By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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By Erin Sherbert
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.
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.
"If every single house was built with the garage facing the street, and the front door on the side, and nobody walking and meeting neighbors, people might say, 'Can't we tame this car a little bit?' I think our quality of life suffers if we have garage doors facing the street and front doors ensconced on the side. And I think the idea of quality of life could have a national grip," Rentschler said. "I think there is possibly a way to try to get to this quality-of-life issue to become a part of national transportation policy. It's laden with values, and it's difficult. But it's possible."
Coming from Rentschler, until now the official defender of the San Francisco Bay Area's legacy of bad transportation policy, those are remarkable words. Either he's experienced a religious conversion toward good government, or he is passing time with idle talk until the MTC and its federal patrons are ready for another great big Louisiana pork barbecue.