Maybe it didn’t have the drama of Casablanca’s last scene, where Humphrey Bogart, ever the cynical softy, tells the effervescently corrupt Claude Rains, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” But the outcome of last Wednesday’s Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) meeting was just as moving. On the table for discussion was how that enormous pot of gold known as Measure D could be renewed and divvied up within the county. This is the money exclusively raised from county sales taxes and designated for transportation improvement projects. It could be used for anything — widening our freeways, expanding our bus service, or funding our nonexistent commuter trains. At present it is used primarily for fixing potholes.
When elected officials start talking about so much money, it normally turns into a bureaucratic shouting fest, pitting north against south, public works against mass transit, and cars against trains. But last Wednesday, a rare contagion of common sense erupted among a majority of SBCAG boardmembers — who include all five county supervisors and elected representatives from each of the county’s eight cities. For one five-hour meeting, sanity managed to prevail over short-sightedness, vision over venality, and progress over pork barrels.
We’d especially like to single out Santa Maria Supervisor Joe Centeno and Santa Barbara Supervisor Salud Carbajal for making the impossible happen. Politicians representing opposite ends of the county — both geographically and ideologically — put their heads together and looked beyond their own safety zones. Due in large measure to Centeno’s leadership, the SBCAG Board took the first necessary step toward renewing Measure D. This November, voters countywide will be asked to approve a bond measure that would retain the current half-cent tax we have been paying for the last 18 years, and add an additional quarter-cent more. That quarter-cent represents great political courage, especially if you consider that a two-thirds majority is needed to pass the measure which will raise $1.6 billion over its 30-year lifespan. No politician relishes leading a losing charge, particularly one for higher taxes. Yet if this measure gets anything less than unqualified support from all the major interest groups, it will be difficult to get that two-thirds majority.
Initially, it appeared SBCAG would embrace a well intentioned but complicated two-part ballot measure that would have effectively lined up South Coast alternative transit advocates against North County freeway wideners — a sure-fire recipe for disaster. The Coalition for a Fair Measure D urged the board to approve a united bond measure so that all competing camps would equally share the risk, and gain the glory.
On the South Coast, Supervisor Carbajal stepped up to the plate. In the north — which has the most votes on the SBCAG Board — it was Centeno who led the charge. Admittedly this is just a beginning. We have many opportunities to stumble between now and November. Certainly Centeno will be hard pressed to keep his fellow Santa Maria politicians from sabotaging a plan that would fund commuter rail on the South Coast. The proposed Measure D renewal does just that. But it also will provide hundreds of millions of dollars for new and improved roads in the growing North County.
As causes for celebrations go, we recognize last Wednesday’s vote might seem wonky in the extreme. But consider the stakes involved: Had no consensus emerged, the chances of renewing Measure D this November were slight. If you think congestion’s bad now, just imagine how awful it would become without Measure D funds. For those of us stuck in gridlock, without any reliable choice for alternative transportation, it is reassuring to have hope. Once again, thanks for the moment of sanity.
— Nick Welsh, News Editor