Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Richard Pombo Once Again Leaves His District Stranded

Recently, I was talking to someone with close ties to one of Richard Pombo’s Democratic challengers. When I started railing on Pombo’s approach to San Joaquin County’s transportation problems, my acquaintance said, “Oh, no, we can’t go after Pombo on widening Interstate 205 any more – that project is happening.” Well, not so fast there, Skippy.

First, there’s something you need to understand about Richard Pombo. When he initially ran for Congress in 1992, one of the issues he ran on was cutting pork-barrel spending in Washington. True to his mission, throughout his Congressional career Pombo has assiduously avoided seeking federal funding for projects in his district. According to a report issued this year by the Great Valley Center, in 2003 the national average of per capita federal spending was $6,923. In California, per capita federal spending was 89.6% of the national average at $6,196. In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, per capita spending topped out at 61.2% of the national average, a paltry $4,228. So it’s important to realize that in the person of Richard Pombo, CD-11 has a representative who is not just lazy or incompetent; he’s ideologically opposed to federal government funding of local projects.

Now, you won’t find too many people in America who approve of pork-barrel spending. But the definition of “pork-barrel spending” has always been pretty subjective. Like the Supreme Court with pornography, however, most of us know it when we see it. For instance, Ted Stevens’s $442 million Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” – definitely pork. On the other hand, $92 million to widen a freeway that is the most congested in the state and second-most congested in the nation, which has, for the last decade, carried twice as many cars as it was designed to accommodate, leaving tens of thousands of commuters in hours-long traffic jams –- um, not so much pork. [Correction: It was actually a tag-team of Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young who obtained the Alaskan funding, and, in all fairness, the $442 million covered one "bridge to nowhere" and the down payment for a second, even more expensive, "bridge to nowhere."]

Pombo, though, has stubbornly refused to address the subject of widening I-205, the main thoroughfare connecting the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area. He has instead promoted construction of a brand new route connecting Tracy to Santa Clara County and, secondarily, another brand new route to the north, connecting Tracy to Brentwood. Of course, it will come as no surprise to veteran Pombo-watchers that his family owns large tracts of agricultural land along these proposed freeways that would suddenly become prime commercial property if these routes were developed. Remember how I said that the definition of pork was subjective? Apparently, Richard Pombo sees nothing wrong with spending $21.6 million on feasibility studies for ill-conceived transportation projects that enhance the value of his family’s real estate holdings. But a transportation project that actually serves the needs of his constituents and improves their daily lives? Bah!

So, then, how is it that the I-205 project is proceeding? Well, chalk it up to the power of the grass-roots. A gentleman by the name of Ort Lofthus, an 80-year-old retired radio station owner who has a long history as an ombudsman for transportation improvements in Stockton, started working with local volunteers, chambers of commerce representing virtually every town in San Joaquin County, and a team of current and retired State legislators. Under the auspices of Lofthus’s organization 205 Now, this group of concerned citizens posted billboards along San Joaquin County highways, gathered petitions, and supplied busloads of supporters at key meetings; meanwhile, their more politically connected members formed alliances with local commissions and agencies. The 205 Now plan, which received its formal approval by the California Transportation Commission on September 29th, has patched together an ingenious and complicated funding strategy that is financing the I-205 widening project in the complete absence of federal money:

San Joaquin County's local transportation planning agency would use $66.3 million of its own funds to complete the project and be reimbursed by the state in equal payments of $22.1 million in fiscal years 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11.

The state would pay the $25 million difference in the $92 million construction cost. State law allows agencies to lend the state money, interest-free, provided the loan is accompanied by an agreement calling for reimbursement in cash, or other transportation projects, in later years.

Local funds for the construction project would come from proceeds of the sale of bonds backed by San Joaquin's Measure K sales tax. The bonds must be repaid because those tax dollars are needed for other projects.

Under the proposal, if Measure K is renewed in 2006, the [San Joaquin] Council of Governments would agree to be reimbursed mostly in cash and up to $16.5 million in projects.
Wow! Do you, like me, find it totally shocking that the citizens of San Joaquin County have been forced to promote this transportation project, shepherd it through the various commissions and agencies for approval, and then line up the financing structure to lend funds to the State of California, all with absolutely no help from their US Congressman (who, incidentally, sits on the House Transportation Committee)?

I can only hope that Richard Pombo doesn’t get a free ride on I-205 from either his constituents or his Democratic challengers.


Anonymous babaloo said...

I would like to clarify something. When I talked about "federal funding," I was referring to the practice of earmarking federal transportation funds for a specific purpose. To the extent that Caltrans receives federal funding from the gas tax that goes into its general fund, there may be federal dollars in the I-205 project. But earmarked funds courtesy of Richard Pombo -- zero, zip, nada.

9:40 AM, December 28, 2005  

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