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Julie Caine

Julie Caine appears in the following:

Caltrain Engineer: Every Time I Go Past The Scene of a Fatality, It Plays Back Like a Video

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Caltrain station in San Francisco, photo by Julie Caine

In the past six weeks, five people have died on on Northern California's commuter rail tracks, hit by trains that could not stop in time to avoid them. Every year, an average of 12 people die on Caltrain tracks, and most are suicides. This is a small percentage of suicide deaths each year – only about one percent of suicides in the U.S. are by train.

Caltrain has built ten-foot fences along much of the route, commissioned studies about location and prevention, put up signs with suicide hotline numbers along its tracks, and partnered with mental health agencies. But the problem persists.

And not just on Caltrain. In 2011, 702 people died on train tracks nationwide. Suicides are a small percentage of these deaths, but they have serious emotional consequences – not only for the loved ones of the people who kill themselves, but for the men and women who drive and work on trains.

Charles is a locomotive engineer for Caltrain. That’s not his real name; he asked us not to use it. Charles is the one of people who drives the trains between San Jose and San Francisco. He’s been working on the railroad for more than 30 years, and for the most part he loves his job.

“I’ve tried to quit the railroad several times,” says Charles. “And I don’t know if it was in my blood, or…I’m a third generation railroader, so I was always pulled back to the railroad. I like the lifestyle. I like the money. I’ve raised a family on the railroad.”

But there’s a part of his job that never gets easier—witnessing people die under the wheels of his trains.

“I’ve had two since January first. That’s kind of high for me. I average one a year. You never know when it’s going to happen. You never know,” says Charles.

Train engineers like Charles may not know when it’s going to happen, but they do know that, sooner or later, it is going to happen. Trains aren’t like cars. They weigh 400 tons. You can’t just slam on the brakes and stop.

“The way I kind of look at it, the farther I am from my last one, the closer I am to my next one,” he says. “It’s almost like rolling the dice. It’s an awful tragedy.”

On Caltrain, a typical crew is made up of three people—the engineer, and two conductors, who work with passengers. When someone is hit, the conductors are the first people to go out on the tracks to find them. The engineer is usually the last to see the person alive.

“It's an interesting thing though how in the heat of the battle, we kind of go on automatic, and it don't sink in until we've been rescued from the scene and we're taken away,” says Charles. “I’ve seen people break down afterwards. You know, I want to break down. Sometimes my ego and my pride keep me from it, but inside I'm dying.”

When they’re first hired, crew members are told that bad things may happen on the tracks and any crew member involved in a death gets paid time off and access to counseling. But not everybody takes advantage of it. Laurie Richer is a clinical psychiatrist at University of California San Francisco. She says part of the problem is that this kind of emotional trauma isn’t necessarily something crews are trained to deal with.

“As opposed to first responders--EMS, paramedics, police--that come to a scene, they have some degree of emotional preparedness,” says Richer. “Whereas a train driver doesn't. So they're not trained or prepared, or it wasn't a motivation in choosing that line of work. So these tragedies happen to them right out of the blue.”

Richer says the emotional trauma that can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s something we often associate with soldiers coming home from war. Basically, when we’re in danger, our adrenaline kicks in and we go into survival mode. The problem is that once the danger has passed, we can get stuck in that heightened state—unable to stop reliving the trauma, unable to stop being on the lookout for more danger, and with a strong urge to avoid the place where the trauma happened.

That’s the problem for train crews—they can’t avoid the place where the death happened. And they can’t avoid the fact that another one could happen at any time.

“It’s difficult because every time I go past the scene of where I’ve had a fatality, it plays back like a video,” says Charles. “Your first nature is to crawl in your hole and just pull the covers over your head – and many people do that, you know. They don't answer the phone after that. And that's probably the worst thing you can do, cause you just sit there with that rolling around in your head. It just destroys your sleep for several days.”

Laurie Richer says the best thing you can do after a serious trauma is to reach out for help as soon as possible and talk about how you’re feeling.

“What that does is it validates the response,” says Richer. “It helps individuals realize that they're not alone in their response, that in fact it's more common than not to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD. And also, peers provide ideas for how they got support. And seeking help becomes more acceptable.”

Seeking—and giving—help is something Charles has learned how to do in his long career on the railroad. He talks to friends and a counselor, and makes it a point to reach out to other crew members who have experienced trauma.

“I don't get to spend too much time thinking about mine if I'm helping others, and that works for me,” says Charles. “Plus I have a great network of friends who support me. They prop me up when I can’t stand on my own. They help me through these difficult times. I’m really blessed. I feel like the luckiest man on earth sometimes.”

Charles doesn’t blame Caltrain for the deaths. Track fatalities are part of the job, he says, all over the world.

“Caltrain goes to great lengths to keep that from happening,” he says. “They have ten-foot fences along the whole line. It’s not because of any negligence. It would be nice to prevent all of it, but that's dreaming. But we're trying. And anything that we can do to have some kind of effect on it, if it saves one life, it's worth it. That's why I agreed to do this interview. If it saves one person from this, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm honored to be able to do it.”

On a warm Saturday afternoon in June, several thousand people are gathered at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.

It’s a sea of blue t-shirts. The back of each shirt reads: “I’ll be up all night for--” followed by a blank line. People have filled in the words: “I’ll be up all night for my mother, for my father, for my Uncle Tim.” Other people have written in names, followed by dates—dates of birth, and dates of death.

The annual Out of the Darkness walk is a suicide awareness event held in different cities around the country. This year, people spent all night walking the streets of San Francisco, raising money for suicide prevention and research. There are a lot of individuals, and a lot of families. And this year, there’s also a group of eight Caltrain staff members.

April Maguigad works in the operations department at Caltrain. She’s leading tonight’s Caltrain walkers.

“I just recently moved to the Bay Area from Virginia in January,” she says. “I think it was probably right around the third fatality that we had here at Caltrain since my moving here that I decided that I needed a way to cope and deal with it.”

Ted Yurek is also on the Caltrain team.

“We've kind of taken a position of instead of not talking about it, talking about it more,” says Yurek. “And hopefully this helps promote that point of view, that you should be more open about depression and suicide as things that happen.”

Since the night of the walk, the Caltrain team has raised $12,000 to help people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Donations are still coming in. Maguidad say the walk gives people a sense that there’s support––that there are people who understand what it’s like to go through a suicide, and who want to offer help.

“It is a sense of sadness that you know this is a person who has chosen quite a tragic way to end their life,” says Maguigad. “You wonder about their family, and you wonder about the people they're leaving behind. It's not just another delay, it's somebody's family member.”

If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) right away. Help is there for you, and you are not alone. You can also read about suicide warning signs and prevention strategies here.

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SF Bicyclist Pleads Not Guilty in Pedestrian Death

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chris Bucchere, the bicyclist charged in the death of 71-year-old pedestrian Sutchi Hui, pled not guilty today to charges of felony vehicular manslaughter.

Bucchere made no comment after appearing in front of a San Francisco judge this afternoon. However, Bucchere’s attorney handed out the following statement to members of the media gathered outside of the courtroom.

“Chris anticipates the day when he may express his deepest condolences to the Hui family for their tragic loss. But for now, while the case is ongoing, he will continue to cooperate with the authorities and to respond responsibly to the charges in court.”

Bucchere’s next court appearance is scheduled for July 27.

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Bicyclist Faces Six-Year Sentence in Pedestrian Death

Monday, June 18, 2012

A bicyclist who hit and killed an elderly pedestrian in a San Francisco crosswalk earlier this year has been charged with felony vehicular manslaughter.

Chris Bucchere, 36, faces up to six years in prison if found guilty of “gross negligence” in the death of 71-year-old Sutchi Hui.

Charges stem from an incident on March 29 in which Bucchere allegedly ran a red light, hitting Hui as he was crossing the street in the city’s Castro District. Witnesses report seeing Bucchere run red lights and stop signs on his bicycle just before the accident. Hui died from his injuries on April 2.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced the charges last week, saying “This tragic death caused by a bicyclist illustrates the worst case scenario when traffic laws are not obeyed.”

Bucchere’s lawyer said in a statement that his client believed “he entered the intersection lawfully and that he did everything possible to avoid the accident.”

On the day of the accident, someone identifying himself as Chris Bucchere posted on a local cycling blog, saying that “the light turned yellow as I approached the intersection, but I was already way too committed to stop.” The post went on to say that he hoped Hui would be all right, and that the accident should serve as a reminder of how important it is to wear a helmet while riding. The post has since been taken down.

In a statement, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition said “We encourage people to resist drawing conclusions linking any one incident to impressions about all bicyclists’ behavior.”

Bucchere will be arraigned in San Francisco on Wednesday.

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SF Bay Area Transportation Round-Up

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Construction work on MUNI lines in San Francisco. (Photo by Julie Caine)

For some people in the San Francisco Bay Area, the daily commute will get  a little easier this week. On Monday morning, a new ferry service between the Oakland, Alameda, and South San Francisco opened. In San Francisco, regular service resumed on the MUNI’s N Judah and J Church light rail lines, after ten days of repair work at some of the city’s busiest transit junctions.

Statewide, however, things aren’t so bright. A new poll shows that voters are losing faith in plans for a high speed rail system in California. Despite this, Governor Jerry Brown is proposing legislation that would give High Speed Rail a pass from complying with some of the requirements of California’s strict environmental protection laws.

Julie Caine sat down with KALW host Hana Baba to talk about what’s happening in Bay Area transportation news.

Listen:

Here's the transcript.

BABA: Let’s start with high speed rail. Can you remind us where things stand with this project?

CAINE: Sure. Well, the California High Speed Rail Authority--they’re the ones responsible for the planning, financing, and ultimate implementation of getting the bullet trains built in California--just hired former Caltrans director Jeff Morales as their new CEO. Morales has intimate ties to high speed rail--he’s an executive with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company doing project management for the bullet train.

BABA: Isn’t that a conflict of interest?

CAINE: It might be. State senate transportation committee chairman Mark DeSaulnier said he was “troubled by the relationship.” And state senator Doug LaMalfa, a critic of the project as a whole, was quoted in the LA Times as saying “it's difficult to believe that Mr. Morales can be counted on to drive a hard bargain with the company that has been paying his salary.”

The Rail Authority is standing behind Morales, saying he’s the best choice for the job -- it’s been vacant since January. The plan for building the project, is due to go before the legislature later this month. Lawmakers will be asked to release bond money needed to start initial construction of the train later this year in the Central Valley.

BABA: What’s the political support like?

CAINE: Governor Brown says he still fully supports the project, to the point where he’s proposed legislation that would exempt the bullet train from certain requirements of California’s Environmental Quality Act.  It’s an attempt to block opponents of the bullet train, who could use the environmental law to stop construction altogether.

BABA: What kinds of requirements?

CAINE: Well, more details about Governor Brown’s proposal are expected next week, but basically it looks like it would mean people who want to use environmental law to stop the train would have to prove, in court, that the train would cause major environmental problems--like wiping out habitat or an endangered species. In the past, opponents have used the law to hold up construction plans for much more minor issues.

BABA: Sounds like things are heating up.

CAINE: They are. And, according to an LA Times/USC poll last week, voters are losing faith in the project. Statewide, more than half want another chance to vote on the bond measure that voters approved in 2008 to provide initial funding for the project. The polls shows that if it were up for a vote again, almost 60 percent would vote against it.

BABA: We’ll be interested to find out what happens with this. So, let’s move from high speed trains to light rail. Yesterday marked the end of a MUNI project dubbed the ‘Long Shut Down.” Can you tell us what that was about?

CAINE: Sure. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency—or SFMTA--which runs MUNI, shut down the entire N Judah line and ran limited service on the JChurch and 22 Fillmore for ten days. Service is back up and running now, but it seems like they’re still having a few hiccups. One of our reporters here noticed a long back-up of outbound N trains at Church and Duboce this morning, and yesterday, an N train broke down in the avenues, causing a system wide backup for much of them morning

MUNI was working simultaneously in two locations—at Carl Street, and at the busy Church and Duboce intersection. They were replacing worn tracks, upgrading signals and switches that tell trains where to go and which track they should be on, and working on making it safer for pedestrians in both places. At Church and Duboce, they also did work on the sewers—they were taking advantage of the fact that they’d already closed down and dug up that entire intersection.

Last week, I met up with Greg Dewar, who writes a blog called the N-Judah Chronicles, and he described it like this.

DEWAR: I liken it to someone getting their wisdom teeth pulled, getting braces, and a few other painful dental procedures all at once.

BABA: Ouch.

CAINE: It was pretty extensive work, and required massive re-routing of some of the city’s busiest transit lines, but it was the only way to do the repairs--the last time they did work on this scale at Church and Duboce was 20 years ago. That intersection is pretty complex, and can be hard to navigate—bicyclists, pedestrians, drivers, MUNI trains, and buses all come through, and it’s not always so clear who should cross when. SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose told me they hope the new signals will help make things easier for everybody.

ROSE: That’s one of the things we’re looking at in this intersection is how do bikes and pedestrians and transit riders all coexist on one street.  Some of the new traffic signals will help with pedestrians and transit right of way.

BABA: So, how much did this particular project cost?

CAINE: About $40 million dollars—that’s for repairs at Church and Duboce and at Carl Street.  Rose said that’s only a fraction of what it would cost to replace the entire system.

ROSE: At this point, to replace everything in our system would cost about $500 million dollars. We carry about 700,000 trips a day, so we have to do this work as we go.

BABA: So, what’s next on MUNI’s repair list?

CAINE: The MTA just received around $675,000 dollars in state bond money to do repair work in what’s called the Persia Triangle—intersections at Persia, Ocean, and Mission Street on MUNI’s 29 route. But the big project on MUNI’s list is the Central Subway, which just got about $48 million dollars in state bond money. The Central Subway is due to open in 2019.

BABA: And we’ve got a new way to get between the East Bay and the Peninsula, right?

CAINE: Right. A new ferry service between Oakland, Alameda and South San Francisco just opened yesterday. It’s the first new ferry route to be opened since 1992. The idea is to give workers an easier way to get to companies like Genentech.

BABA: Are there any other routes in the works?

CAINE: The Water Emergency Transportation Authority--the agency that operates many of the Bay Area’s ferries--says the next route would bring ferries to Berkeley and Richmond.

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Take an Audio Bus Ride on East Oakland's Most Popular (but Infamous) Route

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

A storefront in East Oakland. Photo by Julie Caine

(Oakland, Calif -- KALW) One way to get to know a new place is to ride public transportation -- especially the bus. It’s like taking an unguided tour -- one with as much to see on your own side of the glass as beyond it.

The most popular buses in Oakland are the 1 and the 1R. The 1, which is the local route, makes 105 stops in three different East Bay cities. It’s a trip that takes four hours from start to finish.

More than 22,000 people ride these bus routes every single day. Most of them don’t own cars -- this is the only way they get around. The buses travel right through the heart of the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods along International Boulevard, also known as East 14th.

Whatever you call it, it’s a road, and a part of Oakland, with an identity all its own. As part of our reporting project about the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods in Oakland, I got on the 1 to find out what riding the bus says about a community.

When I first arrived in Fruitvale, I asked a young woman outside the BART station where to catch the bus. She looked me up and down, slowly, and then she said, “The 1 over here on this side – that goes to East Oakland. You don’t want to go over there.”

The 1 bus has a reputation, just like the East Oakland neighborhoods it traverses. You never know what might happen. The day can turn from peaceful to deadly without warning. Crime is high, and people are poor.

But today, the streets of Fruitvale and San Antonio are vibrant and full of life. Ice cream vendors’ bells blend with hip hop pulsing from passing cars, and Mexican Banda music seeps out the doors of dark neighborhood cantinas. The people speak many languages: Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, and English.

People tend to keep to themselves on the streets, but on the bus, everybody comes together.

At the front of the bus, an elderly lady sits with a tight grip on her purple shopping cart. A woman speaking Spanish to her kids wrangles shopping bags and a stroller toward the middle section, where there are more empty seats. Towards the back, young men slouch low in their seats, listening to music and looking out the windows.

Robert Hawkins is behind the wheel.

“It's like a switch turns on in your head,” Hawkins tells me about his job. “Because you know that you're getting ready to deal with a bunch of mess. Or the potential for a bunch of mess out here.”

Hawkins has been driving the 1 bus for five years. Drivers with more seniority tend to avoid this route.

“You know, I actually used to live in the Fruitvale,” he tells me as he drives. “Basically I was raised by the street. I recognize things that an ordinary person on the bus is not going to recognize driving through those neighborhoods. So when I’m driving, I just try to focus on what I’m doing and nothing else. Answer people’s questions if they have them. And just try to make it through the day as peacefully as possible.”

Rosa Lopez is sitting in the middle of the bus with her two daughters––backpacks and shopping bags at their feet. Lopez takes the 1 every day.

“I take it to my appointments, to school, to my immigration in San Francisco,” says Lopez. “It gets packed, but it takes you where you have to go, and it’s cheap.”

Like Hawkins, Lopez also grew up in the neighborhood, and says it doesn’t really deserve its reputation.

“Oakland’s always known as bad, you know,” she says. “But it’s good, actually. If you get along with everybody, everybody gets along with you. Everybody out here, you know, is friendly. If you’re friendly to them, they’re going to be friendly to you.”

One of her daughters reaches up and pushes the button for their stop. And Lopez gathers their things and shepherds the little girls out the back door.

Out the windows of the bus, the signs are in Vietnamese, Lao, Spanish and English. We pass by all kinds of mom and pop businesses — restaurants, flower shops, Western wear stores, beauty parlors. A storefront church with a hand lettered-sign butts up against a deli advertising burritos and Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches.

I get off the bus for a few minutes at 29th and International. A Vietnamese man is at the bus stop, sitting in the sun. He lives in the San Antonio, in a neighborhood called ‘Little Vietnam,” and he’s on his way home.

I ask him if he likes living here. No, he tells me. It’s not safe, he says, but the housing is cheap. So it’s just poor people living in the neighborhood.

Behind him, in the shade of an awning, a woman named Laurie Greenway is crocheting a bright pink baby sweater. She’s not waiting for bus. She lives on a fixed income and sits here most days, hoping someone will stop to buy something that she’s made.

She says she feels a sense of community in the neighborhood.

“They've gotten used to seeing my smiling face,” she says. “So a lot of the ice cream vendors, fruit vendors, even just people that I see on a regular basis, if I’m not where they're used to seeing me for a couple of days, they'll ask my girlfriend who they see and they know both of us. Or when I do feel well enough to be back out, it's like what happened? Are you okay?”

That tension – the worry if someone is okay – is in the air in the neighborhood. It always feels like something might happen. In the same way, the 1 has a reputation for being a wild ride. I get back on, still expecting something crazy to happen. Towards the back of the bus is Addy Ortiz. She rides the 1 to and from school every day. I ask her if she has any crazy stories about riding the bus.

“I remember this one time we were riding the bus, and this little girl was sitting right by the door. And her mom came with three other babies. And she was just standing there. And the little girl got off. She got off when the door opened and the mom was right there not paying attention to her … And then she's like, ‘Where's my baby?!’”

In the end, everything turned out okay. The woman got off the bus in time to rescue her daughter. But the experience stuck with Ortiz.

“It was funny, but crazy,” Ortiz tells me. “It was scary.”

In the very back, a couple rows behind Ortiz, a man sits, gazing out the windows. His name is Julius Conley, and he’s on his way to work.

When I ask him to tell me what it’s like to ride the 1, he laughs and then tells me a story.

“I got on here one time, and it was late at night, and this guy got on with a duffel bag and started tripping, and trying to make people get up out of their seats and trying to punk ‘em and stuff. He was just like, 'Do you know what I got in this bag?' ‘Do you know!? You don't know. Get up! You don't know what I got. You don't know what's in this bag.’ I was just sitting there like damn! Like, you don't know! ‘I got a chopper.’ So, that's what it's like. Yeah, you don't know what's in the bag. Ride that 1. You’ll find out. Ride that 1, you’ll find out what’s in the bag.”

Most everyone on the bus has some kind of story of how just when they thought they’d seen it all, something new and unbelievable happened. But on the day I rode the 1, what I saw was something much more ordinary — regular people traveling through the neighborhood, getting to work, to school, to the doctor, or just getting out of the house.  In that way, the 1 is kind of like East Oakland itself – a place with a wild reputation that a lot of people call home.

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Occupy, Unions Shut Down Golden Gate Ferry

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A coalition of approximately 200 union members and people from the Occupy movement shut down the Golden Gate Ferry for eight hours today. The ferry serves approximately 6,000 daily between Marin County and San Francisco.

The protest was initially set to close down the Golden Gate Bridge, but the union coalition worked with Occupy members to move the protest to the ferry terminal in support of workers from the Inlandboatmen’s Union (IBU), who were striking today over increased healthcare costs.

“We are on strike to project our jobs and healthcare,” said IBU ferry worker, Rene Alvarado. “The same thing is happening to everyone. I see people getting laid off, and health care costs going up. It’s time for management to appreciate us the way that our passengers do.”

The Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District is in contract negotiations over the increased health care premiums with a coalition of labor unions whose members work as ferry captains, deckhands, ironworkers, and bus drivers.

“The Golden Gate Bridge District now pays the entire premium for all of the workers’ healthcare,” said district spokesperson, Mary Currie. “That can get pretty pricey, so we’re asking that our workers pay a part of the premium that the District now pays.”

Ferry service resumed this afternoon, staffed by union workers, but the Teamsters said at today’s protest that they plan to shut down all Golden Gate Transit bus service on May 10 if contract issues with the District aren’t resolved.

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Decoding the Mysteries of Bay Area Traffic

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Traffic Management Center, Oakland, CA. Photo courtesy of Caltrans,

(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) If you added up all of the time that people in the Bay Area spend stuck in traffic, it would average out to about 40 million hours a year. It doesn’t take much to slow down traffic – accidents and construction and weather conditions all have an impact. And, there’s more than cars on the road.

Last year, a truck full of chickens overturned on 80 near Fairfield. And then there was the herd of cattle that wandered through the toll plaza on the Benicia Bridge. Not to mention all the falling ladders – that’s one of the most common pieces of debris.

But there’s a more basic issue: the Bay Area’s population just keeps growing: we’re at 7 million people and counting.

So, what do we do? What are the best strategies for getting around, and whose job is it to figure it all out? I went out on the road to learn about the art and science of traffic management.

But Ted Posey, also known as the “Super Commuter,” does traffic reports for KGO Radio in San Francisco.

“Traffic coverage is almost like a security blanket,” says Posey. “It's kind of like a personal level. Like you talk to people and it's like, 'Hey man I was in that traffic the other day that you were talking about. That was terrible!' and I'm like, yeah, I know, so was I. That was not fun. They know that I'm at least sitting there with them.”

KGO has two reporters watching the commute from airplanes, and a reporter back at the station who monitors reports from the California highway patrol. But for gritty details of what the commute is really like, they rely on the view from the ground.

So, Monday through Friday, Posey gets in his car and drives the morning and afternoon rush hours, giving live on-air traffic reports every ten minutes. He drives 250 miles a day, and spends about $200 on gas every week. Getting stuck in traffic doesn’t bother him, though. After all, his commute is his job.

On a recent Monday, I went out with Posey for the afternoon commute. Around 4:45pm we got stuck on 101-North, close to the Vermont Street exit.  We ended up sitting completely still on the freeway, watching drivers all around us check smartphones, fix their makeup, and sing. Some just stare blankly ahead.

Traffic reporters can tell you what’s happening on the road--but they can’t always tell you why. Sorting that out, and finding ways to keep traffic moving, is someone else’s job. Actually, a lot of people’s jobs: Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission all play a role. They’re all based in a building in downtown Oakland called the Traffic Management Center, or TMC.

Sean Nozzari, the Caltrans Deputy District Director for Traffic Operations says the TMC sometimes gets referred to as the “Pentagon of California.”

The TMC looks like NASA’s Mission Control. A two-story high wall shows live video of Bay Area traffic on 22 separate screens. Operators can switch views to any one of 300 different Caltrans cameras on 500 miles of freeways. And right In the middle of wall is a glowing map of all the Bay Area roadways. Around 3:30 on a recent Tuesday, they’re turning red before our eyes.

Hunched over banks of computer screens are workers from the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and 511.org traffic and information. They’re all working together to keep traffic in the Bay Area moving – now, and in the future.

Nozzari says the TMC is a “big part of our vision for mobility in California. We monitor the highways, and at the same time, we try to figure out what all could be done in terms of future improvements.”

Everyone here is constantly watching Bay Area traffic – on the video screens, from speed detectors buried in the pavement, and from reports from highway patrol officers. They dispatch tow trucks and ambulances, update 511 information, and generally try to control the flow of vehicles using elements like changeable message signs, detection stations, and ramp metering.

But, says Nozzari, there are only so many little tricks like that – and they can’t prevent every back up.

“In California, especially in the Bay Area, we have kind of reached our limits of highway expansion,” says Nozzari. “So we have to do everything we can to maximize usage of the existing system.”

Right now, 511.org is integrating real-time data from the TMC, so you can use your computer or cell phone to figure out the best way to get where you’re going – whether that’s driving a car, taking public transit, picking up a rideshare, or riding a bike. In a couple months, they’re even going to be able to tell you where to park.

 

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Bay Area Musical Bike Tour

Friday, April 20, 2012

(San Francisco -- Max Jacobs, KALW) I love my classic Nishiki road bike. I know, it’s kind of a Bay Area hipster cliché, but what can I say? I enjoy riding and I try to bike as much as I can – to work, for fun, whatever. So I was excited to hear about the new 10-day, 200-mile bike tour that the bands Rupa and the April Fishes and Shake Your Peace have planned.

But when I meet up with the musicians behind the fully bike-powered Bay Rising Tour, I have to say I'm  a little surprised. There are no sleek road bikes or spandex apparel – on first glance it doesn’t look like a veteran cycling crew at all. It does, however, look like a band: there are a lot of musical instruments. I spot two guitars, a ukulele, some type of drum, and…a cello! Today is a test run, starting from the Mission district going all the way across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. And it seems to be as much about learning how to load everything as it is about the actual ride.

Rupa Marya, the bandleader for the April Fishes, admits that there is a lot to learn about the actual packing process. She’s strapping her guitar onto her cargo bike for the first time. “I don’t want to be biking up a hill and losing my pedals, or instruments, or underwear for that matter, which is sitting precariously on top of my bike,” she says.

Although this tour is completely in the Bay Area, it’s still ten days on the road and they’ll average about 20 miles per day, hauling all their gear. Even as a decently experienced cyclist, this sounds ambitious to me – especially for a band that has never done this before.

“The last four years, we’ve been used to touring on buses and trains and planes and boats,” says Marya. “We’re used to getting on to something and being passive and then getting off and playing a show. And our shows are really physically exhausting and so now it’s gonna be more physically exhausting.”

That's because they're carrying everything – literally everything: an entire sound system, a drum set, percussion set ups, four guitars, a Cuban tres, a saxophone, a trumpet, a fiddle, and more. And it will all be transported on bike trailers, Xtra-cycle long bikes, and on riders’ backs. They’ve had to get creative with their packing.

If there's an expert here, it's Gabe Dominguez, lead singer of Shake Your Peace. “I used my Xtra-cycle long bike to haul a normal wheel-based bike, so like a normal street cruiser here today.” With Dominguez’ bike setup, the ride adds up to 11 people and 12 bikes. After all the equipment is loaded, we are ready to start.

On April 19, the bands will depart, in similar fashion from San Francisco. They'll be performing in some non-traditional places, including a Bike Party in San Jose, a Sustainable Living Center in Oakland, an Ohlone ceremony in Glen Cove (near Vallejo), and on their final and maybe their most ambitious day, “we’ll wake up in the morning and bike to San Quentin Prison and we’ll be playing for the inmates,” says Marya. But that’s not all. That same day, they’ll “get on a ferry and come back to San Francisco, hopefully on time, and bike to the Independent and play a show there,” says Marya. “And then we’ll take a really long hot bath, in a giant bathtub!”

Back on our test run, the most exhilarating point is reaching the Golden Gate Bridge. Most of the musicians are seeing it for the first time from a bike rather than a car. I ask Marya how it’s going. “It’s going rad! It’s so beautiful, we’re a little circus on wheels,” she yells.

As we roll past the tourists in Sausalito, it really does feel a bit like a circus. There’s nearly a dozen of us, sometimes spread out over a quarter mile of road, large and awkward instruments are strapped all over the bikes – we definitely turn some heads. But for Marya and her band, going outside their comfort zone is a big part of what they actually enjoy about touring.

“We did a tour along the U.S.-Mexico border that inspired a lot of music for me and the band,” recounts Marya. “I was like, ‘Hey guys, want to get in a van and go back and forth over the border and interview people and gather sound?’ ‘Hell yeah, let’s try that.’”

Earlier this year, the band traveled to Greece and played in a social center in Athens. Then they went to India to perform in the slums of Omnibad. So it’s really not a surprise that their latest endeavor would involve playing for kids, prisoners, and participating in a Native American ceremony all in the same week.

“All the different types of places you play and how you play – how you do it, how you roll – end up creating your ideas around art. And your life is integral to the art form, and the art form is not just the performance – it’s everything between the performances,” Marya explains.

When we roll into the docks at the ferry terminal in Sausalito, I realize that this tour is more than just testing the limits of what a band can do, or finding a more environmentally friendly way to travel. It's about how the uncertainty of the journey itself is part of the purpose. And as the April Fishes know, the only way to really learn that is to experience the ride.

The Bay Rising Tour kicks off on April 19 from the Mission District in San Francisco. For a complete listing of the tour dates, visit Rupa and the April Fishes official website.

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Why California's Gas Prices Are So High

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gas price heat map courtesy of GasBuddy.com

 

If you want know the price of gas around the United States, there’s a map online that breaks it down for you. The states with the cheapest gas are green, and the states with the most expensive are red. It’s probably the only map where California is one of the reddest states in the country.

People are blaming the threat of war in Iran and election year politics for the most recent hike in gas prices, but I wanted to know why Californians always seem to pay more.

I moved to California from Kansas about 15 years ago. The move made me realize what a big country we live in, and how different daily life can be from state to state. But we do have some things in common – whenever I talk to friends and family in other parts of the country, there are three things we can always talk about: the weather, how much it costs to buy a house, and the price of gas. It’s like a cultural barometer.

This past week I asked people around the country to record the price they paid for a gallon of regular gas. Here’s what people told me they paid.

Big Timber, Montana, $3.62

Lawrence, Kansas, $3.65

Golden, Colorado, $3.79

Nashville, Tennessee, $3.79

Minneapolis, Minnesota, $3.89. (Hot dogs, two for $2.50)

Boston, Massachusetts, $3.95

Brooklyn, New York, $4.19

But in California, we’re kind of jaded. San Francisco first hit the four-dollar mark back in 2008. Our gas prices, on average, are usually higher than in other parts of the country – we can pay as much as a dollar more per gallon than people just across the border in Oregon or Nevada. Last week, the a gallon of regular at one station in San Francisco’s Mission District went for $4.69.

Basically, gas prices rise when crude oil prices rise. Right now, crude oil is expensive. Severin Borenstein co-directs the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley. Borenstein says that no matter where you live, oil producers are the main driver of high gas prices.

“The reason we have four-dollar gasoline now and we had two-dollar gasoline a few years ago is the price of oil,” said Borenstein. “So if you're an oil producer, you're making a lot of money right now.”

According to the California Energy Commission, almost 70 percent of what you pay at the pump goes to oil producers. But what accounts for the regional differences in price? After all, we’re all paying the same amount for crude, and we’re all paying the same amount in federal gas tax. So why don’t we pay the same for a gallon of gas in California as they do in Kansas or Montana?

“California uses a different sort of gasoline than the rest of the country. It's a different formulation,” explained Borenstein. “It's a more expensive formulation to produce. It's also a cleaner-burning formulation.”

California has the strictest emission control regulations in the country, even stricter than the federal government. And our special gas recipe helps keep pollution down.  But it also costs more to produce. On average it adds five to 15 cents to every gallon we buy.  Lisa Margonelli, the author of the book, Oil on the Brain: Petroleum’s Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank, says one of the things we’re paying for in California is cleaner air.

“People say, ‘Oh my god, we're spending ten cents extra a gallon for gasoline! And we're just doing that to keep the air clean!’ Well, yes, you are. But your house is worth a lot more because you can see the nearby hills,” said Margonelli.

It wasn’t always like that. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Margonelli says, air pollution was so bad in California that people could go for weeks without being able to see the mountains that ring Los Angeles.

“There were movies coming out of Hollywood about kids dying on the way home from school because of the smog,” she said. “California came up with this idea of changing the formula for the gasoline, changing the way the cars worked with catalytic converters and set off this whole chain reaction of events that basically allowed our population to keep growing, allowed our industry to keep growing. This is the bargain that we made.”

That bargain gives us cleaner air, but it also means that California is something of a closed market. Since our gas is an exclusive blend, refineries have to be specially designed in order to make it. And it’s a gas that no other state uses.

“You can't just get in a truck filled with gasoline from Oregon and drive here and flood our market with cheaper gasoline, bringing down the price and make a profit on the side,” said Margonelli. “You can't do that.”

So, if we’re running short on gas in California, we have to pay extra for limited supplies or pay extra to ship in our special formula from the few refineries that make it.

The other thing that happens is the gas recipe changes from winter to summer. Air quality tends to get worse as it gets hotter outside. But that summer gas is more expensive to produce. When refineries switch over it’s a complex process, and sometimes things go wrong -- which can limit supplies, or just make people really anxious about potentially limited supplies. This anxiety means that while the switch is happening, prices tend to go up. That’s going on right now.

A gas station owner in San Francisco named Joe has been in the business for the last 35 years. (Because his business depends on his good relationships with oil companies and refiners, he didn’t want to use his last name.) For him, higher gas prices don’t necessarily mean higher profits.

“Sometimes we make a few cents, sometimes we lose a few cents,” he said. “Whether the gas is one dollar a gallon or five dollars a gallon, our margin is basically the same thing.”

That margin is pretty small—Joe averages between five and ten cents profit for each gallon he sells. Most of the money station owners make comes from selling things like bags of Doritos and bottles of water.

“Most of the cost for the gas are taxes,” Joe explained. “Just on the gas alone there's approximately 50 cents in tax.  So, if the gas is free, you'll pay 50 cents, let's put it this way.”

Right now in California we pay an average of 68 cents per gallon of gas in taxes. More than half of that goes to the state. Only consumers in New York State pay more – but by less than a penny. On top of the taxes, credit card fees also drive prices up.

On the street where Joe has his station, the price for a gallon of regular varies widely from station to station, by about ten or 11 cents. Some of that variation comes from whether or not the gas is generic or “brand name,” like Shell or Chevron. Severin Borenstein says some of that variation comes from how affluent the neighborhood is.

“If property values are high, gas stations don't tend to stay there, or fewer gas stations stay there. And if fewer gas stations stay there, there's less competition. So if the next gas station is right next door, you see more competition than if the next gas station's a mile away. As a result, in places where gas stations are more widely dispersed, you see higher retail margins. Now, these people aren't ripping you off, they have to cover their property cost. And that is part of what they're doing. They do charge what the market will bear,” said Borenstein.

So that’s one reason why, in a city like San Francisco, you can pay anywhere from $4.19 to $4.69 for the same gallon of gas.  But, we also pay more for gas here simply because we can.

“In areas that are more affluent, I think we tend to see people be less aggressive in finding the cheapest gasoline,” said Borenstein. “As a result, in those areas, you do tend to see higher prices and higher retail margins. Again, retailers of gasoline are not generally getting rich off of that business. But it is the case that where they can charge a higher price, they will.”

Author Lisa Margonelli says California consumers are willing to pay more for gas not just because of affluence, but also out of necessity. Many of us simply can’t cut back.

“Your ability to cut back on gas really depends upon where you are in the economic food chain in the US, and in California in particular,” she said. “If you got a mortgage in 2005 say, and you decided that you really wanted to buy a house and prices were really high, you would have done something called drive ‘till you qualify. You would have driven away from the major city until you got further and further away to a place like Fairfield, maybe, where you would qualify for a mortgage, because housing prices were low enough, and mortgage terms were friendly enough to get you all the way out there. So then you're stuck in this house where you have to commute.”

As gas prices rise, and housing values go down, consumers are left in an economic vise with very few options for escape.

“So you're stuck with your car, you're stuck with your commute. And you hope that you can keep your job. You are stuck,” said Margonelli. “And at today's gas prices, the average family in California, a four-person household, is consuming about $436 worth of gasoline a month. That’s really high!”

That’s $125 more than an average family pays in neighboring Nevada. For many of us, gasoline is something we just can’t live without. If you don’t have access to public transit, or you live too far away from your job, you’ve got to drive. And that means you have to use California’s special, expensive blend of gasoline. But it’s not always the most expensive. You could live in Maui, Hawaii, for example, where a gallon of regular gas last week was $4.75.

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BART Police Meet the Citizen Review Board

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Courtesy Thomas Hawk/Creative Commons

You can listen to the audio version of this story below:

(Nicole Jones -- San Francisco, KALW) In a conference room at the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police headquarters in downtown Oakland, a DVD plays a scenario. The screen shows a woman, and she’s really angry. She’s just been locked out of her house after finding out her husband is cheating on her.

“Goddamn it, this is my house, let me in," she shouts, cursing. "Are you cheating on me?” the woman yells furiously.  “I hate you! Why are you doing this to me?”

Her aggression grows, quickly turning violent. She kicks one officer, and he falls to the ground. An officer in the DVD tells the woman to drop the shovel, but the woman continues to yell.

Using a generic police training video -- BART doesn't have one oriented to transit police --  a handful of members of BART’s Citizen Review Board are trying to walk in the shoes of the police officers they monitor. BART Sergeant Marlon Dixon starts the discussion.

“You’re the officer on the scene, you went through that scenario, what do you think?” she asks. No one says anything. “Speechless?”

The Board debates and agrees, for the most part, that they wouldn’t really know what to do with someone so out of control.

“What about shooting her if she continued to approach?” Dixon asks. “This is happening like this. He’s got his officer. The officer could be seriously injured. What do you think?”

Some of the board members say they would shoot. But Citizen Review Board Member Bob White isn’t so sure. After all, the board emerged from public pressure to create greater oversight on the BART police after an officer fatally shot Oscar Grant in 2009.

“Although I know she has martial arts experience and I know the right answer would be shooting her, because she can use deadly force, she was unarmed, I couldn’t justify,” White says. “If he had a taser, I would use that first instead of using deadly force.”

BART police policies say that in this kind of situation, use of lethal force is legal. But Sergeant Dixon explains that there is more to it than just reading from the rule book.

“There’s a term that we use, ‘lawful, but awful.’” Dixon says. “It might be lawful per policy, per the law, but the public is going to tear into you because perception is everything.”

BART knows this first hand after two fatal officer-involved shootings in the last few years. A civilian oversight board is now responsible for hearing a wide range of alleged police misconduct cases at their meetings every month. With the help of a new, independent police auditor, they can recommend disciplinary action to the BART board of directors. The Citizen Review Board was created last March, but didn’t have its first meeting until after last July’s fatal officer-involved shooting of Charles Hill. The Hill case has been brought up at Citizen Review Board meetings, but they’re still far from having the investigation completed.

BART Officer Trainer Caroline Perea says having these training sessions for the Citizen Review Board should help them understand this and future incidents.

“We all thought that it was very important that they understand how we train and why we train and where we get our authority,” she says.

This training is just one on a long list of recommendations from an audit report by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, or NOBLE. Along with civilian oversight, the 2010 report made recommendations about BART Police Department policies, tactics, hiring and investigations by comparing it to international law enforcement standards.

Community Service Officer Lauren LaPlante works in the department’s community-oriented policing unit.

“Any way that we are making the community more accessible to the police department,” she says, “whether it be the civilian review board, whether it be us going out to community meetings, I think we need to be engaging in all those practices.”

Community policing encourages law enforcement to partner with residents, businesses and local groups. She says community policing in the BART Police Department started in the mid-90s. But now they’re implementing a new model called zone policing. Zone policing breaks the current BART zones into five smaller areas. LaPlante says this makes it easier for lieutenants to manage crime trends and for police officers to get to know stations.

“This is a semi-new concept,” LaPlante says. “In terms of the community policing philosophy, it’s going to bring more accountability.”

On a recent Thursday morning, Officer Rick Martinez took up his zone assignment. That would be Zone 1, which includes the Rockridge and MacArthur BART stations.

Martinez has been with the agency for six years. “In my time, we’ve gone from an agency that essentially had no community relations,” he says. “There wasn’t that transparency.”

Before, Martinez says, people didn’t understand BART police’s mission. “We come into our station and take a look at who’s around and people stick out that are hanging out here because our stations are designed for a specific reason, we’re here to move people,” he says.

BART officers spend a lot of time walking around and being part of the community, Martinez says. They’re also there to help. As he walks, a man approaches Martinez and asks for directions to the DMV. Martinez points him in the right direction.

“So that’s another hat, directions,” he says. “I don’t like that hat. It’s really hard to know where everything is,” he laughs. “And just because you’re a cop doesn’t mean you know where everything is.”

There are also the tougher situations, like a fight between a station agent and an unhappy patron. The man had wanted to exit to smoke a cigarette and then re-enter the paid area. The station agent, he says, said “no” in a disrespectful way and now he’s angry. “Okay look, we’re in a public place and you can’t be cussing,” Martinez tells him. Martinez talks to him quietly in between listening to his problem.

“It’s just an argument, essentially,” Martinez says afterwards. “People are allowed to argue and vent their frustration. There’s not a crime for being mad, essentially.”

If the encounter was to turn violent and Martinez handled it differently, it may have ended up on the Citizen Review Board’s desk. Martinez says he’s okay with this kind of oversight.

“I don’t mind it,” he says. “It’s part of the job. It’s another check and balance that goes with police enforcement. Our agency hasn’t had it and to fall in line with every other agency in the modern time, it’s expected.”

The BART Citizen Review Board, along with the new community policing strategies, is still in development. But with recent incidents of questionable tactics still fresh in riders’ minds, their work is going to be under heavy scrutiny.

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Hundreds of EV Chargers Coming to Calif in Legal Settlement

Monday, March 26, 2012

(Photo: (cc) The Chrysler Group, 2011)

Electric cars in California just got a boost. A network of charging stations will be built at 1,000 locations across the state, funded by a $120 million legal settlement with NRG Energy, Inc. The funds come as the result of a dispute about inflated power contract costs during the 2000-2001 energy crisis.

The network will include 200 public fast-charging stations and 10,000 plug-in units in the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Los Angeles Basin, and San Diego County, according to Governor Jerry Brown’s office, which announced the settlement with the California Public Utilities Commission on Friday.

“This is a truly creative deal that offers tremendous value for California utility customers,” said CPUC Commissioner Mike Florio in a statement. “In one stroke it closes out an unfortunate chapter in our history and propels us down the road to a clean transportation future. Through the settlement, EVs will become a viable transportation option for many Californians who do not have the option to have a charging station at their residence.”

Governor Brown also signed an executive order calling for 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles in California by 2025.

 

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High Speed Rail Funds Aiding Local Transit in CA

Friday, March 16, 2012

photo by Julie Caine

California’s high-speed rail project has taken a beating over the past couple of months. The price tag for building the super fast train is now expected to be almost $100 billion, more than twice what voters approved in 2008. The High-Speed Rail Authority, which is designing and planning the project, has to convince voters – and an increasingly skeptical Legislature – that funding high-speed rail is feasible.

Dan Richards, the new head of the High-Speed Rail Authority, says that one way to bring down the cost of the train would be to speed up improvements to local transit systems along its path.  In the Bay Area, some people are trying to make sure we see those improvements, even if the fast trains never come.

The new Transbay Terminal is a $4.2 billion project. By 2017, the upper level will be a modern transit hub for Muni and regional bus lines. The lower level will be a train station designed for high-speed rail and a newly-electrified Caltrain.

The terminal itself is fully funded by a combination of a federal loan and $400 million in stimulus money, but building the tracks that would actually get trains to the terminal is not. Right now, Caltrain tracks stop at 4th and King Streets in San Francisco, about a mile and a half from the station.

“That's raised questions about well, what does that mean for Transbay and your future funding,” says Scott Boule. Boule is in charge of legislative affairs and community outreach for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority – that’s the group overseeing the project.

Boule says at this point, the Authority board isn’t relying on high-speed rail funds to finish building the tracks. Instead, they’re pursuing additional federal loans and revenues from property taxes on the land around the new terminals. They’re also considering something called the Fast Start Proposal. It’s a pitch for early funding from regional transit agencies in the Bay Area and L.A.

“When the most recent draft of the business plan came out, it didn't have high-speed rail coming into San Francisco until 2034,” says Boule. “And many of us, including our mayor, were not happy with the prospect of waiting until 2034.”

With Fast Start, those improvements would happen much sooner. Transit agencies would have access to almost $2 billion in high-speed rail bond funds to start fixing up their own networks. The projects would get underway at the same time as the first phase of high-speed rail construction in the Central Valley.

Rail Authority officials say that shortening the project timetable would lower its overall costs, while providing immediate benefits––a solution that makes moving forward more palatable for everyone. And, they say, doing the work simultaneously means that by the time the high-speed rail line is complete, the rest of the transit network will be ready for it.

Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director for SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. He says planners are trying to “get a little money from the state, a little from the feds, and then a lot of local money and go ahead and do a big Caltrain upgrade.”

SPUR is part of a group of regional planners who are working up specific, local ideas for what the high-speed rail bond money could help build.

“We are about $2 billion short to extend Caltrain from 4th and King to the Transbay Terminal,” says Metcalf. “So that is really the next thing we've got to focus on.” Once the tracks reach the terminal, Metcalf says Caltrain would connect to a high-speed rail station in San Jose.

“It could just be the difference between a local and an express train. Hopefully it will be the same ticket,” says Metcalf. “You might be going to San Jose, or you might be going to Los Angeles.”

Eventually, high-speed rail trains would run all the way into San Francisco on Caltrain’s tracks. But for that to happen, construction of the high-speed rail line has to keep moving. This is why the Central Valley is essential to Fast Start. The federal government has said that high-speed rail construction has to begin there. But in the short term, Metcalf says local upgrades are more important. “We're actually going to have a lot more riders in the San Jose to San Francisco segment,” he says.

Right now, around 45,000 people ride Caltrain between Silicon Valley and San Francisco every day. Seamus Murphy, Caltrain’s government affairs manager, says right now Caltrain can’t carry any more passengers. But with these improvements, they could carry as many as 70,000 people. The Fast Start plan would help pay for switching Caltrain from diesel-powered trains to electric ones. That would cost around $1.5 billion, could be completed in six years, and would increase the system’s capacity dramatically.

“If we have an opportunity to electrify the Caltrain system early and prepare the corridor for future high-speed rail service, then that gives us a lot of utility for Caltrain riders and for the region’s transit systems in the interim while we're waiting for high-speed rail to be delivered to the Bay Area,” says Murphy.

In the meantime, a big question lingers: What if no new money comes through?

“This is something that the federal government and stakeholders around the state are thinking about,” Murphy says. “And they want to make sure that when we're talking about a project of this size, with such a big gap in the funding that's been identified and the funding that's needed, that the investments that we're making early are investments that have immediate utility and would have utility regardless of the outcome of the high speed rail project in California.”

The High-Speed Rail Authority will present a revised business plan to its board on April 5, 2012.

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In the Bay Area, Transit Signs are Surprisingly Poor

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Photo by Lisa Ratner

The Bay Area is a densely populated, complex urban environment: Seven million people, nine counties...and 26 different forms of public transportation.

And they all have their own unique, sometimes mysterious ways of guiding you through the system.

When they’re taking public transportation, some of the first things people look for are signs. A sign’s most basic function is to tell you where you are, where you’re going, and what to do next. Yet in the Bay Area, informative signs like that are in surprisingly short supply.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission--or MTC--is trying to change that. The agency’s in the process of revamping all the Bay Area’s transit signs. By the end of this year, you should see new maps, signs, and real-time transit information at 13 BART stations, a variety of Caltrain and light rail stations, the temporary TransBay Transit Center, and the three international airports.

KALW’s Julie Caine set out to learn the art--and science--of helping people get where they’re going.

It’s Hattam Moktor’s second day in San Francisco. He arrived from Egypt yesterday and spent today seeing the sights in the city. Now he’s standing in front of an empty station agent’s booth at the Embarcadero BART station trying to get back to his brother’s East Bay apartment.

“I want to ask someone how to get there, so I came here, but there is no one to ask. So I found you! So I will ask you how to get there. Walnut Creek?” Moktor laughs.

Moktor pulls a crumpled BART map out of his back pocket, and we look at it together. What he needs is a Pittsburg-Bay Point train.

“How can I know this way, or this way?” Moktor asks.

“See that sign that says…”

“East Bay.”

“You are going to the East Bay. You’re going on the yellow line. See the sign blinking in red? That tells you the name of this train.”

“There’s many names?”

“Yes.”

“Ok! I understand!”

“Watch the sign. When it says…”

“Pittsburg  Bay Point. I will take it. But where is the color? Where is the color? If I saw the color, it’s more easier for me.”

Even in a new city, using public transportation should not be this hard. The system should be designed in a way that’s totally intuitive. There’s actually a name for this; it’s called wayfinding.

“Wayfinding, in general, you find it as part of the process for public spaces and cities and trails – any place where you have users that are trying to connect with their environment,” explains Sue Labouvie.

She’s a graphic designer, with degrees in architecture and psychology, and she’s redesigning the way we navigate the Bay Area’s many transit systems. I meet her on the Embarcadero to look at some of the things she considers while doing this. She starts by talking about the station, pointing out some inconsistencies.

“You have MUNI coming in there, and you have BART coming in there and they're at different levels,” says Labouvie.

To the uninitiated, BART and MUNI seem like they might be the same thing. Both are trains. And in stations like Embarcadero or Civic Center, both run underground – from the same station. Labouvie’s job is to make that crystal clear to anyone who walks in. It’s part of a new MTC project called the Transit Connectivity Plan.

“It's helping you to find your way,” says Jay Stagi, a transit planner at MTC. He’s in charge of the Wayfinding project. And he says the goals are simple: at every point where a rider might be confused, put a clear and informative sign there to tell him where to go.

“It is all about reducing stress, increasing clarity,” Labouvie says. “You don’t want people unhappy about missing their train because they couldn’t find where the train is leaving from.”

Sue Labouvie finds an example of this problem at the Embarcadero station. The station, like a huge part of the city’s transit network, is literally under our feet. But looking around, it’s not at all obvious how we’d even get to it – never mind use it. “There isn’t much that cues you, except the escalators going down,” says Labouvie.

Labouvie points out a symbol that she hopes will soon be a common sight all over the Bay Area. It’s a bright orange circle with a little letter “i” in the center. Even in a crowded urban landscape, it stands out. You can see it from at least a block away.

“They’ve used something that people can see from a distance so people know that’s where I can go and get my transit information,” says Labouvie.

The next step is to communicate that information in a way that makes sense and is easy to read. Under the orange “i” is a kiosk of maps called a Transit Information Display. This is another key part of the project. Bus lines and streetcars, BART stops and ferry terminals, Caltrain and AC Transit, are all clearly laid out on one map. On the other side is fare information and schedules. It’s much more comprehensive than what we’re used to, especially on BART.

“I think that BART station signage originally was very minimal because it was for commuter; they knew where they were going, they took the same route all the time,” says Labouvie.

I ask Labouvie to take me down into the Embarcadero BART station. Immediately, we can see what works.

We come down the stairs into BART and, like at an airport, we immediately see an overhead sign. There's only really one word on there – metro – and icons with arrows. There's a picture of a BART ticket. There's a picture of a stick figure at a counter talking to another stick figure behind the counter. Next to that: the orange circle with the little “i” in it.

Labouvie says this creates “a path that you use when you're going to a certain destination.” It's like a trail of breadcrumbs. Labouvie calls it “more sophisticated in the yellow brick road.”

In the next few months, visitors and locals alike will find hopefully find transit a little easier to navigate. It may not be quite as obvious as a yellow brick road. But it's a goal to shoot for.

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BART's New Fleet: Made in the USA, but Maybe Not in California

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Postcard of BART in the 1970s. Image courtesy of BART.

This year is BART’s 40th birthday. While some people swear that 40 is the new 30, when it comes to subway systems, 40 is just plain over-the-hill. About two-thirds of Bay Area Rapid Transit cars have been running the rails since the system opened, in 1972.

Paul Oversier is in charge of operations at BART. He says that because BART trains run long distances and at higher speeds than other subway systems, it gives the system a dubious distinction. “We have the oldest cars, and we run them the hardest,” he says.

It’s time for new trains. But building them won’t be cheap: BART estimates it will cost more than $3 billion to replace all 775 cars.

Right now, three companies are in the running to build the new fleet. One is in France, one is in South Korea, and third is in Canada.

Scott Haggerty is an Alameda County Supervisor who sits on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He’s not surprised that bids for the massive job are coming in from all over the world, but he doesn’t think the world should build BART’s cars.

“At a minimum, those cars should be built in the U.S.,” says Haggerty. “But that’s not even going to make me happy. Those cars should be built within the BART district.”

On paper, it makes sense. Building BART cars here would mean keeping those billions of dollars, and thousands of jobs, where BART riders actually live. According to BART’s Paul Oversier, there’s just one problem. “There haven’t been any domestic subway car builders in the United States for decades,” he says.

Oversier says even if BART wanted to give the contract to a U.S. company, they couldn’t do it – the last domestic company that built subway cars closed up shop in 1987. But, he says, that doesn’t mean no Americans will benefit from the project. “It's really a misnomer to say the cars are being built overseas,” he says. “They're being built in the United States, using American parts, using American workers. It just so happens that the corporation that’s operating that plant is an international corporation.”

To understand how this works, you need to know about a law known as “Buy America.” It’s been around since 1983.

Scott Paul is the executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, an industry group based in Washington DC. He says it doesn’t matter if a company is foreign or domestic, as long as the manufacture happens in the U.S.

“The idea is that through that taxpayer investment, we’ll be supporting jobs in this country as opposed to a place like China, for instance,” says Paul.

The idea of buying American has guided some of the country’s signature transportation projects. As far back as 1933, Congress required that federally financed construction projects use American materials.

“We’ve had this policy through the building of the interstate highway system,” says Paul. “Ronald Reagan actually expanded it to transit programs.”

Almost three-quarters of the money BART is using to pay for the new cars comes from the federal government. Under Buy America, that means whichever company gets the contract has to do at least 60% of that work in the U.S. But BART doesn’t get to decide where in the U.S. that work gets done––they have to go where the companies are. So while the cars could be built in California, BART can’t require that.

“There’s not an enormous demand for subway cars in the United States,” says Paul.  “So it doesn’t make a lot of sense for several manufacturers to have a permanent presence when the market is so sporadic and limited to just a few big city agencies.”

Right now, none of the car builders BART is considering have plants in California. That’s what bothers Supervisor Scott Haggerty. He thinks agencies like BART should be able to use federal dollars to do their projects in-state––and to encourage companies to set up new plants here. Right now, that’s illegal.

“But who set that rule?” asks Haggerty. “When you say it’s illegal, that’s because Congress said it’s illegal. Congress can fix that.”

Last year, BART officials sponsored legislation in California allowing them to give extra weight to bids from foreign companies that exceed Buy America requirements.

So now the agency can legally reward companies that create more American jobs. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s no infrastructure to do the work in California.

Right now, the car builders BART is considering have plants in New York and Philadelphia. “But that’s not to say that they might not open a plant somewhere else,” says BART’s Paul Oversier. “It’s a big enough order that the economics might be such for the car builders that it might make sense, from a business standpoint, to open a plant somewhere else. But that bridge will be crossed later on.”

BART expects final bids on the new cars by the end of February. The agency hopes to make a final recommendation to the board in about six weeks.

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SF Ferries Prepare for Crunch From Bridge Closure

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ferries on the San Francisco Bay. photo by Julie Caine

Getting into San Francisco from the East Bay might be a little more difficult than usual this weekend. The upper deck of the Bay Bridge is scheduled to be completely closed to traffic until 5 o’clock Tuesday morning, so Caltrans can do work on the new span. To help compensate, BART is adding extra trains and all-night service. But if traveling in the Transbay Tube isn’t for you, there is another option: You can take a ferry.

Before there ever was a Golden Gate Bridge or a Bay Bridge, people who wanted to cross the Bay did it by boat. At their peak, ferries carried over 46 million passengers a year.

“The Bay Area used to be built around ferries,” said Tony Bruzzone, a transportation planner who specializes in public transit for ARUP, a design firm with offices in San Francisco. “It was set up as an integrated system with trains. Piedmont and Broadway in Oakland and even Berkeley all had trains that came in and folded in where the Bay Bridge is now onto big ferry boats, and then everybody would come across on the ferry. The reason that the bridge was built in the 1930s was that people got tired of that. They wanted direct access.”

This weekend, however, some of that direct access will be cut off. KALW’s transportation reporter Julie Caine got on board a ferry to find out how one of the Bay Area’s most old-fashioned forms of transportation is poised to handle a modern commuter crunch.


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Photos: Take BART to Rural California

Friday, February 10, 2012

Keith Roquemore and his family at the Mendocino County Fair Rodeo. Photo courtesy of Lisa Hamilton

A lot of people talk about two Californias. The state is so big, it could be a country. And, like a country, it encompasses multiple cultures. There’s NorCal and SoCal, free love and freeways.  But there’s also another axis: one that separates the urban Bay Area and sprawling Los Angeles from the rural rest of the state.

Photographs of rural Californians are on BART trains until March. They're part of a  new multimedia series called "Real Rural," and will be on billboards in Sacramento and Los Angeles later this year.

KALW's Julie Caine talked with artist Lisa Hamilton about the series.

 

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LaHood Says High Speed Rail in California is about Jobs

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood at a 2011 High Speed Rail Conference (photo: USDOT)

(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) On a stop in Fresno, California today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pushed for high-speed rail in the state.

“This is about jobs," said LaHood. "High-speed rail in California is about helping to get the California economy moving again, to get unemployment down, to put friends and neighbors to work,” said LaHood. “And implementing high-speed rail in California will do that.”

Fresno is in the heart of California’s Central Valley, where construction on the controversial project is set to begin later this year. The section of the rail line between Fresno and Bakersfield is the only segment of the estimated $100 billion project with secured funding.

“Anytime you do big things, they are always going to be controversial,” said LaHood. “There will always be those who have their objections. Our job is to understand the concerns and work to mitigate those.”

LaHood also toured a Siemens light-rail car manufacturing plant, and was scheduled to meet with state legislators in Sacramento later today.

Below is the press release from the Department of Transportation:

U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood Promotes Obama Administration Vision for High-Speed Rail in Meeting with Fresno Mayor Swearengin and Area Business Leaders

FRESNO, Calif. – U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today promoted the Obama Administration's vision for high-speed rail in a meeting with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and Sacramento area business leaders.  Secretary LaHood stressed high-speed rail's potential to create new construction and manufacturing jobs while providing California with a transportation network that can support the world's ninth largest economy.

"High-speed rail is a game changer for U.S. transportation and is critical for a California economy built to last," said Secretary LaHood.  "President Obama has called on us to rebuild America by putting people back to work making sure our country has the safest, fastest, most efficient ways to move people and products.  Building a high-speed rail network, beginning here in California's Central Valley with American workers and American companies, is a great place to start."

Construction of California's 220 miles-per-hour high-speed rail system will begin in Fresno later this year and will, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority, create tens of thousands of jobs over the next five years in a region hit especially hard by the recession. The state's high-speed rail project would connect Fresno and other communities in the Central Valley to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Basin, two of the country's largest metropolitan areas, with travel times under two hours.

Through a "Buy America" approach to construction, the Obama Administration is ensuring that high-speed rail projects are built with American-made products.  In addition, 30 rail companies from around the world have pledged that if selected for high-speed rail contracts, they will hire American workers and expand their bases of operations in the United States.

The Central Valley is the fastest growing part of California, and one of the fastest growing regions in the country.  By 2050, the region will double in size to more than 13 million people, making it more populated than Illinois, Pennsylvania or Ohio. Today, the Central Valley supports the fifth busiest intercity passenger corridor in the nation.

California is already home to six of the 10 most congested metropolitan areas and the busiest short-haul air market in the nation. The stress on the state's infrastructure will become even more pronounced during the next 40 years, as the state's population is estimated to grow by more than 20 million people. Without constructing the high-speed rail system, the California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates the state would need to invest $171 billion to acquire the equivalent level of capacity—2,300 miles of new highways, 115 new airport gates, and four new airport runways.

"Our highways and airports simply can't handle the growth," said Secretary LaHood.  "At this make or break moment, America needs a transportation jobs bill that includes resources to continue building a national high-speed rail network."

California's intercity passenger rail system is one of several regional rail networks planned across the United States.  To date, the U.S. Department of Transportation has invested $10.1 billion to put American communities on track toward new and expanded rail service with improved reliability, speed, and frequency of existing service.

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CA Measure Would Repeal High Speed Rail Funding

Monday, January 30, 2012

photo courtesy California High Speed Rail Authority

State Senator Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) introduced legislation today that would put high-speed rail back on the November ballot in California. The measure would give voters the chance to de-authorize the $9 billion bond measure passed in 2008.

According to Mark Spannagel, spokesman for Senator LaMalfa, the measure would "eliminate the project."

In a statement, LaMalfa said, “Voters have been misled about the true costs of High Speed Rail from the start. The costs have tripled since 2008 and every objective observer has said this project is too expensive and is unlikely to be completed.”

Meanwhile, in an interview in LA over the weekend, Governor Jerry Brown said that the current estimated $100 billion price tag for the project was “way off,” and said that revenue from cap and trade regulations would help finance the project.

Currently, the project has secured about $12 billion in a combination of federal funds and a state bond measure approved by voters in 2008.  In order not to lose the federal money, construction needs to begin this year, and is required to start in the Central Valley, far from major metropolitan centers.

Brown also said that he was redesigning the plan so that the first phase of construction in the Central Valley would “justify the state investment,” even if it was the only part of the rail plan ever constructed.

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Top Tips for Bikers, Urban Bike Lessons and More as KALW Bikes the SF Bay Area

Friday, January 27, 2012

We took KALW’s news magazine, Crosscurrents, on the road and devoted an entire show to life on two wheels in the SF Bay Area. Our intrepid (and very fit) executive news editor, Ben Trefny, hosted the show while riding 23 miles all over San Francisco. You can listen to the whole show here:

In it, we learn about the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s vision for bike-friendlier city streets.

Reporter Julie Caine takes an urban bike riding class in Oakland, and gets real about why some of us don't ride bikes more often.

We explore the San Francisco roots of Critical Mass, and find out how a collection of like-minded people can make the world spin a little differently.

And we hear top five lists about biking, covering everything from the top five reasons it's great to bike in San Francisco to the top five tips for being an urban female biker. Listen to them all, plus a few extra, here.

 

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Governor Jerry Brown, In State of State, Makes Impassioned Case for High Speed Rail

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown in 2010 (photo by Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) In his State of the State address today, Governor Jerry Brown didn’t give an inch on the state’s embattled high-speed rail plan.  Likening the project to the launching of BART, the Panama Canal, and the Suez Canal, Brown said: “Those who believe California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking,” he said. “I understand that feeling, but I don’t share it.”

Although California faces a $9.2 billion deficit, Gov. Brown strongly reasserted his support for high-speed rail, which is currently projected to cost $100 billion. This support is in the context of a speech optimistic about the state’s future, but almost completely focused on raising taxes to stave off further deep cuts to the state’s already beleaguered public education system.

Brown said that “Contrary to those critics who fantasize that California is a failed state, I see unspent potential and incredible opportunity.”

The rail project is on shaky ground after a series of high-level resignations from the High Speed Rail Authority Board last week coupled with polls showing voter disapproval and a government-appointed panel report earlier this month that recommended against state funding for the project.

In a press conference following the address, Speaker of the Assembly John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) said that in a time of high unemployment, projects like high-speed rail make sense for the state. “Many of the arguments that have been used today against high speed rail were used against water infrastructure, were used against highways, and were used against all of the major infrastructure developments that we now take for granted,” he said.

Legislative Republicans did not specifically address high-speed rail, but criticized the call for higher taxes in a response accidentally released a day before Gov. Brown’s speech.

Republican state senator, Joel Anderson (R-El Cajon) released a statement after the address critical of Brown’s recent proposal to create a new state Transportation Agency,  consolidating departments like the High Speed Rail Authority and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

“The Governor and I have discussed Caltrans and High Speed Rail a number of times and I have been very encouraging with him,” said Anderson. “He needs to implement major reforms at Caltrans immediately…He also need to cut the state’s losses on High Speed Rail and end this scam now.”

In his speech, Governor Brown said that a revised high-speed rail business plan will be out in several weeks, and that “Without any hesitation, I urge your approval.” The public comment period for the business plan ended earlier this week.

You can read the full text of the speech here

An excerpt is below.

"Now, just as bold is our plan to build a high-speed rail system, connecting the northern and southern part of our state. This is not a new idea. As governor last time I signed legislation to study the concept. Now, 30 years later, we're within weeks of a revised business plan that will enable us to begin initial construction before the year is out.

President Obama strongly supports the project, and has provided the majority of funds for the first phase.  It's now your decision to evaluate the plan and decide what action to take. Without hesitation, I urge your approval (applause). If you believe that California will continue to grow, as I do, and that millions more people will be living in our state, this is a wise investment. Building new runways, and expanding our airports and highways, is the only alternative. That is not cheaper, and will face even more political opposition. Those who believe California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking. I understand that feeling, but I don't share it. Because I know this state, and the spirit of the people who chose to live here. California is still the Gold Mountain that Chinese immigrants in 1848 came across the Pacific to find. The wealth is different, derived as it is, not from mining the Sierras but from the creative imagination of those who invent and build and generate the ideas that drive our economy forward.

Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. During the 1930’s, The Central Valley Water Project was called a “fantastic dream” that “will not work.” The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as “new Deal jitterbug economics.” In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART a “billion dollar potential fiasco.” Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: “totally impossible.” The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now.

 

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