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
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
, by reputation a genuine genius who once
organized in the fields with César
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


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