Transportation Nation

California Greenhouse Gas Law Faces Challenge

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

(photo by Kevin Dooley via flickr)

(KALW - San Francisco) The future of California’s landmark greenhouse gas emissions law is being called into question.

Implementation of the law was delayed earlier this year by a U.S. District Court judge in Fresno, who ruled that the regulations violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. A three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from both sides of the debate last week.

At issue is the “Low Carbon Standard”—regulations that require fuel producers to meet California’s emissions standards, or pay a penalty in the state’s cap and trade system. Fuel, farm and trucking industry lawyers argue that the law violates the federal commerce clause because the law reaches across state borders, effectively favoring California-based producers over out-of-state competitors, whose fuel may not meet the state’s strict emission requirements.

The California Air Resources Board, the agency responsible for implementing the regulations, says the law is intended to reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990s levels by the year 2020. Lawyers representing the state and environmental groups argue that the California law is the only way to reach these goals.

Sean Donahue, an Environmental Defense Fund attorney who presented oral arguments to the appeals court, said that at its core, the law is about regulating greenhouse gas emissions by focusing on the entire life cycle of the fuel. “It’s not based on where the fuel is from, but is based on the effect on the climate,” Donahue said.

Peter Keisler, a fuel industry attorney, told the court, “Even if there is no discrimination, you still have a regulatory scheme whose purpose is to penalize imports, to penalize out-of-state conduct in an effort to control in-state emissions.”

The three-judge panel asked tough questions during the appeal, including a focus on language in the law that seemed to point to favoring California employment and tax revenues.

"Isn’t this unambiguous evidence that the board was motivated by protectionism?” asked 9th Circuit Court Judge Mary Murguia.

The panel now moves on to consider the oral and written arguments in the case before issuing a written opinion, a process that could take many months.



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Transportation Nation

This is What Air Pollution Sounds Like

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Oil pump near Taft, California (photo by Anna Conti via flickr)

Researchers in California have translated air pollution into futuristic soundscapes.

The website Atlantic Cities reports that scientists at University of California-Berkeley collected air samples from different locations across the state, then assigned tones to the different chemicals they found.

The authors write: "You can actually hear the difference between the toxic air of a truck tunnel (clogged with diesel hydrocarbons and carcinogenic particulate matter) and the fragrant air of the High Sierras."

Give it a listen.

According to the researchers, Bakersfield -- a town situated in California's Central Valley -- sounds a lot like Oakland's Caldecott Tunnel.  This is "the result of fresh hydrocarbons from a main trucking highway and oil and gas fields surrounding the sampling site."

Despite decades of progress, Southern Californians are among those at highest risk of death due to air pollution. The American Lung Association gives failing grades to more than half of California's counties.

Read more over at Atlantic Cities.

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Milo Greene, Meet Milo Greene

Monday, August 20, 2012

There aren’t any people named Milo Greene in the band Milo Greene – it’s just a name the California indie band made up years ago. So when the quintet stopped by our studio to play music from their self-titled new album, we felt it was high time to introduce a real, live Milo Greene into their life. Their reaction: priceless.


Transportation Nation

California Governor Campaigns for Infrastructure -- And His Legacy

Friday, July 27, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Ben Trefny - San Francisco, KALW - for Marketplace) In California, Governor Jerry Brown has been on the campaign trail. He's not up for re-election -- he's campaigning for massive infrastructure projects. He's been pushing some of these for decades. But why is he on the offensive now, when his state faces multi-billion-dollar deficits?

He acknowledged he's been at this a long time. "You know," he said at last week's signing of his $8 billion transportation bill, "I signed my first high-speed rail bill 30 years ago, it's taken that long to get things going."

High-speed rail isn't the only thing he's backing. He also wants a pair of tunnels to transfer water from northern to southern California. Cost? Anywhere from $14 billion to $24 billion, depending on your favorite estimate -- figures similar to the deficit California faces year after year.

If the projects do get built, they would be completed after the 74-year-old Brown is out of office. Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters says that's part of the point: the lifelong politician once nicknamed Governor Moonbeam wants more of a concrete legacy. "He wants people to look back on him and say, "That Jerry, he did some really great stuff,'" said Walters, "rather than, 'Hey, Jerry, he was kind of crazy.' You know?"

There is one constant over Jerry Brown's long political career. He's always shooting for the moon.

Listen to the audio version of this story on the Marketplace Morning Report.


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On The Media

Enforcing Online Privacy Laws

Friday, July 27, 2012

With every new online service we participate in—from mobile banking to the latest social networking site—more and more of our personal information is being stored online—and for privacy advocates, that is a scary trade off. Now the state of California is taking steps to make sure that this consumer data stays protected, with the creation of a new Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit. Brooke speaks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris about enforcing privacy rules.


Transportation Nation

Explainer: What Happens Now With California's Bullet Train

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The bullet train may be back on track. Earlier this month the California legislature narrowly approved $8 billion dollars in bond money to start construction of the high-speed rail system connecting Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Governor Jerry Brown signed off at ceremonies in LA and San Francisco.

The project is now expected to cost close to $69 billion dollars to complete. The bulk of the money the legislature just approved will go to start building a 130-mile stretch of track in the Central Valley; about a quarter will go to local transportation projects in LA and San Francisco.

The bullet train project is controversial. The scope -- and the price tag -- has changed many times since voters first approved the plan back in 2008, and the project now faces multiple lawsuits designed to stop construction before it starts. KALW’s Julie Caine sat down with Mike Rosenberg, a reporter who covers high-speed rail for the San Jose Mercury News, to talk about what happens next. Below is the full transcript of the interview, which was edited for broadcast.

Listen to the radio version:

JULIE CAINE: I wondered if we could start with giving people a sense of what high-speed rail is right now in California? It's been through so many changes—different price tags, different plans. Can you give us a brief overview about what the Legislature just approved and Jerry Brown signed into law?

MIKE ROSENBERG: Sure. The legislature approved a bill worth $8 billion dollars. It's the starting point for high-speed rail. So there’s going to be a $6 billion dollar stretch of track in the Central Valley, around Fresno. And there's also going to be about $2 billion dollars worth of upgrades to projects in the Bay Area and Southern California. For us, that means electrifying the Caltrain line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose. The reason they're doing that is these are projects that will help now in the Bay Area and LA area, but they'll also lay the groundwork for high-speed rail later. The entire high-speed rail project that runs between San Francisco and LA is slated to cost about $69 billion dollars.

CAINE: So there's $8 billion dollars of that money now. Are there any plans for how to get the $61 billion that are needed?

ROSENBERG: Not really. There's a little bit of bond money left over from when voters approved the project in 2008. There's a few billion dollars left from that, but as far as the rest of the money, it's all sort of on paper. They're hoping the federal government kicks in about $40-50 billion dollars. But they've zeroed out all funding for the last three years, and Republicans have sort of made a mockery of the project in the House. The only way that they'll really be able to get the money is if something changes in the political climate in Washington. The other back-up plan is to use new greenhouse gas fees that are coming down at the state level.  Big polluters would have to pay because of their greenhouse gases and that would have to go to environmentally friendly projects. High-speed rail is going to try to tap into that, but that's also a questionable source of funding.

CAINE: So right now all that the money will pay for is a stretch of track in the Central Valley and improvements to rail systems in LA and San Francisco. Why start in the Central Valley? Why is construction starting there?

ROSENBERG: The consensus view is that, putting aside backroom deals with Central Valley politicians, it was something that was decided on by the federal government. The Obama Administration is desperate to see some sort of high-speed rail built because California is the only state left that actually has plans for a high-speed train that's anywhere near reality. The Central Valley portion is the biggest stretch of land where they can build the biggest stretch of track. They can build about 130 miles down there, whereas if they were to do it here or in LA, it would be a much smaller amount. The theory is that once you have a bunch of tracks sitting there doing nothing, it's going to be much harder to abandon, so that puts the pressure on politicians to give more money. Whereas if you were doing something that had use, like electrifying the Caltrain line, they'd say, well, you know we succeeded at that and let's abandon it. Whereas the entire Central Valley stretch of track is going to be tough to let sit out there as a sign of failure.

CAINE: It would be a source of embarrassment to the federal government if nothing else happened but that stretch of track?


CAINE: I'm curious about the support in California for high-speed rail. The legislature just voted on whether they were going to approve releasing the bond that voters passed in 2008, and that was an incredibly close vote. In the state senate it needed 21 votes to pass, and it got exactly 21 votes. No Republicans voted in favor, and some of the major Democratic supporters of high-speed rail voted against it. One of those was Senator Joe Simitian from Palo Alto, who changed his vote to no at the last minute. I'm wondering what it meant for someone like Joe Simitian to vote against the high-speed rail plan?

ROSENBERG: It's actually really significant. I mean on one hand he's just one guy, but him and also a Democrat from Concord named Mark DeSaulnier and another one from Long Beach called Alan Lowenthal, they were the three guys who were tasked with overseeing the bullet train for the Democratic Party. And they were the three who came out and said, you know, the more we look into this, the more we don't like it. The other Democrats were supposed to rely on their expertise, but once they said that they didn't want to go forward with the project, they had to weigh that with the leadership, like the president of the Senate, Darrell Steinberg, and of course the governor, who are die-hard supporters. And they all ended up just going with the program and approving it, even though as far as I can tell, they didn't necessarily know that much about what they were voting on. But the ones who had been following it decided ultimately to vote against it.

CAINE: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the reasons Joe Simitian gave for voting against something that he has really championed, even since before 2008.

ROSENBERG: The biggest reasons for him, and really anyone who doesn't like the project, is the cost and the uncertain funding. I mean $69 billion dollars is more money than any state has ever spent on any public works project. It's an unprecedented amount of money, and finding that much money is just going to be a really big chore. Following that, there are a lot of questions about whether this is actually worthwhile in the first place. The rider estimates keep going down, and they're questionable. And people are wondering what exactly will happen to the property along the way. There's a 520-mile route that this is going to take, and that's going to take over a lot of businesses and homes along the way. So that's going to cause a lot of economic damages as well, not to mention people's livelihoods. If it was just about whether or not we had the money and we were trying to decide whether it was worthwhile, it would sort of put a lot of people on fence. Those who are wobbling on it get pushed over the edge by the fact that there really isn't that clear of a plan to actually get this done. They're scared that they're going to be only left with that one stretch of tracks.

CAINE: It's interesting that building is starting in the Central Valley where there is a lot of opposition, very vocal opposition to the project, and in fact a lot of litigation. I'm wondering if you can talk about some of the real obstacles, particularly legal obstacles, that are in the way of the bullet train now.

ROSENBERG: Yeah, it’s funny. The Central Valley was supposed to be the easy part. Because the opposition was really in the Bay Area, and there were just so many people in LA that they would have to displace. But the Central Valley, they were supposed to just say yeah, this is great, come on down. It turns out they were the ones who rose up against the fiercest. And now they're really only faced with one option, which is to sue. Because no one has any control over the project, outside of the state and federal governments. So if you're a local county, or a city, or a farmer, or a business owner, the only thing you can do is to try to sue. There are about half a dozen suits going on right now, and there’s going to be more coming. The general idea is to have a judge issue an injunction to stop them from being able to start construction. That’s something that will be playing out over the past six months or so.

CAINE: I know there are also some questions about whether the plan that the legislature and Jerry Brown just approved is actually legal in terms of what the voters voted on in 2008 because the high-speed rail plan has changed so much since that time. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are the major points of contention between what voters approved in 2008, and what was just approved?

ROSENBERG: It’s an ethical argument saying that we voted on a certain plan. It was supposed to be $33 billion, now it's twice that. It was supposed to open by 2020, now it's 2030. The ticket to get from SF to LA was supposed to be 55 bucks, now it's like 85 bucks. The rider estimates have gone in half. Everything has changed pretty dramatically. Some of the opponents are trying to go beyond an ethical argument and saying it's just flat out illegal. You can't use this money—it's a legal statue that was created when voters passed the bond measure to approve the project in 2008, so if you're going to use that money you have to adhere by what you said you were going to spend the money on. That's probably not an argument that's going to win in a legal sense cause they usually give them leeway to spend money on those sorts of things, when the details have changed. But just from an ethical standpoint, that's the main argument that opponents cite, when you talk about people who once supported it and are now against it.

CAINE: I know a lot of the opposition to the plan is very political, and a lot Republicans when they were giving their statements about why they didn't support high-speed rail were starting to invoke huge budget cuts that the state is facing, particularly for education, and really using this as a kind of focal point to turn voter sentiment against Jerry Brown's November tax initiative, which is the centerpiece of how he's going to finance some of the social programs and education in the state. Is the bond money that just got approved actually money that could be used for education for example?

ROSENBERG: It depends on who you ask. The voters approved $10 billion dollars in bonds, and that money can only be spend on high-speed rail. Now, the bond money itself gets paid back through the General Fund, which is used on everything--education, social services, prisons. So the money right now is only available for high-speed rail, but when they start paying it back over the next three decades, that will cut into all the other programs.

CAINE: I'm just curious, in light of all of that, why is Jerry Brown still such a champion of high-speed rail? Why is he still so behind it?

ROSENBERG: There’s a couple of schools of thought on that. I mean what he says is that he dreams of doing big things and he doesn't believe that bad times are the time to shy away.   He had this press conference where he called all the skeptics fearful men and NIMBYs and declinists. He tends to take his point of view and he doesn't necessarily care so much about what the polls say. Especially when it comes to a long-term project. To be frank, by the time the project's finished, even (by) the most optimistic standards, Jerry Brown will probably (have) passed away. So it's something that's so long term, he'll never really have to deal with the repercussions of it. From a skeptic's standpoint what people point to is that the main driver of this project in terms of the funding to get the ballot measure passed and to keep it going and to lobby politicians has come from the construction unions. Because that $69 billion dollars, that's going into their pockets. And Democrats—Brown and some of the others—are funded mostly by the unions so if they turn down a project that the unions support, then they risk losing the support of their major funding backers and then they might not get elected back to office.

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Transportation Nation

California Governor Signs Bullet Train Bill

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

California Governor Jerry Brown gave high-speed rail the official green light Wednesday, signing legislation authorizing $8 billion in initial funding for the $68 billion project.

This officially frees up money to begin the line's construction, which will start next year in the Central Valley.

Signing ceremonies in San Francisco and Los Angeles emphasized the political importance of the $1.9 billion allocated for improving existing commuter rail systems in these cities, the eventual “bookends” of the rail network that would connect northern and southern California.

In a statement, Gov. Brown said “by improving regional transportation systems, we are investing in the future of our state and making California a better place to live and work.”

Brown had no plans to stop in the Central Valley, where the project faces strong legal opposition from farmers, agribusiness and other groups in the Valley.

Republican legislators in California roundly oppose the plan. State senator Joel Anderson released a statement today equating approval for high-speed rail funding with slashes to education funding in the state. “There should be no doubt that Governor Brown has thrown our children’s education under the tracks to build this train,” he said.


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The Takeaway

A New Plan for Fighting Foreclosure: Eminent Domain?

Friday, July 06, 2012

About half of the mortgages in San Bernardino County are underwater, and the county is looking for some way to help its residents. Now a venture capital firm has stepped forward with a controversial possible solution.

Comments [1]

The Takeaway

Stockton to Be Largest Bankrupt City in America

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Stockton, California is facing a $26 million budget shortfall and hasn’t been able to square its debts through state-required mediation. Now the city of 290,000 will swallow its pride and apply for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.


The Takeaway

Growing California Deficit Could Mean More School Cuts

Monday, May 14, 2012

California’s deficit has grown to $16 billion, and the governor says this means massive cuts to state institutions. Discussing how the state got to this point is Chris Megerian, a political reporter with the L.A. Times. Adam Swart, chief of staff in the UCLA student government, explains what the cuts could mean for his school.

Comments [3]

Transportation Nation

Claim: L.A. Bus Cuts Are A Civil Rights Violation

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

BusAs we reported in an hour-long radio documentary, transit choices often carry civil rights implications. Now, activists in Los Angeles are claiming that the LA MTA has violated the rights of 500,000 low income and minority riders, as KPCC reports.

By cutting more than 800,000 hours of bus service around Los Angeles, the agency knowingly discriminated against bus riders from ethnic communities, say protesters.

“Did ten years of civil rights oversight not teach the MTA how to perform civil rights analysis?," Barbara Lott-Holland of the Bus Rider Union asked rhetorically. "The MTA did exactly what they promised the courts they would not do -- they went back to their old habits of stealing from bus riders.”

The Federal Transit Administration conducted an 18-month review of the cuts, resulting in a recommendation to the MTA to review the choice of services to cut.

The FTA review was in response to a claim from The Bus Riders Union and Public Advocates, a civil rights nonprofit. The groups argue that LA Metro discriminated against minorities in focusing transit service cuts solely on bus routes used primarily by people of color, during a time when service on rail routes increased. A statement from the groups sent to TN notes that "Metro Bus riders are less than half as likely as Metro Rail riders to be white, and Metro Rail riders are 30 percent less likely to be Latino than Metro Bus riders."

The MTA says the decisions were economically motivated and adds it were planning it's own review of the decisions anyway.

For more details, links to the letters, documents and statements from all sides, as well as an audio report, visit KPCC.

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Transportation Nation

Why California's Gas Prices Are So High

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gas price heat map courtesy of


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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It's A Free Country ®

Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits (Part 3)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Term limits might be good public policy—emphasis on "might"—and could give the political advantage to Republicans.

Comments [1]

It's A Free Country ®

Explainer: Should Congress Have Term Limits? (Part 2)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How do term limits change politics in the states that have them? In the case of California, they resulted in a legislature that gets less done.

Comments [2]

It's A Free Blog

Opinion: CA Shouldn't Wait for SCOTUS To Overturn Prop 8

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The California initiative process is a cop-out. It relieves lawmakers of the responsibility of making the difficult decisions they were sent to Sacramento to make, and it leaves the public holding the bag containing the really tough questions.

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Comments [2]

The Takeaway

California's Ban on Gay Marriage Struck Down

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court panel ruled that Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage which passed into law in 2008, was unconstitutional. This is the first time an appellate court has said there is any kind of constitutional right to marry. But this ruling is still being considered "cautious" by legal experts: Proposition 8 supporters can appeal to the entire 9th circuit, or ask the Supreme Court to take up their case.


Transportation Nation

Infrastructure Financier Tapped to Run California High Speed Rail Authority

Thursday, February 02, 2012

An expert in infrastructure financing and former member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District has been elected to head the California High Speed Rail Authority.  Dan Richard of Piedmont has been tapped to chair the authority, which faces withering criticism from mostly Republican critics who say the $98 billion price tag is too high.

Richard succeeds Thomas Umberg, who abruptly resigned that post last month.  Umberg  will remain on the board as an active member.

Here's Richard's bio, from the CAHSRA press release:

Dan Richard of Piedmont, has been a principal of Dan Richard Advisors since 2010. He was managing partner and co-founder of Heritage Oak Capital Partners, an infrastructure finance firm, from 2007 to 2009 and was senior vice president of public policy and governmental relations at Pacific Gas and Electric Company from 1997 to 2006.

Richard was an elected member of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District from 1992 to 2004, where he served twice as president of the Board. At the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, Richard led efforts to secure $4 billion in capital for system rehabilitation projects, the transit system’s expansion to the San Francisco Airport and seismic retrofit programs. 

Richard was a principal at Morse, Richard, Weisenmiller & Associates from 1986 to 1996, a firm serving the independent power industry and project finance lending community. He was vice president of Independent Power Corporation from 1983 to 1986. Richard served as Governor Brown’s deputy legal affairs secretary from 1982 to 1983 and deputy assistant for science and technology from 1978 to 1979.  He was advisor to the chairman of the California Energy Commission from 1978 to 1982.

Richard began his career at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where he was an assistant to the deputy associate administrator from 1972 to 1978. Richard received his Juris Doctor degree from McGeorge School of Law.  

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Transportation Nation

VIDEO: California's High-Speed Rail Woes from KQED

Monday, January 23, 2012

KQED in Northern California takes stock of high-speed rail in California. As we reported last week, the California High Speed Rail Authority just lost several key leaders and is coming under increasing criticism, while Governor Jerry Brown is steadfast in his support for the idea of bullet trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles, he's planning an overhaul of the agencies charged with building the project.

The segment was produced by Roger Rudick and Luke Mines for KQED TV, as part of the "Train Wars" project, a forthcoming documentary on the battle over high-speed rail in America.

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Transportation Nation

For California High Speed Rail, A Season of Woe

Friday, January 13, 2012


This train is not high speed. (Photo by Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker)

It's been a difficult season for California High Speed Rail. A budget revision that put the total price tab ominously close to $100 billion. Two congressional hearings pillorying the project.   Lots of noise by legislators positioning themselves against the project.

Now comes word the man in charge of California's high-speed rail project has resigned, dealing yet another set back to the nation's most ambitious rail project. Roelof van Ark took the CEO position at the California High-Speed Rail Authority in May 2010 after heading up the American division of a French manufacturer of high-speed trains. His resignation takes effect in two months, giving him a total of less than a year in the post. He said he resigned for personal reasons.

Van Ark was in charge of the agency when it revised the business plan, raising the cost estimate to just under $99.5 billion over 20 years, a move that detracted from popular support, though supporters said it gave a much more "realistic" assessment of the projects costs, which they argued was ultimately fairer to the state.

Van Ark wasn't the only leader to step down. Tom Unger will give up his seat as chairman of the Authority's board, though he will continue to serve on it. Last week the press spokesperson for the Authority quit as well.

The resignations follow what the Los Angeles Times called "a serious blow" earlier in the month when funding of the plan was put in jeopardy. A government-created review board voted to recommend the legislature not issue $2.7 billion in bonds to pay for early work on the rail plan. A study commissioned by the Authority found that ridership projections were inaccurate and overly optimistic.

Governor Jerry Brown remains supportive of the plan and said he will seek legislative approval for new state funding anyway. In fact, in some ways, he's doubling down, according to the AP. One of his two hand picked advisers on the Rail Authority board, Dan Richards, will replace Mr. Unger as chairman. Brown has a plan to shift high-speed rail planning and management to a new agency that includes CalTrans, the state department of transportation.

Calif. Assemblymember Cathleen Galgiani issued a statement saying, “Today represents a turning point for the Governor to put his stamp on the project."

Standing in the way of that is finding a new bullet train boss. As the Sacramento Bee predicts, the turmoil around the plan, its string of setbacks, and declining public support will make it harder for the new agency to find a leader with credentials to match van Arks.

Voters authorized the plan, and backed it with the go ahead to issue $9 billion in bonds to get the project started. That was back in 2008 before high-speed rail became politically controversial and fears of cost overruns led two Republican govenors to cancel plans in their states.

Governor Brown's budget proposes $16 billion next year for the Rail Authority, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports in a detailed rundown of the shifting costs and budget projections for the California plan.

California's high-speed rail plan would connect San Francisco to Los Angeles, with a spur into the Central Valley, totaling 800 miles of track. Construction has already started on a 130-mile stretch in the San Joaquin Valley.

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Transportation Nation

California's Diesel Decade

Thursday, January 12, 2012

photo by Shani Aviram

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.

Listen to the interview here

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.

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