Thursday, January 18, 2018

Surprise! High-speed rail costs go up again

John Pritchett

From the LA Times:

by Ralph Vartabedian


T​he estimated cost of building 119 miles of bullet train track in the Central Valley has jumped to $10.6 billion, an increase of $2.8 billion from the current budget and up from about $6 billion originally.

The new calculation takes into account a number of intractable problems encountered by the state rail agency. It raises profoundly difficult questions about how the state will complete what is considered the nation’s largest infrastructure project with the existing funding sources.

The new estimate was presented Tuesday by Roy Hill, who leads the main consulting firm on the project, WSP (formerly Parson Brinckerhoff). Hill said the cost increases were mainly driven by problems including higher costs for land acquisition, issues in relocating utility systems, the need for safety barriers where the bullet trains would operate near freight lines and demands by stakeholders for the mitigation of myriad issues.

“The worst-case scenario has happened,” Hill bluntly told the rail authority’s board at its regular monthly meeting.

The board also voted Tuesday to name Brian Kelly as its new chief executive. As secretary of the California Transportation Agency, he had been deeply involved in the project. Kelly said in an interview that high-speed rail remains crucial to the future transportation and economic needs of the state, but acknowledged that it is facing tough challenges that must be addressed.

As the project’s lead proponent, Gov. Jerry Brown, serves the final year of his term, it will be crucial, Kelly said, to “dive in, stabilize it and restore its credibility.”

The sharp increase in projected costs could require the California High Speed Rail Authority to return to the state Legislature for a supplemental appropriation from the bonds that voters approved in 2008. The remaining bonds probably would cover the cost increases, but partly deplete funds for further construction beyond the Central Valley.

The sobering news about the cost increases was long forewarned, though rail authority Chairman Dan Richard has consistently rejected those warnings. About a year ago, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a secret risk analysis that said costs were rising sharply and could hit $9.5 to $10 billion.

When The Times disclosed the warning, Richard downplayed the analysis. In 2012, WSP briefed a cost analysis for the 2014 business plan, showing sharply higher costs in the Central Valley. The cost estimates were not adopted in the 2014 business plan. Richard was not available for an interview.

It remains unclear how the Central Valley cost increases will affect the total program, which under the 2016 business plan is supposed to cost $64 billion. But the jump in the Central Valley — a 77% increase above the original estimate — suggests the authority and its consultants have vastly underestimated the difficulties of buying land, obtaining environmental approvals, navigating through complex litigation and much else.

Outside critics saw the rail authority’s defense of lower cost estimates as part of an effort to politically protect the project.

“When it comes to large infrastructure investments, it is not unusual for public authorities trying to justify their effort to understate the costs and overstate the benefits,” said James Moore, director of the transportation engineering program at USC. “It is in my opinion overly deceptive. We have seen on transportation projects this militant defense that is meant to cause the public to remain calm.”

Moore said the surge in costs is likely to foreshadow even greater future increases. On the horizon are more difficult segments, such as the long underground passage through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel Mountains and the route into the urban San Francisco Bay Area.

The appointment of Kelly and the disclosure of the higher cost together create an existential moment for the massive effort.

“It is an ‘are you in or are you out?’ point,” said Elizabeth Alexis, who co-founded a watchdog group focused on the project. “The cost increases are forcing us to commit to completing or not.”

The challenges will apply to the next governor, though in the current campaign the leading candidates are doing their best to avoid talking about the project. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declined requests for an interview on the subject for more than two years, for example. The repayment of the existing bonds will cost about $18 billion in principle and interest over the next 30 years, money that is coming out of the state highway improvement fund.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) said the cost estimate “shows the program is in increasing difficulty” and raises the need for an audit that he has been pushing for unsuccessfully. He said he plans to renew his request for an audit at the end of the month.

Brown did not address the new cost estimate, but said in a news release about Kelly, “Brian has ably led the California State Transportation Agency since its inception and is uniquely qualified to move the nation’s first high-speed rail project forward.”

Kelly’s appointment fills a vacancy that has lingered since last June when the prior chief, Jeff Morales, left. Kelly will earn a salary of $384,984 — more than he did while at the California Transportation Agency.

Kelly said he plans to bolster the state staff, relying less on outside consultants. He added that the project needs greater transparency, saying the disclosure of the price calculation was a step in that direction.

The new estimate evoked some expressions of concern at the high-speed rail board at Tuesday’s meeting.

“It is horrible when we look at the amount of money we are going to have to invest to make the project work,” said board member Ernest Camacho, who owns a Southern California construction management firm.

The effect is likely to be felt when the authority issues its 2018 business plan next month.

Richard said he thought the new estimate had some good news and bad news in it. The good: the agency identified some of the problems beforehand. The bad: it did not accurately estimate the costs of those problems.

Moving forward, he said, the authority will not start construction on future segments until all the land is in hand, a practice that outside experts have long said is prudent project management.

In Hill’s presentation to the board, he said intrusion barriers will cost an extra $450 million; land buys, $400 million, delays for not acquiring land, $325 million; satisfying issues raised by localities, $250 million; and relocating wires, pipes and cables used by utilities, $350 million. It means that on the first 31 miles from Madera to Fresno, the costs will jump 35% to $3.4 billion, the biggest single geographical increase.

Included in the projected $2.8-billion price increase is a $600-million contingency set aside to cover further unexpected problems. That contingency will be funded by unspecified cuts to future construction budgets.

Rob's comment:
From the LA Times earlier this year:

...The rail authority initially planned to start building from Los Angeles but abandoned that plan in 2016 because it was too costly because of tunnels under the San Gabriel and Tehachapi mountains...The rail authority’s optimistic timetable estimates that the entire Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system, passing through Palmdale, Bakersfield and Fresno, will start running in 2029, requiring a 1.3-mile tunnel under the heart of San Francisco and potentially 36 miles of tunnels under the Southern California mountains. The need to build the starter system’s 13.5-mile tunnel[under the Pacheco Pass] was identified earlier this year...[emphasis added]

 
Years ago the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail warned us about what's happening now with this dumb project: costs have always been downplayed and future benefits always exaggerated. Experts explain how mega-projects get started:

Cost underestimation and overrun cannot be explained by error and seem to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, namely lying, with a view to getting projects started (page 16, emphasis added).

The only question now: how many billions of dollars will be wasted on this massive mistake before the plug is pulled?

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Marin County, meet Scott Wiener

Transit oriented development in Corte Madera

Dick Spotswood on Scott Wiener's bill:

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, is again trying to ram high-density housing down the throat of suburban California. The San Francisco Democrat has introduced SB 872, which automatically allows housing developments within a quarter-mile of most bus stops to be 85 feet tall.

That’s eight floors high.

If the apartments are within a half-mile of the bus stop, five floors are then permitted as a matter of state law.

If SB 872 passes, Marinites who live within a quarter-mile of a Golden Gate or Marin Transit bus stop with service at least every 15 minutes during commute hours will find they ipso facto reside along a “high quality transit corridor.”

That new classification will subject them to the up-zoning mandate of SB 872.

The big-scale construction should be profitable, because SB 872 doesn’t require any of the housing it facilitates to be “affordable.”

Essentially, Corte Madera’s Tam Ridge apartments on the old WinCup site will be our future [photo above].

The top-down, we-know-best state bill exempts any residential development within a quarter-mile from so-called “high quality transit corridors” from “maximum controls on residential density or floor area ratio; minimum automobile parking requirements; and any design standard that restricts the applicant’s ability to construct the maximum number of units consistent with any applicable building code.”

Under Wiener’s bill every transit stop will be a development hub.

The hypocrisy is that this up-zoning will never happen in most of San Francisco [emphasis added]. With regional political clout, the city always manages to protect its traditional small-scale neighborhoods. Most of its new development is jammed in its southeast quadrant. I expect that won’t change with SB 872, but there will be one test to determine if I’m wrong.

For a century San Francisco’s Twin Peaks street car tunnel has linked the city’s western neighborhoods to downtown. Three light-rail lines traverse the bore with constant service interconnecting with buses at Castro and Market’s east portal, West Portal in the Sunset District and the mid-tunnel Forest Hills Muni Metro station. Unlike Larkspur’s Magnolia Avenue, with a commuter bus every 10 minutes these transit stops form a true “high quality transit corridor.”

West Portal and Forest Hills are composed mostly of single-family homes. Castro and Market involves three- to four-story apartments built in the 1920s and two-unit flats. Change these historic neighborhoods to high density and Wiener and the bill’s co-sponsor, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, will courageously show Marin how to build dense housing.

They’ll need to persuade the city to permit and actually build eight-story apartment houses lining West Portal Avenue, the Sunset, upscale Forest Hills and low-rise Castro and Eureka Valley neighborhoods. Only then will we know they’re serious about constructing big-scale housing.

Destroying these beloved neighborhoods will also mark Wiener’s, Ting’s and other pro-housing politicians’ doom at the ballot box.

In the past decade, San Francisco’s torrid employment growth added over 200,000 high-paid tax-generating jobs without providing homes for most of the new workers. Instead, city and regional planners prefer that Marin’s communities alter their small-town character so San Francisco can reap the benefits without paying the price of demolishing their own low-scale districts in the name of “solving” the “housing crisis.”

Rob's comment:
Scott Wiener supported allowing highrises on San Francisco's waterfront, but that was rejected by city voters, like his CEQA "reform" and his attempt at undermining our initiative rights. It was good to see Wiener go to Sacramento, where I wrongly thought he couldn't do much damage: Good news: Scott Wiener is leaving town. He seems to think he's a political visionary. If the city won't let him build highrises, he wants to build subways at $1 billion a mile: Scott Wiener: Subways and "pixie dust."

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Quantum computing



Thanks to Tom Friedman

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San Francisco: Too expensive for startups?

Priceonomics

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Immigration lesson

Zinovy Zinik in the Times Literary Supplement:

"Would you describe yourself as a Russian or a British author?" I've been asked this question on many occasions. The answer depends, of course, on who is asking. For the officer at border control in the United Kingdom, I'm that hybrid creature, a British citizen. I don't mind when people ask me where I'm from, unless they are implying, "When are you going home?"

In nightmares I used to find myself stuck again behind the Iron Curtain, unable to return to England. I'm rather fond of the plea made by Kipling's Roman centurion: "Legate, I come to you in tears---my cohort ordered home/I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?"

I have often been told that Britain is a nation of shopkeepers---but shopkeepers are a welcoming lot; they like newcomers as potential customers. England has cured me of a fear of encounters with the alien aspects of life, a Soviet fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. I'm a British citizen with an exotic past.

We are all composite characters. Kipling was born and grew up in India. Should we call him an Indian writer? Pushkin had black African ancestors. He never traveled abroad but wrote first drafts in French. We don't call him a French poet of African origin born in Russian exile. Conrad's second language was French---he had learnt his English while serving in the British merchant navy, but he is a British writer...(What should I do in Rome?)

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Monday, January 15, 2018

San Francisco is "building out capacity"

Hunters Point
From Curbed:

Few cities clamor for affordable housing more than San Francisco. This reimagined and reused naval site, dubbed the San Francisco Shipyard, began selling in early 2017, offering hundreds of relatively affordable condos (in the $500,000 to $600,00 range) in the city’s newest neighborhood, and will open more units later this year. Developers FivePoint Holdings also landed architect David Adjaye to design and oversee the second phase of the development, which will roll out over the next few years. 

Along with the in-process, $6 billion Treasure Island project, San Francisco is (very slowly) building out capacity.

Rob's comment:
Click on the shipyard link and you get the visionary photo above. Click on the Treasure Island link and you get nothing of interest, except how San Francisco is evicting existing residents to clear the ground for the dumb Treasure Island project. 

The Treasure Island project is the city's most irresponsible development project---even dumber than the Parkmerced project on 19th Avenue. Allowing 20,000 residents where there are now only 2,500 will create a traffic nightmare on an already gridlocked Bay Bridge and in downtown San Francisco.

What it will also create: an opportunity for City Hall and the SFCTA to finally implement their ultimate anti-car fantasy: congestion pricing in downtown San Francisco. 

That will be a two-fer: it will punish motorists who insist on driving those wicked motor vehicles instead of riding bicycles and, just as important, it will create a huge new source of income to support the growing city bureaucracy: 39,634 employees, 22 residents per employee as of 2016. The SFMTA alone had 6,345 employees as of 2016.


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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Mendocino Gothic
Mendocino Gothic

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Another take on Scott Wiener's attack on local control

The purple areas in Berkeley will be upzoned if the Skinner-Wiener SB827 passes and is signed by Governor Brown.
Purple area to be upzoned by the Wiener/Skinner bill

Turns out I didn't have to go all the way to Oregon to get Randal O'Toole's take on Scott Wiener's attack on the right cities and counties in the state now have to control their own zoning laws. Becky O'Malley does a thorough job from Berkeley.


State Senators Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) are again lusting after our remaining affordable neighborhoods on behalf of their developer patrons, who are fronted by the astroturf YIMBYs. 

As reported by Liam Dillon in the L.A. Times

A dramatic increase in new housing near transit stations could be on its way across California under new legislation proposed by a Bay Area legislator. Subject to some limitations, the measure would eliminate restrictions on the number of houses allowed to be built within a half-mile of train, light-rail, major bus routes and other transit stations, and block cities from imposing parking requirements. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author, said the state needs the housing to address affordability problems, maximize recent multi-billion-dollar transit investments and help the state meet its climate change goals.

Here’s a link to the bill, authored by Scott Wiener and co-authored by our own State Senator Nancy Skinner.

Transit-rich is the new buzz word in the title, and how ironically apt it is. This bill effectively removes all local planning controls in areas served by transit, opening up enormous swaths of our historically low-income urban neighborhoods (think southwest Berkeley) to gentrifying market rate development. 

And no, it won’t make the current residents, especially renters, rich—but it will certainly make rich developers richer. That's who get the housing bonus. 

This plan doesn’t seem to have been reported in the Bay Area press as yet, but Damien Goodmon, founder and Executive Director of Los Angeles’ nonprofit Crenshaw Subway Coalition, already has their number. He’s posted a stinging denunciation of the bill’s backers and its effect on low-income residents on the organization’s web site...

Wiener tries to defend his bill.


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Saturday, January 13, 2018

"Staying the course" with Breed and Conway

Ron Conway

From a SF Chronicle editorial:

One reasonable remedy would be for the board to appoint Breed as interim mayor, which would require her to step down from her supervisor’s seat — and she then would be allowed to appoint her successor, so the ideological balance of the board could remain intact. Without question, Breed will have her hands full adjusting to her expanded role as mayor, but she will have a considerable legion of appointed aides and career bureaucrats to keep the government rolling.

"Ideological balance"?  This refers to the great myth of San Francisco politics, that there are significant policy differences between a "moderate" faction and a "progressive" faction of the Democratic Party in the city.

If there are significant differences on important issues between London Breed and so-called progressive Aaron "Highrise" Peskin, I'm not aware of them (See Peskin and Christensen: Not a dimesworth of difference).

Breed was a blank slate before being elected after a campaign during which actual issues weren't much discussed, a feature of the awful Ranked Choice Voting system. As a consequence, she was quickly co-opted on policy by City Hall and city departments (see also London Breed: President of the Board of Supervisors).

From the Examiner the other day:

A day before Leno filed, Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu announced Sunday she would not run and on Monday morning Assemblymember David Chiu announced he also wouldn’t run. That means there will be no well-known Chinese-American candidate in the contest.

That's why Breed proposed renaming Portsmouth Square after Ed Lee, a crude attempt to get votes in Chinatown.

More from the Examiner:

Both Chiu and Chu are considered more moderate, as is Breed, which helps Breed position herself as the go-to moderate candidate. Breed had early on picked up the support of former Mayor Willie Brown, who helped Lee become mayor, and the support of Ron Conway, a Silicon Valley angel investor and Lee’s prominent backer who encouraged making it easier for technology companies to flourish in San Francisco.

Ron Conway supposedly supports Breed so that the tech industry will continue to dominate San Francisco. From the Examiner:


Conway has much stake in the election. Past administrations have fostered a friendly environment for the tech industry. It doesn’t take the latest app to figure out Conway fears progressives could end San Francisco’s tech romance.

There's no evidence that the pseudo-progressives on the board of supervisors have any such intention.

From the SF Chronicle back in 2012:

Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway's family spent nearly $100,000 to defeat incumbent Supervisor Christina Olague in District Five. But even though the election is over, the San Francisco mover and shaker hasn't stopped spending in the district, to the benefit of victorious challenger London Breed.

Breed's campaign filings show that Ron and his wife, Gayle; sons Daniel, Ronny and Christopher; and daughter-in-law Michele each made the maximum contribution of $500 for a total of $3,000, starting on Nov. 10, four days after the election...

Opponents criticized Breed for the contributions she received from landlord and real estate interests. She said her campaign is not in debt and that she didn't ask the Conways for money. "
Just because someone gives you money doesn't mean they control you or own you," Breed said.

Typically obtuse comment by Breed. She didn't have to ask for the money, since Conway knew exactly what he was paying for with his contribution. For more on Conway's negative influence on local politics, click on "Ron Conway" below.

See also The imaginary "balance" on the board of supervisors and Another post-mortem on the District 5 election.

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More "pixie dust" from Scott Wiener

"Transit-rich" zones under Wiener's bill


California state senator Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, has introduced Senate Bill 827, which would effectively void all local zoning rules in “transit-rich” areas, meaning areas within a half mile of a rail station or a quarter mile of a stop on a frequent bus route. Wiener’s goal is to allow the construction of high-density housing in those transit-rich areas, thus simultaneously providing more affordable housing and encouraging more people to ride transit.

This bill would severely disrupt neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and many other cities that currently have frequent transit service, as maps reveal that it would virtually eliminate zoning in most of the land area of those cities...most people who live in zoned urban neighborhoods appreciate the benefits of such zoning. By limiting the maximum density of housing, zoning minimizes traffic congestion, noise, and other problems.

Moreover, neighborhoods are built with streets, water, sewer, and other infrastructure to serve the needs of the density at which the neighborhoods were built. Major increases in density would require expensive improvements to water and sewer infrastructure–far more expensive than building new infrastructure on greenfields–and streets probably could not be redesigned to accommodate the density increases in any case.

Besides, city zoning isn’t the cause of high housing prices, nor will densification make housing more affordable. With the exception of Houston, every major city in the country has maximum-density zoning, but housing prices are unaffordable only in cities that also restrict development of rural areas around the urban fringes.

Residents who oppose densification of their neighborhoods are often accused of being NIMBYs who are borderline racists getting in the way of market demand. But the urban-growth boundaries and other restrictions on rural development have so distorted California and other housing markets that any demand for density is totally artificial.

Without those rural restrictions, housing would be affordable to almost everyone regardless of race or incomes. The fact that homeownership rates in Brazil and Mexico are far higher than in the United States shows that homeownership is limited more by government regulation than by incomes.

The Portland building mentioned here a few days ago demonstrates why denser housing isn’t more affordable. Where low-rise housing in areas without growth management sells for around $100 a square foot, a supposedly affordable high-rise tower in Portland is expected to cost more than $320 a square foot. A Portland affordable housing study found that mid-rise housing costs 52 percent more and high-rise housing costs 68 percent more per square foot than low-rise housing.

On top of construction costs, land costs in urban areas that have been forced to grow dense by urban-growth boundaries are so high that it is nearly impossible to build enough density to make housing affordable. A buildable lot in Portland is at least 25 times more expensive than one in Dallas or San Antonio, and one in San Francisco is hundreds of times more expensive.

For these reasons, regions that have grown denser due to growth boundaries have become less affordable, not more. Since 1970, the population densities of the San Francisco-Oakland and San Jose urban areas have each grown by about 50 percent, yet their median home prices relative to median family income–a standard measure of affordability–have each tripled...

Scott Wiener

Rob's comment:
Of course San Francisco's growth is not limited by artificial "urban growth boundaries" but by geography, since it's surrounded by water on three sides.

From a writer who formulated the transit/housing concept on how that idea can be clumsily applied in San Francisco ((San Francisco's Housing Element---Built on misunderstanding):

...More important, transit ridership is not the only goal of transit-based housing. The main goal is community-building. Transit stations, especially heavy-rail stations, provide opportunity for new communities, whose residents are not dependent on automobiles for local or regional trips. These communities ("transit villages") mix housing with neighborhood-serving shops, public spaces, and other amenities, with streetscapes that encourage a safe and easy walk to the station.

By these characteristics, most San Francisco neighborhoods already qualify as transit villages. Their densities are far higher than in the suburbs---in fact, they are higher than nearly all urban areas outside New York City. They mix housing (multi-family and single-family) with commercial and neighborhood-serving retail uses; and residents can get around by foot and bicycle, as well as short automobile or bus trips (emphasis added).

Furthermore, a key transit village concept is scale. There is not one correct density for the transit village; rather, the appropriate density depends on the scale of the surrounding neighborhood. Transit villages respect the character of the surrounding neighborhood, especially as that character is supported by existing residents.

The [San Francisco] Housing Element, in contrast, ignores neighborhood character. It seeks to squeeze persons into these neighborhoods, often in odd configurations and against neighborhood opposition. It assumes that many new residents will not own cars---even though our research showed that transit village residents, while using transit for many trips, do own autos and need parking...

Think of San Francisco neighborhoods like Noe Valley, the Inner Richmond, West Portal, the Castro, the Inner Sunset and the Marina: They are jewels in their bustling shops and stores and active street life, yet they possess a human scale and accessibility. Other neighborhoods around San Bruno Avenue, the Lower Fillmore, Third Street and the Outer Mission are improving their commercial areas and can become urban jewels.

Yet, all of these neighborhoods are fragile and can easily be undermined. City planning needs to support neighborhood-based planning and high-quality Muni service in the built communities, and encourage new transit-based communities in the city's emerging central waterfront and Southern areas.

See also Scott Wiener's "contempt for voters".

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Friday, January 12, 2018

The New Yorker

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...The fact that Arches and Canyonlands national monuments would later become national parks was of little comfort to Abbey, who in Desert Solitaire bemoans what he termed the “industrial tourism” that revolves around the automobile.

Compared to Abbey’s fierce opposition to modern capitalism, Bernie Sanders comes off as comparatively milquetoast. Above all, Abbey was an opponent of “that cloud on my horizon” he defined as progress. This wasn’t Luddism so much as a deep need to preserve a small portion of America as wilderness, kept forever free from development, beginning with precisely those areas of southern Utah attacked by Trump and Zinke. 

Desert Solitaire was published four years after the Wilderness Act was signed into law. Even as the United States’ economy boomed, in 1964 Congress sanctified areas where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Abbey fought to preserve such land for the rest of his life.

“Wilderness complements and completes civilization,” he wrote in the 1980s. “I might say that the existence of wilderness is a compliment to civilization. Any society that feels itself too poor to afford the preservation of wilderness is not worthy of the name of civilization.” 

As Trump and Zinke reclaim for extractive industry much of the land that had been protected through the Antiquities Act by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Abbey’s spirit infuses the opposition. More than a few dog-eared and well-thumbed paperback copies of his book were probably in the backpacks of the thousands protesting Trump on Dec. 4, when he arrived in Salt Lake City to announce his land grab.

But Abbey, who died in 1989, wouldn’t be surprised by Trump and Zinke’s attitudes. He’d instantly spot them as more of the know-nothing exploiters he’d always railed against. It also wouldn’t surprise him that drilling in the Alaska National Wilderness Refuge was the price the GOP paid to secure Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote for tax reform. Having called the cattlemen whose herds graze on public land “welfare queens,” he’d appreciate being vindicated by Cliven Bundy, recently on trial in Nevada for crimes that began with his refusal to pay his federal grazing fees.

He’d probably also say, “What else did you expect?” after learning that so many tourists in cars are entering Arches, Grand Teton, Bryce and Zion national parks that buses and reservation systems have begun or are in the works. And I think he’d be saddened that, 50 years after the publication of Desert Solitaire, the assault on public lands — our lands — remains such a fact of American life.

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Climate change in the backyard




On Tuesday morning, half an inch of water fell in nearby Montecito — half an inch in five minutes. Even in the best of conditions, this pace could cause flooding. But it wasn’t the best of conditions. Last month, we endured the largest wildfire in California history...

Records, by their nature, are not meant to be set annually. And yet that’s what is happening. The costliest year for natural disasters in the United States was 2017. One of the longest and most severe droughts in California history concluded for most parts of the state in 2017. The five warmest years on record have all occurred since 2006, with 2017 expected to be one of the warmest yet again...

For a long time, we assumed that climate policy was stalled because it was a problem for the future. Or it would affect other people. Poorer people. Animals. Ecosystems. We assumed those parts of the world were separate from us. That we were somehow insulated. I didn’t expect to see it in my own backyard so soon...

See also John McPhee: "Los Angeles Against the Mountains"

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Trump toilet
Matt Davies

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Thursday, January 11, 2018


Cities make a mistake in promoting cycling
Cycling lanes consume more space than they free up, add to pollution and drain the public purse
Lawrence Solomon

The bicycle has come a long way since the 1980s when bicycle advocacy groups (my group, Energy Probe, among them) lobbied against policies that discriminated against cyclists. In the language of the day, the bicycle epitomized “appropriate technology”: It was a right-sized machine that blessed cities with economic and environmental benefits. At no expense to taxpayers, the bicycle took cars off the road, easing traffic; it saved wear and tear on the roads, easing municipal budgets; it reduced auto emissions, easing air pollution; it reduced the need for automobile parking, increasing the efficiency of land use; and it helped keep people fit, too.

Today the bicycle is a mixed bag, usually with more negatives than positives. In many cities, bike lanes now consume more road space than they free up, they add to pollution as well as reducing it, they hurt neighbourhoods and business districts alike, and they have become a drain on the public purse. The bicycle today — or rather the infrastructure that now supports it — exemplifies “inappropriate technology,” a good idea gone wrong through unsustainable, willy-nilly top-down planning.London, where former mayor Boris Johnston began a “cycling revolution,” shows where the road to ruin can lead. Although criticism of biking remains largely taboo among the city’s elite, a bike backlash is underway, with many blaming the city’s worsening congestion on the proliferation of bike lanes. 

While bikes have the luxury of zipping through traffic using dedicated lanes that are vastly underused most of the day — these include what Transport for London (TfL) calls “cycle superhighways” — cars have been squeezed into narrowed spaces that slow traffic to a crawl.As a City of London report acknowledged last year, “The most significant impact on the City’s road network in the last 12 months has been the construction and subsequent operation of TfL’s cycle super highway...areas of traffic congestion can frequently be found on those roads.” As Lord Nigel Lawson put it in a parliamentary debate on bicycles, cycle lanes have done more damage to London than “almost anything since the Blitz.”

As a consequence of the idling traffic, pollution levels have risen, contributing to what is now deemed a toxic stew. Ironically, cyclists are especially harmed, and not just because the bike lanes they speed upon are adjacent to tailpipes. According to a study by the London School of Medicine, cyclists have 2.3 times more inhaled soot than walkers because “cyclists breathe more deeply and at a quicker rate than pedestrians while in closer proximity to exhaust fumes...Our data strongly suggest that personal exposure to black carbon should be considered when planning cycling routes.” 

Cyclists have begun wearing facemasks as a consequence. A recent headline in The Independent helpfully featured “5 best anti-pollution masks for cycling.” Neighbourhoods endure extra pollution, too, with frustrated autos cutting through residential districts to avoid bike-bred congestion.Health and safety costs aside — per kilometre travelled, cyclist fatalities are eight times that of motorists — the direct economic burden associated with cycling megaprojects is staggering. Paris, which boasts of its plan to become the “cycling capital of the world,” is in the midst of a 150-million-euro cycling scheme. Melbourne has a $100-million plan. Amsterdam — a flat, compact city well suited to cycling — is spending 120 million euros on 9,000 new bicycle parking spots alone. 

Where cold weather reigns for much of the year, as is the case in many of Canada’s cities, the cost-benefit case for cycling infrastructure is eviscerated further.The indirect costs of cycling also loom large because cycling lanes typically displace lanes that formerly accommodated street parking, especially outside rush-hour periods. Businesses that rely on street parking for their customers are often bitter at seeing their sales gutted. Cities not only lose revenue from street parking, they also lose revenue from public transit because — anecdotally, at least — people are switching to bikes more from public transit than from cars. 

And because the demand for parking hasn’t vanished, cities now find themselves leveling buildings on main streets and side streets in favour of parking lots. In effect, the varied uses to which the lanes adjacent to the sidewalk were once put — for car and bike traffic during rush hour and for parking benefitting delivery vehicles, local businesses and their patrons at other times — has devolved into a single-function piece of under-used pavement.In a user-pay or market economy, where users pay for the services they consume, bicycle lanes would be non-starters outside college campuses and other niche settings. If roads were tolled to recover the cost of asphalt and maintenance, no cyclist could bear the burden he foists on society. 

The cyclist has been put on the dole, made a taker rather than a giver to society.Some of the bike backlash — resentment at the privileged position of cyclists, who are notorious for flouting the rules of the road without contributing their fair share — manifests itself as economic penalty. Oregon, which has a high proportion of cyclists, recently became the first state to levy a sales tax on new bicycles, even though Oregon has no general sales tax. Legislators “felt that bicycles ought to contribute to the system,” explained a state senator who co-wrote the bill, expressing a sentiment widely held across the continent.

The most telling opposition to cyclists, though, may be cultural. They are often seen as an entitled, smug and affected minority. In the U.K., cyclists are mocked as “mamils” (middle-aged men in Lycra); in U.S. inner cities they’re seen as the preserve of “white men with white-collar jobs” furthering gentrification. Almost everywhere they’re seen as discourteous, and as threats to the safety of pedestrians. At least two cities in the U.K. have banned cyclists from their city centres and just this month the government of New South Wales in Australia decided to ban bikes (but not automobiles, motorcycles, trucks or trams) on a popular Sydney street that had been a bike commuter route. 

The government explained it wants the street to become conducive to pedestrians. Other street bans important to Sydney’s downtown are in the works.City politicians around the world are in a race to make their cities “bike-friendly.” The more they succeed, the nastier things will get.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Oprah in 2020?

Getty Images

Frank Rich in New York Magazine:

...The fact that Oprah would be another celebrity candidate should not be held against her just because Trump is a celebrity. If we use Trump as a precedent, no man should ever be a president again either.

Nor should Oprah’s lack of a record in government be a deterrent; she won’t have to defend (as, say, Joe Biden would) a long and sometimes compromised Washington past that might include the undermining of the #MeToo testimony of Anita Hill or voting for the Iraq war. Oprah may have had her own embarrassments, but her cheerleading for the likes of Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil should not be confused with Vietnam.

That said, the coy speculation and hints (including from her partner, Stedman Graham) about whether she is seriously considering a run or not is already getting tedious, and, with time, could be a dagger pointed at the Democrats’ 2020 prospects. 

If the idea of her running remains seriously in play, say, a year from now, her stature will deprive other contenders of the political oxygen of both media attention and donors’ dollars. Having opened this door, Oprah now has the obligation to either walk through it or slam it shut on a responsible timeline.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Good for Senator Feinstein!




Simpson explains why the document was created, contrary to the Repug narrative. 

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SF's faith-based traffic "collision" system

Demonstrators form a People Protected Bike Lane for cyclists during the evening commute last month to pro test what they see as San Francisco’s delays in installing protected lanes. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

The SF Chronicle once again pushes the pro-bike, anti-car PC line in last Sunday's edition:

On a dark December night, with a chilly breeze blowing from the west, a dozen bicyclists parked their rides on the sidewalks of Market Street at Octavia Street[sic], pulled bright-yellow T-shirts over their work apparel and grabbed glow sticks and signs...“Join us,” they yelled, as portable speakers boomed “The Safety Dance,” a 1983 pop hit. “Protect the bike lanes.” The group quickly grew to about 70 people.

This was the latest rendition of People Protected Bike Lane, an amalgam of performance art, political protest, street party and community organizing event that was born in San Francisco and has quickly spread to cities across the country and around the world. The goal is to get local governments moving on building barriers to separate bike lanes from vehicle traffic on some of the city’s most dangerous streets.

Are Octavia Blvd. and Market Street in fact "dangerous streets"? (It's Octavia Boulevard, not street, by the way.) Not according to the latest city Collisions Report, which tells us that two thirds of injury accidents happen at intersections (page 13)

The intersection of Market/Octavia is listed among the most dangerous in the city, with 22 "injury collisions" in a recent four-year period, which is 5.5 accidents a year. Is that really a large number for one of the busiest intersections---and a freeway entrance/exit---in the city? per Vision Zero ideology, the city doesn't believe in "accidents," since they are all supposedly preventable.

Neither the Chronicle nor the city provide any more information on those accidents: among them 4 pedestrians injured and 15 cyclists, though it's fair to think that many were due to the negligence of cyclists and pedestrians.

But what the demonstrators are claiming is that Market Street in general is a dangerous street, which is simply untrue according to the Collisions Report: two Market Street intersections are on the list of Highest Injury Collision Intersections on page 13---Market/Octavia and Market/Fifth (25 injury accidents).

Of course Market Street is on the Vision Zero "network" of high-injury streets, but then every busy street in the city is on that map. That makes it easy for the city to cherry-pick streets on which it can make safety "improvements" by not providing any information about why accidents/"collisions" happen, like who or what was responsible and what should be done to prevent them in the future.

In short, the Vision Zero slogan/policy is a faith-based system. The public is supposed to trust a city government about how and why traffic accidents happen on our streets, even though back in 2013 a UC study showed us that a supposedly pro-bike City Hall couldn't even count cycling accidents on city streets.

Speaking of faith, city residents can't count on learning about the city's troubled history of counting traffic accidents from the Chronicle, since long-time transportation reporter Michael Cabanatuan has never written about that UC study. Nor has anyone at the Examiner, the SF Weekly, Streetsblog, or the Bicycle Coalition (see Local media ignore cycling accident study).

There's been a North Korea-like blackout on the subject here in Progressive Land, except for yours truly at District 5 Diary.

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