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The tall, broad-framed Schonbrunn, 60, spends his time promoting a dream where no more money is spent on development that necessitates the use of cars. He envisions a seamless Bay Area–wide public transportation network efficient enough to get people out of their cars, yet he works toward this goal by fighting public transport projects — albeit ones he considers counterproductive and wasteful. Through his organization, the Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund (TRANSDEF), he helped lobby against the Central Subway, and filed or joined multiple lawsuits against the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — groups he claims have abandoned promises to help increase transit ridership. His actions have frozen or held up transportation funds, and, he claims, helped nudge planners to think about how to best direct development and transportation.
Under current spending plans, the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission "promotes the most dreadful politically motivated projects such as the Oakland Airport Connector, the BART extensions, and the Central Subway," he wrote in a recent criticism of Bay Area stimulus spending plans. The commission recently decided to give $70 million in stimulus money to a BART spur running to the Oakland International Airport, "which is a hideously bad project," Schonbrunn said. "Even in better days, they were talking about a fare of $5 compared to $3 for the existing bus. Nobody's going to ride the goddamned thing." He has filed several comments on the plan, calling it a waste of money that won't do anything to improve transportation.
In January, regional transit bureaucrats moved $91 million from a sensible project to extend Caltrain across the Dumbarton Bridge from Silicon Valley to the East Bay to a wasteful, nonsensical one to extend BART from downtown Fremont to a sparsely populated area south of the city. TRANSDEF has filed suit to stop the funds transfer, saying it violates the thrust of a 2004 ballot measure that increased bridge tolls by $1 to improve public transportation. He says the BART line to Fremont's outskirts doesn't satisfy transportation needs, whereas an East Bay Caltrain link would. The commission claimed in court filings that the project is shovel-ready, has a better possibility of being completed quickly than the Dumbarton project, and fulfils voters' wishes to improve transit.
According to news reports, on March 20 a judge rejected a request for a preliminary injunction to halt funding for the BART extension. At press time, Schonbrunn had not decided whether to go to trial with a lawsuit.
"The exciting thing about the [Dumbarton Caltrain] project is that it creates the beginnings of a conventional rail network, which is what we need," Schonbrunn says. The Oakland airport project, meanwhile, is "just insanely stupid, because it's so expensive. Again, they're more interested in grandiosity than cost-effective transit."
Schonbrunn has been watching with interest former San Francisco Supervisor and state Senator Quentin Kopp's moves as chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority. Kopp has advocated a plan to end the line at the Caltrain depot a mile and a half from San Francisco's central city transit hub, rather than downtown at the Transbay Terminal as planned. Kopp is known among transportation planners as the man who helped push through the lightly used $1.5 billion extension of BART to the San Francisco airport.
Schonbrunn says Kopp won't make headway with his idea of stopping the bullet train short of downtown. "The law says it's going to go to Transbay Terminal, and Quentin Kopp, despite his grandiosity, is not authorized to change that," he said.
Schonbrunn saves his greatest umbrage for San Francisco's Central Subway project. He supported a lawsuit challenging the validity of the project's environmental review, but acknowledges the project is likely to be constructed now that federal regulators have given the go-ahead. "Within the transit advocacy community, that is by far the worst project in the San Francisco Bay Area," he laments. "It's a horrible use of money. Just horrible."
Activists and transit officials are now discussing the possibility of extending the Central Subway so that it might reach North Beach or even Fisherman's Wharf and the Presidio, which would make the line more useful to a much larger group of commuters and tourists. "My understanding is that would make it less horrible" in terms of efficient use of transit dollars, Schonbrunn said.
But improving upon a badly designed transit addition doesn't add up to good planning. "Efficient?" he says. "That's utter crap."