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Transit Spotting 

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

Wednesday, Mar 25 2009

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."

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."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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