Oakland has the fifth busiest port in the country. According to the Port of Oakland, they support between 50,000 and 73,000 jobs in Northern California, making it one of the Bay Area’s biggest economic engines. The Port of Oakland says that economic development is its primary driver, but the truck drivers who make a living running goods to and from the port say deteriorating working conditions are cutting into their bottom line.
KALW reporter Shani Aviram profiled what it's like to be a truck driver in Oakland. You can listen here.
One of the expenses truckers face is paying to upgrade their rigs to meet new environmental emissions regulations for diesel engines. California has the strictest gasoline emissions regulations in the country. The "smog check" is a consuming ritual known to every Californian. Until very recently, diesel engines on freight trucks – big rigs that haul almost everything we buy in and out of ports and across the country – haven’t been under the same rules. Now, that’s starting to change.
In 2010, the California Air Resources Board created a new set of emissions regulations for diesel engines. On a rolling basis, freight trucks are required to retrofit older engines, or to buy completely new trucks to meet stricter emissions standards. While those requirements can be expensive for truckers, so are the environmental impacts.
KALW’s Julie Caine sat down to talk with Rob Harley, professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Berkeley about how the new regulations are changing the air we breathe.
JULIE CAINE: Can you just summarize the changes in regulations, the effects on port truckers?
ROB HARLEY: There’s been a lot of effort in the last couple of years to take steps to clean up the emissions from port trucks. Some of the oldest trucks, built before 1994, are no longer able to be at the port. Some of the more recent models have needed exhaust filters installed or even been replaced completely with brand new trucks or newer trucks.
CAINE: Why were those regulations put into place?
HARLEY: Diesel trucks are one of the biggest sources of air pollution in the state of California and the whole country. And the trucks last a long time. They can stay on the road for 20 years or more. And, especially at the ports, we had a pretty old mix of trucks operating right in an urban community with residential neighborhoods nearby. So that posed air pollution and health concerns for the neighbors.
CAINE: You've been studying some of the effects of those changes. You did some measurements at the Port of Oakland in 2009 and then again in 2010. Was that timed with the changes in the regulations?
HARLEY: Yes, exactly. We made some measurements just before the first phase of the program took effect and then we were back about six months later after the oldest trucks had been banned and a lot of filters had been installed and some newer trucks had come into the fleet. We timed those measurements deliberately to give a before and an after – and to see what the emission changes were from this attempt to clean up the port trucks.
CAINE: What did you find?
HARLEY: Well, it was pretty impressive reductions. Things went down by about 50 percent. When I say “things” I mean the black smoke emissions and also the nitrogen oxide emissions. These are two of the major air pollutants that diesel trucks emit a lot of and we were really struck by how quickly this reduction in emissions had occurred. Normally it might take 10 years of gradual replacement of old trucks to get that kind of reduction. Here it was in 6 months instead of 10 years that those emission reductions happened. That's a very rapid and successful reduction in emissions.
CAINE: These emission regulations are for the whole state of California, is that correct?
HARLEY: They will be. The ports and rail yards have been what the state calls an early action item. They got started there first, but the same kinds of requirements are coming statewide to all trucks, not just the ports and rail yards. There's going to be a lot of activity there in the next coming years, but California's approach is different from the national approach. The national approach is only about new trucks, saying they need to have modern emission equipment, but California reaches out to the older models and says that those trucks have to be either cleaned up or retired on an accelerated schedule. That's part of California's longstanding role or approach as a laboratory for air pollution control. The program here is pushing more rapidly to reduce these diesel emissions than elsewhere in the country.
CAINE: Tell me about the impact on individual truckers who often own their own vehicles. Do you know how much it costs to retrofit a truck, as opposed to buying a new truck?
HARLEY: Yeah, so ballpark numbers might be $15,000 to put an exhaust filter on a diesel truck – that's a big investment and on a very old truck – it's probably not worth it because that would be more than the value of the truck. Brand new trucks could be $100,000, or something in that range. These are expensive pieces of equipment. There are some grant programs that the state and various other agencies involved have been helping, not to cover the complete cost, but to at least subsidize the costs of retrofits. And then there are some truckers who just replace, who get a newer or brand new truck rather than go through the investment of control equipment on an old truck that's not worth it. So it’s left to the individual to decide whether it makes more sense to replace with newer equipment or to retrofit older equipment. The very oldest trucks just weren't suitable for retrofitting, so they aren't in the program at all for being retrofitted.
CAINE: I would guess, similarly to people who drive very old, used cars, that people who were driving those very old trucks – that was probably all they could afford. I'm just curious if there are alternatives for people who can't afford a $15,000 filter, or can’t really put in a huge investment to meet those new requirements. Are there are any alternatives?
HARLEY: I think it is going to make it more expensive to operate. You need newer and cleaner equipment and there's a cost to having that. There are a lot of interesting questions about air pollution control related to this program. One of them is sort of a financial question: is it better to retrofit older trucks or just to replace them outright? I think the approach the Port of Oakland has taken is more cost effective by trying to retrofit some of the middle-aged trucks, and not delay and buy time before the bigger costs of replacing the equipment need to be incurred. In Southern California, they implemented a fee on every container and the shippers ended up subsidizing the replacement of trucks down there. Oakland's sort of in competition with the Southern California ports and it couldn't implement that fee on the shippers because it would just drive the business to other ports. So the approach in the Bay Area was a less costly one. On the other hand, there wasn't money from the shippers to cover all the costs. There were grant programs from the port itself, the state, and various other agencies to help offset some of the costs, but not all of them. So that's an interesting question: what's the right approach? What's the right short-term approach and what's the right longer term approach in terms of retrofitting filters on older trucks versus just replacing them to newer trucks?
CAINE: So what's the payoff for the rest of us? Let's talk about the community around the Port of Oakland. Do you have a sense of how the changes in regulations are affecting the health of folks around the port?
HARELY: That's a hard question – to say how people's health status is changing as the truck emissions are cleaned up. But it's an interesting question. It's really the point of all this effort to clean up the emissions of diesel trucks. So I can go only some of the first steps, and others will have to take some of the next steps in understanding what the health outcomes are. But we are seeing changes in air quality in the community, in West Oakland, near the port. Similar things are happening in Southern California, in the ports of L.A., and Long Beach regulation.
CAINE: Are you going back to do any more testing of the air?
HARELY: We are. We've been back – actually, quite recently – in November of this year. We'll go back again in early 2013, after 3 more model years of trucks have been fixed with emission filters and more replacement of the older trucks have occurred. So it's an ongoing program to clean up the diesel truck fleet in California. It started at the Port of Oakland and the Southern California ports as well, and it's going to move statewide over the coming years. You could almost call this the decade of diesel control coming up, and a really strong focus now on controlling diesel emissions in California.
UPDATED To keep California's increasingly beleaguered bullet train program alive, move it to the state DOT.
That's the recommendation of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who sent a letter Monday to California Governor Jerry Brown urging him to combine the state's High-Speed Rail Authority with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
Senator Feinstein, a long-time supporter of high-speed rail, urged quick action by Governor Brown to avoid losing $3.5 billion in federal funds for the project.
Here comments came as Orange County Assemblywoman Diane Harkey introduced a bill to halt state debt funding for the high-speed rail project.
Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, today joined fellow Republican lawmakers in introducing legislation to halt state debt funding for the high-speed rail project.
"The verdict is clear, it’s time for California to move forward and de-rail this ill-conceived project," Harkey said in a statement. " Lack of future federal funding, oversight, accountability and inconsistency in route and planning, should sound a strong signal to pull the plug,” said Assemblywoman Harkey. "This one project has the potential to double our state's debt and become a huge future drain on our state's budget, while our existing rail and roadway infrastructure is in dire need of repair.”
In her letter, Senator Feinstein said she found it hard to “debunk” the conclusions of a report issued last week by a state appointed peer review committee that recommended against the release of state funds for the project.
However, Senator Feinstein said that combining the High-Speed Rail Authority with Caltrans would go a long way in addressing some of the concerns of the peer review committee. “I am concerned that our state’s future would be greatly hindered if this project either failed to get off the ground, or failed to be completed."
Interestingly, she continues: "I have spoken to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the importance of utilizing CalTrans’ expertise, and we both agree that your leadership in this area could improve prospects for success.”
The governor’s newly released 2012-2013 budget proposal calls for the creation of a new transportation agency that would consolidate a number of state departments and agencies, including Caltrans and the Rail Authority.
California Governor Jerry Brown released his 2012-2013 budget yesterday -- six days earlier than planned -- after the document was accidentally posted on the state’s Department of Finance website. And yes: it still funds high-speed rail.
The proposal calls for $15.9 million in administrative support for the High-Speed Rail Authority, regardless of what happens with the current funding. The high-speed rail project is still in a review period.
This first draft of the budget estimates California’s deficit at $9.2 billion for the next fiscal year, which starts on July 1. Although that number is much lower than the $26 billion projected last year, it still means deep cuts for welfare and medical programs, the elimination of 3,000 state jobs, and the closing, consolidation and reorganization of more than 50 state agencies.
Under the new plan, transportation departments, which are currently part of the Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency, would get their own agency. The new Transportation Agency would include the Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the Department of Motor Vehicles, the High‑Speed Rail Authority, the Highway Patrol, the California Transportation Commission, and the Board of Pilot Commissioners.
In terms of transportation funding, the new plan proposes transferring close to $350 million in weight fee revenues collected from commercial trucks to the General Fund to offset transportation bond debt. It also cuts $3.7 million and 41 jobs from the Division of Mass Transportation. And the plan calls for a $13.9 million increase in payments to Amtrak for current intercity rail services in Southern California, which would reduce funding available for other projects.
You can read the budget proposal here.
In the East Bay, AC Transit riders dealt with fewer bus lines and increased fares. San Francisco MUNI riders faced changing routes as well. All in all, 2011 meant more cost, and oftentimes more waiting for drivers and riders. And it might not get better this year. Here's a transcript of a Q&A we're airing today about 2012 transportation funding issues in the Bay Area.
HOST: Julie, what’s changed for people who ride public transit in the Bay Area?
JULIE: The biggest change people here will notice are cuts to the commuter benefit--that’s a stimulus-funded public transportation benefit that recently expired. Basically, this was a program that reimbursed workers for transportation costs, tax-free, and that includes both parking and public transit. Last year, the government subsidized both equally--$230 a year. This year, the benefit for parking is going up, but the public transit one has dropped by almost half, down to $125.
HOST: How will that impact workers in the Bay Area?
JULIE: Well, I met BART commuter Julio Alfaro on his way to work, and asked him how the cut in the public transit benefit would affect him.
ALFARO: It would hurt a lot. Cutting the subsidy in half with the fact that they're raising rates as well, just you know, takes more money out of your pocket. And where does that money come from? You take it from your entertainment portion, or your food portion, or your housing portion. It's got to come from somewhere.
HOST: Julie, he’s talking about how to make up the extra money. Is this a problem for other people?
JULIE: Alfaro’s right that the money does have to come from somewhere. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that most people already spend more on transportation costs than on anything else except for housing.
HOST: And what about the difference between subsidies for parking and transit? What are the implications for that?
JULIE: When you subsidize parking, it means more people drive and public transit use goes down. Right now in the Bay Area, those numbers are pretty even--about a third of commuters get to work by car, and another third use public transit. But the changes to the commuter benefit might really affect that balance. Think about it: If you get more money from your employer to park and less money to take the bus, then you might be tempted to drive more. And that could mean more congestion on the roads, and more emissions in the air. The commuter I spoke with, Julio Alfaro, had something to say about that, too.
ALFARO: If they're trying to get people to commute more on public transportation, and less pollution and everything, it's ridiculous that they would encourage people by upping the parking and lowering the public transportation subsidies. It makes no sense. but we are talking about the Federal government, and they don't always make a whole lot of sense.
HOST: Now Julie, you mentioned BART, but I’d imagine this affects other local transit systems as well.
JULIE: Absolutely, especially agencies like MUNI and AC Transit. MUNI’S looking at an almost $80 million dollar budget gap in the next two years. And in general, San Francisco’s trying hard to get people to take transit. So this could make it more difficult.
HOST: So that’s a national issue. What about state cuts?
JULIE:Last month, Governor Jerry Brown announced a new round of state budget cuts, called “trigger” cuts because they were triggered by a lack of revenue. Those are also now in effect. The biggie for transportation was that school bus funding was completely gutted -- close to $250 million in cuts. School advocates say that will affect close to a million low-income and special needs students statewide. They’ll have a much harder time getting to school. In the Bay Area, Oakland Unified School District is losing $5 million dollars in state transportation funding. They’re going to use their reserve fund to keep from cutting services. San Francisco’s already been hit hard by state budget cuts; they’re losing about a quarter of their school bus service.
HOST: So how will those students get to school?
JULIE: Well, Federal law says that school districts have to provide transportation for special needs students, so many districts will be dipping into their reserves to do that. But for general ed students, they’re going to have to get to school however they can. In a press conference, Governor Brown said these choices are hard, but necessary.
JERRY BROWN: You can't provide money you don't have. You either cut or you tax--there is no third way. There's no alternative. As governor of California, I'm sensitive to what these cuts do to real people, but I'm also aware that over time, California does have to balance its budget, and exercise fiscal discipline.
HOST: Julie, before we let you go, give us an update on high speed rail.
JULIE: Yes, that’s the other big news. A peer review panel appointed by the state just issued a very critical report, basically recommending that the Legislature not borrow the money it needs to start building this year. They said that the biggest problem with the plan is that the Rail Authority hasn’t been able to secure any additional money for the project, aside from what’s already been approved.
HOST: How much is that?
JULIE: There’s the $9 billion voter-approved bond, and then $3.3 billion in federal grants. The project’s supposed to cost $100 billion. Given that there’s no other money, the panel said that the plan to build the train isn’t financially feasible. Needless to say, the Rail Authority disagrees.
HOST: So what happens now?
JULIE: Republican state legislators are considering pushing legislation to block spending the bond. Governor Brown says he still says he still supports the project, so we’ll see what happens with the Republican bill. The Legislature reconvenes today.
(San Francisco - KALW) The Bay Area had a tumultuous year in transportation, a more acute example of many trends taking hold around the nation. (See other year in review posts here.) In 2011 we watched the ongoing roller coaster ride for California's high-speed rail plan, covered the perils of being a pedestrian in one of the most walkable cities in America, examined the state of California’s crumbling bridges, and reported on a safety technician on the new Bay Bridge who was fired after falsifying test data.
We've met the new SFMTA chief, who doesn’t own a car, and tried out new technology that helps find parking in a city where looking for a spot can literally make you cry. We’ve learned about the biological hazards found in BART seats (eew), and reported about First Amendment rights on public transit after officials shut down cell phone service on the trains during protests of a BART police shooting of a homeless man in San Francisco.
It was hard to choose our top five, but here’s a selection of some of our favorite stories of the year.
High Speed Rail
California has one of the only high-speed rail plans left in the country. But it’s been more like a roller coaster ride than a train trip this year. The year started with a rail-supporting governor, leading advocates of the $9+ billion plan to sigh with relief that the Golden State's bullet trains wouldn't die a premature death like in Wisconsin. Still, tight budget times were a threat to the more than multi-billion dollar plan. When Florida's governor killed a $2 billion high-speed rail plan in his state that meant more federal money for California.
As scrutiny increased, some evidence showed that the towns along the route might boom as a result, while critics argued this was a train to nowhere. A revised business plan released by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November projected costs for the rail system of almost $100 billion dollars—three times the total amount put before voters in 2008 when they approved a $9 billion bond measure to finance the project.
That didn’t make voters happy—a recent Field Poll shows that 64% of California voters want a re-vote on the project, and that 59 percent of those voters would now oppose funding the project. The project remains the most likely candidate to become the nation's first, and only, high-speed rail line.
Parking in San Francisco: There’s an app for that
The city of San Francisco is leading the way in using technology to try and tackle the age old urban frustration of finding a parking spot. After putting censors in each public metered parking space, the city released an app telling drivers the easiest places to find a free spot. The most popular streets get more expensive and the least get cheaper.
According to Jay Primus, the manager of the program, “It’s a little bit like the Goldilocks principle. We don’t want it too hot, we don’t want it too cold – we want it just right. In this case, prices not too high or too low, but just right for the demand we see.”
The city is now making its first round of changes to parking meter costs based on data gathered from its street sensors around town. The idea is for meter and garage rates to be based on demand as well. Since rates change slowly, it's too soon to draw any conclusions, but tech-minded transportation policy makers are watching this project closely.
In July, demonstrators upset about the BART Police killing of a homeless man named Charles Hill filled downtown stations in San Francisco, crowding platforms and at one point attempting to climb on top of a stopped train.
The BART Board decided to disable cell service on several platforms in early August in order to disrupt a planned protest that was to be organized in part, via mobile communications among the participants.
According to the Washington Post, this decision made BART “the first known government agency in the nation to block electronic communications as a means to quell social unrest.”
In addition to First Amendment issues, the intentional disruption of cell service raised questions from the FCC about the legality of shutting down an entire communications network, even if only temporarily. On December 1, the BART Board approved a policy authorizing police to shutdown wireless communication in stations under “extraordinary circumstances.”
Rent my Car
When you really think about it, you probably don’t use your car all that much. You drive to work – then leave your car in the lot all day while you’re inside. Or you leave town for a few days – then don’t use your car for the next three weeks. Meanwhile, plenty of other people don’t have cars, but sometimes need them.
Three new companies in the San Francisco Bay Area – Getaround, RelayRides, and Spride Share – are trying to match those idle cars with people who want to drive them. Each model is a little different, but the basic idea is the same: when you’re not using your car, you can rent it out to anyone who needs it. And if you need a car? You can rent anything from your neighbor’s station wagon to a brand-new Tesla Roadster. Or, you can rent KALW reporter Casey Miner’s beater for a bargain. (Listen to how that worked out here.)
How I learned to stop worrying and love the 880 freeway
The first real freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area was the 880. Completed in 1957, it connects the Port of Oakland with San Jose. Today it’s a major trucking route, and the most direct way to get to the Oakland Airport, or to an Oakland Raiders game.
But those things aren’t what set it apart from other freeways. Of all the Bay Area’s roads, the 880 — also called the Nimitz freeway — is arguably the one that gets the most people the most worked up.
AAA once named the “Nasty Nimitz” the “rudest road” in the region. And as far as we can tell, it’s the only highway with Yelp reviews, which say things like, “880 is like the backwards bigotted (sic) relative in the family that everyone is ashamed of.” And, “Dammit 880, why can’t you be nicer and more manicured like your East Bay cousins 80 and 580?” And, “There is a stretch around Downtown Oakland that is sooo freakin’ bumpy it’s like ridin’ in a horse-drawn buggy down the Oregon Trail. You have died from dysentery.”
Why so much distaste for one stretch of pavement? KALW’s Julie Caine takes us on a tour of one of the Bay Area’s most maligned roads.
For more than a year now, BART's board of directors has been discussing whether – and how – the system could stay open later. Right now the trains start their final runs at midnight, leaving many patrons scrambling to catch the last BART home, especially on the weekends. The board had been considering running later trains just one night a week. But last month they officially tabled that plan, voting to look at late night bus service instead.
In discussions about extending BART’s hours, one word comes up over and over again: maintenance. BART officials say closing the system for a few hours a night is crucial to keeping it working, especially as the cars age. KALW's Casey Miner went to find out what they actually do down there in the wee hours.
You can listen to the story here:
UPDATED 7 PM PST: Occupy protesters marched on ports up and down the West Coast Monday in a coordinated action designed to shut down operations.
As a result of protests in Oakland, CA, 100-150 longshoremen were sent home in the morning, according to ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees. The ILWU, the union representing longshoremen, publicly stated that it did not support the port blockades. According to Merrilees and a statement from the Port of Oakland, dock workers were sent home because of a decision by their employers that conditions as the port were unsafe--not as the result of arbitration, as was earlier reported.
Mike King, a spokesman for the Occupy blockade, said that Oakland protesters had met their goal for the morning, which was to stop ships from being loaded and unloaded at the port. Two additional marches convened on the port in the late afternoon with the same goal of blocking work on the evening shift.
Richard Mead, the president of the ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, said that employers at the port informed the ILWU that they would not be calling for any labor for the evening shift, which started at 6pm. If there’s no call for labor, Mead said, the longshoremen don’t go to work.
It wasn’t only the longshoremen who didn’t work Monday. Bill Aboudi, the president of AB Trucking, a small trucking company that does local runs in and out of the Port of Oakland, said that his six employee truck drivers couldn’t get into the terminals today to pick up or drop off containers. “The shutdown is burning cash,” he said. “It’s costing everybody and it’s a big headache for the 99% who work for a living.” He said that the backup caused by today’s protests would take at least a week to resolve.
Ruben Rodriguez, an Oakland-based truck driver who owns his own truck, said that he supported the movement, even though it meant he couldn’t work today. “I’m losing money today, but it’s worth it,” he said. “Poor people are earning less and rich people are earning more. People have to know about this.” Rodriguez said that in the past five years, the money he earns as a trucker has gone down while fuel prices have dramatically increased. He said that his average take-home earnings for a 2-3 day trip from Oakland to Los Angeles are only about $80 total.
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan issued an open letter to protesters on Sunday night asking them not to shut down the port saying it is not the “home of the 1 percent…It is one of the best sources of good paying blue-collar jobs left in our city.”
Protesters remained at the Port of Oakland Monday night, and are discussing whether to continue the blockade for a second day after reports of police violence in other cities.
High-speed rail in California is taking a beating. A Field Poll released today shows that 64% of California voters want a re-vote on the project, and that 59% of those voters would now oppose funding the project.
A revised business plan released by the California High-Speed Rail Authority in November projects costs for the rail system of almost $100 billion dollars—three times the total amount put before voters in 2008 when they approved a $9 billion bond measure to finance the project.
The poll shows that awareness about the bullet train is high in the state—77% of registered voters across party lines say they’ve heard of or read about the project. Opposition to the project is higher among Republicans, 73% of whom would now vote to kill funding -- as opposed to 49% of Democrats.
The timing of this poll comes just days after the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a scathing report, calling the funding strategies in the new business plan “highly speculative” and adding that “…it is highly uncertain if funding to complete the high-speed rail system will ever materialize.”
In November, Congress voted to zero out federal funding for high-speed rail for the next year.
Currently California has secured only $6 billion for the project—a combination of federal stimulus funds and the state bond money that voters would now take back if given the chance.
That $6 billion would be enough to build 130 miles of track between Merced and Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley, but not enough to connect that track to either San Francisco or Los Angeles. Another problem is that the 130-mile track wouldn’t be able to carry high-speed trains until additional segments were built. The Rail Authority says that the new tracks could be used for existing Amtrak service, but, according to the LAO report, this causes a new problem. Without the fast trains, starting rail construction might actually be illegal, as the bond funds from the state are intended for high-speed rail.
The new business plan lays out a variety of possible funding sources, including tax credit bonds and a federal high-speed rail trust fund. But none of that money has been secured. The Rail Authority has talked consistently about private sector investment, but that money wouldn’t come until the trains were operating and showing a profit.
In California, high-speed rail has Governor Jerry Brown’s support. The business plan is in a public comment period until Dec. 31, 2011. It goes before the California Legislature in January.
The California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), which provides non-partisan fiscal and policy analysis to the California Legislature, issued its review of the state's new high-speed rail business plan this week.
Among the issues identified in the report are a “highly speculative” funding plan, the lack of federal funds for high-speed rail in the next year, overestimated costs for alternative transportation infrastructure projects, underestimated ridership projections, and potential problems with using funds already secured for construction of an initial segment, because that segment may not meet the legal requirements of the ballot measure.
You can read the LAO's report here.
Building and preserving affordable housing near public transit hubs in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the areas of focus of a $4.99 million federal grant awarded Monday to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).
The “Sustainable Communities” regional planning grant, awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), fosters regional planning that integrates transportation, housing, job development, land-use and infrastructure development.
In addition to affordable housing, the grant will support job development for low- to middle-income residents in the communities in which they live. Because housing prices are so high, many low- to middle-income workers can’t afford to live in the communities where they work, and long daily commutes on congested freeways are a way of life. Of the more than 7 million people living in the Bay Area, only 9.7% currently get to work on public transportation.
"Our nation's ability to compete in a global economy and create jobs is dependent upon how quickly and efficiently we can connect our workers and families to education and employment opportunities." said HUD Secretary Donovan.
Increasing access to public transportation and reducing the need for long commutes is also part of a strategy to reduce emissions and air pollution in the Bay Area.
The “Sustainable Communities” grant will be matched with $2.383 million in funds from local agencies in the nine-county region.
Decaying infrastructure on roads and bridges is a problem that plagues municipalities across the country. And the potholes only get worse in the winter months. In bucolic Sonoma County, a California destination for wine-loving tourists from all over the world, a transportation blog called the Road Warrior holds a poll each year for the worst of the roads. KALW sent reporter Lindsey Lee Keel for a drive on that road to find the balance between shrinking county budgets and bumpy country roads.
(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) Two employees at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) were fired last week for allegedly falsifying test results on various projects around the state, and neglecting proper testing procedures of the new span on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The news came from an investigative report published November 13 in the Sacramento Bee. The two Caltrans employees – a technician and his supervisor – were fired that same day, even though Caltrans knew about the falsified test results back in 2008.
Caltrans acting director Malcolm Dougherty said in a press conference that the problems stemmed from an isolated incident with one employee, and that all the structures in question are safe. According to Tony Anziano, the toll bridge program manager for Caltrans, the agency has no concerns about the safety or quality of construction of the new span.
“There has been absolutely no evidence of any kind of falsification of any testing data on the Bay Bridge project,” said Anziano. “We remain extremely confident about the safety of the tower foundation piles for the Bay Bridge.”
The California Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, which includes Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission, and the Bay Area Toll Authority, has called for a review by the state Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel of all the aspects of the bridge that were tested by the fired technician. Actual re-testing of the bridge foundation, however, is “virtually impossible” according to the Bee’s investigation.
Charles Piller is the Sacramento Bee reporter who led the investigation. KALW’s Julie Caine called him up to talk about his findings.
CHARLES PILLER: What happened was that for a period of years there were irregularities in the branch of Caltrans that passed the foundations for freeway structures. These are the deep concrete and steel foundations for bridges, overpasses, and elevated roadways, among other freeway structures.
The individual who we wrote about in the story, Duane Wiles, who was a technician who was involved in testing some of these structures, dozens of them across the state, and Caltrans knew, in 2008, that he had falsified some of these structures. The story unfolds from the detection of falsification of data on a single structure —a freeway overpass in Riverside, (Southern California). What came out of that was a very cursory, short and incomplete examination of Wiles' record of testing.
Soon after, it was found that he had falsified at least two other structures. The implications of falsified tests of course, are at the very least, uncertainty about the public safety of the structures in question. Because no through investigation has been done on the extent of fabricated data by Duane Wiles, its difficult to say how many structures might be involved, that’s a first step. Caltrans has repeatedly said that they have made a thorough investigation of Duane Wiles work and have certified the structures he worked on as safe for the traveling public. This is contradicted directly by their own documents that I am in possession of. Contradicted in a multitude of ways.
JULIE CAINE: Can you talk about implications as they relate to the new structure of the Bay Bridge?
PILLER: Yes. We do not have evidence that data was falsified on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We do have evidence that Duayne Wiles used improper testing techniques, associated with all of his work on that bridge and all of his work actually, for nearly every structure he tested for a period of two years.
The implications of that improper testing technique are somewhat uncertain. It depends on other factors. Caltrans has dismissed concerns about improper technique as irrelevant. Unfortunately their own test method, the test method that they require their engineers and their technicians to use, requires certain elements of technique that Duane Wiles routinely violated. So, there’s a degree of uncertainty about the testing process itself.
Now, does this mean that the bridge is vulnerable to collapsing or to serious damage during an earthquake? No one is suggesting that. All the engineers I’ve talked with are suggesting is that this was not well-thought through. The testing was not well-thought through, the design of these piles contradicts the standard testing methods that would normally be used for these structures and consequently, it has raised questions about whether a team of qualified experts should get a close look at these structures and try to determine whether there’s anything in there that can help understand whether there’s vulnerabilities that were previously undetected.
CAINE: And is that possible to do?
PILLER: What can be done is a reassessment based on new assumptions. Assumptions that certain mistakes were made. Certain flaws are present that are perhaps undetectable but still present. And a calculation can be made about the stability of the structure even under a worse case scenario of substantially flawed foundations that have not been detected as of yet. And it’s a calculation that I think Caltrans has already said it would get a look at but they’re being a little bit ambiguous about their comments about this. But they claim that they’re going to put out the test findings to peer review to try to examine whether there’s any cause for concern.
CAINE: Would you drive across the new Bay Bridge?
PILLER: I live in Oakland and this story is very important to me and I have to say that it was very disheartening for me to even have to write it because of the public safety and economic implications for California. I think for me, I would certainly like to see a through evaluation of the bridge by experts and some bridge consultants and experts that I’ve spoken with have suggested that.
Fortunately for all of us, no one is going to be driving across that bridge until 2013 when it's completed. That’s plenty of time to do the kind of re-evaluation that’s been proposed and, I’m very hopeful that if that re-evaluation shows favorable information the public will be able to be reassured and myself among them.
(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) The first real freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area was the 880. Completed in 1957, it connects the Port of Oakland with San Jose. Today it’s a major trucking route, and the most direct way to get to the Oakland Airport, or to an Oakland Raiders game.
But those things aren’t what set it apart from other freeways. Of all the Bay Area’s roads, the 880 -- also called the Nimitz freeway -- is arguably the one that gets the most people the most worked up.
AAA once named the “Nasty Nimitz” the “rudest road” in the region. And as far as we can tell, it’s the only highway with Yelp reviews, which say things like, "880 is like the backwards bigotted (sic) relative in the family that everyone is ashamed of." And, "Dammit 880, why can't you be nicer and more manicured like your East Bay cousins 80 and 580?" And, "There is a stretch around Downtown Oakland that is sooo freakin' bumpy it's like ridin' in a horse-drawn buggy down the Oregon Trail. You have died from dysentery."
Why so much distaste for one stretch of pavement? KALW's Julie Caine takes us on a tour of one of the Bay Area's most maligned roads.
Two employees with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) were fired on Sunday after an investigation by the Sacramento Bee showed that the technician responsible for testing the structural integrity of the foundation of the new Bay Bridge falsified and fabricated test results on other projects.
According the newspaper, tests that technician Duane Wiles performed in 2006 and 2007 on supports for the bridge “showed no significant problems, while his colleagues detected many areas of questionable concrete density that required further scrutiny or repair.” The article also reports that Wiles failed to verify the accuracy of the instruments he used to test the supports.
Caltrans officials told the San Francisco Chronicle that the agency found no irregularities in a review of the tests performed by Wiles, and that the new span of the bridge is structurally sound.
The new span of the Bay Bridge is being constructed after the bridge suffered catastrophic damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The new span is set to open in 2013, and is the largest public works project in California history.
KALW plans to do an interview with the Sacramento Bee journalist who broke the story and Caltrans officials on Thursday.
It’s that time of year again—the days are getting shorter, and the end of daylight savings time means that many of us are traveling home from work in the dark. The switch to a darker commute isn’t just hard on the psyche; it can be dangerous, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Starting next week, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) are partnering to help keep bicycle riders safer and more visible on the city’s congested streets.
For the next month, volunteers and staffers from the SFBC, the SFMTA, and the SF Police Department will distribute and install free front and rear bike lights during the evening commute. This is the second year for the “Light Up the Night” campaign, which will provide 2,000 LED lights and reflectors as well as safety information to cyclists at busy bike routes throughout the city. The lights are paid for by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, and funded by a sales tax measure.
According to the SFMTA, there are 60% more people riding bikes in San Francisco than there were five years ago—a dramatic increase. Although bike lights are required by law in California, not all riders know about the rules, or can afford the proper lights.
“Distributing the lights directly to riders allows us to not only ensure that bicyclists get the word that being properly visible is the law,” said Edward Reiskin, SFMTA director, “But also to inform more bicyclists about what they can do to be safer on the streets.”
The California High-Speed Rail Authority released a new business plan Tuesday outlining a multi-phase strategy for bringing bullet trains to the state. The total price tag? $98.5 billion. That’s almost three times the original estimate made in 2008 when voters approved a $9 billion bond measure in support of the project that ultimately would link San Francisco with Los Angeles.
In a state already infamous for snarled traffic, and where the population is projected to increase from 38 million to 60 million people by the middle of the century, improving transportation infrastructure and moving all those people around is a real concern.
“We don’t have many choices,” said Thomas Umberg, Chairman of the HS Rail Authority. “We can do nothing and bury our heads in the sand. We can build more freeways and airports. Or we can do something visionary that transforms California’s transportation infrastructure.”
Part of that vision comes in the plan’s “phased implementation,” in which high-speed rail is developed, constructed, and funded in segments. “If we have to pause, we’ll pause,” said Umberg.
There is currently approximately $6 billion in funding from the federal government and from bonds approved by California voters in Proposition 1A to pay for the first phase—130 miles of track to be laid between Fresno and Bakersfield, the heart of California’s Central Valley.
The federal money comes with deadlines and strings attached: if the federal funds aren’t used by 2017, the state loses the money, said HS Rail spokesperson Rachel Wall. In order to meet that deadline, construction on the rail lines in the Central Valley are slated to begin in October 2012. In addition, the federal funds mandate that construction begin in the Central Valley, far from major metropolitan population centers.
After that, where the additional $92.5 billion in projected costs will come from remains unclear. The second phase of the project, which would link the new Central Valley track to existing transportation systems in either Northern or Southern California, is projected to cost around $31 billion.
“We don’t have funding yet for the second segment,” said Mike Rossi, a High-Speed Rail Authority board member appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. “But we have three years before we have to worry about that.”
Although the plan relies on public funding, it is designed to operate without public subsidies. Private investment is also integral to the plan, said Rachel Wall. “When there’s a revenue stream in sight, when there are trains on the tracks and tickets being sold, then the private sector will come in.”
Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CAARD), a critic of the project, says that without funding sources identified and secured, the burden would most likely be on the state of California.
“You’d like to say a realistic price tag makes the project more realistic,” she said. “But what it means is that the legislators have a really tough decision to make. Now there’s no excuse for not knowing what they’re signing up for. Before you could maybe pretend that you didn’t have this big liability for the state. The headline shouldn’t be why is the price tag so high, but why was it so low in the first place?”
Some of the cost increases come from the extension of the time line for completion from 2020 to 2033, and by using an estimated 3% annual inflation rate to calculate costs over time.
Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians for High Speed Rail, a supporter of the project, says some of those cost projections are too high because both the time line and inflation rate are too conservative.
“We think it’s a little out of whack,” he said. His organization believes that 2025 is a more realistic completion date, a change which he calculates would bring the price for high speed rail down by approximately $25 billion.
Political reaction to the new plan was mixed. Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Nancy Pelosi issued statements of support. State Senate Republican leader, Bob Dutton, called the new plan a “boondoggle,” and Republican State Senator Doug LaMalfa announced he would introduce legislation to put high-speed rail back on the California ballot.
“This is a hard project that’s going to take political courage and vision,” said Thomas Umberg. “Government is not tooled to have a succession of leaders with courage and vision. This is going to be a challenge for the state of California, but I think we’re up to the challenge.”
The plan is open to a 60-day comment period before it is finalized and goes to the California legislature in January 2012.
KALW's newsmagazine, Crosscurrents, took a deep dive into Bay Area transportation issues yesterday. We dedicated an entire show to transit: Our reporters visited a senior citizens' transit school, sat down with BART's new general manager, and got inspired by fellow commuters with artist Brett Amory. Our host even narrated the show from buses and subways all over San Francisco!
Check out the whole show here, or listen to the stories individually below.
Senior Survival School
by Molly Samuel
Take a quick look around while on the bus or the subway, and you’ll notice that a lot of the people who depend on public transit are seniors. But not all seniors are that comfortable navigating the system. So at ages 70, 80, and 90, some seniors are going back to school.
San Francisco resident Fran Chan is 89. She gave up driving about three years ago because she was worried about getting into an accident. And though there are some places she doesn’t get to anymore, she says she doesn’t have many complaints about riding the bus. For one thing, she always gets a seat up front.
“It never fails, but I used to feel hurt,” she said, as she settled into a seat reserved for seniors on the bus she takes almost every day. “Old age is funny. It creeps up on you. All of the sudden, you look in a mirror, and my God, you’re old.”
Chan is independent, and public transit helps her stay that way. She can step outside her apartment and take the bus wherever she needs to go.
“Old people have to decide whether you’re going to stay alone or move into group housing,” said Chan. “And you vacillate. But I finally decided that I can’t go live with other older people.”
Chan’s not alone in her choice to live alone. According to the AARP, the vast majority of seniors would prefer to stay in their own homes rather than move into a retirement community. And in cities, that usually means taking public transit.
San Francisco’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the regional Clipper transit card, counted nearly one and a half million rides by seniors just in August. And not everyone uses a Clipper card.
Fran Chan feels pretty comfortable using San Francisco’s buses, but not all seniors are so savvy. For them, there’s Senior Survival School.
Senior Survival School is a free program run by a San Francisco advocacy organization called Planning for Elders. They hold workshops on the challenges of navigating city living in senior centers around San Francisco. Today, they’ve brought in Matt West, who’s in charge of making sure Muni works for older people. He’s talking to about a dozen seniors who’ve gathered at a senior center to learn more about public transit.
“All our buses are accessible,” explains West. “They have the kneeler and the lift. Kneeler. Our state cars do have the little platforms that you can access from various locations.”
West answers questions from the crowd. Some are curious if the paratransit will take them to a 49ers game (the answer is yes). Others complain that other passengers won’t give up their seats to seniors, which is required.
“That’s the bind we’re in, because we’re trying to legislate people being polite” says West, explaining that MUNI plans to address the lack of seats and space for seniors with walkers and canes when they purchase new buses.
Since the number of seniors riding MUNI is only going up, city planners are looking at some long-term ideas as well as short-term fixes like creating smaller community routes that serve particular neighborhoods. But tight budgets mean there are trade-offs.
“A lot of the issues we see coming up are recently the cuts in services,” said Sarah Jarmon, the director of Senior Survival School. “Last year there was a 10% cut in the lines.”
Jarmon said that the elimination of stops is one of the biggest problems seniors face. But it’s also not the only one. For one thing, it can be scary to get on a bus. Jarmon said many seniors are afraid of falling.
“People get pushed around a lot on the bus. They’re not seated before they take off.”
James Chionsini, from the Senior Survival School, says another problem is that buses don’t always stop.
“It happens all the time,” he said. “I’ve seen them pass people up. And a crowded bus is going to be a missed bus for someone in a wheelchair.”
Seniors in the East Bay face many of the same challenges as their San Francisco peers. Cuts in service, for instance, are an ongoing issue. But there are also some more fundamental challenges. For one thing, the East Bay’s bigger. San Francisco’s Muni has about 5,000 stops and AC Transit in the East Bay has about 6,000. But Muni only has to serve about 47 square miles while AC Transit covers over 360 square miles. In short: almost the same number of stops, but AC Transit is much more spread out.
East Bay resident Jackie Rocket grew up riding public transportation in Oakland. She could get almost anywhere she wanted to go on buses and streetcars. Now, things are different. She lives in the more suburban city of Fremont, and drives just about everywhere.
“Practically speaking,” she said. “If the time comes that I can no longer safely use my car, then I’ll have to give up driving.
To prepare for that day, she’s attending Transit Training, a course similar to Senior Survival School sponsored by the city of Fremont. Unlike the seniors in the San Francisco class, who are for the most part familiar with Muni, most students in this class don’t ride the bus that often. In this more suburban, car-friendly city, they still drive. So a big part of what they’re learning is just the basics of how to navigate subways and the bus system.
Rocket, along with the other seniors participating in the class, has very specific reasons for being here.
“Seniors need to know these things,” she said. “When you sit down, when it says you’re retired. You sit down at home, your muscles atrophy, your heart goes and then you die. So by going and doing as much as you possibly can, it helps you keep getting younger.”
But her route isn’t as easy as Fran Chan’s in San Francisco. While she’s game to ride AC Transit, the closest stop to her house isn’t close enough.
“Where I would have to go would be one, two, three, three blocks before I got to a bus stop. Long blocks, not short ones. And that would be impossible for me.”
Transportation for America, a national advocacy group based in Washington D.C., projects that by 2015, 65,000 seniors won’t have adequate access to public transit in Oakland. In San Francisco, it’s 34,000. And that’s just two cities.
As James Chionsini from Planning for Elders points out, economics and politics aside, one thing’s for sure, “The old folks are coming right now,” he said. “So get ready, know what I mean? Because they’ll run you down if you’re not prepared.”
BART's New General Manager Goes Back to the Basics
by Casey Miner
In many ways, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, the region’s subway system) is the backbone of the Bay Area’s transit system. But in recent months the transit agency has dealt with a number of challenges, especially following the highly-publicized departure of former general manager Dorothy Duggar. BART’s new general manager, Grace Crunican has been on the job for just under two months. And she’s already taking on a number of major issues facing the agency, from heavy criticism of its police force to questions about how it will fund much-needed improvements to its aging cars.
KALW’s Casey Miner sat down with Crunican and asked her how she’s been getting up to speed.
GRACE CRUNICAN: I've tried to meet with as many people as I can. I've been out on the platforms once a week, at least, meeting the riders. I think those are the most important we serve, the costumers. Riders want good service, they want reliability. I've actually heard some very good things from the riders about the service, the predictability of it. Everyone’s interested in the new cars and getting good cushions and getting rid off the carpet on the floors that's been a pretty uniform message people have sent.
CASEY MINER: Were you expecting people to be so invested in the cushions and the seats and the carpets?
CRUNICAN: Absolutely, I think when you talk to riders or users of your system it's good you get that kind of input. They talk about what they care about and that's what they care about.
MINER: So in terms of your priorities for BART going forward, what would you say would be your top three things on your lists?
CRUNICAN: Well I want to deal with some of the issues from the past that got us into the soup and we're dealing with the cell phone policy. We'll be dealing with the journalist issue, some of those things, just taking things head on. I am a really straight-forward gal so we want to deal with the past. And then responding to costumers and getting them a good return on their value…
And then the community at large – I think BART needs to be a little bit more supportive of the communities it serves, so each station really is a focal point for folks, and those stations can respond a little bit better to the communities that's there. Some of the stations that I've looked at could be anywhere; they don't have color and vibrancy and reach out to the community. So we have a vide variety of communities we serve in the Bay Area, and a little less uniformity in structure, and maybe a little bit more outreach, even in color and cleanliness and the neighborliness that the stations provide.
I'll give you one example: I went to the 16th Street Mission District station in San Francisco, and there was lovely color around the station but we had those cyclone fences around the palm trees that are there. Maybe that was to protect the palm trees, but it really took away from the art that the community had put forward. So if we could be a little bit better neighbor and understand we are not all about infrastructure, but we're about the community, I think that would be a step ahead.
Having said that, when I talked to the commuters they were really all about the service to start with, and so I want to make sure we aren’t giving up that reliable service, and we're focused on the cars and car replacement and the elevators and the escalators. So we are about infrastructure but we could also be about community.
MINER: I just wanted to ask you in a little bit more in detail: In terms of some of the protest going on in the Charles Hill shooting showing that some of the review of the police department and oversight procedures – auxiliary ways that BART deals with journalists… How are you approaching these problems and what do you see your role as in kind of jumping into this?
CRUNICAN: Well let's take the police for example. There's a noble report, I've read parts of it and I am in the process of reading all of it. That report lays out some activities that the police need to follow, training protocols that needs to happen, reporting protocols that need to happen. So I am going through that report with the chief and finding out what we're doing and what we're on target with.
We had a hearing in Sacramento we explained that to the assembly that were gathered there: The representatives and what we're trying to do now is that we walk through and try to make sure that we're on top of that and even ahead of it if you will.
Let's take the case of the journalists: Some of the ones that were detained were students, and this is to the credit of the communications department. They are reaching out to the students and the professor and actually going there and I think inviting them here as well and going to their class and talking about what happened and talking about what could have been done differently, both from BART’s point of view and from student journalist point of view.
It'll take care of some people’s concerns. It won’t take care of everyone’s concern, but if we do that and we put on our webpage what happened or we respond in letters to them who have written to us I think people will see that we're trying to do a good job of responding well.
MINER: You were mentioning the BART as a very geographically diverse system. It's very diverse in other ways. Is there other ways that you see that BART can become more a part of the community or more integrated than some other regionally transportation systems?
CRUNICAN: If it's easy to get to the station on foot and it's a pleasant trip you'll walk as best you can. If you can bike and it's convenient you'll bike. And those are healthier choices than driving. I drove this morning to the BART station and jumped on the BART for example. The more we enhance those options, the more we enhance those kind of activities the more choices people have. The better the community I think will be, there'll be healthier community and they'll get a better return on their dollar because our systems won’t be in conflict. We'll try to erase some of those conflicts and keep the costs low and the service up.
MINER: How do you envision BART in the next five or 10 years… If you could have anything you wanted based on what you've learned so far, what would you say?
CRUNICAN: A little bit of growth, a lot of taking care of the inside the existing stations, a lot of taking care of the elevators the maintains that sort of thing. It's kind of back to basics for us.
Waiting Around with Brett Amory
by Julie Caine
In Bay Area artist Brett Amory’s “Waiting” series of paintings, isolated figures inhabit washed out, spare landscapes—solitary people waiting at bus stops and crosswalks, on subway platforms or at the airport. It’s an ongoing series, focused on themes of anticipation, distraction, and the culture of public transit.
“I was taking BART every day to work. I was living in San Francisco and I was working in Emeryville,” said Amory, 35, from his studio at the back of an old Korean youth center in Oakland. “I noticed how BART would be packed with people, and there’d be this disconnect. People rarely look at each other, let alone speak to each other.”
For most of us, getting to work is one of the least inspiring parts of the day—a time out of time, when we’re simply waiting to be somewhere else. We crowd onto BART trains or buses with headphones snaking from our ears, heads bowed down towards smartphones and iPads, or turning the pages of books and newspapers.
“While we're waiting for something, we're off in our own thoughts,” said Amory. “We’re thinking about our past, we're thinking about our future, but most of us aren't in the present moment. And we're not really paying any attention to our surroundings or who's around us.”
But Amory sees things differently. For him, public transportation is also a gathering place—kind of like a town square on wheels. And it’s given him the perfect venue to find the subjects of his paintings.
“It’s normal, but it’s strange,” he said. “You share so much of your lives with these people you don’t know, that you never talk to, but you see them every day, so you feel like you know them.”
He makes sketches and takes snapshots of people he wants to paint, careful to catch them in candid moments. The end products are much more dramatic than the mundane activities they depict: Some of his paintings are as big as ten by seven feet. And he’s brought them to places far from the Bay Area: his work has shown in galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and London.
“I like to bring attention to people who are overlooked in society,” he said. “That’s why I started the series. Usually the people in my paintings don’t really fit in—they seem awkward. You know, you see them on the sidewalk, or you see them walking down the street, and you might think, ‘I wonder what they do when they go home?’ But then you forget about them. When I show them at a gallery, or put them up on the street, you’re forced to look at them because the scale is so monumental.”
Amory's work has been getting lots of attention lately, in gallery shows in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London. To check out his work, visit http://brettamory.com/.
A new amnesty program in California will give people with outstanding traffic tickets a chance to clear their name, and their debt, at a 50 percent discount.
Beginning on January 1st, drivers with unpaid violations dating from January 2009 or earlier will have six months to pay up at the reduced price. The program will be run by the state’s collection office, and is intended at least in part to wrangle some much –needed revenue for California’s coffers. Jessica Sanora, senior manager for the office, said the state expects to receive $46 million by mid-2012.
That’s no small sum, but it’s only a fraction of the more than $2 billion that’s owed. Including fees and fines, individual ticket costs can range from $415 to as high as $1575.
“Because of the economy, people just don’t have the money to pay,” said Sanora. “This program can help them out, and maybe allow them to renew their driver’s licenses or qualify for car insurance.”
The amnesty does not apply to parking tickets, nor to violations for drunken or reckless driving, but is mandatory for vehicle code infractions like running a red light, speeding, or making an illegal left turn.
Sanora said the amnesty also applies to non-vehicle code violations. So, if you’ve got an old ticket for walking your dog without a leash, for example, this could be your chance to clear it up.
Drivers who owe restitution to victims, or who have outstanding warrants in the county where the traffic case was filed are ineligible for the program. It is up to individual counties and courts to decide whether to extend the amnesty to misdemeanor violations such as driving on a suspended license, or being involved in a hit and run.
This isn’t the first time the state’s tried this approach. California offered similar amnesty programs in 1992 and 1996. Although figures weren’t available for 1996, in 1992 the program generated $15.5 million.
In theory, thinning out traffic in carpool lanes should make traffic move faster. But kicking those drivers out of California carpool lanes had exactly the opposite effect, according to a new study by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
In July, 85,000 owners of hybrid vehicles in California lost the unique privilege of driving by themselves in carpool lanes. Federal law lets transportation agencies push those drivers out of carpool lanes if the average speed in those lanes dips below 45 mph during peak hours.
“Now we’ve got carpool lanes that are underused, and traffic is more congested,” said Michael Cassidy, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and co-author of the study. “This federal policy makes everything worse.”
Cassidy and doctoral student Kitae Jang analyzed six months of data collected from road sensors in the entire network of San Francisco Bay Area carpool lanes. The biggest surprise is that, even though only 1% of hybrid drivers were using the perk in the first place, taking away their ability to use carpool lanes increased traffic slowdowns overall by 10%.
“It surprised me, and I know how traffic works,” said Cassidy. “I thought it might be bad for regular lanes, but it turns out that it’s miserable for everybody.”
Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) spokesman Randy Rentschler said that, although the study focused only on the Bay Area, he had no doubt that the data was correct.
“Traffic is a weird thing,” said Rentschler. “When the system is working at maximum capacity, very small changes can have very big effects.” He pointed to the use of metering lights to mitigate congestion as another example.
According to the study, the unexpected results were due to a concept called “dual influence.” Drivers in faster moving carpool lanes reduce their speeds to avoid collisions with frustrated slow lane drivers, who in turn cut in and out the carpool lane to try to get ahead.
The second factor slowing down traffic is fear.
“When the lane next to me is at 30,” said Cassidy. “I’m afraid to drive at 70.”
Rentschler said that the report’s assertion that letting more cars use the carpool lane improves performance in all lanes begs an important question: What’s the best way to get more vehicles into the carpool lanes?
“In this case it was the people who had the money to buy Priuses who were allowed into the lanes,” said Rentschler. “But what about people who can’t afford those cars?”
The report outlines several possible solutions, including a system in which all commuters take turns using the carpool lanes on different days, and the use of High Occupancy Toll lanes, where drivers pay a fee to use carpool lanes.