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Big Spender

[whitespace] traffic
Michael Amsler

Morning grind: Anyone forced to sit in the local commuter snarl on Highway 101 hopes that the proposed Calthorpe plan will fix the mess. Of course, some have their doubts. What would you do with a $780 million fix-it kit?

Say someone hands you the delicate future of Hwy. 101 and $780 million ...

By Janet Wells

WE ALL KNOW what the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, along with a consortium of political and environmental mucky-mucks, propose as the solution to Highway 101 traffic: Tax ourselves to the tune of $780 million over 20 years, and spend it on new lanes for the highway, passenger rail service, and bike lanes.

Seems like a logical, something-for-everyone plan, right?

But, really, who's going to add 45 minutes to their commute by taking the train? Who's going to put up with biking to work and arriving all sweaty and tired? And who for a minute imagines that one more lane in each direction is actually going to alleviate the traffic mess?

Consensus, while a solid democratic theory, often results in a mediocre solution based on the lowest common denominator. But what if compromise wasn't necessary? What if off-beat, less-than-politically-correct ideas suddenly were welcomed as "visionary" and "creative"? Just imagine. Go ahead and fantasize: the anti-gas tax.

And forget public transit. It sounds so civilized and modern and clean, but no one's ever going to use it (one public opinion poll showed that while more than half of local voters support the concept of a passenger rail line, only 14 percent say they'll actually use it)--unless they've got real incentive.

How's this for a motivator? Pay people not to drive. We subsidize farmers and corporations, why not ourselves? Here's how it works: In November, we approve the new sales tax, along with a slightly modified advisory measure to earmark the money for Sonoma County DUH (Driving Unnecessary Here). An electronic device that attaches to your car records every day that the car isn't started. At the end of the month, everyone with a registered vehicle goes down to the DUH office and picks up their share of the fund.

Saves the environment, and with $780 million to distribute, the plan provides extra income for drivers keeping the county's 346,763 motor vehicles off the roads. Suddenly buses and trains are wildly popular because we're getting paid to use them.

DUH!

We'll even give the interest accrued in the account to the county for Russian River cleanup, playing fields, bike lanes, and other green endeavors.

Downside: dramatically decreased sightings of "Mean People Suck" bumper stickers.

SUV Lanes

WHY BOTHER building new lanes when every other car on the road is a sports utility vehicle? These poorly reined-in vehicles have no place in the Bay Area to really strut their stuff, and it's so sad to see SUV owners desperately clinging to their fading youth by buying $40,000 4-wheel -drive gas guzzlers to foray to the office and ferry the kids and groceries through the wilds of Sonoma County.

So, SUV drivers, why not give yourself a big adrenalin rush? Test those motor reflexes and see if your clearance really is high enough, all the while doing errands. Consider this transit solution: If you're in an SUV on the highway, you must drive on the unpaved left-hand shoulder, negotiating gravel, large chunks of disabled tires, metal, and garbage, precarious shoulder drop-offs, and those really pesky places where the shoulder meets an overpass railing.

The tax will go toward erecting a barrier to keep the SUVs in their adventure-fraught lane and force SUV manufacturers to comply with clean-air and safety standards so everyone else can breathe easier.

Downside: Urban SUVing becomes wildly popular, and the powerful new SUV lobby is successful in pushing through a program to remove all highway pavement, creating off-road-only thoroughfares.

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Transit tax could stall in courts.

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Choo-Choo Goes the Bus

"PAVE THE RAILROAD tracks," an idea first proposed for Northern California in the late 1980s and bandied around by some bold Golden Gate Transit District directors, was resurrected by Windsor physicist Carl Mears as his solution to ever-increasing gridlock:

"Use the tracks as an expressway for buses," he says. "The problem with rail is that there's no way to get from the station to where you want to go."

The new tax provides funds to pave the track--already owned by the Golden Gate Transit District in partnership with North Coast counties--from Willits to Larkspur Landing. The new Northern California Busway would provide a traffic-free express ride unhampered by inefficient car-pool lanes.

When the bus gets to a town, it simply hangs a left or right and takes passengers to a central spot.

While the North Coast Rail Authority might squawk at losing contracts to run freight on the woefully underutilized line, eminent domain has its time and place.

As Mears says, "When was the last time you saw a train on those tracks anyway? It's time to put that resource to better use."

Downside: The Busway Beanie Baby--free with every full-fare "alltheway" ticket from Santa Rosa to the Bay--becomes such a sought-after commodity that schoolchildren cut class in record numbers.

Mass-Transit Mania

"FORGET SPENDING money on the freeway--there are never going to be enough lanes," says Santa Rosa artist Steve Keller. "I'd make mass transit feasible."

To really do the job right, Keller would reroute Highway 101 around Santa Rosa to unite Railroad Square and downtown, and eliminate half of the city's bus stops to speed up travel time ("Make people walk the extra three blocks").

Then Keller would go wild with bike lanes. By all rights, Sonoma County should be a bicycling haven: gentle rolling hills, wide streets, great weather. Yet cyclists often encounter drivers who seem unable to grasp the concept of sharing road space.

"Seven hundred and eighty million dollars' worth of bike lanes," Keller mused. "That would build a helluva system."

Downside: Bike helmets become a hot consumer item, causing violent outbreaks over Nike's $475 "Air Brain Bucket" model.

FASTrain

GRATON RESIDENT Ian Riedel would spend his $780 million on the Forget Automobiles Speed Train system down the center of the freeway corridor.

"It would be visible to all motorists stuck in traffic, with obvious signs informing them how much faster they would get to where they want to go on the train," Riedel says. In addition, he would build toll booths all the way down Highway 101, with electronic meters to register at what time and how often the vehicle passes through.

"The highest users would have to pay much higher vehicle registration fees, which would go toward subsidizing the train." Oh, and one more thing, adds Riedel, who commutes on his 1975 Honda 400/4 motorcycle: space on the train for cycles--both manual and motorized--as well as fare discounts.

"You roll your cycle up a ramp, lock the front wheel, go to the dining car, and roll your bike off when you get to your destination."

Downside: Sonoma County drivers, suffering from addiction to their cars, file a class-action lawsuit against the county, citing egregious daily pain and distress from being trapped in gridlock while the train zooms by with a merry whistle.

Supported by the ACLU, drivers win $780 million in damages.

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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