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Dukakis Gives Spirited Pitch For Public Transit

The former Democratic presidential nominee chides South Coast for lack of rail options, says good projects need good people to run them

When it comes to public transit, California — and the United States — is miles behind the rest of the world.

That was a major theme of Saturday’s speech at the Santa Barbara Central Library’s Faulkner Gallery by 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who joked ruefully that the country has him to blame for its mass-transit deficiencies.

“If I had beaten Bush One (President George Bush), you never would have heard of Bush Two,” he said, referring to President George W. Bush’s record on public transit, prompting raucous applause from the 100 or so people in the audience. “It’s all my fault, I apologize.”

The former Massachusetts governor was the keynote speaker during a panel discussion on sustainable transportation sponsored by the Alliance for Sustainable and Equitable Regional Transportation (ASERT), the Community Environmental Council and Noozhawk. In a 20-minute talk laced with as many laughs as facts, Dukakis started off with an admission.

“I’m probably not the most balanced guy when it comes to this subject,” he said. “Because at least, from the standpoint of national policy, the imbalance in our transportation priorities is so astonishing.”

Dukakis applauded Santa Barbara County voters for their recent passage of Measure A, a half-cent sales tax that will bankroll transportation projects for 30 years starting in 2010. On the South Coast, 45 percent of its share of that money will be used on alternative transportation projects such as buses, bicycle lanes and commuter rail.

But Dukakis also couldn’t help chiding the South Coast for its lack of commuter rail.

“Rail from Oxnard to Goleta — why is that so difficult?” he asked.

Dukakis, who spends nine months a year as a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, and the winter months as a visiting professor at UCLA, said the amount of money the federal government earmarks for public transit in comparison to other transportation priorities says it all: $33 billion on highways, $16 billion on airports and $1.5 billion on transit.

However, he said there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks, ironically, to the recession. President Obama’s $850 billion federal stimulus bill includes about $30 billion for transportation projects — $3 billion of which is set aside for California.

“If this economic crisis finally impels us to get cracking, then maybe in many ways it would be the best thing that ever happened,” he said.

But Dukakis said building good transit isn’t just about money. It’s about using it wisely once you have it. And on this score, he said, America is failing.

“We have a serious construction management problem in this country,” he said.

By way of example, he cited a project in Los Angeles to build a highway carpool lane that has taken three years and counting.

“I defy you folks, to find more than six people working that project on any given time,” he said, again prompting laughter. “I’m serious.”

In contrast, he brought up China, which is spending $24 billion on a rail project that is employing 110,000 workers. In Europe, he said, every city has a “first-class” high-speed rail system. Japan, he said, has had one since 1964.

“We practically destroyed the country in World War II, and by ‘64 they had a bullet train,” he said. “At that time it only went 130 mph. Now it’s running about 190.

“Compare that with this great country, which seems to be stumbling around,” he added. “It can’t even maintain its highway system, let alone begin making these kind of essential investments.”

Yet, Dukakis continued, Americans want mass transit. In poll after poll, he said, people say that while they want their highway systems maintained, they also want “heavy investment in public alternatives, and they want it now.”

For Santa Barbara, Dukakis had some advice: To build good rail service, find good people. To that end, he recommended that local leaders contact a former employee of his, Eugene Skoropowski, now the managing director of Sacramento’s Capitol Corridor Intercity Rail Service, one of the most successful light-rail programs in America.

“Ridership on the Capitol Corridor has quintupled,” he said. “Not double, not triple — five times.”

Before Saturday’s forum was over, the moderator, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, put Dukakis on the spot, asking him if he would help arrange a meeting bringing Santa Barbara leaders together with Skoropowski. Dukakis agreed.

For all of America’s mass-transit ineptitude, another panelist sought to remind the audience just how far Santa Barbara County has come over the last two decades.

Gregg Hart, public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, noted that when Measure A’s predecessor — known as Measure D, also a half-cent sales tax — passed in 1989, almost no money was earmarked for alternative transportation. By contrast, Measure A will generate $85 million to the MTD bus agency, $26 million to bicycle and pedestrian paths, and $25 million to commuter rail.

He noted that it passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

“The reason it was so successful is the plan was balanced,” said Hart, adding that it had money not only for alternative transportation, but also road maintenance and highway improvements. “We finally got it right.”

Saturday’s panelists also included Jonathan Saur, a representative of Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara; Michael Chiacos, energy program senior associate for Community Environmental Council; and Peter De Haan, programming director for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

A second, companion regional transportation forum will be held next week in Ventura. That forum is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to noon Jan. 31 at Ventura College, 4667 Telegraph Road, Ventura. There is no charge for the event.

The project was initiated by the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation (COAST) and funded by a grant from the McCune Foundation.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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