The Whale Tagging the Dog

POTHOLE POLITICS: Until this past weekend I’d been hoping and praying that Santa Maria Supervisor Joe Centeno would wake up one morning, dust off that Superman cape hanging in his closet, and decide to be the hero that only he can be. Given Saturday’s news reports showing that prayer actually hinders the recovery process of sick people being prayed for, I suppose I have to delete prayer from my arsenal of optimism. But I’ll compensate by hoping extra hard. So should you, given the stakes involved. If Joe decides to remain Clark Kent, we’ll all be living in a world of serious hurt, where traffic congestion is concerned, for many decades to come. At issue is a $1.6 billion pot of gold we desperately need to fix the county’s roads, fund new bike lanes, subsidize mass transit, widen the freeway, and make the dream of commuter rail come true. If we are to see one cent of this money, it will come from the renewal of what’s known as Measure D, a half-cent sales tax county voters agreed to impose on themselves in 1989 to pay for transportation and road projects. The political dogfight now taking place regarding Measure D’s renewal — slated to appear on a ballot near you in this November’s election — is hands down the hottest, scariest game in town. So far, perversity and parochialism have clearly triumphed over rational self-interest. With so much money on the table, one might have thought all parties could hold their nose and get along. But it’s been North against South, trains against lanes, and the county’s nine public works directors against the world. The problem is that for any version of Measure D’s renewal to pass, it must achieve a two-thirds supermajority in the election. Because of this stringent requirement, any moderately well organized constituent group has the ability to blow up the whole thing. And unless Joe Centeno — the always dignified, always gracious, and sometimes crusty North County conservative — comes to the rescue, that’s exactly what will happen. When it does, gridlock will define our essential pace of life and potholes will become the region’s most prolific geologic formation. We can also kiss goodbye the downtown shuttle, our electric bus service, and any hope of commuter rail. All this is playing out on the stage of a singularly obscure but powerful government agency known as the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG for short. Its 13 members include one elected representative from each of the county’s eight cities and all five of the county supervisors. Their immediate task is to figure out how big a pie the renewed Measure D should be and how it should be sliced up. So far, these 13 elected leaders have managed to distinguish themselves only by an astonishing lack of engagement. It’s as if they’ve resigned themselves to Measure D’s eventual defeat and none want to be smeared with the stink. (To be safe, SBCAG is giving itself two chances at renewing Measure D. If it fails this November, there’s time for one more election before the money runs out.) And their task ain’t easy. North County interests despise the South on general principle and blame the South Coast’s slow-growth policies for the high housing prices underlying the congestion caused by 15,000 Venturans commuting to Santa Barbara every morning. Even more, they loathe the idea of spending one dime for a commuter rail system that won’t go anywhere near Santa Maria. South Coast interests are quick to counter that they deliver the bulk of Measure D’s sales taxes, not to mention the bulk of the voters who got Measure D approved in the first place; and, with certainly the lion’s share of traffic problems, they’re entitled to some consideration. Meanwhile, alternative transportation advocates and social justice activists are furious that 92 percent of the Measure D funds collected to date have been spent on road repairs. Next time around, they’re determined that mass transit, bike lanes, and commuter rail get their fair share. Naturally, this freaks out the public works directors — all certified born-again Measure D junkies — who insist they can’t afford to share. To navigate this mess, SBCAG hired Oakland-based political consultant Larry Tramutola, by reputation a genuine genius who once organized in the fields with César Chávez and who has since won $20 billion worth of special district bond elections. Tramutola first discovered there was overwhelming support countywide for renewing the existing half-cent sales tax, but that didn’t provide nearly enough to satisfy the warring factions. He also found that increasing the tax to three-quarters of a cent might put enough money on the table, but it also increased the risk of defeat. His solution was to split the baby in half and put two measures on the ballot in November. The alternative transportation crowd has vowed to oppose this plan because many of their sugarplums are loaded in the second — and most vulnerable — ballot measure. They want a straight up three-quarter cent sales tax on the November ballot, where all factions thrive or dive together. Measure D can’t be renewed without the enthusiastic backing of the alt transit crowd. And if it fails, you can always try the two-measure approach as a fallback next time. But if it fails now, there’s no good fallback position. 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal gets the picture. But Carbajal and his South County counterparts need a North County player to sell the deal. Why? Because North County representatives control the SBCAG board. To do this, Joe Centeno is key. He may not be able to shut up all the North County crazies, but as former police chief and mayor of Santa Maria, he has the stature and muscle to isolate them. If Joe says a three-quarter cent sales tax is okay, then it’s okay. But if he doesn’t, we’d all better start walking. Because the roads will be so messed up, that’s the only way we can hope — or pray — to get where we’re going.

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