SEEING RED OVER BLUE: Will someone remind me again why the Light Blue Line was such a stupid idea? Of course, I know that it was. Everyone with any sense says so. Even though the idea is now at least four years dead and shows absolutely no signs of reincarnation, City Council candidate Dale Francisco — high priest and arch-druid of the Flat Earth majority that’s commandeered the driver’s seat at City Hall — yanked the widely denounced proposal out of mothballs just so he could verbally run it over at his campaign kick-off. The idea was pretty simple. Paint a 1,000-foot-long swath in blue throughout downtown to show how far the sea level would rise if and when Greenland’s vast reservoir of ice melts due to climate change. Like a lot of agitprop art, the Light Blue was cheap ($3,000, I think), to the point (we’re all gonna die), and made people mad beyond all sense of proportion. Santa Barbara’s well-heeled harrumphers came down with a collective case of acute apoplexia. Smart guys who’d made a lot of money investing in real estate 30 years ago were especially offended. “Mein Gott in Himmel!” they exploded like comic book Krauts, “What will this do to real estate values?” Didn’t the council have some hedge heights to regulate? Even then-mayor Marty Blum — who would pick a fight with a brick wall if given half a chance — backed down. Left holding the bag on all this was Mayor Helene Schneider (then a councilmember), who might do well to pick a few more fights of her own these days.
I regurgitate all this seemingly irrelevant history because school just started. Our roads, free and relatively breezy throughout the summer months, are now choked with harried and hurried parents rushing to get their little ones temporarily incarcerated in institutions of higher edification. I was among them, par-boiled in the self-inflicted stupidity of an early-morning, side-street traffic jam. I was not happy to be stuck in a daisy chain of drivers sucking on the exhaust pipes of the cars in front. I heaped forth my lamentations, generously so, upon my daughter in an invective-laced rant on the practical superiority of bus or bicycle as an alternative transportation modality. She, no shrinking violet, heaped back how my essential being was essentially annoying, and exceptionally so.
On the drive back, I ruminated about earthquakes cracking the Washington Monument and swivel-hipped hurricanes named Irene, that run all the way from the Bahamas to Boston, beating the crap out of landlocked states like Vermont. I thought about how 875 tornadoes touched down throughout the United States in the month of April alone, how Texas experienced more than 30 consecutive 100-degree days, and how the United States has experienced 10 billion-dollar disasters already this year. I thought about floods and famines and droughts, and how meteorologists say the next X-treme weather has become the new normal. In the United States, where people get their food from supermarkets, concern over climate change has waned as the perilous nature of the world economy has waxed. But throughout the rest of the planet, where people still get their food from the land, climate change remains a potent issue. At the national level, the nutballs have so captured the Republican Party that the only “sane” contender is a freaking Mormon — which, until now, has seemed beyond the pale of religious toleration. In Santa Barbara, which has always been about keeping things the way they’ve always been, we’re loathe to change our habits for anything. To the Flat-Earthers and Cars-Are-People-Too crowd controlling the City Council, there’s something darkly conspiratorial in the suggestion that roads and sidewalks should accommodate bicycle riders and pedestrians, as well as automobiles. I get it. If it weren’t for denial, I couldn’t get through the day. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is my personal mantra. But even I recognize there are limits to the sanctity of my personal neurosis. It is not the foundation upon which sound public policy should be based.
A traffic czar I know tells me that 11 percent of all Santa Barbara cars on the road during morning rush hour are school-related. That, technically speaking, qualifies as a lot. Somehow, I thought, as I drove back from dropping my daughter off, there has to be a better way to move the multitudes from Point A to Point B. Contrary to popular paranoia, this has nothing to do with hating the car. Instead, it has everything to do with simple math and geometry, subjects my daughter might study. By any reckoning, we lack the real estate and the funds necessary to widen the roads sufficiently to accommodate the cars so they can maintain the lifestyle to which they and their drivers have historically been accustomed. For the same price of building a solitary freeway interchange, the City of Portland has built 300 miles of urban bikeways. And despite weather only a frog could love, Portland’s bike paths get intensely used. I never studied municipal finance, but you can do the math yourself.
Since the Light Blue Line was first proposed and then strangled in the cradle, the real estate market imploded. We are still reeling from the aftershocks. Happy homeowners who briefly found themselves instant millionaires suffered a 30- to 40-percent drop in appraised value. Ironically, some found themselves far more underwater than if Greenland’s ice sheets melted. Conspicuously, the same people who angrily argued that the promotion of eco doom ’n’ gloomism was beyond the proper scope of local government have come down with a bad case of collective laryngitis. I have yet to hear them wonder how government regulators could have turned such a sustained blind eye to the kamikaze lending practices that triggered the economic collapse. Light Blue Line? Sure glad I didn’t step in it.