Commentary – Quentin Kopp

Transportation Boondoggle

Winston Churchill exclaimed: “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” That surely applies to the latest information emanating from a so-called Bay Area transportation working group. These are retired barons of Bay Area intelligentsia who regularly proclaim the need to improve and expedite travel in the nine Bay Area counties. That is always based upon raising taxes or advocating new ones. 

A favorite form of Chamber of Commerce and Silicon Valley Leadership Group extraction is the parcel tax, which means that taxpayers in their single-family houses or flats which produce no income, but absorb earnings to maintain, pay the same tax per half-acre parcel as the 10-acre industrial facility South of Market, Mission Bay or elsewhere in San Francisco. Last month, this “working group” president advocated the “downtown extension” of Caltrain, the commuter rail from San Francisco to San Jose. 

For more than 25 years, alleged transportation experts have demanded commencement of a once-justifiable 1.3-mile project extending railroad tracks from Fourth and King streets to the misnamed Transbay Terminal at First and Mission streets. As a San Francisco supervisor, I proposed such then-sensible extension in the 1980s with motivation from the Caltrans district director, Burch Bachtold. The cost was millions of dollars, not billions. (The 1.3-mile mythical extension today would cost more than the $4 billion represented last month by the Joint Powers Authority consisting of Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties, which over the past decade has inaccurately, perhaps falsely, reported estimated costs to taxpayers). 

That was before Mission Bay, the Giants baseball park and housing were built South of Market. Then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein would have nothing of it because of inconveniencing properties along the route. Today, there’s no reason to extend the tracks because of jobs and housing created close to Fourth and King Streets. Moreover, the California High-Speed Rail project, which I initiated legislatively in 1994, won’t ever operate at the Transbay Terminal. 

Peninsula politicians succeeded in stopping the High-Speed Rail Authority from ever building its own right-of-way through Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park or the rest of the Peninsula, with a state law which thus prohibits operating enough high-speed trains with numerous riders during peak hours sufficient to cover operating costs without taxpayer subsidy. Taxpayer subsidy is prohibited for high-speed rail by the voter-adopted high-speed rail bond issue authorized in 2008 (already, $400 million of such bond issue has been wasted for a non-used “train box” at the Transbay Terminal, which all along has been a real estate project with buses, not a train terminal).

Additionally, the Central Subway Project is way behind schedule to open in 2020 at an exaggerated cost of more than $2.1 billion. Funding doesn’t exist, meaning more local taxpayer money. The progenitor of the project and now former general manager of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), Ed Reiskin, was fired last month by SF Mayor London Breed. Like a true tax eater, he found comfort in Oakland as assistant city manager. 

This month, the SFMTA board will consider again naming the Chinatown Station after Rose Pak, with newly appointed board member Steve Heminger, who began his governmental career as my Board of Supervisors administrative assistant in 1985, the deciding vote. Such honor would be misplaced for a person who threatened a leading Chinese-American businessman and World War II Army veteran publicly with death for some perceived dishonest act, which was in fact the epitome of honesty.

Meanwhile, City Hall enacted last month an annual budget exceeding $12 billion, adding for each supervisor one aide to supplement the current three aides at a fiscal year 2020-21 personnel cost of $1,359,721. Board members can enjoy their August vacation without weekly meetings because, after all, each represents about 80,000 people, compared to representing some 725,000 in the era of electing supervisors at-large. 

They aren’t through with “big government.” While the mayor established a Department on Homelessness, the Board of Supervisors trumps that, with Supervisor Matt Haney proposing a Commission on Homelessness, analogizing it to the Police Commission, Fire Commission, Library Commission and Recreation and Park Commission and audaciously asserts a new commission will “streamline the development and implementation of proven strategies.” What “proven strategies?” Homelessness increased by 30 percent from 2017 to 2019. And, supervisors Sandra Fewer and Vallie Brown advance another new department, Office of Racial Equity, with a staff of four and taxpayer costs of $618,295 next fiscal year. It will issue reports and analyses!

The 1920s humorist, Irwin S. Cobb, declared almost a century ago: “If I wanted to go crazy, I would do it in Washington because it would not be noticed.” He couldn’t have known about 2019 San Francisco.

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

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