Transit Spotting

A transportation activist points to inefficient and costly projects like the Central Subway.

Watching a presentation last week by John Funghi, general manager of the recently green-lighted $1.4 billion rail line known as the Central Subway, I realized how badly the San Francisco Bay Area needs a sensibly relentless Marge Simpson. In the 1993 Simpsons episode "Marge vs. the Monorail," she pits herself against the denizens of Springfield, who've gone bonkers over a huckster's plan to build a substandard, expensive elevated transit line looping around town. Only when the train's brakes fail, causing it to careen out of control until it's stopped by a giant doughnut sign, do the townspeople realize Marge was right all along.

Once San Francisco's Central Subway project is built, "we'll scratch our heads and say, 'How did we live without it?'" Funghi said at the offices of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, producing the sort of disingenuous cant that's the trademark of Springfield's Mayor Joe Quimby.

Like the Springfield monorail, the Central Subway is not a transit project in the sense of making it easier for people to get around. Instead, it is a monument to pork, born of an ancient political deal to placate Chinatown merchants angered that a freeway off-ramp used by tourists wasn't replaced after the 1989 earthquake.

Scheduled to begin construction in 2010, the subway connects neither job centers nor population centers. It may make the city's entire transit system more expensive to operate, and some trips will become more time-consuming and annoying than they would have been without it. Like the Bay Area's other big-ticket transit projects, such as a BART extension in Fremont and a poorly conceived proposal for a California bullet train to end 1.5 miles south of downtown San Francisco, it's driven by local politicians unconcerned with actually reducing people's dependence on cars.

In times like these, it's reasonable to ask, "$1.4 billion? Who cares? We spend that much every day catering AIG executives' breakfast." But to cite an apocryphal quote usually attributed to former Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen: "A billion here, a billion there; soon you're talking about real money." President Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package is aimed at "shovel-ready" projects consisting largely of rebuilding and maintaining public transit and roads. The Bay Area's nine counties are scheduled to receive $341 million of the stimulus money for public transit, and $154 million for roads. But that cash is being poured into an already existing national system of dysfunctional transportation priorities made up of roads built where motorists want them, and mass transit projects created not where riders need them, but on politicians' whims. The resulting lopsided infrastructure makes cars a more practical way to get around, while feeding an erroneous belief that people are intrinsically hostile to using public transit.

"The way these projects work is, the big guy with the big dick tells everybody what to do and they hop to it," said transit activist David Schonbrunn, who happens to be the closest facsimile the Bay Area has to a nay-saying Marge Simpson. "That's the system. And the results are enormously wasteful."

It's no exaggeration to say that inefficient transit projects such as the Central Subway, when duplicated in billions of dollars' worth of such efforts nationwide, actually threaten America's full economic recovery. That's because they don't merely waste money while they're being constructed. They force people to rely on automobiles, thus wasting valuable time in lengthened commutes, while hiking health care costs thanks to increased smog and collision deaths. Most expensive of all, they contribute to the inaccessibility of affordable housing by making it impractical to build enough urban apartments to meet demand, because there isn't enough street space for the automobiles new residents require. Expensive, scarce housing means employers must hike wages, making U.S. products pricier and harder to sell. Another cost penalty comes when the threat of global warming becomes palpable and governments must get serious about solutions. Already, Obama's plans to build an energy-efficient economy are poised to stumble on ineffective public transit. If the president truly wishes to build an efficient, green, growing American economy, he must completely sidestep politicized local transportation planning and set up a new system of funding priorities insulated from politics.

The alternative is further duplication of San Francisco's long-misdirected transportation infrastructure. The city is host to two major multibillion-dollar regional commuter rail systems, in the form of Caltrain and BART. Yet relatively few residents use either system, because the bulk of the San Francisco Caltrain and BART stations are in the city's sparsely populated, suburban southern outskirts. Residents of the denser northside population centers, to paraphrase John Funghi, don't scratch their heads and say, "How did we live without the Bayshore Caltrain station, or the Balboa Park and Millbrae BART stations?" Instead, they think mass transit is a waste of time, because they get around more efficiently by car.

Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which controls the Bay Area's federal transportation spending, and the High Speed Rail Authority, an agency set up to link Northern and Southern California via bullet train, are making moves that could create even more expensive trains to nowhere.

"They spend it on things that don't do jack to help people with how they move around," Schonbrunn said. "That's why I'm pissed off. The only people who benefit from these projects are the construction companies."

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