Commentary

Commentary – Quentin Kopp

Taxpayers’ Billions

By Quentin Kopp

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a friend: “If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy.” 

That emblemizes San Francisco’s most wasteful (and unhappy) current transportation project, the Municipal Railway’s (Muni) Central Subway Project, now 10 years in length. Muni tax-eaters publicly represent the current cost as $1.6 billion, which is more than half a billion more than the original proclaimed cost. A better sobriquet is the “billion-dollar-per-mile subway” since it is only 1.6 miles long from south of Market Street through Union Square to Chinatown’s border. 

Muni chose California’s worst taxpayer enemy, Tutor Perini Co., to build the Central Subway. Its completion is broadcasted as December, but I’ll wager it’ll be 2021 after the revelation last month of contract disputes between Tutor Perini and Muni following the revelation last year of 3.2 miles of construction using the wrong type of steel track. The time saving over use of the #30-Stockton bus, assuming the Central Subway one days opens, is a reputed matter of a minutes.

San Francisco is not the only repository of taxpayer abuse. Honolulu snagged about $9 billion from federal, state and city taxpayers for a 20-mile train from the suburbs west of Honolulu to downtown, with an original estimate of $5 billion in 1991. It imposed a surcharge on Oahu business receipts after the elevated train project needed more money. Federal transportation gurus concede only a 65 percent chance of completion by 2025. Work commenced before environmental studies and planning were completed, about 100 contracts were signed before final approval from the Federal Transit Authority occurred and now must be re-written.

I am reminded of probably the worst Bay Area public transit project in history, propounded by Santa Clara County’s Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) more than 30 years ago to institute trolley car service through San Jose. From commencement, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission staff knew VTA rail was unjustified, but was forced to recommend it to the U.S. Department of Transportation for federal funds by San Jose politicians oblivious of taxpayers (unfortunately, I was in the state senate and didn’t have a vote anymore at MTC, of which I had been chairman in the early 1980s). Fare box recovery ratio measures the proportion of operating expenses covered by ridership fares, typically expressed as a percentage. BART service to San Francisco International Airport, for example, obtains fare box recovery of more than 70 percent, the highest of any public transit service in the Bay Area. In 2016-17, Caltrain reached a 65 percent fare box recovery ratio, but Muni’s fare box recovery was but 28 percent and VTA was 10 percent! That means taxpayers subsidize 90 percent of VTA riders’ service. While BART currently has many problems resulting from homelessness, fare box cheating, broken escalators and elevators, its fare box recovery in fiscal year 2016-17 remained more than 70 percent.

As California’s new governor prepares for his first state budget, let’s remember that about 1 percent of state income tax payers pay nearly half of the total, based upon our country’s highest state income tax rate of 13.3 percent. As Fresno State University Professor Victor Davis Hanson pointed out last month, new federal income tax law limits deductions for state and local taxes to $10,000, which constitutes an incentive for California’s 1 percent to move to states without a state income tax, like Nevada or Florida. Hanson further reminds us that during the drought, politicians alleged global warming meant snow and rain would be decreased and that low-elevation reservoirs for retaining water during wet years, like 2018-19, were unjustified. That’s now resulted in millions of acre-feet of snow and rain flowing to the ocean. Suppose the drought returns next year. Hanson further identified California as “facing a perfect storm of homelessness.” Generous welfare benefits and warm climates attract the homeless, so nearly one third of the country’s welfare recipients live in California, where vagrancy and public health laws aren’t enforced.

Last month, three S.F. supervisors announced a planned introduction of an ordinance to close Juvenile Hall based upon declining juvenile crime and fewer inmates. Not a word was publicly uttered by any of our three heroes about using such land to build housing for the homeless, assuming closure is justified. Instead, there were references to a park, landscaping and “public spaces.” I wouldn’t be surprised if tuberculosis and typhus from people on the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco and other large California cities occur because health code enforcement seems politically incorrect.

I don’t know the author, but someone claimed: “There is one fixed rule in government: the less it’s worth, the more it costs.”

Quentin Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor, state senator, member of the SF Ethics Committee and retired judge.

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