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Shit Flows Down, Money Flows Up

Shit flows down, money flows up was how Tony Soprano described the Mafia. It is also an apt description for our transportation hierarchy.

Consider recent developments in the ‘SMART’ commuter rail saga.

‘SMART’ is now $350 million under-funded (shock news). As a result, the MTC has proposed to “down-size” a $70 million bike path that had also been promised to voters.

Besides the obvious inequity, shifting funds from bikes to trains is fiscally nonsensical. Bike paths require no operating subsidy, and are inexpensive to build. According to the FTA cost-per-new-rider metric, the bike path will be orders-of-magnitude more effective for reducing car trips. Trains might be more sexy than bike paths, but this scheme would cannibalize the most cost-effective portion of the project.

Highway Robbery
The situation gets more distressing as one looks at the overall funding picture. Highway 101, the main competitor for SMART trains, will be lavished with hundreds of millions for expansion projects. Since 2001, some $400 million has been programmed for Highway 101 widening, with more to come.

Sonoma County highway planners have asked the state to let them keep the savings from three Highway 101 widening projects that came in under budget and use it for three new projects. The savings, $50 million in state funds and $23 million in local sales tax money, would be earmarked to widen another stretch of freeway and rebuild two overpasses, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “This is the first time we have had full funding for these segments in sight,” Smith said. “We are pretty excited about the opportunity to keep the bid savings in the county and in the corridor.”

The bike path, the SMART rail line, and highway 101 all serve the same corridor! Two branches of government, SMART and the County Highway Dept, are operating at cross purposes. The highway department expands highway capacity while SMART is trying to shift car trips to trains. There is not enough money to pay for both, so guess who gets first dibs?

Thus, the transportation food chain is clear: The highway department gets all the resources it needs. The rail service has to truncate its project and raid bike funds. The bike path? It is at the bottom, fighting for survival. Shit flows down, money flows up.

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