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For Whom the Bridge Tolls 

Politicians want pork to pay for Golden Gate increases, but the money should be paid by drivers instead.

Wednesday, May 14 2008

When financial executives have to pay an extra dollar for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, terrorists win. At least, that's one moral to be gleaned from an absurdist controversy surrounding plans to ease the commute for some of the richest Americans by making them pay for it.

To appease Marin County politicians, who insist their constituents shouldn't pay additional tolls to cover a $1.1 billion proposed reconstruction of the bridge's off-ramp, Mayor Gavin Newsom's office recently sought funding from various sources, including $2 million from the Department of Homeland Security. That money targets a $360 million shortfall that officials hope might be more fully resolved in the upcoming federal transportation bill, typically an earmark-filled porkfest rivaling only the U.S. defense and farm bills in patronage and waste.

That local pols might ask their federal representatives to help kick down vast sums for local transportation projects — even from eyebrow-raising sources such as the U.S. antiterrorism budget — is not unusual. Since America's federal freeway system began more than five decades ago, much road building has been paid for through federal funds, thus making people see driving as somehow cost-free. The energy-wasting, sprawl-inducing outcome has long been ignored, except in liberal environmentalist treatises such as The Nation writer Jane Holtz Kay's book Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back.

Holtz Kay's ethos, which says motorists should pay the true costs of driving, happens to inform one of the few sensible environmental initiatives undertaken by the Bush administration. Ironically, this green-minded policy has provoked political hissy fits in the liberal, environmentalist capital of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Much has been discussed about three local transportation initiatives that, when combined, might boost the $5 toll across the Golden Gate Bridge by as much as $3. What hasn't been noted is the comedy of vanities that has erupted as the limousine-liberal colony known as Marin struggles to avoid confronting environmentalism's core tenet: that people won't stop polluting until they pay the real costs.

Already a planned toll increase of $1 is expected to begin in January. Causing noise lately are two additional price hikes to ease traffic congestion and to pay for bridge-onramp reconstruction that could add another $2 to the toll.

The congestion hike can be traced to a Department of Transportation policy that encourages motorists to more directly pay for the roads they use. This proposed "congestion pricing" increase, which will vary from 50 cents to $1 depending on the time of day, comes from a Bush plan called the National Strategy to Reduce Congestion on America's Transportation Network. Its most prominent facet is a program that proposes using variable-rate tolls as a way to thin traffic and reduce tie-ups, similar to the one implemented by London's recently deposed mayor Ken Livingstone. By imposing a modest, variable-rate toll on the Golden Gate Bridge, the bureaucracy that runs the bridge qualifies for $158 million in federal incentive money.

The other Bush administration policy that may boost bridge tolls is its simple reticence to put money into domestic programs. That, too, has a green hue when it comes to highways, in that drivers might have to more directly confront the cost of building roads.

Lack of additional federal or other funding has left a $360 million shortfall in the $1.1 billion it will cost to rebuild the roadway that now connects the bridge to Doyle Drive, its main San Francisco off-ramp in the Marina District. The current span has been deemed seismically unsafe. The new plan would route part of the roadway underground as it goes through the Presidio.

To close the funding gap, San Francisco transportation officials envision a possible additional dollar toll. This could have a side effect similar to the congestion pricing measure by nudging commuters to carpool or to use bicycles, buses, or ferries.

Anyone who has read the Marin Independent Journal or the comments section of the San Francisco Chronicle, or listened to local politicians running for office, however, knows that regional politicos claim this kind of pay-as-you-go consumption should be avoided whenever possible.

"I disagree that this is anything other than a toll increase," Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, a local candidate for judge, said during last week's meeting of the Golden Gate Bridge Authority. "This is not about reducing congestion."

"If the grant money goes away, is it possible to take the congestion pricing off the table?" asked bridge board member Janet Reilly.

As far as paying for the on-ramp, "This is not a local issue. I think it's a national issue," says Assemblyman Mark Leno, who is running for a state Senate seat representing parts of San Francisco and Marin County.

In that spirit, Leno says he has been lobbying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to fill the funding gap with federal rather than local money. He isn't alone. This week, Mayor Newsom will travel to Washington to discuss the possibility of more federal funds for Doyle Drive. And over the next couple of months, various Bay Area politicians and bureaucrats are planning Washington lobbying trips to "discuss funding options," says Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

It's not unusual for local leaders to trek to Washington holding their hands out, and it's only fair to note that this is how road projects have generally been financed in the past — to disastrous, polluting, sprawling effect. With the status quo in mind, Pelosi's office suggests she may seek more federal earmarks to finance the project, notwithstanding Democrats' 2006 pledge to reduce Washington pork-barrel spending. Pelosi "hopes to reduce the funding gap for the project through the appropriations process and the next surface transportation bill, but the successful resolution of this issue will take the hard work and cooperation from all levels of government," a spokesman said.

"It's a political reality," Leno adds. "She's the most powerful member of the House of Representatives, and there's some benefit to that."

No surprises there. What has been remarkable, however, is the way officials in supposedly environmentally sensitive Marin County have lately made this into a social-justice cause.

Politicians at last week's Golden Gate Bridge board meeting described the proposed toll increases as an attack on the proletariat, notwithstanding the fact that the U.S. census shows fewer than 3,000 poor residents in Marin, and that those who use the bridge could be helped far more efficiently with direct transportation assistance. Depending on how you measure income, Marin is either the richest or fourth-richest county in America. A resident commuting to the San Francisco Financial District — for which Marin is a bedroom community — is already likely to pay around $55 per commute in gas, car maintenance, and parking fees.

If Bay Area politicians follow through with plans to lobby aggressively in Washington so these ecosensitive constituents can avoid paying a dollar or so more in tolls, I can't wait to see the Republican attack ads pointing out the irony.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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