Transportation bonanza

› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The first year of President Barack Obama’s term could see the biggest federal investment in transportation projects since the creation of the interstate highway system, so there’s now a mad scramble to determine where — both geographically and in terms of transportation modes — that money will go.

Transportation activists were already geared up for this October’s omnibus transportation bill reauthorization, the first serious chance in four years to alter federal policies and spending priorities. But now that Congress is considering economic stimulus bills as large as $825 billion — including $71 billion to $85 billion in transportation projects — it’s looking like a potentially even more bountiful year.

Many Bay Area groups and agencies have forwarded their wish lists to state and federal policymakers and transportation officials, from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s $500 million in capital projects to the $1.6 billion "Bay Area Conference of Mayors Transit Infrastructure Wish List," which claims it would create 14,197 jobs.

San Francisco has the biggest chunk of that latter proposal at $713.9 million, including such big ticket items as $200 million for the so-called train box in the new Transbay Terminal project (see "Breaking ground," 12/10/08), $275 million for projects associated with Muni’s Transit Effectiveness Project, and $100 million for the Doyle Drive rebuild.

Randy Rentschler, public affairs directors for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, told us that for too long, the federal government has simply deferred transportation decisions to the states.

"Just having a block grant program to states does not assert a federal interest in transportation," he said.

Yet Rentschler acknowledges the difficulty of creating federal transportation mandates. Unlike programs such as carbon capture, which affect large factories, or fuel standards, which affect automakers, making big changes to transportation policy potentially impacts every citizen.

"When you talk about transportation, what you’re really asking for is the participation of 300 million Americans," he said.

Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and an elected BART board member, is worried about the political dynamics of the stimulus package.

"Stimulus is sort of garbage in, garbage out," Radulovich said, noting that the federal imperative for "shovel-ready projects" that can break ground in a matter of days or weeks means that road projects that have been lined up waiting for money will get priority over more complicated, visionary efforts to create a green infrastructure and better alternatives to the automobile.

Radulovich and other activists have been focused on the quadrennial transportation bill, and on persuading Congress to shift priorities that reflect the current 80 percent of federal transportation dollars that go to automobile projects.

"The danger is Congress will shoot its wad now on all these highway projects and then say they’re out of money," Radulovich said.

Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and a board member on both the American Public Transit Association and California High-Speed Rail Authority, agrees that a shift in federal priorities is overdue.

"You see a lot more money in the highway and bridge projects than you see for transit," he told the Guardian.

Yet Diridon expressed more hope than Radulovich that Democrats in Washington, DC, particularly Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, are taking the right steps to promote the transformation we need. He said the stimulus bill is a good example.

"Speaker Pelosi has been a real crusader for doing this the right way," Diridon said, noting that she is refusing to allow members to attach earmarks for favored projects; instead she is basing the list of recipients on Department of Transportation criteria.

Quentin Kopp, chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, is trying to get more money for the $33 billion first phase of the high-speed rail project that voters approved a $10 billion down payment for in November.

"You don’t want to expect anything. You want to be pleasantly surprised," Kopp said. "I’m not counting on the money, but we will seek several billion dollars on the theory that we can get contracts with people who are threatened or have encountered employment setbacks."