TCS Daily

Cycling Towards Gridlock? Tackling the Traffic Problem California-Style

By Hugh Hewitt - August 30, 2001 12:00 AM

The lycra people are everywhere in the West, and the inspiring exploits of Lance Armstrong will only increase their numbers, at least on the weekend. Now one county in California is going to bet a lot of money on the proposition that weekend peddlers will change their commuting habits if only they had a path.

This is a very California story of the combination of wild-eyed hopes, government incompetence, and interest group politics. If it were not true, it would be a wonderful fable. But it is true, which makes it another exhibit in the long list of reasons why California cannot be expected to lead economic renewal in the lower 48.

California has a traffic problem. Our unGovernor responded to this problem by recently announcing that no more highways would be built in the state. The subway solution that was tried in Los Angeles cratered, and the mass transit solution that was proposed in Orange County -- a little, tiny light rail system from nowhere to nowhere -- was shelved when just about everyone in the area announced opposition. But population keeps rising, and so does the pressure for solutions.

So along comes the Orange County Transportation Agency with an announcement this week that the new, new solution is the construction of 724 new miles of bike path. There are already 905 bike trail miles laid down in the county, and the expectation is that another 724 will do the trick. What's the trick? "We're trying to promote and coordinate bicycling as an alternative mode of transportation," stated the agency's spokesman, George Urch.

To get the ball rolling, the agency has selected three new bike path projects, totaling 4.2 miles. Here's the kicker: the combined cost of the three projects is $2,375,000. That's right. It will cost the local government agency more than a half-million dollars per mile of bike path.

These facts provide an opening into many aspects of California's infrastructure problems as the state stumbles into the new century.

First, there is simply no way that this kind of expenditure can survive any sort of cost-benefit analysis. To justify the outlay of transportation funds, the bike paths must benefit commuter transportation, not physical fitness or recreation. The agency acknowledged this and provided a couple of examples of folks who bike many miles to and from work.

Such people exist. Many are tempted to call them fanatics, but I prefer the term enthusiasts. The are outside of the norm, nor can we reasonably expect the norm to move. The vast, vast majority of people does not and will not ride a bike to work. Not now. Not ever. Never.

So why is a public agency spending this vast amount of money? Because like many California agencies, it must do something, and bike paths are something. Weekend enthusiasts are a vocal and well-organized interest group, and who's going to oppose bicycling, after all?

A harmless excess, right? Except that California has huge and growing infrastructure problems, and an affordable housing crisis that is crippling the future workforce's ability to live near new high-tech centers along the Digital Coast. Slogans and bike paths we've got. A place for entry-level engineers within a 90-minute drive to work, now that's a problem.

There are real solutions. Contrary to unGovernor Davis' pronouncement, the state needs new roads, including difficult to engineer and politically controversial arteries. And cities need to accelerate applications for housing developments as well as water and sewer connections and upgrades. Four million bucks buys a lot of buses as well. Additional charter schools can be jump started to take the pressure off collapsing educational systems. There are plenty of places to spend real dollars.

Or here's a concept: the money could be given back. It is raised via a special sales tax, while the tax burden in California is already sky-high and slowly eroding the will of middle- and high-income elites to remain in state.

Still, the vast machine of California's collective governments -- the huge state apparatus, the counties, the cities, the local water districts and local area formation councils along with the sanitation districts and the school boards and many, many more agencies beyond counting and belief-- grinds on, consuming tax revenues and generating constituencies. Two-point, three-seven-five million for four miles of asphalt and stripes? Why not? Who cares, anyway?

California has prospered on the strength of its vast wealth in resources and people. It still has enormous advantages. But it's almost Byzantine layering of governments has led to multi-million dollar bike paths and billion dollar subways, even as housing starts screech to a halt and taxes reach the sky. There are talented elites in California, many in the high-tech and entertainment sectors, who have their heads down and their shoulders hunched in the search for the next big breakthrough. When they look up, they may be surprised to find that the state in which they staked it all has seized up beyond repair.


TCS Daily Archives