No-Brainer Blues: Somebody get Kinsey Millhone on the phone. If Measure D, the countywide traffic congestion relief effort, fails to pass this November, Santa Barbara’s most famous detective writer, Sue Grafton, will have to revisit her alphabetical crime novels and replace “D Is for Deadbeat” — written eons ago — with “D Is for Dummies.” When Kinsey Millhone (Grafton’s high-heeled, high-steppin’ gum shoe) investigates what happened, she’ll discover that Santa Barbara voters temporarily lost their minds one Election Day. Well, not “lost” exactly. More like stolen. Like I said, it’s a crime caper.
For those tuning in late, Measure D will increase an already-existing countywide sales tax ballot measure by raising $1.6 billion during the next 30 years for road repairs, freeway widening, commuter rail, new bike lanes, expanded bus services, and safe routes to schools. This new Measure D will increase the sales tax by a measly one-quarter of one percent. If the new Measure D doesn’t pass, the sky won’t necessarily fall, but for those without their own personal hovercraft it will certainly feel like it. On the flipside, if it does pass, the county will be eligible for an additional $550 million in state and federal transportation funds we can otherwise kiss goodbye. That’s a lot of loot. The trickiest part about Measure D is not all the fine print, but the requirement that it be supported by a two-thirds supermajority of voters, not the usual one-half-plus-one rule. That’s a problem because we live in California, where a loud vocal minority fervently believes the 11th Commandment is “Thou Shall Not Raise Taxes.”
As of August, polls indicated that about 62 percent of likely voters supported Measure D. That’s close, but not close enough. Polls also indicate that the more people hear about Measure D, the better they like it. The problem is that unless you happen to be a hardcore policy wonk whose idea of fun is watching reruns of the City Planning Commission, Measure D is just plain dull.
Given that no sex scandals have yet attached themselves to Measure D, few people really know much about it. To rectify this, the über-government agency sponsoring Measure D — the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (a k a SBCAG) — mailed a 16-page brochure to every household in the county, and included inserts in every newspaper in the county (except for The Independent), explaining how Measure D monies have been spent in the past and how they’re proposed to be spent in the future. While this hardly constitutes a sex scandal, a right-wing coterie of ideological malcontents complained the public was getting screwed. They filed a complaint with California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, charging the brochure, which cost $91,000 to print, violated state laws banning the expenditure of public funds for political advocacy. Maybe they have a case, but I kind of doubt it. State law allows government agencies to spend money “informing but not advocating” the public about upcoming ballot measures, and I know SBCAG — whose board is dominated by conservative North County interests — and their attorneys worked overtime making sure they did not cross the line. As a result, the brochure has all the snap, crackle, pop of a junior high school civics film. I’m guessing most people won’t even open it up, let alone read it. Those who do, however, will probably be more likely to support Measure D. And maybe that’s the real reason for the complaint.
Leading the charge against Measure D is the small collection of random political electrons that join together to form the Just-Say-No atom. The loudest voice belongs to the ever-inflamed Travis K. Armstrong, the poison pen of the News-Press editorial pages. As always, Armstrong’s logic resembles that of a snake swallowing its own tail. Armstrong opposes Measure D on the grounds that money would go to widening 101, which he contends is bad. But Armstrong also insists SBCAG can’t be trusted to do what it promised with old Measure D money because in the past it failed to widen Highway 101. Forgetting for a moment that SBCAG backed off its earlier freeway-widening plans in the face of massive public opposition — presumably it’s good when governments respond to the will of the people — Armstrong’s objection reminds me of a man who gets food poisoning at a downtown restaurant and then complains the portions are too small.
The other instigator in this cabal is the ubiquitous Lanny O. Ebenstein, PhD. With an advanced degree in the grim science of economics, Ebenstein has emerged as the Doctor No of the political set, working quietly behind the scenes to derail a host of bond and sales tax measures that in the past would have built us a new county jail, a new police station, and new classrooms for City College. I may not have gotten close to a PhD — and I studied history, not economics — but I know a good deal when I see one. Measure D will cost the average county resident about eight cents a day for the next 30 years. Eight cents! In exchange, we get $2.1 billion for commuter rail, bike lanes, freeway widening, new buses, subsidized bus fares, and, of course, road repairs. Eight cents is what you find lurking under your couch cushions or hiding in your car ashtray. At eight cents per day, it would take me two working weeks to buy just one plain cake donut at Spudnuts.
But eight cents a day can buy more minutes in your day, more hours in your week. Eight cents a day can begin to liberate us from the self-inflicted insanity of freeway gridlock. And while I don’t know how you’d quantify it, eight cents a day can reduce the vexation and rage many of us experience while behind the wheel. I’m no economist, but economists in Portland, Oregon, just calculated that traffic congestion there costs the average household 28 hours and $782 per year in lost time and wasted gas. Another study — national in scope — indicated that gridlock and congestion cost the average motorist 47 hours per year. In places like Los Angeles, it’s more like 61 hours.
Three years ago, economists estimated that traffic congestion consumed 2.3 billion gallons of wasted gas per year nationwide. At today’s gas prices, that’s $5.1 billion. After the election — when gas prices will mysteriously go back up — that number will be closer to $6 billion. In addition, there’s the extra $500 per year in car repairs that California motorists have to pay because of poorly maintained roads. Because of Measure D, Santa Barbara’s roads are much better maintained than our surrounding counties which, not coincidentally, have no equivalent to Measure D in place. Without this funding mechanism, we can kiss our road quality goodbye. I know Lanny has a PhD, but I figure you can do the math yourselves. At eight cents per day, Measure D is such a great investment that you’d have to be engaged in insider trading to do any better.
Normally Measure D would be a slam dunk. But with the difficult two-thirds majority requirement, it takes only a few loud people saying no to kill it. If that happens here, it won’t be just a shame; it will be a crime. When Kinsey Millhone — Sue Grafton’s slippery sleuth — is assigned the case, she’ll have no trouble figuring out who are the guilty parties. We already know. But she’ll also find that the rest of us were accomplices for letting them get away with it. As punishment, we’ll be sentenced to a lifetime of gridlock without possibility of parole. The good news is we can catch up on our books on tape. We’ll have to. In the time it takes to get from downtown to Carpinteria, we can listen to all Sue Grafton’s books — from A through Z. But it will be worth it. After all, we saved eight cents a day.