Pig Government

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

Smell that bacon.

We hear so much about government waste, and so much of that is right-wing cant, that it's easy to dismiss brood-sow bills like this as oinking background noise. But it's more than that: Federal transportation spending, like other infrastructure funding, has devolved from a coordinated effort to build things that get people where they need to go into a mechanism for rewarding politicos.

The result is levees that break, freeways and bridges packed beyond capacity, and millions of individual lives poised to turn shitty at a moment's notice -- while useless projects get all the pork funding they need, and more.

"This Congress would make Bill Clinton blush. Earmarking is absolutely out of control. This earmarking strategy is a perversion. It's serious," Rentschler said. "Every congressman should have to take the mirror test: When you shave in the morning, can you see yourself and ask, 'Am I a decent person?' I think this Congress should have to shave in the dark. There has to be a national purpose on transportation other than giving money back to the most powerful congressperson.

"I don't want to wave a bloody shirt over Louisiana, but we do need to make clear that there is a national purpose."

These are remarkable words coming from any governmental official, but particularly coming out of the mouth of a bagman for dysfunctional Bay Area transportation spending. As the sage said, I guess it takes one to know one.

Thanks largely to the MTC's efforts and the political sway of House leader Nancy Pelosi, the new transportation bill includes what are called "cost-effectiveness exemptions" for a BART extension from Fremont to San Jose, a $7.3 billion boondoggle-in-the-making designed to enhance the career of San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzalez. There's also an "exemption" for the Central Subway, a $1 billion San Francisco trolley line under Market Street that will do almost nothing to hasten residents' trips around the city, but did everything to grease a long-forgotten deal between former Mayor Willie Brown and his Chinatown political backers.

For an idea of the cynicism inherent in the blasé-seeming term "cost-effectiveness exemption," it's useful to note a few facts. In 2000, the MTC compared possible transit projects against each other for moving people along the proposed San Jose BART line. Rapid bus service -- with dedicated stations and lanes -- would cost $3.55 per new rider to build, the study said. BART to San Jose would cost more than $100 per new rider. By this reckoning, there's little difference between building BART to San Jose, or building a bus rapid-transit line plus a $7 billion gold statue of BART-to-San Jose champion Ron Gonzalez.

The MTC is set up as a sort of regional transportation senate, made up of mayors and county supervisors who each get one vote, regardless of their governments' size. Therefore we have $4 billion slated for a new BART line to an area of Fremont where nobody lives called Warm Springs, with no money spent on a way to move people quickly from San Francisco's relatively densely populated Richmond District to downtown.

This kind of waste is mirrored in politically juiced bridges, roads, tunnels, offramps, and other transportation projects all over the Bay Area, across California, and around America. A small fraction of projects may be built with an eye to where people are, and where they need to go, and how they might get there cheaply, quickly, and comfortably. But a good portion fail in that regard, passing only the test of pork politics.

As a result, the poorest Americans, those who can't afford cars, find themselves stranded. The rest find their lives eaten up by commute times. In the Bay Area, people move across a Bay Bridge whose traffic density is now well beyond the theoretical maximum capacity for which it was designed, meaning that any traffic problem, no matter how minor, stands to freeze commuters for hours. BART was planned as an option to this debacle. But by building lines to nowherevilles such as Pittsburg and Dublin, rather than constructing additional stations where people actually live, the system has failed to increase ridership significantly since the 1970s.

I spoke with Rentschler the day after his talk, and to his credit he was just as honest about the earmarking scandal then as he had been in his speech. "One of the connections with the recent storm is the connection between transportation policy and energy policy. Anything the current government says about independence on energy is a myth. Developing more just means we're going to be dependent later, and there isn't enough to make us independent now anyway. It's a myth.

"When you look at the evidence of the outcome of Hurricane Katrina, and try to make connections to our daily life, and when you see that the two major phenomena in the transportation bill were getting your fair share of money back and making sure a congressman took care of his district," Rentschler said, "that's evidence of absence of a transportation policy."

If Rentschler really means what he says, his words would make him the transportation bureaucrat's version of the Apostle Paul, the great persecutor of Christians who converted to become central to the early development of Christianity.

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