Curs, Burrs, and Slurs

ENOUGH ALREADY: Some of the recent rants appearing in the News-Press have demonstrated that it is, in fact, possible to have too much of a good thing. The good thing, at least in theory, is the daily newspaper as a fiercely independent and intensely individualistic expression of its owner’s moral and civic passions. Love it or hate it, no one can deny the News-Press — owned by the ever iconoclastic billionaire-libertarian-environmentalist-and-animal-rights advocate Wendy P. McCaw — is just that. But in recent days, the attitudes copped and postures staked out in McCaw’s editorial pages — written by the poison-penned Travis Armstrong, presumably with Wendy’s concurrence and that of her Right Hand Man Joe Cole — have almost made me yearn for the homogenized swill of corporate-clone-cookie-cutter journalism. We all have our breaking points. They found mine with their gratuitously perverse opposition to the extension and expansion of Measure D — the proposed sales tax surcharge that could be used to fund commuter rail, more bike lanes, and expanded bus service — on the ballot this November. Like a lot of people, I take the extravagant stupidity of our car-centric transportation system personally. It’s not so much that our dependence upon the automobile has been proven hazardous to Planet Earth. I resent how much time I’m forced to waste stewing in traffic. The fact is there are precious few opportunities to change things. But there is one, and that’s the renewal of Measure D. Let’s be clear: Measure D is the bastard love child begat when pork-barrel politics and petty provincialism found themselves in the backseat of a car parked on Lovers’ Lane. That being acknowledged, Measure D is not just the best chance we’ve got. It’s the only chance we’ve got.

Last Thursday, the elected officials representing Santa Barbara’s eight cities and the county supervisors comprising the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) got together to discuss how they’d renew Measure D — the half-cent sales tax surcharge approved by county voters nearly 20 years ago to raise the funds necessary to fix their roads — which expires in two years. The vast majority of that money went to public works directors of the eight cities and the county to do with as they see fit: mostly road repairs. Only 8 percent went to anything that could be construed as alternative transportation. On the table last Thursday was an infinitely superior model to the status quo. Hundreds of millions are earmarked for commuter rail, bike lanes, safe routes to schools, and expanded bus service. This change did not just happen. It occurred only because 22 different organizations got together under the Coalition for a Fair Measure D and demanded it. They also promised to blow Measure D out of the water if its scope of funding was not expanded. Even so, the devil had to be given his due for SBCAG to embrace the deal, which must be approved by a nearly impossible-to-attain two-thirds supermajority of county voters. In this case, the devil demanded freeway widening, and the pork spread far and wide.

For so many competing and hostile interest groups to be accommodated, Measure D’s half-cent sales tax surcharge had to be increased to three-quarters of a cent. And any tax increase, no matter how minute, is politically dicey. Just a few days before the SBCAG gathered to decide the fate of this plan, the News-Press editorial pages denounced it with both guns blazing. Armstrong strongly objected to the millions set aside for freeway widening and to the tax increase. I agree that a sales tax is regressive. I also agree that the freeway widening is extravagantly futile. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of residing on Planet Perfect. On the planet where I live, gasoline is now selling for over $3 a gallon, and the oil companies are reaping whirlwind profits by picking our pockets at the pump. The oil industry has either repealed the laws of supply and demand or they’re rigging the system. Or both. The high gas prices have nothing to do with the shortage of oil; all the experts acknowledge oil supplies are at a six-year high. On my planet, we can continue to be chumps and let Exxon-Mobil’s outgoing executive Lee Raymond walk away with a $400 million bonus, after having authorized the expenditure of only $10 million a year on alternative energy research. Or we can vote to stick ourselves with a measly quarter-cent sales tax increase to achieve meaningful transportation choices that will allow us to protect ourselves against such highway robbery. Fortunately for the rest of us, Santa Maria Supervisor Joe Centeno and the rest of the SBCAG board don’t live on the same planet with Travis, Wendy, and Joe. In a historic first step, they voted unanimously — with one abstention — to endorse the new Measure D plan. A few days later, Travis struck back, charging that SBCAG can’t be trusted because it failed to live up to promises made when voters first approved the transportation spending plan. For sheer unadulterated weirdness, this argument wins a prize. That’s because SBCAG’s biggest shortcoming in this regard was its failure to widen Highway 101 south of Milpas, which Travis vehemently opposes.

Normally, I might say, “So what?” Travis is entitled to his opinions. Normally I might be blasé about it, and observe with mock ironic detachment how the News-Press’s candidate endorsements in recent years have been the kiss of death, failing to achieve the statistical benchmark of the proverbial broken clock that at least manages to get it right twice a day. But I find it hard to be ironic as I dodge SUVs and potholes while riding my bicycle to work or navigating Santa Barbara’s metastasizing traffic jams while picking my kids up from school. Because of the two-thirds supermajority Measure D needs to win, any two-bit crackpot with a megaphone and a lungful of hot air can sink my ship. Our ship. If Travis, Wendy, and Joe want to cut off their noses to spite their faces, that’s their business. But now they want to mess with mine. Like I say, if this is the best locally owned and independently operated journalism has to offer, bring on the corporate chains.  — Nick Welsh

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