Truth About Our Crumbling Infrastructure is the Tweets

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Author: Kish Rajan

Sometimes, it takes a tweet to speak the truth: Bay Area residents must recognize our crumbling infrastructure.

Last week, commuters complaining about delays were surprised when Taylor Huckaby, a social media manager for @SFBart, did the politically unthinkable. When faced with hundreds of tweets, he was frank and honest about the financial and structural challenges facing the public transit agency, and the Bay Area’s infrastructure at large.

Such is political discussion in 2016: Honesty is surprising and highlights something we’d rather ignore. Few comprehend that our public infrastructure is woefully outdated and ignored.

In 2000, the total population of the Bay Area was just a little more than 6.7 million people. In 2010, it had risen to around 7.2 million, despite the Great Recession. And in 2014, that number jumped to around 7.6 million, representing nearly a million more people in the nine-county region in about 14 years.

And while the tax base expanded, there hasn’t been a corresponding improvement in infrastructure development. When Chronicle City Hall reporter Heather Knight visited San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, housing the San Francisco Police Department, the San Francisco County Jail, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office, she was shocked at what she saw. The hall, with peeling paint, stained ceilings and evidence of rats, sat mere blocks from startups working in renovated lofts — and offering free lunch.

Often times, conversations about public utilities are a Goldilocks dilemma: blasted as a government boondoggle or mourned as woefully underfunded. But in reality, budget allocation is complicated and often predetermined. Conor Johnston, chief of staff for San Francisco Supervisor London Breed, recently broke down San Francisco’s “$9 billion question,” detailing how in the city’s budget mandatory spending, set-asides and matching fund programs leave only about $20 million in discretionary allocations. “That’s the budget in a nutshell: The choices that are made, the hands that are tied.”

Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum: When a gridlocked system meets demand, technologists create solutions — though not without their controversies. An acute lack of taxis led to Uber, now igniting the ire of taxi commissions and taxi drivers. Waze uses user-submitted intel to share creative routes through rush hour, but infuriates local residents when it directs drivers to side streets. The flexible structure of the gig economy complicates public benefits.

As a council member in Walnut Creek, one of the most challenging issues I faced was not public safety, or development, or education. It was parking.

Did the economic impact of visits to the downtown core trump reduced cars on the streets? Do we build parking lots, or encourage transit use? Do we react now, or plan for the future? Answers did not come easily, and only after community feedback and hours of debate. In the end, no one was ever completely satisfied.

Social media amplifies criticism of our battle-weary infrastructure. Critics of government spending and public watchdogs cry foul over the allocation of public funds. Longtime residents decry gentrifiers and vilify tech workers. Advocacy groups demand increased public oversight. Technologists attempt to upend the norm. Pessimists say we’re all just screwed.

We must at least acknowledge that this is an urgent issue worthy of our time and money. We must include everyone in public infrastructure projects. We must innovate on how we allocate and pay for them, and how to better invest our collective energy and capital to get it done.

After all, as the @SFBart account quoted comedian John Oliver, “infrastructure isn’t sexy — but without it, no one moves.”