Tag Archives: rail

Battle Brews Over Subway to the Sea

One of the most important transportation projects in California, aside from my beloved high speed rail project of course, is the Subway to the Sea. A long-planned effort to build passenger rail to Santa Monica via the Wilshire corridor, it has become a primary goal of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Few areas in North America are as congested as LA’s Westside, and a subway through this region would be a godsend, creating thousands of jobs and reducing dependence on oil while untangling the traffic mess.

But LA County also has several other passenger rail projects they’re considering, and with the passage of Measure R (a tax approved by 2/3rds of voters in the state’s most populous county last November) along with a transit-friendly White House, Metro can actually reasonably expect them to get built.

The question is what gets built and when – and with what federal funds. As with most other transportation projects around the country, Metro’s projects will need federal “new starts” funding. Villaraigosa wants Metro’s board to prioritize the Subway to the Sea and another related project, the “Downtown Connector” (finally linking the Blue and Gold lines, as originally intended).

Villaraigosa’s plans are getting some pushback from local members of Congress. 14 members of Congress, including Adam Schiff, Jane Harman, David Dreier, and Maxine Waters, wrote a letter telling the Metro board that if they follow Villaraigosa’s plan, they risk losing out on federal funding:

The 14 members of Congress who signed a letter released Tuesday said those two programs [Subway to the Sea and Downtown Connector] don’t have a good shot at immediate federal funding.

Further, they said the county risks not getting much from the federal New Starts program for several years unless it adds other regional transit proposals to the application, including the Gold Line extension east from Pasadena, a rail line down Crenshaw Boulevard and the Gold Line Eastside extension Phase 2 from East L.A. to South El Monte or Whittier.

“We are very concerned that Los Angeles County is not positioning itself well to receive its fair share of New Starts funding in the near- and long-term,” the delegation wrote.

The background is that there are three other projects that some Metro board members and legislators want funded: a light rail line down Crenshaw, connecting the Red and Purple lines to the Expo and Green lines; and two extensions of the Gold Line into the suburban San Gabriel Valley.

The battle reflects typical political debates in LA County, with the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector seen as benefiting the wealthy Westside at the expense of the less prosperous and more diverse South LA and San Gabriel Valley communities. And as the legislators’ letter makes clear, it’s inconceivable that Metro could get new starts funding for all 5 projects.

Yonah Freemark, who runs The Transport Politic, one of the best transportation blogs out there, points out that the other 3 projects would serve far fewer riders than the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector, and that from a transportation need perspective, those should be prioritized.

Of course, the US Congress isn’t a place where such sensible considerations rule the day. David Dreier, whose district includes the I-210 corridor along which one of the Gold Line extensions would run, has been particularly adamant about ensuring that project gets support from the Metro board. And South LA representatives understandably want to ensure that their communities get served by transit – as residents there have the greatest dependence on transit, their case is strong.

If it were up to me, I’d back the Subway to the Sea, the Downtown Connector, and the Crenshaw line and tell Dreier to shove it. As the LA Subway Blog notes, the Subway to the Sea will have enormous regional benefits. Just because it is located on the Westside doesn’t mean that’s the only place it will assist – just as the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach doesn’t just benefit people living in San Pedro and Wilmington.

But the real issue here isn’t picking which of the 5 worthy projects gets supported and which doesn’t. Metro would be in better shape if the state of California wasn’t in the process of abandoning its support for mass transit. The state ought to be able to help fund construction of one or two of these projects, leaving the feds more able to support the other three. For example, the state should be able to help start the Crenshaw line and one of the Gold Line extensions, enabling the feds to fund the Subway to the Sea, the Downtown Connector, and the other Gold Line extension.

Southern California was the poster child for the 20th century sprawlconomy, and is now suffering greatly for having clung to that model for too long. Voters there now recognize it is time to change, and have put their money behind the kind of mass transit solutions the region desperately needs. It’s up to the state and federal governments to deliver their share. We’ll see what happens at today’s Metro board meeting.

UPDATE by Robert: The Metro board voted today to recommend the Subway to the Sea and the Downtown Connector for federal new starts funding. The board also passed an amendment by Mark Ridley-Thomas directing Metro to seek all other possible funding (aside from new starts) to build the Crenshaw and Gold Line extension LRT projects.

Skelton: Let Go of the Future and Start Drilling

Brian mentioned this in the open thread, but it really deserves its own post, it’s such a ridiculous column. George Skelton today made a full-throated but deeply flawed argument for offshore drilling that as far as I can tell boils down to “well we did it in the past, and it’s not going to help in the future…so why not?!” and winds up arguing that we should sacrifice the future for hardly anything in return. The column doesn’t start off on a promising note:

On some beaches around Santa Barbara, you could feel the oozing tar between your toes — and that was long before a Union Oil platform five miles offshore spilled crud all over 20 miles of coast in 1969. For centuries, the tar naturally had seeped up through the sand, providing the native Chumash with caulking for their canoes.

Calling it “crud” is deliberately misleading readers about what actually happened in 1969. From UCSB:

Animals that depended on the sea were hard hit. Incoming tides brought the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. Oil had clogged the blowholes of the dolphins, causing massive lung hemorrhages. Animals that ingested the oil were poisoned. In the months that followed, gray whales migrating to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel -their main route south.

The oil took its toll on the seabird population. Shorebirds like plovers, godwits and willets which feed on sand creatures fled the area. But diving birds which must get their nourishment from the waters themselves became soaked with tar….

Grebes, cormorants and other seabirds were so sick, their feathers so soaked in oil that they were not difficult to catch. Birds were bathed in Polycomplex A-11, medicated, and placed under heat lamps to stave off pneumonia. The survival rate was less than 30 percent for birds that were treated. Many more died on the beaches where they had formerly sought their livelihoods. Those who had managed to avoid the oil were threatened by the detergents used to disperse the oil slick. The chemicals robbed feathers of the natural waterproofing used to keep seabirds afloat.

In all 3686 birds were estimated to have died because of contact with oil. Aerial surveys a year later found only 200 grebes in an area that had previously drawn 4000 to 7000.

Skelton’s blithe dismissal of the ecological consequences of drilling is appalling. It’s not as if our oceans are healthy – oceans face crippling ecological crises and they’re in no position to withstand drilling.

Skelton goes on to turn “Big Oil” into a nostalgia piece (I’m guessing someone didn’t see There Will Be Blood):

Oh, another thing: My dad was an oil field roustabout, or driller or whatever job he could fill on a given shift. So were his dad, brother and cousins. They left their Tennessee farms and followed the migration to California for the 1920s oil boom.

My first summer job out of high school was in a Ventura oil field, an experience guaranteed to prod a kid into college if nothing else would. (But the oil job paid better than newspaper work, I soon discovered.)

So “Big Oil” never has been a big bugaboo for me. It was the producer of a vital commodity and provider of working-class jobs. Although oil derricks annoy many people as unsightly, I’ve always marveled at how they work, especially all lighted up at night.

Nostalgic memories do not count as a sound basis for public policy – unless of course he thinks we should go back to the days before OSHA, dump our toxic waste into the drinking water supply, and drive without seatbelts.

Worse is the conflation of Big Oil with working-class prosperity. Perhaps at some moment in the past this was true, but Skelton here merely reveals that he, like all the High Broderists, does not live in the 21st century, instead assuming that the conditions of the 1970s remain true today. They don’t.

Here in the 21st century Big Oil sucks precious income away form working-class families while returning hardly any in the form of jobs, taxes, or anything else resembling prosperity. And as anyone living near the Torrance refinery knows, they tend to actually have rather debilitating effect on working-class communities.

More below…

Skelton’s main thrust of the article is some weird attempt to argue that offshore drilling will actually produce self-sufficiency – since California uses so much gas, shouldn’t we drill offshore for more?

This argument has numerous flaws. First, Californians are reducing their gas consumption which has been relatively flat over the last 8 or 9 years. Conservation, not wasteful and useless drilling, is what brought prices back from the brink of $5 earlier this summer, and it alone is what will produce long-term savings.

Skelton tries to dismiss the correct argument that drilling now won’t produce usable oil for at least ten years:

Offshore exploration opponents point out that if the federal drilling ban were lifted today, there’d be no immediate effect on gasoline prices. It could take 10 years to get any crude to the gas pump. Fine. Most people driving today still will be 10 years from now.

This is a statement deeply ignorant of how oil works today. He is assuming that the supply of oil and the demand for oil will remain static so that in 10 years, the oil we drill off our coast will make it to the pump and reduce prices.

He is wrong.

The fact is that the demand for oil is soaring around the world, and it is becoming difficult if not impossible to increase production to match it. That is the phenomenon of peak oil at work and that is why gas prices have climbed by 30% every year since 2002. Supply can’t match ever-rising demand. The oil off American shores is so small an amount as to not be able to dent oil prices that, ten years from now, are very likely to be much higher than they are today. As demand rises around the world, oil companies will sell the oil we drill off our coast on a global market. The chances it will bring down the price of gas here in CA is next to none.

The only thing offshore drilling will accomplish is fouling our already suffering oceans and wildlife while lining the pockets of oil companies that sell the oil to China and India. How is that useful again?

Skelton does deal with the argument that lifting the drilling ban detracts us from the necessary long-term investment in alternatives – by dismissing it almost entirely:

Alan Salzman, founder of VantagePoint Venture Partners…adds, “The car industry is going to switch over to electric, and that’s a certainty. Hundreds of thousands of electric cars will be on the road in 2011.”

Let me know when one is affordable, practical and in the showroom.

People didn’t give up their horse and buggy until Henry Ford began making affordable cars. We’re anxiously awaiting our next transportation mode. Meanwhile, we’ll need to keep pumping gas — some of it from the Santa Barbara Channel.

Skelton needs to get out of the LA Times offices and take a look at the city around him. He might be surprised at what he finds. Hundreds of thousands of his fellow Angelenos have found alternatives to driving. That’s what enabled them to reduce their gas consumption and in turn bring down prices, albeit slightly. They bike. They walk.

His own paper reported on Metro Rail’s soaring ridership and again on Metrolink’s soaring ridership. Nowhere in Skelton’s drilling article is the MTA sales tax discussed, which would have the Subway to the Sea open by the time the first oil from the Santa Barbara Channel reaches Chinese gas pumps. Nor is high speed rail discussed, or clean bus technology, or greater urban density, or any other alternative to oil that is ready to go, right now, stalled merely for lack of political will that is currently being wasted on drilling.

Al Gore said it best at the TED Conference here in Monterey last March: drilling is “like a junkie looking for veins in his toes so he can get one last fix.” Drilling distracts us from the real problems our state faces, and for absolutely nothing in return.

Skelton doesn’t have to live in a future where the oil runs out and Californians, instead of building alternatives when we had the time and money to do so, are left with no viable alternative to oil. Unfortunately the rest of us do.

His plan for more drilling isn’t letting go of the past, it’s clinging desperately to the past in a blind refusal to accept the need to change in order to produce a better future. Just as California has failed its offspring by kicking the tax and deficit issues into the future, so too will it fail the future by drilling instead of developing alternatives.

If Skelton wants to live in the past, he’s welcome to do so. But he should not condemn the rest of us to do as well. California must change if we are to have a prosperous future.  

Why Intercity Rail Matters

We’ve had some good discussions on public transit lately, focused on moving people within cities via buses and trains. But just as important is intercity rail – getting people from one part of the state to another. And just as high ridership is bumping against budget constraints on city lines, so too is intercity rail running into capacity limits:

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand…

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak….

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

And it needs to buy new rail cars soon. Its Amfleet cars, the ones recognizable to riders as the old Metroliners, are more than 30 years old. And the Acela trains, which have been operating about eight years, have about a million miles on them.

We are running into similar problems here in California. Our intercity rail services under the Amtrak California brand, are experiencing soaring ridership. The Pacific Surfliner trains, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via LA, are the second busiest trains in the Amtrak system, often with standing room only. The Capitol Corridor, from San José to Sacramento via Oakland, is the third busiest route in the Amtrak system, and it too is bursting at the seams with riders.

That we have these routes at all is remarkable, and is due to the passage of Proposition 116 in 1990, which sank $2 billion into passenger rail. Amtrak California is mostly funded by the state, and administered by Caltrans’ Division of Rail (with Amtrak providing most of the operations and some funding). But this investment has run its course and new funding is needed to expand intercity rail, so that Californians can travel from city to city without relying on their cars or on flights, which are either too expensive or nonexistent (can’t exactly catch a plane from San José to Sacramento).

Proposition 1B, the multibillion transportation bond approved in the 2006 election, was supposed to deliver funding to purchase more cars and expand Amtrak California services, including the creation of a “Coast Daylight” train from SF to LA via the 101 corridor.

Those funds haven’t materialized because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance stunningly claims that there is no need for new cars. According to the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC):

The Department of Finance, whose director Michael Genest maintains that public fund support for mass transit, particularly the intercity rail program, is not a legitimate expenditure of public funds, has conducted an “audit” that said “we don’t see you need it.” So, “we can’t spend any because of that.” That puts the expected order of new cars for the Surfliners, Capitols, and San Joaquins on hold.

What happened was that Genest sent auditors to ride the Capitol Corridor in the middle of the day on a Wednesday in the middle of January – traditionally a time of low ridership, whereas the route is packed to the rafters on weekends and during commute hours. This flawed “sample” enabled the Schwarzenegger administration to extend its war on public transportation to the successful Amtrak California system, in an attempt to starve it of services right at the moment when Californians are embracing intercity rail.

Intercity rail is crucial to this state’s economy. As gas prices rise fewer Californians are becoming in-state tourists. Places like Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and yes, Monterey rely heavily on visitors from the big metro areas to survive. Without reliable and available intercity rail they will see significant economic damage.

We’re also in the middle of an airline crisis as flights are cut back and fares inexorably rise. That is going to make it even more difficult – and more expensive – for Californians to travel around their state.

I would be remiss if I did not mention high speed rail as another solution to the need and demand for intercity rail. But even though it is a necessary project, it won’t open until the middle of the next decade. Amtrak California can help meet California’s needs right now – if only Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t bent on shackling Californians to oil.

Sure, Arnold doesn’t want to drill offshore, but if he succeeds in strangling passenger rail, that opposition won’t mean much for mobility and economic prosperity in our state.

Congress Funds Amtrak – While Arnold Proposes Transit Cuts

I will be discussing this and the state budget this morning at 8 on KRXA 540 here in Monterey

California is undergoing a profound change. The land where the car was assumed to be dominant always had a higher amount of transit ridership than folks realized – LA’s bus system is one of the nation’s busiest – but with gas prices blowing right past $4 and headed for $5, Californians are flocking to transit – buses, light rail, subways, Amtrak, you name it.

And how does Arnold Schwarzenegger, avowed friend of the little guy, always looking out to protect Californians from taxes that might lighten their wallets, react?

By proposing a $1.4 billion cut to public transit. This is nothing short of madness. Rising ridership is limited by available buses and train cars, while soaring fuel prices put stress on transit agency budgets. MUNI’s Nathaniel Ford puts it well:

“Even with California’s massive deficit, scaling back the state’s support for public transportation makes no sense environmentally or economically,” said Nathaniel Ford, who runs the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

“Every dollar spent on transit helps clean the air by getting people out of their cars. And with gas prices continuing to escalate, we should be doing everything we can to encourage, not discourage, transit use.”

Arnold likes to tell Californians he looks out for their jobs and their wallets, but how on earth is does starving public transit of funds and shackling Californians to their cars and to rising gas prices do anything at all to help grow the economy and keep money in voters’ pockets? The Vehicle License Fee that Arnold cut costs the state $6 billion a year in order to save drivers an average of $150 – which they’ll spend on higher gas prices in the space of a month. He still hasn’t restored the $5.8 billion he has diverted from transportation funds over the five years he has been in office.

Congressional Republicans have voted $14 billion for Amtrak – so why is Arnold instead attacking mass transit alternatives in California? Surely it doesn’t have anything to do with massive contributions he has received from big oil companies.

Arnold’s silence on gas prices – THE topic of conversation across the state right now – provides a golden opportunity for Democrats. Californians are screaming for more transit – more buses, more trains, more opportunities to save money and have an easier, faster commute. Democrats ought to ensure they have it – voters understand that the cost of a new tax will pale in comparison to the cost of rising gas prices. Strong Democratic support for high speed rail would also show voters that Dems mean business, whereas Republicans literally have no plan whatsoever to deal with gas prices.

Arnold Again Tries to Kill California Public Transportation

I hate when history repeats itself. This year’s May Revise budget proposal has some ugly similarities with last year’s, particularly when it comes to public transportation cuts. In May 2007 Arnold proposed a $1.3 billion cut to mass transit. Ultimately $700 million was slashed, bringing to a halt transit projects around the state designed to help commuters get out of their cars and avoid the crippling impact of soaring gas prices.

Now, Arnold is proposing to raid public transportation funds again, to avoid tax increases. John Laird’s budget overview makes clear that Arnold intends to cut over $400 million from state assistance to local public transit. This is an act of madness, as Californians are crying out for alternatives to the car. Ridership on local transit systems is soaring, but these systems are also being squeezed financially by rising fuel costs – especially diesel costs (which here in Monterey are just under $5 per gallon).

These proposed cuts are going to make it difficult for local systems to maintain their current levels of service, and will certainly make it hard for them to expand service to meet rising demand. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Arnold wants to drive commuters back into their cars.

Almost exactly a year ago I denounced Arnold’s proposed cuts and, sadly, the words are as true now as they were in 2007:

Underneath the green veneer, Arnold is still the same conservative Republican who seeks to destroy the environment. What explains Arnold’s desire to destroy public transportation? It’s two interrelated factors. The first is that Arnold simply is not an environmentalist. He is fixated on the automobile as a form of transportation. He thinks more freeways are the solution, not more public transportation. The screaming demand of millions of Californians for public transit don’t register with him.

The second is that Arnold is in the pockets of Big Oil. They have donated well over a million dollars to his various funds since November 2006, even though he isn’t eligible for re-election in 2010. As their gouging of Californians continues, the oil companies know that a backlash is coming. They want to prevent that at all costs, want to ensure that they hold the line in California lest they set a trend for the rest of the nation.

If Arnold destroys California’s public transit systems, Californians will not have any alternative but to pay the exorbitant costs at the pump. The middle class will sink further into financial ruin.

Arnold’s public transportation cuts are a catastrophic disaster for the state of California. Not only will they make global warming worse, not only will they make our environment more polluted, more prone to fire, and mired deeper in drought, but his cuts will ruin family budgets, eventually causing lost jobs and further destroying the state’s middle class.

Gas was at $3.50 when I wrote that. We’re now at $4 and climbing fast. Arnold’s attack on public transportation is nothing short of an attack on the California economy and on the wallets of every Californian. It is the height of hypocrisy to claim to protect those wallets by not raising taxes and to then force voters to shell out more money in gas purchases. Higher taxes would help lower the cost of transportation for Californians, growing the economy and leaving more green in family budgets at the end of the month.

Arnold’s budget is flawed in many respects. This seems one of the most obvious – and one of the easiest targets for a counterattack.

Jerry Brown: “Elegant Density”

Former (and future?) governor and current Attorney General Jerry Brown was waxing nostalgic about his days in the governor’s mansion, driving the famous blue Plymouth (“it lasted 240,000 miles without an engine overhaul – now that was sustainability”), and suing Ronald Reagan over the governor’s mansion.

But the core of his speech dealt with our climate crisis. Brown emphasized his administration’s earlier efforts to encourage smart growth, urban density, walking, even trains. And he called for renewed action on this today. He conceptualized it as “elegant density” – get people out of their cars, build more walkable communities served by trains and other forms of mass transit, powered by solar energy, to not just deal with global warming, but to encourage a more sustainable California.

During the 1970s, Brown had tried to promote a similar agenda. He appointed a trains advocate as the head of Caltrans, promoted a solar energy program, and cut off funds for freeway construction projects, and establishing the Office of Planning and Research. He even promoted an ambitious Urban Strategy for California emphasizing density and limiting sprawl.

Prop 13’s passage ended much of this as state government was starved of funds. But Prop 13 was about more than low taxes. It was the reaction of the lovers of suburban sprawl, of the 1950s model of California, against Brown’s more forward-thinking model. As recently as 2001 arch-conservative Tom McClintock danced on the grave of Brown’s sustainability strategy calling it:

a radical and retrograde ideology into California public policy that quite abruptly and permanently changed the state.

That radical ideology has been the central tenet of governance in California through four successive gubernatorial administrations, Democratic and Republican, to the present day. It was described by Jerry Brown as “the era of limits,” punctuated by such new-age nonsense as the mantra, “small is beautiful.” Suburban “sprawl” would be replaced with a new “urban strategy.”

Republicans continue to make these arguments. They are bent on preserving the failed 1950s model of urban life at all costs. By doing so they have become a party of aristocracy. “Elegant density” isn’t just an environmental and climate strategy – it’s also necessary for the survival of California’s working and middle classes in the 21st century. Republicans will fight against this, and so it is very good to hear Jerry Brown mounting a full-throated defense of sustainable living.

The rest of his speech is pure red meat – bashing the Bush Administration and its EPA (“those idiots”), denouncing them for the mortgage crisis, and calling for the repeal of NCLB. If he does have the governor’s office in mind in 2010, this kind of playing to the base would make him an even more formidable opponent in the Democratic primary.

Santa Cruz County Kills Road-Widening Tax Plan

Back in November I wrote about Santa Cruz County’s “wrong way” proposal to pass a tax measure to spend $600 million on widening the Highway 1 freeway but would have delivered virtually nothing for local passenger rail, despite the fact that the infrastructure to provide rail already exists.

Happily, wiser heads appear to have prevailed. The county’s Regional Transportation Commission voted to kill the plan yesterday, meaning it won’t go to the ballot in November as originally intended. Erosion of public support was cited as the reason for the decision. The county’s Business Council withdrew its support and, more importantly, its promise to fund the plan’s campaign; bicycle and transit supporters objected to the inadequate rail funding; the Sierra Club criticized the road’s effect on climate change; and local Republicans demanded that the freeway widening alone be funded.

I predicted that the plan would have failed at the ballot box, and I’m not surprised that it didn’t even make it that far. The tide is beginning to turn against using freeways to solve our transportation problems. Last November Seattle voters rejected a plan that would have added 160 miles of new freeway lanes, even though they have some of the nation’s worst traffic (outside of California, of course). And this week the Coastal Commission rejected a toll road through San Onofre State Beach, rightly choosing to protect the environment over continuing our outdated reliance on highway transportation.

Awareness is growing that climate change means we need to move away from global warming emissions that highway projects produce. Combined with peak oil and high gas prices, Californians are beginning to realize that alternatives are necessary for a 21st century transportation system – Amtrak California continues to set ridership records every month.

By refusing to waste precious tax dollars on freeway lanes, Santa Cruz County has taken the first step toward solving its transportation issues in a sustainable and responsible way. This gives county leaders and activists time to educate the public about the need for passenger rail, and come back to voters in a few years with a plan that will actually provide for the county’s needs, instead of foolishly trying to pretend that the methods of the 20th century can continue.

Hopefully we in Monterey County will follow Santa Cruz’ lead – transportation officials here are proposing a similar roads-focused tax plan, having stripped $90 million to bring Caltrain to Salinas. Public hearings are going on next week, so if you’re in Monterey County, speak out in favor of sustainable transportation, and against sticking our heads in the sand on climate change and peak oil!

Brian’s Random Tuesday Morning Update

A few random pieces cobbled together by the magic of bullet points:

  • Charlie Brown is having a fundraiser in Pasadena tonight hosted by some of our favorite Blue Dogs including the ever-so-fab Jane Harman. If you've got $250 to spare, perhaps you can ask her about this bizarre editorial with Pete HoekstraCharlie Brown for Congress (4th CD), Reception, US Reps. Adam Schiff, Jane Harman and Brad Sherman “invite you,” Charlie's Angel $2300, Sponsor $1000, Co-host $500, Guest $250, 7 p.m., Home of Dr. Michael Fortanasce, Glenoaks Blvd., Pasadena. Contact: 916 782 7696.
  • On the totally random front,Germany's largest employer and transportation company, Deutsche Bahn, is trying to privatize. They're hitting some snags now, and I'd say…good. See, management (and Merkel's CDU) wants to sell a stake to institutional investors, and the more liberal SPD party wants to sell to small investors. But, perhaps they could take a look over the pond and see how great our transportation system is. Because constantly bailing out our air transport companies post-regulation has been great.  Hopefully somebody is paying attention at our CA High-Speed Rail Commission. Byt the by, the bond package for high-speed rail is still on the ballot for next November as far as I know. I'm sure Arnold will attempt to back it off again. Hopefully the Dems will support a vital piece of infrastructure for the 21st Century.
  • The Special Election to replace Laura Richardson in the Assembly is today. The competitors have been doing quite a battle, but I lean towards Furutani. And if I'm reading Paul Rosenberg's comment correctly, so does he.
  • The Governator is allowing hospitals to continue operating without completing seismic upgrades ordered after the Northridge 1994 quake. While I understand the need to ensure that our hospitals keep running, we also need to ensure that they are safe. Why can't they complete the upgrades? Well, under resourcing of course.

Looks Like The Wrong Way for Monterey County, Too

Last week I took Santa Cruz County to task for proposing a transportation sales tax that would fund roads and not rail. Unfortunately Monterey County has decided to follow in their footsteps with a truly reckless plan that would spend over $1 billion for roads but provides nothing for rail projects that have been in the works for a long time:

A Caltrain rail extension is no longer on a list of projects that Monterey County transportation officials hope a sales tax will help fund over the next quarter century.

On Wednesday, the Transportation Agency for Monterey County board approved a 25-year improvement package wish-list that boasts more than 20 road and transit projects at a cost of $1.8 billion.

TAMC is working to place a half-cent sales tax on the November 2008 ballot that would generate an estimated $980 million. The county would seek matching state and federal funding to pay for the rest of the work.

And why isn’t rail included? From yesterday’s Monterey Herald:

Over the summer, officials from the Monterey County Hospitality Association and the Monterey County Farm Bureau withheld their support from an earlier draft sales tax proposal, arguing there wasn’t enough focus on highway and roads projects that would benefit their industries. They also complained about proposed spending on a Caltrain rail project included in the earlier draft.

But after TAMC officials eliminated the rail spending, both groups sent a letter last month indicating they would back the sales tax effort.

This is madness. The TAMC proposal is reckless planning and poor public policy – locking Monterey County into a roads-only future for the next 25 years puts our economy at risk and will cause us to miss out on leveraged funding opportunities. We can become nationwide leaders in sustainable tourism and sustainable agriculture, but not if we believe against all available evidence that the 20th century dependence on roads can be continued for much longer.

image from TAMC

As I explained last week there are two fundamental reasons why rails, not roads, need to be emphasized in any new transportation plan: global warming and peak oil. Freeway widening projects produce significant amounts of carbon emissions, something that supposedly environmentally-conscious Monterey County residents should not be promoting. Peak oil is the name given to the end of cheap oil as supplies begin to shrink and demand continues to rise globally. The peak, which many researchers believe is either already here or just a few years away, is already manifesting itself in sky-high gas prices.

These phenomenon both suggest environmental, economic, and physical factors that should lead us to prioritize rail over roads. Even a “mixed” funding package with some road widening as the cost of a fully funded Caltrain extension and light rail on the Monterey spur line (a line TAMC owns) would be worth it, as Monterey County has a stronger need than most other places of alternatives to the car. 100 miles long, Monterey County would be crippled in the event of an oil shock, either in the form of supply disruption or even more dramatic price increases. In either event the ability of workers to get around, tourists to come to the region, and agricultural products to get to markets, would be negatively impacted.

On that basis alone, dropping rail funding is a truly reckless act. But it gets worse. The proposed sales tax would last for *25 years*. Not until 2033 would we be able to realistically return to voters with a new funding package. By that point it will be too late – peak oil and climate change are already unfolding. This specific package shackles us to our cars at the exact moment when alternatives must be developed.

Further, there is political movement at the regional, state and federal levels for rail. TAMC’s Caltrain plan has been in the works for many years. Caltrain is willing to provide service to Salinas, but only if TAMC can upgrade the track, secure trackage rights, provide new cars, and guarantee that Caltrain will not be financially exposed. The cost of meeting all these requirement has been put at $90 million – less than a tenth of the overall cost of the transportation package. Democrats in Sacramento have long been supportive of rail, and the Democratic Congress has moved to create a federal matching funds program for local rail, similar to that which has long existed for highways. To abandon rail now is to ensure that Monterey County will miss out on these new opportunities to help defray the cost of providing badly needed sustainable transportation.

And then there is the opposition of the Hospitality Association and the Farm Bureau. That TAMC would bow to the pressure of these two groups is itself a disturbing sign. But let’s question the sanity of these groups. By throwing a fit on rail, they are actually hurting their own industry quite significantly.

Monterey’s tourism industry owes its life to rail. In the first decades after the American conquest, Monterey was an isolated town, hard to reach (it took a day just to travel here from Hollister). That all changed in 1880 when the Del Monte Express began service to Monterey from San Francisco. The rail line enabled the rapid growth of the tourist industry here on the Monterey Peninsula. The Del Monte Hotel, the Pacific Grove Methodist retreat, and by the early 20th century, Pebble Beach were all products of rail.

The last Del Monte train ran in 1971, when Californians wrongly assumed that cheap oil would enable automobile-based transportation to meet our needs for many years to come. Now that we face the end of cheap oil, Monterey’s future as a viable tourist destination depends on rail. Without it, we WILL lose tourist dollars as the cost of getting here becomes too expensive for Northern California families and visitors from around the country.

And we would be missing out on a perfect opportunity to take the lead as an environmentally sustainable tourist destination. Much of Monterey’s value as a destination is based precisely on environmental preservation, from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to the forests, coastline, and dramatic beauty of Big Sur. Rail would allow tourists to get here in a carbon-neutral, or even carbon-reducing manner, complementing the mission and values of our region. TAMC already owns the tracks from Castroville to downtown Monterey, so all that’s needed is investment to rehabilitate the tracks and buy the rail equipment. And it would take pressure off of Highway 1, which can get congested at rush hour.

It’s not as if the Hospitality Association hasn’t been told this. Just last week, Monterey hosted a conference on sustainable tourism. Speakers from around the nation met with local stakeholders and, from the reports, all agreed on the importance of sustainable tourism:

Many local businesses and agencies employ environmentally conscious practices, said John McMahon, president of the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“A lot of these things being discussed are already going on,” McMahon said. “This is a catalyst to solidify that and to bring together all the entities with an interest in sustainable tourism.”

McMahon said the Monterey area is viewed by potential visitors as a spiritual and environmentally friendly retreat.

“Now it’s being able to validate that viewpoint. We can easily be a capital for green tourism,” he said.

Emily Reilly, former Santa Cruz mayor and candidate for the Democratic nomination in AD-27, who has championed sustainable transportation planning, discussed the importance of collaboration:

“It seems there’s a knee-jerk reaction by cities and counties of ‘what’s in it for me’ when someone else decides to do something different,” said Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly. “I think we’re really at a point here of getting over that.” [quoted in the Monterey Herald article linked above]

For the Hospitality Association to not have gotten this message is, to me, a stunning failure on their part to envision the future needs of our region and to grow their own business. Someone at the TAMC or on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors should have sat down with them and explained the vital role of rail in providing for a viable 21st century Monterey County.

The same holds true for the Farm Bureau. The Salinas Valley, salad bowl to the world, is well positioned to benefit from an improved rail corridor to the Bay Area. Agriculture is especially vulnerable to peak oil, as Cuba discovered in the early 1990s. As fuel costs soar and with the possibility of supply disruptions, every aspect of agriculture – from getting workers to the fields to powering the tractors to producing fertilizer to getting food to market – is imperiled.

The money spent rehabilitating the rail line between Salinas and San José would, even though initially intended for passenger rail, have obvious benefits for agriculture. With the massive population of the Bay Area needing a stable, local food source, as well as offering port facilities tying the region to a world market, expanded rail infrastructure would help secure local agriculture’s future.

Unfortunately, we the people are going to have to educate our leaders and civic groups about this. I wasn’t able to attend yesterday’s TAMC meeting, but there is another in January where the sales tax package will be finalized, and I plan to voice my concerns there.

We have other opportunities to help prevent this disaster. Each city in Monterey County must vote to approve the proposal, and then the Board of Supervisors must do so as well – those votes will take place later in 2008. The city of Monterey has signed the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and UN Urban Environmental Accords, which are a good starting point for reminding city leaders of the need for a more balanced plan. These votes could be used to push TAMC to restoring at minimum Caltrain funding.

There is, of course, the possibility of voting against the plan itself in November 2008 – the 2/3 rule for tax votes applies here, and a similar transportation plan in 2006 received 57% support, short of the 67% needed for passage. And while that may ultimately be the only way to stop this bad plan, it would be much more preferable to work with county residents and officials to educate them on the need to provide rail and then go to voters in November with full funding for rail.

It is long past time for California to abandon the 20th century fantasy that cars and roads alone can meet our transportation needs. Let’s get Monterey County moving in the right direction.

Going the Wrong Way In Santa Cruz: We Need Rails, Not Roads

As anyone who’s had the misfortune to be stuck in a traffic jam on Highway 1 in Santa Cruz County knows, there’s a major traffic problem on the northern end of Monterey Bay. High housing costs in Santa Cruz have spurred growth over in Watsonville, where homes are (relatively) more affordable. When combined with the job engine of Silicon Valley just over the hill, this means there’s a LOT of traffic on Highway 1.

So what should be done? Widen the freeway? Take advantage of the rail line that connects Watsonville to Santa Cruz to provide commuter rail and take the pressure off of Highway 1?

Highway 1 widening has been very contentious – a 2004 plan to widen the freeway was shot down by voters – and so it is somewhat surprising to see that a Santa Cruz County transportation tax force has suggested trying again in November 2008, with another 1/2 cent sales tax that would largely go toward an additional freeway lane and only a pittance for rail.

Environmentalists and transit advocates, led by Friends of the Rail Trail and former Santa Cruz mayor and Democratic candidate for AD-27 (should Prop 93 fail) Emily Reilly, have denounced the proposal and vowed to fight for transportation alternatives.

What I want to do here is explain why they are right, why Santa Cruz needs to seize this opportunity to lead the state into a more sustainable and effective transportation future. Instead of trying in vain to keep the 20th century alive, we need to realize our limits and embrace a more sensible vision for the 21st century.

flickr photo by richardmasoner

In November 2004 a 1/2 cent sales tax was put to voters that would have provided some funding for public transit, but was largely about widening Highway 1 with an additional lane between Watsonville and Santa Cruz. The measure only got 43% support, as a combination of anti-tax, anti-development, and anti-roads voters rejected it. Although the county transportation commission believes voters will support this, it’s not clear this will fare any better now than it did in 2004.

This isn’t just bad politics. It’s an example of completely misplaced priorities. Santa Cruz has been trying to develop a commuter rail line to connect to Watsonville, paralleling Highway 1 and potentially clearing up the traffic problem without adding new freeway lanes. To do this, the county needs to buy out the Union Pacific line that runs alongside Highway 1, an effort that has been stalled in negotiations for several years, as the county believes UP is asking too high a price given the renovations that will be needed to make the route viable for passenger rail.

Supporters of the plan point out that Santa Cruz County is well positioned for rail:

“Half of the population in Santa Cruz County live within a mile of the rail corridor,” says Micah Posner, co-founder and board member of Friends of the Rail Trail.

“Two thirds of all trips in Santa Cruz are under five miles and one-third are under three miles,” Posner continues. “It’s amazing just in terms of global warming alone that a rail trail has the potential to solve all our problems.”

Friends of the Rail Trail have produced letters of support from private rail operators that suggest a passenger rail line would be profitable. One of them, Sierra Railroad Company, is led by Mike Hart, who further explained why Santa Cruz County is so well suited for rail:

Hart summed up Santa Cruz County’s readiness for public rail with three Cs: “concentration, combination and culture.”

He argued that the concentration of the county’s 250,000 residents around the rail corridor overcomes the overall population number, which is regarded by opponents of passenger service as too low for a viable service. “Combination” stood for his company’s proposal to continue freight service – mostly for the Cemex plant in Davenport – by creating a system that wouldn’t necessitate running freight only at night. “The overhead, logistics, insurance and planning all need one organization running it to be efficient enough,” Hart said.

Hart’s final key, culture, proved he knew his audience. Having already received applause for his statement that Sierra Railroad operates its trains only with biodiesel, he said, “The Santa Cruz County mindset is, if we can help the environment by using a train, we will. When you figure the overall cost benefit, you can’t just figure the people riding the train instead of their cars. You also need to take into account the thousands of people who will walk or ride their bikes to get where they need to go.”

Left unsaid is the historical connection. Both Monterey and Santa Cruz were products of passenger railroads. As anyone who’s been to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk knows, it is situated right alongside the rail line, which carried weekend visitors down from San Francisco and provided the transportation lifeline that made Santa Cruz viable. Same for us in Monterey – the Del Monte Express was critical in bringing visitors to one of the state’s first tourist destinations, as well as bringing supplies to town and providing regional business access to market.

For most Californians, rail stopped being a vital part of life after World War II, when cheap oil made us all believe that personal automobiles and freeways, not trains, would solve our needs. We let our excellent rail transportation network fall apart – from the Pacific Electric cars in SoCal to the end of the Del Monte Express in 1971. The 20th century California Dream emphasized cars and cars alone; the Beach Boys never sang about trains.

As I’ve explained before, that 20th century dream is dying, and it is time to redefine the California Dream for the 21st century. One reason that dream is dying is because the era of cheap oil that made the 20th century dream possible is drawing to a close. Peak oil and sky-high gas prices mean that driving will no longer be able to be the basis of our transportation system. Already Californians have started buying less gas, and Amtrak California ridership sets records every month.

Clearly the desire for new kinds of transportation is there. So is the awareness of climate change and the need to move away from global warming emissions that highway projects produce, as explained by Seattle’s Sightline Institute.

But roads supporters in Santa Cruz County prefer to ignore all of this. When the transportation task force approved the Highway 1 widening tax proposal, they also rejected a resolution that would have required an overall reduction in carbon emissions and that each project funded had to be carbon neutral – a rejection Emily Reilly rightly found to be “shocking.”

A small but vocal group of residents in Capitola and Aptos, which lie along the rail line, also oppose the passenger rail plan, concerned that it would hurt their property values. Friends of the Rail Trail believe that in fact, a combined rail line and bike/walk trail would help property values, as well as keeping local economies afloat and easing traffic congestion.

Ultimately, the opposition of these few homeowners and the transportation task force to a rail solution is a sign that they still believe, against all evidence, that the 20th century can continue. Maybe Highway 1 widening would have made sense in the 1980s or 1990s. Not now. With scarce public revenues, soaring gas prices, and the need to get serious about climate change, spending $300 million to widen a freeway is an insane waste of money. Santa Cruz County needs to instead embrace a more sensible future – a passenger rail future.

And in any case, the 1/2 cent sales tax for a freeway project is doomed to fail. Santa Cruz saw this in 2004. Earlier this month Seattle rejected a massive roads and transit project when anti-tax activists and those opposed to 180 miles of new roads combined to sink the plan. In 2004 Denver voters approved a massive rail and transit only plan, FasTracks, and this year Charlotte voters gave 70% approval to a light rail plan. Will Santa Cruz be left behind?