with displays by military parachutists in red, white, and blue silk. The show featured well-known figures from the world of defense politics—the so-called “distaff side of Transpo (“Women’s Lib Notwithstanding”) was handled by Mrs. Anna Chennault, identified as a vice president for international affairs of the Flying Tiger Airline. Demonstrations of modern transportation were interrupted regularly by Phantom jets flying by on their backs, at the level of the Transpo flagpoles. But Transpo also aspired to broader importance. At a cost of $5 million to the federal government (with about as much again contributed by corporate participants), and installed in a space of 300 acres, the show became a festival of Total Transportation.

Government officials described Transpo as the largest industrial exhibition in the history of the world, bringing together the finest “hardware and concepts” of the booming transportation industry, and the “products, equipment, techniques, and concepts that can solve today’s transportation crisis.” After a technologically troubled beginning, when a sudden wind blew down several new business pavilions and caused the Transpo asphalt (made from recycled garbage and sulphur waste) to disintegrate into clouds of bitter red dust, the exposition was a great popular success. More than a million and a quarter people toured the show, and traffic holdups snaked from all over Virginia to Transpo’s new prairie-like parking lots (acclaimed as “some of the world’s largest,” and “equivalent to forty miles of highway”). The hundreds of participating corporations showed Cadillacs, Mack trucks, trains, recreational vehicles, subway cars, boats, models of the F-111, hovering Coast Guard helicopters; and according to an ebullient spokesman quoted in the Wall Street Journal, it was “the biggest show the government has put on since World War II.”

He’s singing our song.

The most vaunted attraction of the new total Transpo was a display of four experimental mass transit systems, developed under government contracts by four different corporations. The systems consisted of small tram cars called “people-movers,” each carrying about twelve people and running on light tracks. All the cars were quiet and shiny and looked more like expensive refrigerators than like subway cars. Mayors from cities across America were invited to Transpo to ride on and order these cars, which could then be installed in, for example, airports, shopping centers, and down-town business areas.

The government agency responsible for the trams was the Department of Transportation’s four-year-old Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which is currently the government agency with the brightest financial prospects. Congress in 1970 promised it an initial $3.1 billion, and President…

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