No government planning process is more given to cumbersome bureaucratic procedures than transportation planning. The whole process by which we determine what transportation projects get built is often portrayed — even by policy wonks — as little more than a mind-numbing collection of acronyms: ISTEA, TEA-21, CTC, MPO, RTP, RTPA, STIP, RTIP, and on and on. The very bureaucratic denseness of this system, however, reveals the solid public policy logic on which it is based. When we talk about transportation planning, we are talking about how to make decisions about our largest ongoing public-works construction program. It's a system easily susceptible to pork-barrel politics — the practice of individual politicians funding individual transportation projects for their own political gain regardless of the larger good. The alphabet soup of transportation planning is a deliberate attempt to create a pork-free process — one in which a rational assessment about which projects are needed actually stands a chance of success. This has been particularly true in the last decade, as regional transportation planning agencies have gained more power over transportation spending, allowing them to match up regional transportation projects with regional growth strategies. Maybe that's why Gov. Gray Davis's "Traffic Congestion Relief Plan" has thrown practically everybody involved in transportation planning into such a frenzy. It's called a plan, but it looks a lot like pork. Davis's proposal takes $5 billion over the next five years — all of it money that currently flows into the state's general fund— and allocates it to a specific set of transportation projects that Davis has identified. These include the Fremont-to-San Jose BART extension, separate routes for high-speed buses in the Los Angeles area, the Alameda Corridor freight line serving the L.A. and Long Beach ports, and about 100 other specific projects. These projects were not selected based on priorities created by the regional transportation planning processes around the state — indeed, in some cases, Davis proposes funding for projects that regional planner rejected. Nor is the funding allocated according to the strict geographical requirements contained in the state's transportation improvement program — the STIP, as it is known among the experts. Instead, the $5 billion is allocated based on the governor's own notions of how best to relieve congestion, enhance transportation "connectivity," and facilitate goods movement. For this reason, Sacramento wags quickly dubbed the proposal the "G-TIP" — Gray's transportation improvement program. Whatever criteria the governor applied in shaping the list of projects on the G-TIP, the result closely mirrors Davis's own political inclinations. Silicon Valley business interests lobbied heavily for the BART extension. The L.A. bus proposals permit an expansion of rapid transit in Los Angeles, a core of political support for Davis, but doesn't alienate local politicians who are opposed to an expansion of the subway system. Most of the money is spent on big-ticket items with strong ribbon-cutting opportunities. Furthermore, it's clear that Davis's list of projects is tilted toward geographical areas with whom he wants to curry favor. The Legislative Analyst's Office, for example, prepared a county-by-county breakdown comparing proposed G-TIP expenditures to the way those funds would have been distributed according to the STIP formula. The results are stark, indeed: Compared to the STIP, funds are pulled from all outlying Southern California counties into Los Angeles, and from the Central Valley into the Bay Area. Thirty-three of California's 58 counties receive no funds at all. A lot of folks looking at the G-TIP — especially those in Sacramento — are saying that maybe it's not such a bad idea, even if it is heavily pork-driven. This $5 billion, after all, is funding that otherwise might not go to transportation at all. Part of it is an appropriation of the general fund ($1 billion in this surplus year), and part of it is an allocation of specific general fund money (the revenue from sales tax on gasoline). "It's a good news/bad news thing," says Steve Heminger of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. "Clearly, we would prefer to use the conventional system. But that doesn't mean the governor's plan is unworkable." So, the reasoning goes, just take the money and be grateful. Don't look a gift pig in the mouth. That would probably be fine, except for two things. First, the G-TIP cleverly contains just enough money in it to skew the other, supposedly more rational transportation planning processes in its direction. And second, the G-TIP is sure to affect state growth patterns in a profound way, even though the governor hasn't articulated a coherent growth policy. The G-TIP doesn't propose fully funding any individual project. Instead, it typically offers 20-30% of the cost of big-ticket projects included on the list. The G-TIP allocates $750 million for the Fremont-San Jose BART extension, for example, even though the project is estimated to cost around $4 billion. Thus, in order to actually build the BART extension, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other agencies will have to come up with more than $3 billion in additional funds. (Partly for this reason, the full-scale Fremont-San Jose BART extension isn't in MTC's plan. The agency has proposed a scaled-down version that combined BART and commuter rail.) Even while he's not providing full funding for most projects, Davis is also withholding his support for the one measure that transportation officials around the state claim would help them come up with the rest of the dough — SCA 3, a constitutional amendment that would permit counties to renew their local-option sales taxes with a simple majority vote. In political terms, SCA 3 is likely a loser, so the governor's opposition probably makes sense. In financial terms, it means that building the governor's projects requires more money out of the existing STIP and the regional transportation programs. So in that sense, the G-TIP is clearly an exercise in using the funds the governor does control to gain leverage over the funds controlled by others. More worrisome, however, is the fact that Davis's initiative — while it does focus on new construction designed to relieve congestion — appears to be entirely divorced from any discussion in Sacramento about the state's growth policy. The jobs-housing imbalance in Silicon Valley is the focal point about discussion in the state right now. Yet while Davis's initiative would partly fund the BART extension, his formula takes money away from the Central Valley — where more and more Silicon Valley workers live — and gives it to the Bay Area instead. Furthermore, his proposal doesn't alter the underlying land-use policies of local governments — nor does it alter the financial incentives the state gives to local governments that encourage an imbalance between jobs and housing. Oddly, this multibillion-dollar transportation initiative comes at the same time that the Davis administration is trying to figure out how to spend several billion dollars in land and water conservation funds. Both these efforts, obviously, will have a major impact on the state's future growth patterns. Other governors interested in growth policy — Parris Glendening of Maryland in particular — have seen the value of combining the state's investment in infrastructure with the state's investment in conservation to promote a consistent vision of their state's future growth. But apparently Gray Davis sees no political advantage in positioning himself as a visionary thinker about "smart growth" in California.