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.


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