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Porkmistress Pelosi 

Madam Speaker says she wants to tame pork-barrel spenders. Takes one to know one.

Wednesday, Jan 3 2007
Though Nancy Pelosi only emerged from the starting gate Tuesday as American history's most powerful woman, she's been hinting for weeks at what's to come.

On Nov. 13, for instance, a USA Today story headlined "Democrats: Identify Pork Sponsors" detailed how Pelosi plans to open the 110th Congress with a rule publicly "outing" lawmakers who use legislative "earmarks" to help special interests. She's also championed a Democratic-sponsored 2007 spending bill that's something of a pork fast: It doesn't include any language targeting money for pet projects.

If she's persistent with this crusade, we can expect one of two things: Either San Francisco will be deprived of more than half a billion dollars in federal money we thought we had coming, or Pelosi will squander an opportunity to become this country's first effective national female leader.

The map charting these two possible paths is contained in a memorandum — reported for the first time here — that revealed the pork-barrel wastefulness of the Pelosi-sponsored Central Subway, a 1.7-mile light rail line currently budgeted at $1.2 billion that's supposed to connect the Giants' ballpark to Chinatown.

Last year, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) went down in ignominy for championing the Gravina Island bridge, a span to nowhere being built with $223 million in federal money that helped tar Republicans as cynics in advance of the midterm elections, and inspired the Democratic Party's current anti-pork rhetoric.

By my reading of the aforementioned memo — which describes the conclusions of an independent analyst hired by the city's Municipal Transportation Agency to evaluate the proposed Central Subway last spring — Pelosi's own pork-slinging on behalf of transportation dwarfs Stevens' pet project in audacious wastefulness and political favor-granting.

According to consultant Tom Matoff, San Franciscans will get little in return for this massive federal expenditure. The Central Subway project will not significantly improve our ability to get from one place to another, and it will make the city's public transportation system more expensive to run and maintain. In addition, its rationale is based on bogus financing and ridership numbers.

If built as planned, the Central Subway "might actually worsen travel conditions for some customers, without a compensating improvement," Matoff wrote. "It does not, apparently, meet the market needs of the corridor it is intended to serve."

Pelosi has already secured "cost-effectiveness" exemptions in the 2005 federal transportation bill to smooth the way for what is expected to be $532 million in federal grants to fund the Central Subway. Meanwhile, S.F. Municipal Transportation Agency chief Nat Ford has, during recent weeks, been making the rounds in Washington, stumping for around $200 million more needed to fund the project.

I had hoped to discuss the report's conclusions with SFMTA planning director Bill Lieberman, who commissioned the report and distributed it to the agency on Nov. 6. But Lieberman and the agency parted ways soon afterward.

"Bill opened up that question, and for whatever reason is gone. I hope that's not a signal to everyone who will work there subsequently that we cannot ask questions about big, politically connected capital projects," says Tom Radulovich, executive director of the transit advocacy group Livable City.

The report's conclusions also beg the question of whether Pelosi will lead a reinvigoration of the Democratic Party or turn Democrats into laughingstock pork-barrel hypocrites from day one.

SFMTA spokeswoman Maggie Lynch was not able to respond to my request for comment from Ford by press time. An aide in Pelosi's Washington office was likewise unable to obtain comment regarding the Central Subway report in time.

Perhaps they're saving their breath for an end-of-pork-barrel-spending press conference next week.

The Platonic ideal of pork is a piece of federal spending that solves a political problem and does little or nothing to address the practical needs of citizens. Sadly, much transportation spending in America fits this bill. As a result, money that could be used to make it easier, cheaper, and quicker for people to move about the city is instead wasted on paying political favors. The Central Subway may be this country's most articulate case in point, having gained life a decade ago as a political deal between then-Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown business leaders, who feared that the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway following the 1989 earthquake would cut their neighborhood off from Bay Area transportation.

Bill Lieberman, in one of his last acts as SFMTA planning director, paid homage to the project's age-old rationale in a memo he wrote to accompany the release of Matoff's results to city transit bureaucrats.

Matoff's criticisms would require revisiting "decisions made decades ago," Leiberman writes, adding that the project "fulfills the commitments already made to the communities served."

Though conceived as a bit of ward patronage, the project was originally wrapped in the language of practical civic needs. It was envisioned as part of a larger network of trolley, bus, and light rail lines that would allow residents of the South of Market and Bayview-Hunters Point districts to link swiftly to BART and the rest of Bay Area mass transit via a light rail line hooked into the Central Subway. The tunnel would link east and west by eventually connecting to a rail line to the Richmond District. It would also link the city's northern and southeastern shores — or, at least, that was the plan 10 years ago. Reconfiguring and "value engineering" have erased all these goals. Like the Iraq War, the project is based on rationales that have arisen and faded with time.

What's left is a project that exists merely to exist.

"What is the role of capital investment in a transit system?" writes Matoff, transportation planner for LTK Engineering Services. "It should represent either an opportunity to reduce operating expenses, or represent the most efficient way of bringing better service to additional markets. As proposed, this project does not appear to do [either]."

According to Matoff (who didn't wish to comment for this story), the project understates what it will cost to run the subway line, and exaggerates how much time passengers might save by using the proposed subway. In addition, in order to cut costs, the proposed line places boarding stations far away from where passengers most need them.

The project was originally touted as serving the city's southeastern neighborhoods by helping the new Third Street light rail line link with the rest of the region's transit lines. But recent re-engineering has erased that benefit: Commuters from the Bayview will have to walk a third of a mile from the proposed line to BART at Market Street, the Matoff report says. The current Central Subway plan "will kill the transfer opportunity for any practical purpose, and makes this concept completely unacceptable," Matoff notes.

He cites another vanished rationale — helping complete the city's transit grid: "One of the original concepts that made the Central Subway 'Central' was the proposed joint use of the infrastructure by both the Third Street and future Geary light rail lines. That feature, should it prove workable, seems to have completely disappeared."

The project may even harm commuters who are well served by the bus system, Matoff writes. Construction of the Central Subway will disrupt the numbers 30 and 45 Muni electric bus lines, which carry 40,000 passengers per day.

In a press conference three months ago, Muni bureaucrats floated the idea that the subway might one day carry passengers all the way to North Beach and through to the Presidio, turning what is now a proposed boondoggle into a major transit line. But a recent round of downsizing made boarding areas and other facilities so small that any theoretical expanded ridership would have nowhere to go.

Matoff closes his report by noting that the Central Subway's purported goal of hastening San Franciscans' trips through Downtown and Chinatown could be achieved by rerouting automobile traffic and installing vastly cheaper surface rail and bus lines.

"Just plunking down a Metro line in a congested part of the city without a more complete treatment of traffic and transit does not make sense," he notes.

It doesn't make sense unless one employs the logic of pork-barrel spending, in which politics, not efficiency, determines budget priorities. Nancy Pelosi has sent signals suggesting she wants to banish this sort of logic from Washington. As she decides whether to fund or kill the Central Subway, she'll either sow the seeds for an era of competent female Democratic Party leadership or preside over a continuing wallow of boars and sows.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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