Pig Government

The politics of pork has real victims. Just look at New Orleans, or commuters on the Bay Bridge.

Last Thursday I pushed a stroller with two small children for a couple of hours through tens of thousands of honking, backed-up cars.

And boy am I glad I did.

I tried, and failed, to squeeze across crosswalks blocked by motorists along Bryant Street, Second Street, Fremont Street, First Street, and the Embarcadero. I dodged furious, cell phone-chatting motorists along Harrison Street. I hollered at drivers who refused to make space for the stroller on Beale Street and watched in amazement as a morass of motor-bound humanity eased its frustration by furiously gunning cars forward a few feet as each opportunity to do so arose.

"Did you say 'fock' to that woman, Daddy?" was my 2-year-old's summation of events.

A beer truck had caught fire on the Bay Bridge, backing up traffic throughout SOMA for more than six hours. I was taking my daughters for a walk in that Godforsaken neighborhood Thursday as my wife did some photocopying at her office near the Bay Bridge, before I handed the kids back off to her, so I could attend a panel discussion nearby. The traffic mess I witnessed was both extraordinary and prosaic.

"We have a very precarious transportation system," a Highway Patrol spokesman was quoted in the next day's paper as saying. "Shut down a major artery, and commutes are impacted within a heartbeat."

It's a pretty routine story, unless you'd been walking in the mile-wide, hours-long traffic jam amid ordinary people turned monsters poised to run over small children for the chance to move ahead a few feet. The precariousness of our Bay Area transport system seems like a pretty mundane idea, too, unless you consider that it doesn't have to be that way at all, and that it's fragile and inefficient and frustrating and madly expensive very much by design.

Happening upon the jam with my children, while not exactly fun, provided a fortuitous conceptual bridge between two other events I witnessed that day: one a talk about America's insane approach to building transportation infrastructure; the other a panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club about how crippled infrastructure collapsed in New Orleans. Some 35,000 people were left immobile in that city because they didn't have cars, and it wasn't really practical to evacuate them any other way. So some of them stayed put, and when they absolutely had to leave, they floated in boats, walked, or died.

"I got up onto I-10, and it was a terrible thing trying to get help to get away. Helicopters passed overhead, burning gas, looking for looters, not really helping anyone, you know. It was like a routine where they were teasing people," said Ray Blazio, 61, who eventually made it out of New Orleans and is now staying with relatives in the Bay Area. "They were just interested in flouting their authority and acting like a fool."

The New Orleans experience of Blazio, who spoke briefly at the Commonwealth Club, was clearly far worse than that of motorists stranded for hours near San Francisco's Bay Bridge on-ramps, of course. But both experiences are symptoms of the same lack-of-mobility disease. Governments here, in Louisiana, and everywhere else in America seem to have lost their ability to improve people's lives in ways as basic as transportation. Until a hurricane or a beer truck comes along, this breakdown can be invisible to the eye.

But it can always be smelled, because it gives off an unmistakable aroma of cooked pork.

Randy Rentschler is chief lobbyist and press flack for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional agency that doles out money for transportation projects in the Bay Area. He recently finished months of grubbing money for Bay Area transportation projects during the Washington run-up to the hilariously named 2005 Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, a $286 billion pork-and-boondoggle-orgy that's been widely held up as an example of how government simply doesn't work anymore.

During an afternoon talk a few hours before the beer truck bridge backup, Rentschler was overtaken by a fit of honesty.

"We have got to find a way out of this, this terrible course we are on, or we are going to get crushed. There may be a silver lining in Louisiana, in that this may finally make sense for us," he said. "The debate [in Congress] is never about policy. If we had a debate about policy, we would be killed. This is a bill crafted by a gentleman from Alaska, for whom I have considerable disregard, whose state gets $7 for every dollar it puts in."

The gentleman to whom Rentschler referred is U.S. Rep. Don Young, the powerful chairman of the House Transportation Committee and thereby an architect of the recently passed transportation act. The act was larded up with 6,000 so-called "earmarks," the official mechanism for distributing very specific pork projects to very specific and powerful legislators. Some of the more egregious pork cutlets include a $229 million Alaskan highway to nearly nowhere called Don Young's Way. The pork servings also include a $20 million magnetic levitation system linking Las Vegas to a nearby small town. In California's Kern County -- home of powerful Rep. Bill Thomas -- America will spend $1,000 for each resident on federally funded transportation projects, compared with an average of $93 per person in the rest of the state.

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