Thursday, August 23, 2012
By Julie Caine
A Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, California burst into flames earlier this month. Reportedly, workers discovered that an old pipe, potentially in operation since the 1970s, was leaking. After about two hours, they removed the insulation unit while the pipe was still processing crude, causing the explosion. Five workers were treated for minor injuries, but the Chemical Safety Board has called the accident a “near disaster” for refinery personnel. A "shelter in place" warning was issued for the community because of potential toxins in the air. And more than 11,000 residents went to the emergency room complaining of health problems.
Investigations into the cause of the fire are ongoing. But, inspectors need access to the site of the explosion, which is still considered too dangerous. Robert Rogers, the Richmond reporter for the Bay Area News Group, has been following the story. He spoke with KALW’s Holly Kernan about the fallout of the fire.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Earlier this month the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted unanimously to wait before approving new licenses for Indian Point or other nuclear plants until it can determine how to deal with safety and environmental threats posed by indefinite on-site storage of highly radioactive spent fuel. Attorney Richard Webster and Clearwater Environmental Director and NRC Petitioner Manna Jo Greene discuss the environmental impacts of on-site spent fuel storage at Indian Point, the vote, and how it impacts the relicensing decision for the Indian Point Nuclear Reactor.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY – WNYC) It's going to take at $5.4 billion to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River north of New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the project a big push Monday by sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, asking for a $2 billion loan. Cuomo inked the request in front of a small crowd at a marina in the riverside town of Piermont, NY, that he might flourish his pen with the old, and beleaguered, Tappan Zee Bridge in the background.
But the new funding plans include no guarantee that the new bridge will have any form of public transportation, aside from a bus lane.
"The Tappan Zee Bridge is a metaphor for dysfunction," Cuomo said before the signing. He claimed the first plans to replace the bridge were developed before the turn of the millennium, as the bridge neared 50 years old. "Think of all the hours in traffic people have been sitting on the bridge because that hasn't gotten done, how many wasted dollars patching that bridge," he said. "Think of all the pollution."
It took Cuomo many months to get to the moment. Key members of the The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, whose approval was needed before the loan could be requested, balked at a plan for the bridge that included no provision for a mass transit operation beyond a bus: options such as rail, light rail or a Bus Rapid Transit system linking to transportation hubs on either side of the Hudson. Cuomo won the votes of those officials by agreeing to form a task force to examine the issue and come up with recommendations.
There is also the question about where the state will get the rest of the money to pay for the massive construction project. A Cuomo aide recently raised the possibility of raising the bridge's $5 toll to $14 when the new bridge opens. But after an outcry, the governor mounted a pro-bridge public relations plan, and then distanced himself from his own staffer's remarks. Cuomo is known for running a tightly controlled administration, where subordinates generally don't speak out of turn.
In the Piermont speech, Cuomo merely promised to "keep tolls affordable."
And what if, the press asked Cuomo, the federal government doesn't come through with the loan? "I'm an optimist," he said. "They're going to say, 'yes.'" When asked if tolls would be raised even higher if the loan didn't come through, Cuomo repeated, "They're going to say, 'yes.'" Then repeated it a few more times.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
By Alec Hamilton : Assistant Producer, WNYC News
Water temperatures are rising in the Long Island Sound, and bringing a change in the fish population, a new report finds.
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
They supermarket debate of paper vs. plastic could get complicated, and costly. Seven bills currently pending in the New Jersey Legislature call for a ban or fees on plastic grocery bags.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
John Richardson, Writer at Large for Esquire magazine, talks about the proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, which is a flashpoint about ideas of capitalism. His article “Keystone,” in the September issue of Esquire, looks at the complex technical, economic, and environmental issues the pipeline raises.
Thursday, August 09, 2012
This year’s lobster catch from Maine to Massachusetts has been near historic highs, causing prices to drop. But you probably wouldn’t know that if you ordered the crustacean in a New York restaurant. Dave Casoni, a lobsterman in Cape Cod, talks about what he’s catching this year. He's joined by Bob Bayer, professor and director of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute.
Thursday, August 09, 2012
By Julie Caine
The smoke from the Chevron refinery fire that started late Monday in Richmond, California has cleared -- but the controversy was still hot at a community meeting Tuesday night. Around 700 people attended the meeting in Richmond, where local government and health officials, as well as the refinery's general manager, faced frustration and anger.
Joan Davis from the Richmond Community Foundation began the meeting with a request: “Those of you who are feeling afraid, very quietly, stand. Those of you who are feeling angry, please stand, quietly.”
Almost everyone in the hall got to their feet.
They sat down again to hear from Nigel Hearne, the Chevron refinery's general manager. “I take personal and full responsibility for the incident that occurred last night. I'm really here to respect you, and to hear, listen about your concerns this evening," said Hearne.
Applause and boos were shouted, and a long line of people waiting to speak on a microphone formed down the center aisle. They talked about everything from illness and contamination from the fire, to racism and economic inequality in the community.
“I didn't get a phone call. I did not hear the sirens until 7 o’clock. You need to fix your system,” one community member said.
Another took the floor to say, “Them white people ain't thinking about y'all. Because why? A lot of y'all are black. So what? Let them die. They need to set up a clinic. They need to examine everybody out here. They need to find out the extent of the sickness of people in this community."
Yolanda Jones, a member of the community, expressed her concern about access to information. “I want to make sure that everybody in this room, including the people who could not get here, have access to fill out the form – not just on a computer, so that people who don't have a computer cannot fill it out. So people who don't have a house phone cannot know what to do,” she said.
Charles Hawthorne, who lives about ten miles from the refinery, left the meeting early in frustration. “Nothing's getting done,” he said. “People are shouting over each other, and they've turned it into their own political forum. To me, this was a big waste of time. They should have had more people to control the chaos."
An investigation into the causes of the fire is underway, headed by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chevron officials say they will cover expenses for health problems, property damage, and municipal costs associated with the fire.
Friday, August 03, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) As the opening of the Interstate 495 Express Lanes on northern Virginia's Capital Beltway draws closer, backers of the $2 billion project say they cannot guarantee the four new HOT lanes will achieve the goal of reducing traffic congestion while simultaneously returning a profit for their private sector operator.
The admission is noteworthy because there was enormous investment made by a private entity. The tolls revenues that are supposed to supply its profit are off limits to the state of Virginia for the next seven decades.
The HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes will run next to the Beltway's non-toll lanes between the Dulles Toll Road and I-95 in Springfield, Va., one of the most heavily traveled corridors in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. The project is the result of a public-private partnership between the state of Virginia and Fluor-Transurban, a company that has built similar facilities in the United States and abroad.
In the deal, the state received four new lanes of traffic capacity, a repaving of the Beltway, and a fully electronic toll facility for individual commuters and HOV-3 carpoolers. Transurban gets the toll revenues for the next 75 years, but company officials say they may not turn a profit at all.
"The private sector is responsible for paying back the debt and paying to operate and maintain the lanes," said Jennifer Aument, a Transurban spokeswoman, at a recent press conference to promote the new E-ZPass Flex device that will be necessary for HOT lanes carpoolers to have.
Transurban provided about 75 percent of the capital necessary to build the new lanes and toll gantries. Public money was necessary to cover about one-fourth of the costs and finalize the partnership because projected toll revenues were not sufficient for Transurban to finance the entire project itself.
HOT lane popularity has been mixed in other cities. Houston is currently considering additional promotion and advertising to get more drivers using new HOT lanes that are under capacity.
"If the traffic doesn't come and we can't generate the revenue, we are taking the risk on this project," Aument said of the Virginia plan. "But we believe because the 495 Express Lanes will provide a faster, more reliable trip which is much needed in this great region, it will be a success for us, for VDOT, and for travelers."
Not your normal toll road
The idea behind the 495 Express Lanes is not that commuters will use them every day; commuters are expected to pay the potentially pricey toll on days when they need the reliability and predictability that a congestion-free highway would present.
The tolling will be dynamically priced; the more commuters that use the toll lanes at a given time during the day the higher the toll will be. Raising the toll during peak travel periods will prevent the new lanes from getting congested, as is usually the case during rush hour in the adjacent non-toll lanes.
Carpoolers may use the HOT lanes for free as long there are at least three occupants in the vehicle. If carpooling is too successful, Virginia taxpayers will wind up subsidizing some HOV-3 trips.
The contract between Virginia and Transurban requires the state to pay subsidies if the number of carpoolers reaches at least 24 percent "of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are... going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day... during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour..."
During peak travel times -- if carpoolers make up about one-fourth of all vehicles in the HOT lanes -- the state will have to pay Transurban 70 percent of the lost toll per vehicle. Both VDOT and Transurban are downplaying the possibility that taxpayers will have to subsidize carpoolers.
"Is there a back stop? The answer to that is yes. Do we think we will get there? The answer to that is no. And if we do, we still consider that a success," says Charlie Kilpatrick, VDOT's chief deputy commissioner. "That's a success story because we would have such a great usage in HOV, much further beyond what we ever imagined."
"Carpooling could expand by more than 10 times on the Beltway before this provision would go into effect," says Aument, who says the subsidy will not be paid if Transurban clears a certain profit on toll revenue, about 12 percent. "It's there as a stop-gap in the extraordinary circumstance that there are so many carpoolers that we can't collect enough toll revenue to operate and maintain the road."
Public-private partnerships are the future
Without the capital of Transurban the 495 Express Lanes would have remained just an idea. To build the $2 billion road, however, the state agreed to Transurban receiving the toll revenues for the next 75 years, even though the company hopes to have paid off its project debt in 30 years.
"It is frankly unrealistic to believe that there are sufficient public funds for these enormous projects in Virginia," says Kilpatrick.
Virginia has been one of the most active states in the country in signing public-private partnerships, according to Emil Frankel, a visiting scholar at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center and former assistant secretary of transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"The private sector is putting a lot of money into this only with the assurance that they will get a return on their investment to service the debt that they have incurred to construct it," Frankel says. "So the public had to give up something to get this built."
"If you like the Beltway the way it is and you don't want anything built at all, then it's a bad deal," says Frankel. "Most of the residents of Virginia wanted this increased capacity. By taking some of the traffic off the free lanes, it should improve the flow of traffic on the free lanes as well." Express buses will also have access to the HOT lanes.
Private entities take the risk
Some private highway ventures have not gone as planned. The Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond, an 8.8-mile tolled freeway between the junction of I-95 and VA-150, has yet to meet traffic projections and may have to go through another financial restructuring. The Dulles Greenway saw its finances restructured for the first time in 1999 after projected levels of traffic and tolls didn't materialize. Frankel expects 495 to be more successful than the aforementioned toll roads because the HOT lanes were built directly adjacent to congested travel lanes.
"You are getting increased capacity on a crowded, unreliable facility," says Frankel, who says the 91 Express Lanes, which run for 10 miles in southern California, are an example of a successful dynamic tolling and HOV-3 system.
Smart growth advocates are unhappy with the deal the state received in losing access to toll revenues for 75 years, and argue that VDOT should have considered alternatives to Beltway expansion.
"I think we should be looking at all alternatives upfront, and look more objectively at transit and transit-oriented development and lower cost approaches," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We should look at public ownership of the toll lanes so we have access to those revenues in the future."
"VDOT rejected at the earliest stages a transit alternative for this corridor. They were prevailed upon to do another transit study, but they promptly put it on a shelf. They never took seriously a transit-oriented development for this corridor," says Schwartz, who says Virginia could have considered something similar to the Purple Line, a proposed 16-mile light rail line that will extend from Bethesda to New Carrollton.
"Our concern is the rush to do these public-private deals has been reducing the consideration of alternatives in project corridors," Schwartz adds. In his estimation, if the new lanes on 495 eventually attract more commuters, congestion could increase on secondary roads when those added vehicles ultimately exit the highway.
Thursday, August 02, 2012
By Nancy Solomon : Managing Editor, New Jersey Public Radio
Two vicious thunderstorms that slammed New Jersey in the past month are part of a trend that the northeast is experiencing due to global warming, according to a new report released by Environment New Jersey.
Thursday, August 02, 2012
More than half of counties in the United States have been declared disaster zones due to drought. But the United States isn’t the only country experiencing crop failures or higher food costs as a result. On today’s second Backstory, Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown talks about water shortages in Pakistan, East Africa, and elsewhere—and how they’re affecting food supplies.
Monday, July 30, 2012
(Billings, MT – YPR) An additional 60 trains of coal could roll through the Northwest rail network every day headed across the Pacific if forecasts are correct. Two manufacturing firms signed deals last week to build 20 new barges to increase export capacity, a sign of optimism from coal exporter Ambre Energy that port redevelopment proposals will gain approval.
Terminal developers are eying the lucrative Asian market, hungry for energy -- coal from Montana and Wyoming's Powder River Basin -- to fuel its economic engine. For example, Australian-based Ambre Energy is involved in two proposals to expand the Pacific Northwest port. Exports are constricted because of limited port capacity.
An expansion won't come easy though, considering the chorus of critics citing environmental, traffic, human health, and community concerns with coal shipping, export and even coal use. But in these tight economic times, coal shipping expansion remains popular with the general public, according to one recent survey.
An interim Montana legislative committee became the latest to weigh in on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should expand an environmental review for Pacific Northwest port projects with a mixed response to the idea, which would slow redevelopment.
The Sierra Club is leading an effort called the Beyond Coal campaign that includes stopping coal exports. Among the concerns cited: the global impacts of coal-fired power plants, the impact of coal dust on human health, and the increase in freight rail traffic that can snarl traffic in local communities.
The Sierra Club, affiliates of the Billings, Mont.-based Northern Plains Resource Council, and local governments like Missoula, Mont. are among those asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand its environmental reviews beyond just the port terminals projects and look at broader environmental areas and issues.
Letters from interested parties have become the weather vane revealing which way the winds of legislative oversight are blowing. The railroad BNSF's Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose recently wrote a letter to Wash. Governor Christine Gregoire to address concerns about the port projects. The Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee (ETIC) of the Montana Legislature sent a letter of it's own to the Corp’s office in Portland, Oregon also opposing an expanded environmental review.
During a recent hearing, the panel heard from proponents, opponents and informational witnesses on the issue before voting on whether to send a letter to the Corps.
All of this back and forth follows a dramatic forecast released in a report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils called Heavy Traffic Ahead.
“Make no mistake about it,” says Terry Whiteside, a transportation consultant and co-author of the report. “This is a huge, huge increase in volume like we’ve never seen before in this part of the world.”
Whiteside projects an additional 27-to-63 trains per day could be the result of increased coal exports to Asia. He calculated that figure based on the export projections of 75 million tons of coal/day by 2017; up to 170 million tons of coal/day by 2022.
“The problem with the study is that it wrongfully assumes that BNSF would originate 100 percent of the Powder River Basin coal,” says spokeswoman Suann Lundberg in Fort Worth, TX. “That’s just not logical. The Powder River Basin is accessed by both the Union Pacific and the BNSF on what we call the ‘joint line.’ 50 percent of it moves on Union Pacific and 50 percent of it moves on BNSF. “
Lundberg says BNSF was not contacted by the authors of the study. She adds the railroad would only have access to one of the proposed six port terminals and the others are either located on other railroads or served jointly among railroads.
Whiteside says he did not contact the railroads, instead he looked at the empirical data and “forced it back on the system.” He adds the study wasn’t designed to be a debate about what the railroad wants.
“I don’t think its any secret that railroads are forecasting the volumes (rail) are going to grow,” says Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link (MRL), which owns the track between Billings, Mont. and Sand Point, Idaho.
He says there are many reasons, including population and consumption growth for consumer goods, as well as high diesel prices and the semi-driver shortage facing the trucking industry. Lewis says the increase in rail freight traffic is driven by market demands, which can change. He says that’s happening now with the decrease in corn and other agricultural commodities because of the drought and it’s happening with coal.
“I find it kinda ironic that we’re talking about the potential for increased coal traffic in a year when we are forecasting our coal traffic will be below or flat to 2011 volumes,” Lewis says.
He says he also wasn’t contacted for the WORC study. As for the study’s projected increase in rail traffic number, Lewis says they’re not possible given MRL’s capacity constraints. There’s only a single track tunnels over the pass near Bozeman, Mont. and at the Continental Divide. “It would be very costly to try to expand upon that capacity in those two areas,” he says.
Lewis says currently on average, about 19 trains pass through Billings each day, some are MRL traffic, most is BNSF. He says some freight trains terminate at the Laurel, MT rail yards, about 15 miles west of Billings with the remaining 15 continuing west. Lewis estimates the maximum freight rail capacity on the MRL portion of track is about 30 trains/day.
BNSF is investing in its infrastructure. Since 2000, the railroad has spent over $36 billion on maintaining current lines, laying new track, and buying locomotives.
Lundsberg says in Montana, BNSF is spending $111 million in 2012 on infrastructure. She says these capital expenditures, however, are not aimed solely at forecasts of a growing Asian export market for coal.
“Freight traffic will increase with or without coal exports,” she says. “And that means additional traffic and we’re preparing for that.”
That has caused a face-off between groups like the Montana and Billings Chamber of Commerce and environmental organizations like WORC. Economic developers argue Montana and the rest of the country needs the jobs, tax revenue, and infrastructure that increased coal mining and the railroads bring to the region. Conservation groups worry it will be local communities and citizens who will bear the burden of paying for under- and over-passes to re-route traffic past this projected increase in train traffic while corporations are making millions of dollars and should be the ones to pay that cost.
The one thing all sides agree upon is why now is the time for the railroads to have discussions with local governments and citizens about coal, the proposed export terminals, and ways to mitigate the expected growth in rail traffic and resulting traffic jam issues.
Friday, July 27, 2012
By Martin DiCaro : WAMU
Virginia transportation officials are drawing closer to an agreement with the National Park Service as part of a plan to build a major four-lane divided highway connecting Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate-66 in Prince William County, what opponents charge will be the first piece of an outer beltway in northern Virginia.
Just as Confederates and Yankees 150 years ago both claimed to be fighting for freedom, the two sides today both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the future of Manassas, and better transportation in northern Virginia. There are no Stonewall Jacksons or heroic stands on Chinn Ridge this time around, but the outcome of this battle will bring lasting changes to historic ground nonetheless.
You can listen to an audio version of this story here.
Negotiations with the Park Service involve a proposal to build the new road along the western edge of Manassas National Battlefield Park in exchange for closing -- except to visitors -- the two heavily traveled roads (Routes 234 and 29) that currently crisscross the park.
The new bi-county parkway would pave over 12 acres of the Manassas historic district and four acres of actual battlefield land on the periphery of the property away from where most of the fighting occurred during the Second Battle of Manassas from August 28-20, 1862. As the 150th anniversary of that key Confederate victory approaches, opponents say the new road will create more sprawl and development, turning the hallowed ground into a "median strip."
"Imagine the precedent," says Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "The Park Service would potentially be agreeing that highway agencies can take historic battlefield land or other park land for other highway projects."
Schwartz says plans to build major highways in northern Virginia have been pushed for decades. In the late 1980s, a study that examined the possible construction of a Washington Bypass west of the capital was rejected by the governors of Virginia and Maryland.
"Very clearly they are putting together the pieces of a circumferential highway in northern Virginia, and they've pressed Maryland for bridge crossings," Schwartz says.
Manassas Park superintendent supports the plan
"It becomes a balancing act between what you are giving up and what you are gaining," says Ed Clark, the superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park.
For giving up a few acres out of seven square miles of battlefield ground, the National Park Service hopes to gain a better experience for tourists.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board understands that the National Park Service will not agree to a new highway along the Manassas battlefield's western edge unless Routes 234 and 29 are closed through the park, Clark says.
"The road we are primarily interested in is the Manassas Battlefield Bypass," he says, referring to a separate project that would circle the western and northern park boundaries, overlapping a future north-south highway along the battlefield's western side.
"It would enable us to remove all of the [park] traffic, as most folks in northern Virginia are aware how serious the traffic is along the I-66 corridor," Clark says. "That traffic does detract significantly from the battlefield experience from this hallowed ground."
A Battle over growth
While opponents believe a new highway from Loudoun to Prince William County will open up new lands for development, supporters, including Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, say anyone who looks at Google Earth can see that residential growth is already crowding the Manassas battlefield.
In Connaughton's view, a four-lane divided highway would serve several purposes. "Prince William and Loudoun Counties are two of the fastest growing jurisdictions in the country," he says. "We are trying to make better connectivity between the counties to deal with current and future population growth, and to also open up the commercial development area on the back side of Loudoun County."
Virginia is also working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to establish Dulles Airport as a cargo hub, which new road infrastructure would help facilitate.
"When you put all these together, it makes sense for the state to move forward and try to make this thing a reality," Connaughton says. "It's been on the books for a very, very long time. It's not an outer beltway."
"I really encourage folks to go on Google satellite and see that this isn't about opening up areas for future growth. Look at the map. Look at the reality of what is there today. The growth is there."
Smart growth advocates say there are better ways to deal with current growth and traffic congestion. The proposed highway is not the answer. "You could wind up with the worst of all worlds, which is a new highway, more development sparked on the western and northern boundaries of Manassas battlefield, more traffic, and political pressure to never close the roads through the park," Schwartz says.
Developers are pushing for more roads in order to lobby for zoning changes that would clear the way for more homes and commercial properties to be built in Loudoun and Prince William Counties, Schwartz says.
As evidence, Schwartz points to a February 2011 meeting of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board. Board member and developer Gary Garzinski made clear his intention to seek a major north-south connection "from 95 or 234 extended up to a corridor, up to and including Route 50... that would extend Route 234 to Route 50 to join what is called the Dulles Loop that gives access to Dulles Airport to more people from the south," according to a transcription of the board meeting.
In a letter to the Transportation Planning Board of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in February, smart growth advocates proposed several alternative solutions to address east-west traffic congestion in northern Virginia.
The proposals included "improving I-66, including the extension of HOV and bus lanes; funding and expanding the capacity of the Gainesville Interchange... co-locating Route 29 onto the improved I-66 to allow Route 29 to be closed through the Battlefield; upgrading Pageland Road west of the Battlefield with shoulders, roundabouts at intersections, and turn lanes..."
"Bi-County Parkway" moving forward
The state's environmental impact study of the new highway is expected by the end of the year. A deal with the National Park Service about the location of the road along the western edge of the battlefield is expected this summer.
The project should have been completed years ago, Connaughton says.
"Because of bad policies and bad decisions in the past, we've ended up with residential development and not the transportation infrastructure we need to support it," he says.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
By Julie Caine
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.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Howard Friedman, statistician and United Nations health economist, compares the United States competes with the thirteen countries around the globe most similar to ours and argues that the country is often close to the bottom in health, safety, democracy, education, and the environment. In The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing, he pinpoints specific policies and practices in other nations that the United States could benefit from.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
The company claims converting 14 of its 60 trucks to electricity will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 20 percent.
(Which they say is, in technical parlance, "the nitrous oxide equivalent of 1,000 tailpipes removed.")
Environmental group Mission Electric is working with Duane Reade to let the public vote on the first seven stores to get the green trucks. The company will be rolling out the voting Wednesday at an event held in conjunction with Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Office director David Bragdon said "Duane Reade’s investment in electric vehicles will help meet our ambitious PlaNYC goal of reducing NYC's green house gas emissions."
Duane Reade says the move will reduce air pollution, noise, and congestion. One added benefit -- especially welcome to sleep-deprived New Yorkers: "Because the new trucks do not require combustion, their operation is almost silent, reducing noise levels from overnight deliveries."