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VIDEO: Transportation Nation's Mug. It Can Be Yours.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Action shot from "Multi-Modal Mug" shot film by Amy Pearl / WNYC

At Transportation Nation, we serve up serious news, with flair, style, and a flash of java.

Rejoice. (And get a tax deduction, too.) You can own a Transportation Nation coffee mug.

'What's so exciting about a coffee mug?' you might ask. 'It doesn't run on a smart grid or move at the speed of a bullet train." But, friends, it is a reminder to you of all the value this site has brought you in 2012. And your donation shows our reporters here at TN that you care.

Plus, the video is hilarious. We present to you the multi-modal mug. Yours as a thank-you gift for a donation of $5 / month to our ad-free, nonprofit public media project.

If you won't donate, consider sending this around to your friends who might.

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Taking Uber for a Test Drive in San Francisco

Thursday, December 13, 2012

(Isabel Angell -- San Francisco, KALW) The e-hail concept might have just cleared legal hurdles in New York and D.C., but in San Francisco, it’s faced heated opposition from taxi drivers who say they’re being cheated out of fares to city officials worried about regulations and safety.

Meanwhile, hailing a taxi in San Francisco can be nearly impossible if you’re not downtown. Calling ahead isn’t a guarantee either – often, the cab is late and sometimes it never comes. Of course, there’s an app for that, several actually. The most prominent one, Uber uses GPS to match town cars and taxi cabs with people who need rides. The app figures out where you are, shows the cars near you, and sends the first free one over. You pay with a credit card on file, and the charge includes a tip.

Since 2010, the company has launched its service in 23 cities around the world. It contracts with car companies and individual drivers, and gives them free iPhones to run its software. Because Uber doesn’t go through traditional licensing channels, it’s running into trouble.

An Uber dilemma

I stood on the corner of 48th and Cabrillo, and with no cab in sight I opened the Uber app on my phone. It was eight minutes from the time I pulled out my phone to the time my Uber car showed up. Half an hour later, I arrived at the 16th and Mission Bart station in style – $50 worth of style, actually. I got the email with the credit card charge, a few minutes later.

Now, I did take a town car, instead of the cheaper yellow cab option. It was the closest car when I requested my ride. And we did hit some rush hour traffic. Still, that’s a pretty big chunk of change for a drive through the city, but maybe the convenience is worth it. Uber’s tens of thousands of San Francisco customers seem to think so. I decided to repeat my ride – same time, same corner – but this time, just calling a regular cab.

And instead of seeing a car rushing to pick me up, I got stuck on hold.

[Related Story: Uber Now Legal in D.C.]

Two years ago, Ilya Abyzov found himself in a very similar situation to mine. He had just moved to San Francisco from New York. It was late.

“And I found myself sort of stumbling out of a karaoke place at 2 am in Japantown and wanting to go home to the Mission, and my prospects were either to walk for half an hour or to seek alternatives, because there were no taxi cabs around,” Abyxov remembers.

Uber got him home that night.

“I thought it was amazing,” he says.

So amazing that he applied for a job with the company, and now is the general manager of Uber’s San Francisco operations. Clearly, Abyzov is a fan, but he says Uber fills a real need in the city.

“There’s a lot of excess demand for transportation that cabs can’t fulfill,” says Abyzov.

In most cities, the taxi industry is heavily regulated – it’s considered part of the transportation network. San Francisco is no exception. Part of the reason Uber is so efficient is that it sets up shop first, and asks official permission later, essentially skirting a lot of those regulations. The company has been expanding rapidly, though, and it recently hit legal walls in several cities. Here in SF, two local taxi drivers are suing Uber. Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission slapped Uber with a $20,000 fine, calling its rule-bending “a matter of public safety.”

City officials are concerned about safety as well. Christiane Hayashi is in charge of the taxi division at San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA).

“We make sure that a San Francisco taxi driver has shown us a ten-year driving history, as well as a criminal background check to make sure that there is no crime in their background that would [make] them dangerous when they are alone in a vehicle with somebody,” explains Hayashi.

Uber says it’s just a middleman: a tech company that helps people find cars, but not a car service itself. Still, Ilya Abyzov says the startup does take safety seriously – and that it verifies whether all its drivers are licensed and have insurance.

“We only work with people who satisfy those conditions, we gather and track all those documents, and we verify their compliance,” says Abyzov. “So I think the biggest misconception about Uber is that we’re going rogue, but really we’re working with entirely regulated entities.”

MTA’s Hayashi says she doesn’t buy it.

While it’s not yet clear how the legal cases will shake out, the idea of Uber – or something like it – seems to have taken hold.

San Francisco already has an app that helps people find available parking, using data provided by the city. MTA’s Christiane Hayashi says it’s a model San Francisco is embracing: “I think that’s the next step in making this technology really effective, to get all the city’s taxis in one sort of data stream that then private application developers can use to make taxi service more reliable.”

In other words, to make all the city’s cab information available to companies like Uber, but to keep control over what that information is, and how it’s used.

[Related Story: Data Art -- NY Transit System as  a Lite-Brite City Map]

Steve Webb is a taxi driver in San Francisco. He’s been driving his cab for 25 years. It’s how he put his daughter through college. He shares some of the city’s worries about Uber’s safety, but he says his biggest problem with Uber is something he thinks will bring them down: the price.

“I’ve had numerous people tell me they were standing on a corner, they were very very cold, there was four of them, and Uber charged them sixty dollars for a $12 cab ride.”

That sounded familiar. I asked Webb what he thought of my $50 ride from Ocean Beach to the Mission. He guessed that would have been a $14 meter.

I did my own calculations based on the cab fares listed on the MTA website. Taking traffic into account, it looks like that cab ride would have cost me more like $20 or $25. Unfortunately, I never got to test either calculation with a real ride, because the cab I called from Outer Richmond never showed up. Instead of forking over another $50 for an Uber car, this time, I took the bus.

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Transportation Nation

Confusion at the Gas Pump: Which Grade is Best?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Octane ratings at a California gas station, 2007 (photo by f31fud via flickr)

(Isabel Angell -- San Francisco, KALW) Gas prices in California are always a big problem. And this year, the average price per gallon is set to hit four dollars – the highest average ever. It seems like there’s nothing the average driver can do to lower their fuel costs – except, maybe, change what grade of gasoline they buy. Most people, though, have no idea what that means for their car.

A choice at the pump

At a gas station in El Cerrito, people pull up in their cars to fill up their tanks. At some point, each of them presses a button: regular, mid-grade, or premium. The higher the grade, the higher the octane content. And the higher the octane content, the higher the price. At this gas station, regular gasoline costs $3.82 per gallon and premium costs $4.05 – twenty-two cents more expensive. I’m curious, so I start asking people what kind of gas they’re buying, and why.

Kate Foley buys gets regular because it’s the cheapest, she tells me with a laugh.

Susie Marcus went for the regular unleaded, “I guess because it’s the least expensive and I have not seen any proof that buying the better gas makes you go farther or better mileage.”

Ariana Jones sprung for the premium. She tells me it’s the only kind her car will take.

So, how are they making these decisions? If it’s just based on price, there’s no reason to use premium, unless the more expensive gas is actually better.

For answers, I turned to Daniel Kammen, a professor at the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley. He told me octane is a measure of energy content. So the different grades of gas have different energy contents. I asked him what that means for my car.

“You get more zip in the car when you use a fuel with a higher energy content,” says Kammen.

But before you start imagining your humble Honda Civic transforming into a fiery red Mustang, a word of warning from Kammen: “There's very little difference in everyday behavior. So if you're doing urban driving, you’re not going to notice much difference because you're not going at the speeds when it matters. And on the highway you have to have a really high performance car to really see that difference.”

And by high performance car, he doesn’t mean a lowly BMW.

“You most likely see it when you start driving Lamborghinis and Ferraris,” says Kammen.

The latest numbers from the California Energy Commission say that 18 percent of gas sold in California in 2010 was premium. But 18 percent of Californians probably don’t own a Lamborghini.

So why do people buy premium when they don’t have to? I asked Sudhot Bhat, who teaches marketing strategy at San Francisco State. He says that most consumers are not experts in the things that they buy.

“Even for things like toothpaste, they are not very good judges of quality,” Bhat says. “So what I sometimes think is that a lot of consumers use price as a gauge of quality. If they do not know much about a product, they tend to think that the product with the higher price is higher quality.”

Bhat says because most people don’t know what’s going on in their gas tank, some consumers might spring for the premium gas just because it’s more expensive. But he has a solution for people who want to get the most bang for their buck: look it up on the internet.

“I think if consumers had more time and they did some research, they would know what really is good quality. You don't have to take the manufacturer's word for it, you can actually go on see what other people are saying,” says Bhat.

One of the big reasons people say they like to buy premium is to prevent engine knocking, when the fuel doesn’t explode the right way in the engine, and that makes a knocking sound. It means you’re not getting the full power of the gas – and if it keeps happening, it can actually hurt your car. But, for the last fifteen years or so, engines have been built with sensors to prevent this exact thing from happening.

So what should you be buying? I took Sudhot Bhat’s advice and turned to the Internet. What I found matched what Berkeley’s Dan Kammen told me: if your car’s manual says it runs on regular, there’s no reason to splurge on a higher grade. And many high-performance cars will run on regular – you just might not get the maximum power possible. Turbo-charged really do require the high-octane premium, so check with your mechanic before making the switch.

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Transportation Nation

How Prop 39 Works: Closing a Tax Loophole To Bring Clean Energy Funds to California

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Proposition 39, which passed in California on Election Day, will tax out-of-state businesses and earmark those new billions of dollars for clean energy programs in the state. To learn more about how it will work, KALW's Ben Trefny spoke with Paul Rogers, environmental writer for the San Jose Mercury News and managing editor for KQED’s science programs. Rogers explained how Prop 39 came about, how it will change the state, and how the money will be applied.

PAUL ROGERS: This was a measure by San Francisco financier Tom Steyer which closed a loophole in the way that corporations pay taxes in California. It will now generate a billion dollars per year in new revenue –and for the first five years going forward, half of that money, actually a little more than half, $550 million a year, has to go to fund renewable energy projects. So we're looking at a tidal wave of money, $2.74 billion over the next five years, in new funds that's going to come in to do projects in California on renewable energy. Most of that is going to be things like retrofitting schools, community colleges, universities, putting better insulation in, solar panels on the roof, new windows. And that kind of thing is going to generate jobs. That's why a lot of unions supported this measure, but it's also going to lower the electricity bills at a lot of schools and universities, probably by up to a third when this stuff is put in. And that money, in turn they're going to be able to spend back on education.

 

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Transportation Nation

World Series Win Sparks Vandalism in San Francisco

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A man vandalizes a SF city bus after the Giants won the World Series. Photo credit Susana Bates, special to the San Francisco Chronicle

Although it pales in comparison to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Sunday night’s sweep of the World Series by the San Francisco Giants left a human-powered path of flipped cars, trash fires, and vandalized and burned city buses in Bay Area streets.

Fans celebrating the Giants’ win set a MUNI bus on fire in San Francisco early Monday morning. The driver and eight passengers escaped unharmed from the bus, which had just undergone $300,000 worth of repairs.

Sunday night marked the second time in three years that the Giants have won the World Series.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told the San Francisco Chronicle that the victory is not a license for destruction. “Two world championships in three years is worthy of celebration,” Suhr said. “But then at some point in time, after the original understandable celebration comes the almost mystifying belief that some people can just come and trash San Francisco.”

A photograph of a Giants’ fan smashing the front window of a bus began circulating on Facebook yesterday with this caption: “SHARE THIS PHOTO: Please help the SFPD locate this jerk that used the Giants celebration as a reason to destroy things and endanger people. This isn't what San Francisco is about. Be smart and safe and kind when you celebrate.”

In all, 36 people were arrested in connection with widespread vandalism and fires. No word on whether the man in the photograph was among those arrested.

A victory parade for the Giants is planned for 11am tomorrow in San Francisco.

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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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Transpo Travelog: Trains, Planes, Taxis, Buses, Subways, and a Little Light Rail

Friday, October 19, 2012

Last week, my time was bookended by two weekend conferences. The first was in the Chicago suburbs, the second in Baltimore.

I live in Oakland, California, and the prospect of flying back and forth to California in between conferences seemed both ridiculous and exhausting. So instead, I decided to stay east, visiting friends in New York City and Poughkeepsie for a few days before heading on to Baltimore.

This made for a logistically complex week of getting around. All in all, door-to-door, I used 15 discrete transportation systems to shuttle between five different cities. It sounds like a giant hassle -- but as a transportation reporter, it was great. I loved every minute of it.

I started my journey on a 4:30am BART train ($2.25) to the Oakland Coliseum. It was one of the first trains of the day—BART doesn’t run overnight, much to the chagrin of many Bay Area residents. It also doesn’t yet run all the way to the Oakland Airport (that’s coming soon). So from the Coliseum station, I transferred to a BART airport shuttle bus ($3 in exact change). The process is a little murky unless you’re a local, and I ended up explaining how it worked to several bleary eyed travelers. I even gave one guy a dollar bill just so he could board the bus before it left.

Even at the crack of dawn, the security line at the airport snaked through all the pylons and into baggage claim. I made it through with just enough time to make my flight to Chicago. Got a window seat (my favorite), and watched the sun rise over the beautiful bridges of the Bay before we burst above the cloud layer.

Once in Chicago, I met up with some fellow conference attendees and we split a cab to the distant suburb where the conference was being held ($22 each + tip). On the fare sign in the back of the cab we noticed a special charge—a $50 “vomit clean-up fee.” Must be rough driving a cab in Chicago.

In Chicago, taxicab puking has a price. (Photo by Julie Caine)

Several days later, it was time to head on to NYC. This time, I caught a ride to the airport in a Town Car driven by a guy with a long ponytail named Kenny ($50 cash + tip). He called me a couple hours before he picked me up just to say hi. We had a little time before my flight, and I hadn’t really seen anything at all in Chicago, so he drove me through some of the neighborhoods where he grew up, past his high school and family church, and then cruised along Lakeshore Drive, while he told me about the water pumping stations out in the lake and gave change to every single stoplight panhandler we encountered. “There but for the grace of God,” said he.

The flight from Chicago to LaGuardia was uneventful (dimmed lights and a hushed cabin) -- as was my late-night cab ride to Brooklyn ($35 + tip).

The next day I took the F train into Manhattan ($2.25) and strolled the beautiful High Line for the first time. In the afternoon, I went to Grand Central Terminal, where I took the audio tour of the station ($7— and by the way, radio producers, we could make that tour so much better!) and got a great shoeshine ($7+tip) before boarding the 4:45 Metro-North train to Poughkeepsie ($36 RT).  Traveling alongside the Hudson, looking at fiery red maples and crumbling architecture, I noticed that many of the conductors and passengers were on a first name basis.

Listen: Metro-North conductor

After a night and day in Poughkeepsie, I headed back to the city -- this time to Penn Station, where I was due to catch an Amtrak train to Baltimore ($70). I loved Penn Station. I arrived in the morning to a cacophony of newspaper vendors calling and singing to us as we streamed into the station. “Good morning, everybody! Get your AM New York right here. Read all about it. Buenos días, mami. AM New York!” (Editor's note: Penn Station doesn't usually inspire such affection -- but some people can find the hidden pockets of grace there.)

Penn Station (photo by Julie Caine)

Listen: audio from Penn Station

Grabbed my one and only cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee (one cream, two sugars), and hopped on board the train to Charm City. Out the windows, I watched the compressed East Coast fly by—Manhattan, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore. Next stop Washington DC.

Took a cab from Baltimore’s Penn Station to my hotel ($14 + tip), and was immediately swept off my feet by the nicest cab driver ever, who told me about growing up in a freezing cold basement and never wanting to get out from under the covers in the morning to go to school.  Note: no vomit fees in Baltimore.

(photo by Julie Caine)

A couple days later, and it was time for more travel. Took the Baltimore Light Rail ($1.60) to the airport for my flight home to Oakland, where my kind next-door neighbor picked me up in his car and drove me home (free). As cliché as it sounds, my week really was all about the journey.

 

 

 

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As Critical Mass Turns 20, Founders Reflect on Sprawling Bike Protests (AUDIO)

Friday, September 28, 2012

(San Francisco, Calif. --Ben Trefny, KALW) Political movements don't have to be shaped by politicians. In fact, one of the most dynamic movements to shape the way we see our streets started with a group of bicycle riders in San Francisco who simply wanted to be seen.

It's a gathering that's come to be known as "Critical Mass." Tonight, hundreds, if not thousands, of cyclists from around the world will come together to take over their city's streets and celebrate the event's 20th anniversary.

The Mass has taken place on the last Friday of every month since September of 1992. It's a leaderless bike ride, without a preplanned route, lasting several hours. The concept is to have enough people riding on bikes -- a critical mass -- to force cars to stop and wait for them. The message: The road belongs to bikes too, not just cars.

Critical Mass rides are controversial, somewhat chaotic, and sometimes confrontational. But it's also effective. And it's grown. Today, Critical Mass rides take place in more than 300 countries around the world. Urban bike riding has changed significantly in that time -- some would say Critical Mass helped the world spin a little differently.

Chris Carlsson is the co-founder of Critical Mass. He and Lisa-Ruth Elliot co-edited the new book, Shift Happens: Critical Mass at 20. KALW's Ben Trefny spoke with the two editors to reflect on how the Mass got its start.

CARLSSON: We felt really mistreated, as second-class citizens on the roads... people would treat you derisively, they'd yell at you, they'd think you were, like, immature, you're a kid.  "Grow up and get a car!"  As though that were somehow an act of maturity.  So we thought, let's just meet at the foot of Market Street and ride home together.  Simple act.  Get everybody together we can, fill the streets with bikes, and by doing so, displace the cars.

Listen to the complete interview:

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Could San Francisco Become the Next Manhattan?

Monday, September 17, 2012

(Photo courtesy of Alfonso Jimenez)

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 1 and  part 2.

(Ben Trefny - San Francisco, KALW) Photographer Richard Morgenstein has lived in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood since the late 1990s. Before that, he lived in Manhattan and enjoyed it. In many ways, Morgenstein is still very New York. He doesn’t have a car. He relies on public transportation to tote his camera bags around. But the new construction soaring above a growing San Francisco doesn’t really make him nostalgic for his former hometown. Rather, he’s inclined to give a Bronx cheer.

“I do think that one of the issues of multiple large buildings is a sort of a Manhattanizaton of San Francisco and a change in the character of, say, street life, the character of the light of the city, character of walk-ability,” he says. “I look at them as some sort of negative that comes along with the positive of extra housing.”

San Francisco is in transition. According to the Department of Building Inspection, there are 56 major developments in various stages of the approval process, with more than 5,000 residential units under construction. That means the city is, for sure, Manhattanizing, according to Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Coalition.

He says, “We’re very much interested in increased heights and density to add significantly higher levels of housing production in San Francisco and at the same time reducing the influence of private auto use.”

San Francisco’s General Plan calls for construction of more than 30,000 housing units by 2014 with the majority for affordable to moderate income earners. A third of that is being built on the city’s Eastern waterfront, from Mission Bay to the south. Other primary targets include the mid-Market, and SOMA neighborhoods. The city’s planning department is considering options in every area.

“San Francisco is fortunate that high-tech is red hot right now. The office market is red hot,” says Colen. “There’s an enormous demand in particular south of Market and eastern part of the city for office space, and as a result [the] rental housing market is, in a way, going through the roof. Anyone can talk about the insane levels of rent that we’re seeing on housing now, and that gets to the question of building," he says. "How do we build housing, and who gets to live here?”

Colen’s easy solution, and the one many developers are going for, is to build up. But that’s easier said than done.

He says, “San Francisco, in spite of everything we might think about it, is really a very conservative city as far as land use goes and is very, very resistant to change and anything that adds new housing a lot of folks get quite upset at.”

Throughout the last decade, more than a dozen neighborhood associations have filed lawsuits against the San Francisco Planning Commission over aspects of their housing plans. The plans called for Smart Growth, around “major transit lines.” The associations didn’t think that should include bus routes. Parking is also an issue. There were concerns about infrastructure, like accessing water. Disagreements about how to retain historic character in neighborhoods like Pacific Heights.

“The city was planning on changing the zoning which would have made that entire area have hundred foot plus buildings,” says Greg Scott, president of the Pacific Heights Neighborhood Association. That “would have meant that many of the single-family homes and even some of the smaller apartment buildings would have been demolished to build those much higher buildings. And that whole area would have become like Manhattan.”

But not anymore.

After settlements and environmental impact reports, developers, today, cannot build buildings more than forty feet tall in historically residential parts of Pac Heights and other low-rise neighborhoods, unless they have a permit from the San Francisco Planning Department. And with active neighborhood associations intent on retaining historic character, those are hard to come by. So San Francisco’s skyline is being reinvented, but only so far, and mostly near downtown; which is one reason why residents like transplanted New Yorker Richard Morgenstein are happy they moved to San Francisco in the first place.

“It’s still not quite like Manhattan,” he says. “I think huge swaths of Manhattan are… there’s so much going on, things are moving so quickly that the pace is very different. And the pace in San Francisco has amplified somewhat or accelerated, it’s not even close to Manhattan though. It’s not even close.”

Which, to him, anyway, is just fine.

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 1 and  part 2.

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Back Story: How San Francisco's Market Place Came to Be

Thursday, September 13, 2012

This is part 2 of 3 on re-thinking SF's Market Street. Check out part1 and part 3 as well.

(Audrey Dilling -- San Francisco, KALW) Market Street begins, or ends – depending on how you see it – down by the bay.

At 4:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon, streams of people pass through this public space. Many of them carry briefcases and look like they’re in a hurry. Nick Gaffney, who’s on his way to the ferries, says his commute to the Financial District puts him on Market Street more often than he would like.

“I don’t understand why people drive down it quite frankly, because all you can do is take a right,” says Gaffney.

Of course, people do drive on Market Street. They also walk, ride their bikes and take the bus or streetcar. One third of all Muni lines operate on or under Market Street and about a quarter-million people board these lines each day. That’s according to Jeffrey Tumlin, a consultant with San Francisco-based transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard.

“Market Street is unique in many ways -- unique in the world and how important it is in the functional aspect of the transportation network,” says Tumlin.

Tumlin looked into the history on behalf of the Better Market Street project, a joint effort of some city planning agencies. One of the things he found was that efforts to improve Market Street are nothing new.

“About every 10 years or so there has been an effort to do a major redo of the street. And about every 50 years, someone has succeeded in a major effort,” says Tumlin.

One of Better Market’s goals is to turn a street that people use to get places into a street that people want to get to. Tumlin says it’s not there yet. “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place.”

Back in 1847, around the time Market Street was first imagined, San Francisco looked a little different.

“Pretty much the entire downtown was blowing sand and some scrub,” explains Tumlin. “If you go up to Point Reyes Station, up in Marin, that’s about what San Francisco looked like in 1847.”

San Francisco hadn’t even been called San Francisco for very long. The port town was known as Yerba Buena up until 1846, when American Captain John Montgomery showed up and seized it from Mexico.

Also in 1847, everywhere from the Embarcadero to Montgomery Street didn’t exist yet. It was all water.

“And so the beach, the bay, came all the way into Montgomery and Market and made what was sort of a gentle curve,” Tumlin continues.

There were two major settlements camped out beside the Bay. The total population of the remote and developing town was about 500 people.

“And even then, the arriving Americans had such ambitions for this scruffy little settlement that they knew they needed a plan,” says Tumlin. “And so the job of laying out the plan for San Francisco was given to a hard-drinking Irishman named Jasper O'Farrell who was 26 years old at the time.”

O’Farrell had a vision. The street would run directly between the two camps. He picked the most prominent landmark west of the settlements, Twin Peaks, and imagined the street pointing directly toward it. Tumlin explains what happened next:

“And in a town of 500 people with no source of fresh water, no overland connections to anywhere else in the world, six months to any point of civilization, [O’Farrell] decides to make the street 120 feet wide. And he names Market Street after Market Street in Philadelphia. And Market Street in Philadelphia is only 100 feet wide, but because San Francisco is going to be even more amazing than Philly, Jasper O'Farrell says, ‘No. We're going to make this one of the grandest boulevards in the world.’”

And so it is – at least size-wise. And over the years all the city’s public transportation came together on this one boulevard.

A little more history: The 1906 earthquake and fire tore down most of the buildings on Market Street, but the street had mostly recovered by the 1920’s.

“Between the 1920s and World War II, big chunks of Market Street were kind of a small-scale equivalent of Broadway in New York,” says Tumlin. “All of the theaters were there. It was the place that people went out to at night. It was the place for large-scale entertainment and very much the place to see and be seen.”

Most of those theaters were located here, in the Mid-Market district.

Today, this part of town is not so much a place to see or be seen -- or so says local resident Joe Robinson.

“I think it's crazy. I think it's wild. I think everything goes on Market Street. I mean if you really had a magnifying glass to see what was really going on, you'd be amazed,” says Robinson.

Tumlin actually traces the trouble to the creation of San Francisco’s subway system in 1967. “The final decision to do the Muni Metro subway and to do the BART subway created dramatic change in the street," he says. "One impact was very negative, which was that for four years, Market Street was a big hole in the ground.”

And that, Tumlin, says wasn’t good for business. But then, he adds, Market’s never been quite the draw Jasper O’Farrell thought it would be. “Throughout history, Market Street has had challenges in its role as a place. And part of that has had to do with thinking about the accommodation of the automobile in the third quarter of the 20th century, but I think more fundamental to that is its width.”

It’s just one theory, but Tumlin says city planners have learned over time that people prefer smaller, more intimate streets over grand boulevards.

“And so streets that work as a single space are generally not wider than 80 feet. And, in fact, 30 feet is a heck of a lot better. So that’s one of the challenges we face. Like how do we create a street that people do want to linger on?” Tumlin asks.

That’s a question the city’s been trying to answer for about 50 years. Which makes now just about the right time for a solution.

This story originally aired on October 10, 2011.

This is part 2 of 3 of KALW's series on re-thinking SF's Market Street. Check out part1 and part 3 as well.

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Transportation Nation

Rethinking San Francisco's Main Drag

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Market Street (photo by Benjamin Dumas via flickr)

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 2 and part 3.

Around 250,000 people use Market Street every day— and in every way. They take the bus, ride BART, walk to work, shop... even live.

In 2016, the entire road, between Octavia and the Embarcadero, will be torn up and repaved. So city planners figure it’s the perfect time to reshape and re-imagine San Francisco’s main drag.

San Francisco’s transportation director Ed Reiskin says it’s a good opportunity for the city to do more than pour concrete.

“If we're going to go through the expense and disruption to repair the surface and infrastructure of Market Street, let's not just put it back the way it was, let's really fix it,” Reiskin says.

The Department of Public Works is in charge of the project. They’re working with a variety of city and county agencies to draw up a set of plans that balance the practical needs of the street with the vision of a wide variety of stakeholders.

The public is a part of the process, too -- the most recent public meeting was standing room only.

On the table is everything from a total ban on private cars to dedicated bike lanes; from fewer MUNI stops to more sidewalk cafes and parklets. The city anticipates the redesign to cost around $250 million. Funding for repaving is already in place.

I went out to Market to ask some of the people behind these ideas about their vision for the street.

At the corner of 3rd and Market, map-wielding tourists shiver in shorts and tank tops. A man sits on the sidewalk with his dog. The sign in his lap says ‘Anything helps.’ Throngs of office workers walk right by him, eyes fixed intently on the screens of their smartphones. Bikes squeeze in between buses and the curb, dodging taxis and delivery trucks.

Up ahead I see Mohammed Nuru. He’s the director of Public Works in San Francisco. He’s agreed to meet me here to talk about the street. “It's a pretty busy intersection, as you can see,” says Nuru. “It's busy all the time from about 7 o'clock in the morning until almost 10 o'clock at night.”

Standing next to him is Kris Opbroek. She manages the Better Market Street project.

“I think Market Street is the city's Main Street in a sense. I think it always has been, actually,” she says. “I think its identity is our parade ground, and our real civic space is still here. I think where it falls short a bit is in the day to day use.”

Nuru and Opbroek spend their days watching this street. They’re overseeing Market’s redevelopment. And they’re trying to pin down what is, and isn’t, working here.

Traffic is a big issue. Right now private cars, taxis, delivery trucks, paratransit, and bikes all share the road with streetcars and buses.

Leah Shahum is the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Her office is at 5th and Market. She says another thing on people’s minds is how to make Market safer and more inviting for bicyclists. Bike riding is on the rise, and Market is most used bike corridor in the city.

“I talk to a lot of people who are confident riders. They're people who bike elsewhere in the city,” Shahum says. “They’re adults who really are comfortable bicycling, but they say, ‘Wow, I don't want to bike on Market Street because I'm really scared about it.’”

Right now, most of the bike lanes on Market are painted lines on narrow pieces of pavement shared with buses and trucks and cars. Only about six blocks of the street have a physically separated bike lane.

“What we hear from people is: ‘Wow, for those six blocks, I feel calm, I feel safe, I feel comfortable. This works,’” Shahum says.

She wants that kind of comfort to extend the along the entire length of Market Street.

But the road isn’t just for wheels.

Elizabeth Stampe is the executive director for Walk San Francisco. She says that, ultimately, everyone is a pedestrian. Her office is a block from Shahum’s, at 6th and Market.

“This is the place where the most pedestrians have been hit by cars in the whole city,” she says, as we stand at the busy intersection. “And you can see it's a long crossing for folks with wheelchairs and canes, of whom there are many right here. You don't really get enough time.”

Stampe says that expanding the sidewalks at corners like this would help shorten the time it takes for pedestrians to get across the street and slow down the cars fighting to get through the intersections.

Making it safer to cross the street or ride a bike might seem obvious. But there’s always a trade-off. Solving one problem creates another problem somewhere else, or else pushes it a block farther down the road.

“Market Street is a special street,” says Stampe. “It's the spine of the city. And it's a gathering spot. It’s also a little bit magnetic. Both in the sense that it attracts people, but some parts of it still repel people.”

She says the corner where she works is a good example of Market’s confused identity. “It’s about a block from the mall, but it could be a world away.”

She compares the blocks along Market to islands in a stream. In this case, one island is the upscale shopping and tourist district around Powell Street. The next is lined with abandoned storefronts. Many people are either homeless and living on the street, or live in tiny rooms in nearby SRO hotels.

San Francisco’s transportation director, Ed Reiskin, works a few blocks away at Market and Van Ness. We walked through the Civic Center and talked about the street.

“For a lot of people, this is their living room and it should continue to serve that function,” he says. “If you or I had that space, we would also want to spend more time outside than inside.”

The city estimates that about 6,000 people are without shelter on any given night in San Francisco––many on Market Street.

“There may be some undesirable activity, some criminal activity, or unsafe situations that the city wants to address regardless of what happens design-wise on Market Street,” says Reiskin. “But I don't think we want to lose the character of Market Street or push anyone off of it. We want to make it a nice place for more people to be in.”

During the day the street has different feelings. Some new businesses have moved in, joining art spaces like the Luggage Store. But compared to the bustle just a few blocks away, the street here feels empty.

At Market and Van Ness, traffic hits the city from both major bridges. It’s a gateway to San Francisco – but instead of a grand monument marking the spot, there’s a car wash and a donut shop.

“It's not just infrastructure,” says Reiskin. “It's not just design. It's economic development. It's economic vitality. So I think there's more to it than just how we lay out the streets and how we paint the lines.”

That economic vitality is an important ingredient in a complex process. Money for repaving the street is in place. But coming up with the $250 million this project is expected to cost still has to be worked out. Back at 3rd and Market, Mohammed Nuru says some of that money could come from businesses that stand to benefit from the street’s upgrade.

The intersection of 3rd and Market (image via Google Street View)

“We’re bringing the right partners onto Market Street, bringing the Twitters in, bringing the new businesses in, bringing the restaurants in, all that adds to the vitality of a street,” Nuru says. “And they contribute and they partner with us, so together we’ll try to figure out what the bill will look like.”

Ultimately, though, the project isn’t just about the street’s physical condition––it’s about its character. And that’s a big part of what city officials are considering as they re-imagine Market. What does the street mean, and what should it be?

Nuru says it’s a great opportunity to think big. “I think what this process has done is woken everybody up and made them say, ‘Wow if I had an idea, this is the time to get it in because it could happen.’”

Another public meeting is planned for the fall. Get there early—it’s likely to be standing room only.

For more information on the Better Market Street project, click here.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on re-thinking Market Street. Check out part 2 and part 3.

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Transportation Nation

Dynamic Pricing Parking Meters Climb Above $5/Hour in SF

Thursday, August 30, 2012

SF Park parking meter. (Photo CC by Flickr user Walter Parenteau)

There's a wonky academic theory that if you raise parking meter prices enough, eventually, there will always be one parking spot free on every block. It's like park-topia, a place that glistens in the near future of urban planers' imaginations. Well, San Francisco is trying it, and the prices are getting higher and higher without a "sweet spot" for some hot blocks.

You can now expect to pay as much as $5.25 and hour at some metered spots in SF. The strategy called “dynamic pricing” is something we've been keeping our eye on at TN because, if it works, it could mean less traffic, more faster (and maybe fewer) car rides into downtowns, and overall smarter transportation systems. The crux of the experiment relies on real-time data about who is parking where and variable rates for different streets to ease congestion and help drivers find elusive public parking spots faster.

The SFMTA launched the pilot project in 2011, using data from parking meters to create an app that lets drivers see where the available spots are in some of the city’s densest neighborhoods. The argument is that if drivers know exactly where to find a place to park, they won’t have to circle in search of a spot, which will make drivers less frustrated, make the streets safer, reduce pollution, and give public transit more room to maneuver. Theoretically, even if it costs more it will still be worth it in time savings. But ... how much more?

Pricing for parking varies according to demand: right now you can pay anywhere from $.25 to over that shocking peak price of $5.25 an hour, depending on where and when you park. That difference in price is meant to spread the parking around; the ultimate goal is making sure that there’s always at least one available spot on the streets involved in the pilot.

The latest rate increase is the seventh since the project launched. Prices can’t go above $6 an hour under the pilot, still far less than a parking lot price. So, what happens if peak streets hit the price ceiling? It's unclear how the city would adapt the SF Park plan.

But it seems to be working. The SF Gate reports that fewer than 2 percent of meters are pushing the price limit now at the temporary maximum price of $5.25. The most common prices are below $2 an hour.

Plus, there are special exceptions to the $6 cap, like big events or ball games. For those, meters can hit $18 an hour. The program is adaptable after all.

 

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Transportation Nation

Investigators Call Chevron Fire a "Near Disaster"

Thursday, August 23, 2012

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.

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Transportation Nation

Calif. Residents File Health Claims Against Chevron (AUDIO)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Richmond, CA residents wait to file claims at an accident and injury attorney's office the night after a fire at a Chevron refinery. The line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. Photo by Julie Caine

The night after an explosion and fire at a Chevron refinery sent plumes of thick black smoke out across one of the Bay Area's poorest communities, local residents were already scrambling to ensure they will get compensated for potential impacts to their health.

Chevron has an official claims process, but many local Richmond residents filed into the office of a local attorney instead. KALW's Julie Caine stopped by to talk to the people in line.

Listen to them here:

A sample:

NICHOLAS HANEY: We are having a lot of people come in, we haven't sorted it all out yet. I'm having people fill out forms... We need to figure out where people were, where they live, where they were at the time of the fire, and, so we don't have all the answers yet. Chevron, I hope they step up to the plate and do the right thing. They have a lot of people in this town that got sick due to their negligence.

NOTE: Chevron Corporation issued the following information for people seeking to file medical claims:

"Chevron will open a help center in Richmond on Friday, August 10, to assist residents who want to file claims related to the incident that occurred at the refinery this week."

Help Center:
Nevin Community Center
598 Nevin Ave.
Richmond, CA

Hours of operation:
9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday - Friday
8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday

Those wishing to file a claim by phone should call 866-260-7881. Live operators are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Residents who have already filed a claim by phone do not need to visit the help center.

We have reports that individuals may be calling members of the community about making claims. These are not Chevron representatives. There are only two ways a claim can be filed: by calling 866-260-7881 or or by visiting the help center at 598 Nevin Ave.

The claims process has been set up through Crawford and Company. We intend to compensate our neighbors for medical and property expenses incurred as a result of the incident.

Those who call the claim line will be asked a series of questions about their claim, which will then be routed to adjusters. Adjusters are attempting to respond to all claims within three days. Chevron will strive to pay appropriate and reasonable claims, including out-of-pocket medical and property-damage expenses.

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Transportation Nation

Anger Over Chevron Refinery Fire in Bay Area

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Chevron refinery fire, 8/6/12 (photo by TheRealMichaelMoore via flickr)

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.

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Transportation Nation

The Sharing Economy: Bilingual Bike Repair in East Oakland

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Photo by Jen Chien

(Jen Chien -- San Francisco, KALW)

One Bike at a Time

On a recent afternoon, Juana Paredes adjusts the gears on a kid-sized bike, mounted on a stand. Her hands are streaked with black grease, and her head tilts to the side as she stands back to watch the wheel turn, testing the adjustment.

She says she has worked here at ColectíVelo for about five Saturdays, cleaning, opening, and closing the shop. That's how she earned her first bike.

Paredes’s work exchange experience is not an exception here, it’s the norm, because ColectíVelo operates without the use of money. The shop offers the use of its bike repair tools, equipment and space free of charge; but in order to take bikes or parts home, people are asked to volunteer their time and skills to benefit the shop.

Dreaming up an Affordable Bike Shop

Five years ago, a public health nurse and her social worker colleagues saw a need for affordable, efficient transportation among the day laborers they served in Fruitvale. They dreamed of a bike shop for them, and for the other low-income residents of the neighborhood. They found a space to launch this dream at the Oakland Catholic Worker House of Hospitality, a resource center that mainly serves the large Latin American community in Fruitvale. One of their services is providing transitional housing for recent immigrants at the House itself. Juana Paredes lived there when she moved to the United States from Mexico, and that's how she found out about ColectíVelo.

Bikes of every shape and size line the walls and ceiling of the semi-open space. Heavy metal shelving holds bike tools and plastic bins of spare parts. There’s a friendly, organized-junkyard vibe to the place.

Kathleen Mills is also here doing work exchange, for a neat little folding bike she is fixing up for her granddaughter. She found ColectíVelo through the Catholic Worker House’s hot meal program. She was experiencing difficulty keeping herself fed, so she started exploring the neighborhood looking for food assistance, and found the Catholic Worker House.

“They gave me some beans and rice, and then I was talking to them, asking did they have job research and stuff like that,” she says. “But then they’re like, no but we fix bikes! I’m like, oh, great! So, I came around and I started working.”

Mills says she discovered her interest for bicycles here at ColectíVelo. “I never knew about bikes,” she says. “I’m like almost sixty years old. So, never too old to learn something.”

She has been coming to the shop for five weeks, and has now brought her nephew, Steven Hobdy, into the fold. He is converting an old ten-speed bike into a faster, more efficient single-speed. “I wanted to make something more comfortable, and make me look good on the street, too,” he laughs.

A Safe Space

Juana Paredes has been here every Saturday for the past year. She says it feels like home, a definite contrast to how she feels outside on the streets because of the violence, drug use and muggings that take place.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, a shooting occurred at the car wash next to the shop -- a serious reminder that safe spaces are a real need in this neighborhood. ColectíVelo’s main organizer, Morgan Kanninen, says the shared activity of bike repair helps build relationships in the neighborhood that otherwise wouldn’t exist. “It creates a space where people … feel like they belong,” she says.

Building A Bilingual Community

This afternoon in the shop, native Spanish and English speakers are working side by side, and Kanninen says this bilingual element makes ColectíVelo special. “They’re super friendly to each other and ... everybody adds to the ambiance even if they can’t necessarily communicate directly with words,” she says.

Kanninen believes the feeling of community is also strengthened by the no-cash model of the shop’s operations. When people want a bike or parts, the first step is sitting down to a meeting to discuss work exchange scenarios. There are some set volunteer tasks, like helping to open and close the shop on Saturdays, but it is up to each person to propose what they think they can do to help the shop. Kanninen says volunteers have built awnings to protect the bikes from rain, constructed tables for the shop, painted signs, re-organized the shelves, and even created bicycle art to be hung in the shop.

All of the work takes place within the shop on Saturdays, when everyone is there. Kanninen says this is helpful because people can actually see each other doing the work and it creates a communal atmosphere.”It’s kind of inspiring to see people’s different ideas happen,” she says. “I think it creates a lot more appreciation for each other.”

Making it Work Without Money

One of the reasons that ColectíVelo can afford to operate in this communal way is that, unlike other retail bike shops, they have very low expenses. The Oakland Catholic Worker owns its house, and charges no rent to the bike shop. Almost every item in the shop was donated or made by volunteers.

Kanninen says that they occasionally receive cash donations, and sometime people offer money instead of labor for bikes or parts. She says she appreciates the offers, but the shop’s eschewing of money is purposeful. She points out that even sliding scale systems can contribute to a feeling of inequality among participants. For some, asking to pay at the lower end of a sliding scale can create a “sense of alienation or shame that just does not need to be involved in this bike shop," she explains. "I think it would only hurt the growth of community here, and the real sharing and learning from each other.”

It’s near closing time. As Kathleen Mills starts cleaning and putting away the tools, her nephew Stephen Hobdy puts the finishing touches on his bike. This type of conversion has been pretty trendy amongst bicycle hipsters. And though Hobdy admits he does want to look good on his bike, he says he’s mostly concerned with the simple task of getting to work and back. At ColectíVelo, people are getting back to bicycle basics: human-powered transportation. And they’re doing it with the very human power of relationships.

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Transportation Nation

Curiosity Mars Rover Lands on Mars, Looks for Life

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Mary Roach (photo by David Paul Morris)

What’s the size of a car, but travels 13,000 miles an hour? That would be the Curiosity Mars rover, which touched down on the Red Planet Monday after eight months of travel and what NASA engineers called "seven minutes of terror."

The rover will spend the next two years looking for signs of life on the planet. And it could also bring new life to the U.S. space program. The project was managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, which faces significant budget cuts to operations and Mars missions.

Journalist Mary Roach wrote Packing For Mars, a book about what it would take to prepare people to travel to Mars, and the future of space exploration. She spoke with KALW’s Casey Miner about what happens now that Curiosity has touched down.

"It landed right where they wanted it to and everything went right," said Roach. "And [it's] just this unbelievable human achievement. Thousands of people working for the better part of a decade. To do that and it all comes together in this very brief chunk of minutes."

Listen to the interview below.

 

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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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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?

ROSENBERG: Right.

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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