San Francisco CTA Approves Pennsylvania Alignment for Caltrain Extension

But there are still arcane bureaucratic hurdles, not to mention billions of dollars in funding, to get the tunnel to Transbay built

SF Planning staff's recommended alignment, now approved, follows the original DTX plan (green), but with an extended tunnel under Pennsylvania (orange) to help reconnect Mission Bay. Image: SF Planning
SF Planning staff's recommended alignment, now approved, follows the original DTX plan (green), but with an extended tunnel under Pennsylvania (orange) to help reconnect Mission Bay. Image: SF Planning

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA) unanimously approved the Pennsylvania Avenue alignment for the downtown extension (DTX) of Caltrain today, which will one day bring rail service to the Salesforce Transit Center. Just prior to the vote, CTA Chair Aaron Peskin spoke about this week’s “Transit Week” events and his work to identify and promote projects that will be needed for the future of the city. “It’s so important that we invest in our system and its growth,” he said.

“It’s about time! The Downtown Extension should have been approved a couple of years ago,” said Rachel Hyden, Executive Director of the San Francisco Transit Riders, the sponsors of “Transit Week.”

Now the question is: When will this happen? San Francisco’s planning staff inserted the following language into the resolution, to at least give the appearance of having a firm deadline for getting trains rolling directly into the Transit Center:

…the Transportation Authority expresses its strong support for connecting the Caltrain/future High Speed Rail alignment to the Transbay Transit Center by 2027, subject to funding availability, when the California High Speed Rail Authority expects to complete the Central Valley to San Francisco segment…

It will be great if those two projects come online around the same time. But with an estimated price tag of $6 billion to build the tunnel through downtown San Francisco, it’s not going to be an easy project to fund. According to the CTA, money will come from a variety of sources over the course of the project, including $95 million from San Francisco’s Prop. K tax, $300 million from bridge tolls, and $650 million from the Federal New Starts program.

The CTA has put together a cheat sheet of anticipated funding sources here.

The 'train box' under the new Transit Center. SFCTA approved an alignment today for getting trains into the station. Photo: Streetsblog/rudick
The ‘train box’ under the new Transit Center. SFCTA approved an alignment today for getting trains into this station. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

One of the reasons for the high cost is the decision to lengthen the DTX tunnel. In older plans, trains were going to use Caltrain’s current surface alignment until just before the current terminal at 4th and King, where trains would descend into a tunnel to reach the new Transit Center. Under this newly approved plan, the tunnel is nearly twice as long, extending southeast to the existing 22nd Street Caltrain station.

This eliminates all street crossings in San Francisco.

At least one advocate, Gerald Cauthen, Chair of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group, wants the city to keep looking at the earlier, simpler plan. “Emphasis should be placed on reducing the cost of DTX,” he wrote in a statement about the pending approval. “To narrow the gap between potential funding and cost, the DTX project should be subjected to additional value engineering.”

Perhaps so, but the planning department felt the street trenching and grade crossing eliminations at 16th Street and Mission Bay Drive – necessary to increase train frequencies under the early plan – would further divide neighborhoods and create blight. As stated in a previous post, Susan Gygi, an engineer who worked on the new plan, likened the street undercrossing idea to the trenching of Geary Street under Masonic and Fillmore. This is often blamed for dividing neighborhoods along Geary, something the longer Pennsylvania tunnel option would presumably avoid (although I-280 does a pretty good job of splitting off Mission Bay already).

“We support the Pennsylvania Ave. alignment,” said the Transit Rider’s Hyden, “because it’s the most cost-effective way to get it done (relatively) quickly and with full grade separation.”

So what’s next? Even a spokesperson for the CTA wasn’t clear on that. And the SF Planning Department had not gotten back to Streetsblog by press time about the next step in the process (Streetsblog will update accordingly). Despite the upbeat announcement, the Transit Riders said there are still some bureaucratic steps before it has final-final approval. That includes getting the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which will oversee its construction, to approve the supplemental report on the Pennsylvania alignment. “These bureaucratic processes can provide important safeguards,” said Hyden, but “they often seem to be just another way to delay crucial projects.”

Meanwhile, Cauthen hopes work on tunneling between the current end of the Caltrain alignment to Transbay, which was approved long ago, can move forward as a separate project. This should be possible, as even the planning department is looking at phasing in service using the surface alignment in 2026, until the full Pennsylvania tunnel is completed in 2027 under the project timeline. “Under no circumstances should the Pennsylvania Subway come to be regarded as part of DTX,” wrote Cauthen. “It is a new project that should be compared to leaving the tracks under I-280 at grade, and subjected to its own stand-alone evaluation of cost-effectiveness.”

He’s pleased, at least, that the Mission Bay/3rd Street option is now eliminated (the blue line in the lead image). That option would have cost $9.3 Billion and wouldn’t have been completed until 2031.

Some day the basement will look like this. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
Some day the basement of the Transit Center will look like this. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
  • “…but the planning department felt the street trenching and grade crossing eliminations at 16th Street and Mission Bay Drive – necessary to increase train frequencies under the early plan – would further divide neighborhoods and create blight.”

    Pluheeeeeze. With median home prices toppling a million bucks and condos abutting elevated freeways there is no such thing as blight. Expect the total cost of this boondoggle to come in at least double the cost, because that’s how major public works projects turn out in the Bay Area. Salesforce Transit Center, Central Subway, Bay Bridge replacement, etc.

    Also, given that the DTX is separate from the Penn tunnel means that the 2027 opening date will be more like 3027. With no funding in place for the DTX how in the world do you expect the Penn tunnel to be funded and built in less than a decade.

    Good luck, suckers.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    They’ll be lucky if the terminal is still standing in 2027.

  • LazyReader

    Bridge tolls, so once again auto riders who don’t even use these trains are being forced to pay for it. Granted lots of infrastructure (Far more necessary) is paid via various methods you really cant escape from. But what this illustrates is Caltrain doesn’t accumulate enough revenue to pay for the infrastructure it has. And these agencies are more interested in running infrastructure empires than in providing service. New tunnels & transbay tubes are decades-long projects and it’s terrible to assume we’ll ride trains with any increased fervor when rail ridership and transit ridership in the US is in stagnant decline.

    Nevermind San Francisco’s betting on the wrong horse. The city is 10 billion dollars in debt. In 1960, San Francisco had a population of 740K and less than 7,000 public employees (1 public employee per 106 residents). Today, the city have a population of 879K and nearly 30,000 public employees (1 public employee per every 29 residents.) So while the city population grew 19% in 50 years, it’s public sector grew over 300%. All with California style fixed-benefit retirement plans and healthcare-for-life that, ultimately, the taxpayers are on the hook for. Growing structural deficits mean that — all else equal — San
    Francisco must keep cutting city services and/or raising taxes year
    after year after year. Why is this happening? The largest source, by
    far, of San Francisco’s budget pressures is also one of the least
    understood: the obligations The City has already incurred and must now
    honor. And I don’t think a train tunnel is a wise use of the city’s strained financial resources. We’ll be lucky to see the terminal ready by 2030, by then automated cars and buses will have already emerged to steal all of rails passengers.

  • Patrick Devine

    In fairness, Bay Area’s freeways and roads are really terrible at accumulating the revenue to pay for themselves as well. That’s why we pay taxes and you’re not getting tolled per mile you drive.

  • LazyReader

    I don’t care if they use a mileage based fee system, or a toll or a raise in gas tax. What matters is that infrastructure should be payed for out of user fees and not pilfered to pay for something else. Apparently it never factored into the minds of environmentalist and economists that mileage based fees or road user fees would incentivize people to maximize the performance of their drive namely fewer frivolous trips and more carpooling which would ACTUALLY reduce traffic. Several states dedicate a hefty share of highway user fees to transit:
    Connecticut is the leader at 71%; followed by New York at 55%, Maryland at 42%; DC at 35%; Rhode Island at 31%; Pennsylvania at 24%; Illinois at 17%. Gas taxes have at least four flaws: they don’t account for inflation;
    they don’t account for increasing fuel-efficiency; they don’t pay
    for most local roads; and they don’t relieve congestion. Raising the gas
    tax might temporarily solve the first two, but only mileage-based
    user fees will solve them all. The purpose of user fees is not to provide a slush fund for highway or transit boondoggles. It is to link users to the infrastructure they use and incentivize efficient service and to only build what you can afford. When you pay for infrastructure by pilfering someone else’ piggy bank you incentivize waste, fraud and neglect. Even worse subsidies discourage thrift because some transit agencies count subsidies as revenue and make believes poor performing transit services are financially better than perceived to be.

  • Flatlander

    Maybe you can provide a link to all these “economists and environmentalists” decrying a VMT tax?

    Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with subsidies. One of the most important roles that tax policy has is to encourage consumption of certain things and discourage consumption of others. The problem is when we subsidize the wrong things. Like corn or driving.

  • LazyReader

    Govt taxes everything they perceive to be evil, but subsidizes everything they perceive to be good, the problem is when they’re wrong they dont even apologize or seldom held accountable.

  • ortcutt

    Caltrain average weekday ridership in 2004 was around 24,000. In 2017 it was around 64,000. So, I don’t know what you’re talking about in terms of declining rail ridership.

  • LazyReader

    By doubling their operating expenses. They’ve actually done a decent job at increasing their fare/expenditure recovery. But trains and rail breakdown in about 30 years which is the age of their stock…so Caltrain will go into debt by billions in the not too distant future and spend the next several decades writing off their financial burdens. Back in 2010 Caltrain was virtually broke. It’s safe to say they’ll go broke again; especially when Flixbus and it’s competitors offer inter-city rides for $2.99 while Caltrain is busy spending money.

    – 6 billion dollars for the Downtown extention of which they only have 1 billion
    – 2 billion for train electrification
    – San Francisco is also spending nearly $1.6 billion, in coordination with Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority, to connect the Caltrain commuter rail depot to North Beach

  • ortcutt

    Caltrain’s farebox recovery rate has consistently improved over the years and their operating expense per passenger has remained flat even disregarding inflation. The subsidy from local governments was $39.4 million in FY 2009, and it is $20.4 million in FY 2017. But hey, why applaud success like that when you can just rant?

  • LazyReader

    Spending billions and billions to move a few thousand people around is not my idea of success. Those same 60,000 could have been moved by buses for a fraction of the cost. I don’t know why California is so fasciniated with 19th century technology. Especially since they accumulate tax revenue from the geniuses at silicon valley who’re working on the technology that’ll make trains obsolete in a decade. Nor the reason LA and San Fran are trying to corral federal money for these boondoggles, because both cities have debts spiraling out of control. LA county’s long term debt has doubled to over 20 billion and San Francisco is now 10 billion in the hole. Is it wise to invest capital into projects whose financial sustainability is shaky.

  • crazyvag

    Cars are 19th century aren’t too? Your logic is so weak that i could argue that the horseless carriage is derived from horse and buggy which is technology thousands of years old. Paved roads have been around for 2000 years now, haven’t they?

    I’m not sure where you studied, but high speed trains of today look like nothing like trains of 1900. Just like today’s Tesla looks like nothing inside of a car from 50 years ago. Have you compared interior of a car over the last 50 years to what your parents drove?

  • crazyvag

    California has nearly 400,000 miles of roads, and I drive less than 10K miles a year. It pisses me off too that my money is spent on road infrastructure I never use and couldn’t possibly use.

  • LazyReader

    But operate on the same principal. No matter how sophisticated the train. Station to station technology is no match for something that offers you door to door service. And this is a distraction from my initial argument.

    – Highway fees shouldn’t be pilfered by politicians to pay for train upkeep and construction, they SHOULD BE PAYING FOR HIGHWAY UPKEEP.
    – Agencies should overhaul how Transportation infrastructure is financed. It should be paid for out of user fees not subsidies. Subsidies de-incentivize efficiency and falsely advertise a demand for overpriced technology. From New York to San Francisco, everything from congestion pricing to bridge tolls typically reserved for road and bridge upkeep is being earmarked to pay for transit improvements, predominantly rail transit improvements.
    – Only cities with Manhattan, Hong Kong, Tokyo like density benefit from constructing rail transit. Outside those densities, cities building rail inherit an enormous financial burden they cannot afford. Hence the reason San Francisco, Boston, Philly, Chicago have dilapidated rail systems they cant afford to fix.

    – California is in a shaky financial situation to invest tens of billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure whose price tag continues to climb year by year. Especially when there’s a very real possibility that the technology Silicon Valley is working on now will render it redundant in a decade or so leaving taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions.
    – Transit agencies are more interested in spending money than in providing transportation service. Look no further than the infamous NAACP & Bus union lawsuit in the 90’s, when LA Metro slashed bus service in poor communities to build light rail in rich ones.

  • My guess is that this won’t be a cut-and-cover operation, which is a terrible thing.

  • LazyReader

    With the luxury and option to drive on any of those roads. You could build rail to that extent, but it would cost TRILLIONS It costs 5-10 million dollars per mile to build a lane of highway in the suburbs and about 11-15 million per mile in the urban areas. It costs anywhere from 50-100 million per mile to build rail out in the boondocks vs anywhere from 100-300 million in the city. But heck, if you’re willing to pay for the latter, be my guest. The fact across the nation, transit agencies are in financial trouble as ridership declines while costs rise. These troubles merely foreshadow the real problems the transit industry will face in the next few years. It is quite likely that, outside of New York and a few cities, public transit as we know it will go extinct within 10-20 years, and many transit agencies will leave behind a mountain of debt that local taxpayers will be obligated to pay. Transit carries more than 20% of commuters to work in just 6 central cities and in just one of the nations 60 largest urban areas. It carries just 11% of total passenger travel in the New York urban area, less than 1% of total passenger travel in nearly 360 census defined urban areas. Thus, transit could disappear tomorrow in most places and most people would hardly notice. It’s prospects are only getting worse. The four horsemen of the transit apocalypse.
    – Low fuel prices and the long term electrification of automobiles (Which California is encouraging by the way).
    – Growing maintenance costs (being deferred for the construction of new rail projects)
    – Unfunded pension and healthcare liabilities
    – Ride hailing services (which would be cheaper to subsidize than building all this rail)

  • crazyvag

    Oh wait, so you’re saying that i have the luxury and option to use any of the infrastructure that I pay taxes for. But earlier you wrote: “What matters is that infrastructure should be payed for out of user fees and not pilfered to pay for something else.”

    On one hand, you’re saying taxes shouldn’t be used on things that one doesn’t use directly, but on the other hand you say it’s ok if I have the option.

    Well which is it? If my grandma lives in Livermore and does drive, then taxes she pays when shopping at target should NOT be used to fund Bay Bridge – because she is not using it directly. Or is she? Should her taxes go to BART even if she doesn’t use it? Or should she pay, because she has the luxury and option to use it.

    You have hard time making a clear point since then you detour onto pensions, so I’m ignoring your tangents. Please try to collect your thoughts and make a statement that doesn’t contradict your prior statement if you want to have a discussion. Otherwise, it seems like you are just rambling about nothing.

  • crazyvag

    The idea of sales tax came out during Egyptian era in 500 BC. And today, we also have sales tax that goes to fund BART, Caltrain, highways and bridges. If you expect everyone to build their own road and bridge and slap a toll booth on each end, then you might be surprised that you’re a minority. Years ago, people reailzed that it’s more efficient to have a tax shared by everyone that builds roads for everyone. Your idea that each user should pay their own fee is well, ancient..

  • LazyReader

    Fine, I’ll put it simply. Short-distance trains were made obsolete by buses in the 1920s. Long-distance trains were made obsolete by planes in the 1960s. When other transportation technologies, such as horseback riding, steamboats, and canals went obsolete, we let them go except for tourists and museums. Why can’t we let go of the passenger train? At the time, America was suffering an inferiority complex in the early 1960s. We were losing the space race; some thought there was a missile gap with Russia; Japanese electronics were beginning to take over American markets. When Japan introduced its bullet trains in 1964, suddenly there was one more area in which our technology appeared to be inferior. Never mind that our jet airplanes were several times faster than Japan’s trains; Congress began funding passenger trains in 1965, and once a federal program gets started, it generates special interest groups dedicated to keeping it going forever. I would insist on observing the “Law of Large Proportions.” Investing $1 Billion on the option used by over 95% of the people (Roads for driving alone, carpool, bus, motorcycle, vanpool, shuttles, etc) will produce far more benefits than investing the same $1 Billion on the option used by less than 2.0% of the people (Rail).

  • LazyReader

    Using taxpayer funds to pay for social public goods is one thing. Bankrupting the state to pay for it is something else. Why when California is facing massive public debts and huge maintenance shortfalls are they conceiving of something that’ll saddle future taxpayers with debt for decades to come. Especially when in the not to distant future (whether you believe it or not) driverless cars and buses will render much of the public transit services out of business unless they co-opt to buy robocars for themselves. The transit industry may survive the “Mass” part of it will not.

  • p_chazz

    But you benefit in many indirect ways from roads.
    They that are used to bring goods to market. Did you buy something at a store, or have it sent to you via Amazon? It came to you on a road.

  • crazyvag

    If my goods take a specific path, then sure add it to MY shipping cost. but why should I pay for a infrastructure that doesn’t directly benefit me.

  • p_chazz

    How can you say the infrastructure doesn’t benefit you when clearly it does? In order for you to have lettuce from the Salinas Valley it has to go in a truck from the field, to the processing plant to your local store in a truck over roads. How is that not a benefit?

  • crazyvag

    You’re so misinformed that it’s hard to know where to begin. Long distance trains are still widely used in Europe. There are still plenty of canals in use today. Barges still go up and down Mississippi river power be diesel instead of steam. There are plenty of streetcars in cities in Europe. Have you not heard of intercoastal waterway and Gulf Intercoastal Waterway?

    I really think you need to brush up on your knowledge since your posts are full of lies that you try to prop up your conflicting arguments. Your history background is also lacking.

    Also, please structure your comparisons in a logical fashion. When you say $1 billion option, that refers to a specific infrastructure projects which is for a specific corridor, but then you compare it to an undefined mode-share for something unrelated.

  • crazyvag

    Well, because infrastructure lasts for a long time. How old is NY Subway? How about the water tunnels? Isn’t it a good investment to spend something that will last a lifetime?

    Your logic shows lack of understanding of different budgets. When you purchase a car, do you eat ramen noodles for 5 years? Why not? Well, because it’s affordable. California has a $140 billion budget of which 15% is spent on transportation. Should we stop all transportation funding and wait for self-driving cars? And that doesn’t include all the local taxes and federal money spent on transportation.

  • crazyvag

    What do you mean “Shaky” financial situation. There’s an $8 billion surplus so relatively speaking if you call a surplus shaky, what’s the opposite of surplus? stable?

  • LazyReader

    According to the European Union, nearly 85% of passenger ground-level travel in the 28 countries that form it is by automobile, high-speed rail has done nothing to reduce that. In 1990, cars provided 84.8% of ground travel in France. Since then, despite massive high-speed rail construction program, the percentage of ground travel by car was still 84.8% in 2015. While rail’s share grew from 9.3 to 9.9%, it did so at the expense of cheap buses, not cars. High speed rail has not gotten Europeans out of cars nor has it had a major effect on the airline industry, airline use is growing in Europe. Even when automotive fuels are 2-4 times the price what they are in the US, automotive use is still predominant mode of travel. Japan in 1960’s before the Shinkansen came online, less than 5% of Japanese households had a car. Even as the system expanded, automobile use exploded. 1990’s 65% of Japanese households had a car. 2015, about 79% of Japanese households had a car.

    The emphasis behind California HSR was that there would be vast public transit systems in the metros they arrived which would serve the people that took HSR to get there to begin with, car free. That reality hasn’t happened, BART in San Francisco is still falling apart (deferring maintenance to pay for extensions), they’ll need tens of billions to refurbish it, raising property taxes in order to do it instead of raising fares which would deter ridership. Los Angeles is building light rail to the tune of billions at the expense of cheap buses, rather than taking cars off the road, LA is encouraging poorer residents to use cars instead because they’re scrapping their preferred transit method (cheap buses) The fact is, California’s supposed car free future will cost state and federal taxpayers close to 400 billion dollars by 2040’s and; if they actually build it… close to a trillion in lifecycle costs and WHY especially when in the not too distant future faster app based buses, bus rapid transit solutions, smart highways or driverless automobiles could already be in service at a vastly lower price tag and usurp their passenger base.

  • LazyReader

    California is on the hook for hundreds of billions in public liabilities. The growth in local government debt has exploded since the 1970s. We went from $295 billion in 1968 to $2.3 trillion today. But as Greece is demonstrating, there is such a thing as having too much debt and at a
    certain point the markets no longer have an appetite for so much borrowing.

    The Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research issued a stunning report on the three largest pension systems in California. The report was titled Going for Broke and what we find is a rather daunting mountain that California has to climb if it seeks to remedy their pension system. It’s pension system is underfunded to the tune of 500 billion which California doesn’t not have.

  • Christopher Childs

    Where are you picturing the buses run? On the Caltrain ROW? Are you advocating just paving it over and turning it into BRT? Just running buses in regular traffic would destroy Caltrain ridership.

  • timoor

    The Mission Bay alignment is clearly superior is every way. However, I’m not at all surprised that the crooked Penn. St. alignment was chosen unanimously by the CTA. This is the very type of judgment that brought us the cracked load bearing steel I-beam that currently has the transit center and adjacent streets closed. The idea that faulty welds are responsible is nonsense. Who puts welds along the length of a beam at a non-juncture point? It makes no sense at all. It’s the result of putting politics over engineering. It’s either poor quality steel or a design lacking in basic architectural engineering. Of course not ones responsible – that’s the only part that was extremely well planned. We cannot let the crooked route go forward into the construction phase. People should be raising holy hell. I want HSR into the transit center, but not like this. The proposed route map looks like a very bad joke. It’s being perpetrated not just on San Franciscans, or even all Californians, but on every tax payer in the nation.

  • So “highway” money should be used to pay for pensions and other public liabilities, but not transit?

  • Hey the Millennium Tower is leaning away from the terminal at least.

  • LazyReader

    Transportation funding should be obtained by the users of transportation.. Gas taxes, tolls, bridge/tunnel tolls, etc are user fees. streets/avenues are paid for out of local taxes which is fair, local taxes for local infrastructure. Transit systems are being paid for out of an array of taxes, including pilfering highway trust funds, property taxes, sales taxes and BART still ignores necessary maintenance for expansion which only exacerbates maintenance problems for both. Rail transit is obsolete…bus transit still has viable means of transport and would cost far less to implement and take less time. The fact is transit is falling apart faster than San Fran can solicit funds to repair it, and it would be cheaper to subsidize Uber and Lyft or ride hailing services. The very real future of automated transportation rending conventional transit obsolete in a decade. the industry should stop building new rail lines; replace most existing rail lines with buses as they wear out; pay down debts and unfunded obligations; and target any further subsidies to low-income people rather than continue a futile crusade to attract higher-income people out of their cars

  • LazyReader

    Transportation funding should be obtained by the users of transportation.. Gas taxes, tolls, bridge/tunnel tolls, etc are user fees. Streets/avenues are paid for out of local taxes which is fair, local taxes for local infrastructure. Transit systems are being paid for out of an array of taxes, including pilfering highway trust funds, property taxes, sales taxes and BART still ignores necessary maintenance for expansion of new lines which only exacerbates maintenance and financial problems for both. Outside New York and maybe Chicago and a few other cities in the US, Rail transit is obsolete…bus transit still has viable means of transport and would cost far less to implement and take less time. The fact is transit is falling apart faster than San Fran can solicit funds to repair it, and it would be cheaper to subsidize Uber and Lyft or ride hailing services. The industry should stop building new rail lines; fix their existing rail lines; or decommission them and replace with buses as they wear out;Most importantly pay down their debts and unfunded obligations before the agencies become fiscally insolvent and target any further subsidies to low-income people who need transit the most rather than continue a futile effort to attract higher-income people out of their cars. The very real possibility of industry collapse with the rise of automated vehicles, shared electric city cars, privatized transit providers.

    . https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d22e23c10d721b06cc22a0d5e8fc385b6b1cf6f559bb2adb8c31c8d0ae85209.jpg

  • crazyvag

    It depends on which specific routes money is spent. “Lazy” objects to spend money on routes they don’t themselves use, but when I object to spending money on routes, it’s suddenly renamed infrastructure and pointed out how others use it. Well, which is it? Do we spend money on routes we don’t personally use or not?

  • crazyvag

    Well, “Lazy” claims that tolls shouldn’t benefit indirect uses. Which is it?

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