Hung Out to Dry by The Transportation Plan
Buckle your seat belts, put on your helmets and brace yourself for the most colossal transportation wreck in the history of Santa Cruz County. Responsible parties include the County Board of Supervisors, County Tax Collector Fred Keeley, highly paid consultant, Eileen Goodwin and the 100 “stakeholders” of the Transportation Funding Task Force of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission.
Santa Cruz County, CA – It is 5:58 p.m. and almost the appointed hour for the workshop to begin. Held at the Live Oak Senior Center, I have watched several people arrive for the meeting, including a uniformed and fully armed California Highway Patrol officer. He does not take a seat at the tables as others did. I wonder why he is present. Smiling faces of two staffers of the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission greet me at the door. I am asked to sign in and make a name tag for myself. On the table are prepared name tags for people I assume are members of the transportation task force, a 100 member committee of “representative stakeholders" throughout the county, hand picked for this special project. Could the CHP officer be a "stakeholder" or just called in to give a police presence for anyone even thinking of causing a ruckus. I wonder.
The flyer for the event encouraged attendees to use public transit, walk, bike, or car pool to the meeting. I see everyone arrive in their own automobiles, except one on bicycle and one by foot. Hmmm, perhaps these people really don't live what they preach. Fred Keeley, the Treasurer/Tax Collector for Santa Cruz County, arrives just ahead of me. I feel in good company. I see Jan Beautz and Ellen Pirie, too, County Supervisors well represented. More smiley faces greet me inside. They are transportation commission staffers I presume. Oh, if the world were so friendly to me. I feel almost "love bombed." The smiley faces watch me, a new face to the meetings. No doubt they are wondering who I am, friend or foe. They will continue to watch me and wonder less of my position as the meeting progresses. I get a small plate of Costco food and scan the room for a good seat. I want to sit where I can see the whole room.
I take a seat next to an apple farmer from Watsonville. I greet him, stick out my hand to shake and he accommodates with nary a smile or look. I think he recognizes me as I lost an election for a seat he was relinquishing on the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency about 10 years ago. He is a familiar face at events like this, soft spoken, but willing to be involved. Nice to be an insider and desired. As the meeting begins, Mr. Keeley gives a brief 10 minute talk about his work on the commission and lets it be known HE is writing the Plan that will be presented to the task force in November for their blessing. Apparently, the task force is asked to give their approval by a required 2/3 vote to any report it creates. The task force members seem chummy, having spent many hours together in the past 6 months with meetings and public hearings and consensus rehearsals. This is the final meeting until the draft report is released in November/December 2006, just in time for Christmas! Santa is coming!
Mr. Keeley excuses himself from the remainder of the meeting. He says he must attend a dinner with the Commonwealth Club in San Jose, an appointment that was made prior to the date for this meeting. He usually likes to stay to the end of the meetings, but hey, who are we to stand in his way.
Eileen Goodwin, a hired facilitator with Apex Strategies, describes the transportation funding overview. We learn of the funding sources available for transportation and the dollars are impressive. With so much in tax money, fees, and other financing sources, I wonder, how can our roads be in such disrepair? My answer soon comes. A checkerboard hodgepodge of funding makes dividing up the plethora of money very complicated. All funding sources must be used only for designated specific projects. Run a business this way and go broke. Special interest politics at it's best. I mutter words of astonishment, but try to control myself.
One PowerPoint slide says it all. It is entitled, "What is Planned Countywide?" The pie is divided so that public transit, pedestrian, and bicycle projects will receive 60% of the funding, with roads receiving a relatively diminutive 37% of monies available. Roads includes various county roads and highway projects, both new construction and maintenance of existing roads. It seems clear to me that the evening is almost over and we can all go home. But it is just beginning.
We play a game. A sealed envelope is opened by our table facilitator, the apple farmer. He has been joined at our table by another task force member, a bus driver and union rep for the local transit district. Wow, I think she will be objective. Inside the secret envelope are game pieces, play money we are to divide up, and a game board, giving the funding restrictions for our task. Oh, I forgot to mention the magic wand, perhaps to be used to wisp away trouble makers or cast a spell on those who would talk reason? To their credit, the apple farmer and bus driver do not touch the wand. They don’t dare. As the game begins, the five of us at the table (two facilitators and 3 people attendees) voice our preferences for funding priorities. A man on my right listens as I explain the importance of maintaining roads for safety, commerce, and just plain freedom to live. I proclaim buses as highly inefficient and heavily subsidized transit that wastes money and serves only a scant few. The bus driver isn't amused but seems well rehearsed in the game. I continue to comment on the folly of sidewalks in the country, bicycle travel in the Santa Cruz Mountains for anything but recreation, and elaborate bus stations and stops. After all, who wants their daughter deposited on a dark road in the middle of nowhere? I advocate bus fares set so that they are self sustaining for the services provided, and repair and rebuilding of the horrific condition of our roads. Staffers lurk behind our table intermittently, listening to what we are saying. Funny, I didn't realize what we were saying was that interesting and after all, it is just a game, right? I comment that based on the present rules, some roads will not be maintained and some will. The bus driver then says, "Yes, those roads that are necessary for buses will need to be maintained. Some roads will not need to be maintained as much, as fewer people will be using them."
As the game progresses, we are told we can increase taxes or fees to fund projects. An interesting comment is made by Ms. Goodwin that increasing bus fares by $.50 would only bring in another $100,000, so we probably should not consider that. Hmmm, must not be many riders on the system, so why are we funding it at all, I comment. A person walks up to me, gives me a note, and announces to me the whole game is in the ICLEI.org toolkit online. The apple farmer and bus driver task force members turn me off. I have been "outed". The person is apparently known by the task force members and facilitators and they now associate me with him. The two facilitators begin to divide up the money themselves and ignore any further comments from me. They seem to have played the game before at rehearsal.
I got up from the table to talk briefly with the Assistant Director of the Transportation Commission, Luis Mendez. I ask him if the funding "road map" we are using that prescribes how the various money sources can be spent is "real world." He says, “Yes, it is.” I then comment that so much funding is geared to mass transit, especially buses, but nobody rides them. I asked if he rode the bus to the meeting. In a dour face he replied "no." I then comment that the deck is stacked and that maintaining roads and highways in the county is "set up to fail." I explain that in a family or business, if unrealistic rules are established on how income is to be spent, the rules are amended to fit the need. If roads need work, rules should and must be amended to allow for this and we cannot rely on "the rule" as a reason for not doing it. He thanks me for attending. I think he wants me to leave.
The young man on my right at the table listens to my various comments and I listen to his. He seems to agree with me, preferring road maintenance to buses, common sense rather than special interests. He tells me he is with a newspaper and will be writing a story of the meeting. He asks me if he can quote my comments. I say "sure." I give him my name and he asks why I am there. ” To learn more about how transportation plans will be funded and what those plans will be,” I reply. I stress again that commerce in our county absolutely depends on infrastructures such as roads. Business will not locate here, tourists will not come, and people will not invest here without good roads. Buses are a fantasy and work in some areas such as L.A., but in rural areas such as most of the county, they are a money drain and not a good use of funding. He excuses himself to talk with county supervisor Ellen Pirie.
After an hour of gab and prioritizing of money between the two facilitators, we ultimately report our decisions. The two facilitators did not establish a majority at the table for funding preferences and new taxes, so many of the politically popular projects did not get funded at our table. A consensus breakdown has occurred! Buses got fully funded, as much of the money available could ONLY be spent on them we were told. Our table gets booed and I feel some sense of accomplishment. Boo's from such a group is a compliment, I think to myself.
The reason for the workshop is clear to me now. The task force of 100 people will need to ultimately give their 2/3's approval to the report they hand over to the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission. The commission staff and directors do not care about my funding preferences. They do need to know if the Commission's preferences toward mass transit projects and de-emphasizing road maintenance are held by the task force members. Were the members "on board" with the Commission or will an appreciable number want to diminish the mass transit plans in favor of road and highway maintenance and construction with new enabling legislation to fund the work? Will new taxes be supported? Will further meetings be necessary to get all "stakeholders" on board? This was the true reason for the meeting and the psychological game- playing we participated in.
Each table pins their money allowances to a clothes line using clothes pins for graphic display. The "laundry" will be taken down following the meeting and studied, we are told. I leave thinking the public is being "hung out to dry" and they don't even know it.