Enjoy Your “Stuffy Turkey” Today

In honor of my favorite holiday of the year, enjoy some Thelonious Monk and his “Stuffy Turkey” with your meal:

Newsweek Tackles The Fight Over Renewable Energy Projects In The SoCal Desert

The article covers the debates raging over siting these large projects in pristine desert regions:

These projects are so big, they create their own ecologies and economies. “We’re not talking about a small project, we’re talking about a city the size of San Francisco,” says David Lamfrom, who runs the National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) California Desert Program. “You’d just plop down a city in the middle of the wildest parts of the U.S.”

And these new wind and solar farms—cities, call them, since they aren’t like any farm you’ve seen—are only going to multiply in the coming years. The need for clean energy is expected to increase dramatically in the next decade, particularly after the U.S. and China recently announced a historic agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions in their respective countries. At the core of the pact are two sets of commitments: The U.S. will lower emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 from the initial 2005 baselines, while China has agreed to set an emissions peak for 2030 and then commit to lowering emissions.

The piece also features some context-setting quotes from yours truly. Overall, I think it does a nice job describing what’s at stake, especially given the new international climate context.

Oil And Gas Industry Accidentally Reveals Its Strategy To Undermine Clean Energy Laws

Whoopsie. The Western States Petroleum Association accidentally let slip its strategy document detailing how the oil and gas lobbying front seeks to undermine clean energy laws, especially California’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020:

Specifically, the deck from a presentation by WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd lays out the construction of what environmentalists contend is an elaborate “astroturf campaign.” Groups with names such as Oregon Climate Change Campaign, Washington Consumers for Sound Fuel Policy, and AB 32 Implementation Group are made to look and sound like grassroots citizen-activists while promoting oil industry priorities and actually working against the implementation of AB 32.

It’s a similar strategy pursued by chemical interests, when they set up a fake firefighter group to keep in place California’s counter-productive flame retardant regulation, which retarded no flames while poisoning kids and firefighters alike when buildings burned.

It’s nice to see this approach exposed for everyone to see. The front groups have thankfully so far failed to motivate the public, but advocates should be wary of this tactic. In the right political climate, it could make a big difference in undermining public support for vital environmental laws. Here’s a hard-to-read chart from the slide deck of all the fake groups they fund (hard to read because they fund so many phony groups):


San Diego Loses Appeal On Its Weak Transportation Plan

Back in 2011, the San Diego Association of Governments issued a really bad regional transportation plan.  These plans must prioritize transportation investments across the metropolitan region for the coming decades and are the basis for receiving state and federal infrastructure dollars. And while most regional transportation plans are usually pretty bad (i.e. favoring highway expansion over core maintenance and transit/biking/walking infrastructure), SANDAG’s happened to be the first in the state to have to comply with SB 375, a law linking transportation investments with land use policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  So it held even more significance.

Environmental groups, along with the California Attorney General’s Office, sued SANDAG under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), alleging that SANDAG inadequately considered the plan’s effects on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  They argued that the agency should have taken those impacts into account given a 2005 executive order to reduce emissions by that year.

They had a strong case.  To comply with SB 375, SANDAG essentially fudged the short-term numbers, relying on highway expansion and more telecommuting to reduce greenhouse gases through 2035.  But by 2050, the plan actually showed increasing greenhouse gas emissions, out to a time when we need to be reducing emissions significantly.  As a result, SANDAG lost in the trial court.

And today they lost the appeal.  Judge McConnell of the Fourth Appellate District wrote the decision affirming [PDF] the trial court decision, sending the case back to the trial court for SANDAG to beef up its analysis of the 2050 goals and the range of options the agency has available to comply:

As evidence in the record indicates the transportation plan would actually be inconsistent with state climate policy over the long term, the omission deprived the public and decision makers of relevant information about the transportation plan’s environmental consequences. The omission was prejudicial because it precluded informed decisionmaking and public participation.

Judge Benke wrote a fiery dissent, calling the court’s decision “breathtaking” in its judicial overstepping into local planning matters.  But the reality is that SANDAG needs to own up to the backsliding in emissions by 2050 and provide the public with a reasonable range of options to avoid this outcome.  It fundamentally failed to do so in the first round.  Even if some of those options might seem politically difficult (like asking rural or exurban areas to take a backseat on highway expansion in favor of investing in the populated core areas), SANDAG should lay it out there for people to understand.

Regardless, SANDAG’s next transportation plan (already well underway) should be a vast improvement.  In fairness to the agency, they did not have much time to incorporate SB 375 goals into the original plan, which was already being written at the time SB 375 passed.  But the agency has now had four years to do so for the next plan.  So SANDAG has no excuse to avoid improving the CEQA document on the old plan and coming up with a decent new plan.

Perhaps more importantly, the case has served an important political role in letting other regions know that they need to do a solid job complying with SB 375.  Nothing wakes an agency up like a lawsuit, and advocates have been able to leverage the threat of a lawsuit to encourage meaningful changes in transportation plans across the state since the SANDAG plan.  So in that sense, the case was already a victory for advocates even before today’s ruling.

Oakland “AirBART” Airport Connector Opens

OAC1BART opened the $484 million AirBART people-mover train from the Coliseum BART station to the Oakland Airport on Saturday. The glorified, elevated cable-car took four years to build and will replace the current bus shuttle.

So far, anecdotal reviews are good from the free riders on Saturday, but people are complaining about the high fares.  I blogged a while back about why BART probably should have gone with a much cheaper and faster bus-only lane system to the airport. This new train will cost $6 per person each way, compared to $3 with the now-defunct bus shuttle. And it will top out at a measly 23 miles per hour, with a 20-second break in the middle to switch cables.

At that price and travel time, a taxi looks competitive, certainly for anyone not traveling solo.  But all is not lost (from your pocketbook): if you still need a cheap option to get to the airport from BART, there’s always AC Transit bus service.

My Attorney Bernie

This might be my new favorite song title.  Blossom Dearie does a great vocal performance on this Dave Frishberg original:

L.A. Metro’s Blog Podcast On “Railtown”
Photo by Steve Hymon

Photo by Steve Hymon

Metro’s official blog, The Source, posted a podcast with me on my book Railtown, covering the history of modern rail transit in Los Angeles.  The chief blogger for the site, Steve Hymon, covered Metro for the Los Angeles Times before joining the blog, so he has first-person knowledge of many of the events I chronicle.  He asked a lot of good questions and shared some of his personal memories from the recent transit past as well.

Steve is also a talented photographer, so it was nice to be a subject of one of his shoots.  Here’s the photo he took (right), which would have made for a nice jacket photo in the book.  Oh well — maybe for the sequel.

You can listen to the 34 minute podcast here.  Thanks to Steve and the editors at The Source for putting it together.

Gov. Brown Making Good Progress To Help Infill And Curb Sprawl

The San Francisco Chronicle is running a joint op-ed today from the Council of Infill Builders and Greenbelt Alliance that supports Gov. Brown’s efforts on SB 743.  As you may recall, the controversial implementation of this law will allow transit-friendly infill projects to escape the need for litigation-enabling traffic studies, while requiring sprawl projects to reduce their overall impact on regional traffic and driving miles.

The op-ed seems to be a response to a misguided outcry from state business leaders who claim to want more infill but see this reform as simply creating more “uncertainty” for infill projects.  Their claims are basically meritless, and the real aim seems to be a larger campaign to unravel the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). After all, slowly fixing the seriously deficient parts of the law, like with this traffic analysis, undermines their case for wholesale change.

As the piece describes of the transportation impacts analysis:

This perverse result has to change, and the Brown administration is taking action. Following a 2013 state law, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research has developed an alternative way to address traffic effects. Project developers must now look at how a project will affect the overall driving miles as measured throughout the metropolitan region. So downtown-oriented projects, where most people can walk, take transit or bike (modes of transport that are good for the environment and relieve traffic regionwide), would not trigger lengthy CEQA review on this particular issue. Outlying projects, however, must account for the regional traffic they generate and mitigate where feasible. Mitigation could include anything from free transit passes for residents to adding more jobs and retail opportunities on-site so residents don’t have to drive long distances to access them.

I hope Governor Brown follows the advice here and stays the course.  CEQA was long overdue for this modernization.  Final comments to OPR are due on Friday.


Toyota Unveils New Fuel Cell Vehicle
"Crazy ugly?"

“Crazy ugly?”

Toyota announced its new fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai.  Available only in California, it has a range of up to 300 miles at $57,500 (not including rebates and tax credits), which also includes free hydrogen fueling for three years.  The advantage?  It can refuel in 5 minutes, compared to an hour or way more in a traditional battery electric vehicle.

The disadvantages?  Well, if you like looks and horsepower, this vehicle won’t do it for you.  One website review called it “crazy ugly” and noted it takes 9 seconds to accelerate to 62 miles per hour (compared to 4.1 seconds for the Tesla Model S).

The real disadvantage?  The fueling infrastructure isn’t there.  While battery electric drivers may complain about the lack of charging stations, at least electricity is ubiquitous and basically cheap.  But with hydrogen, we need a whole new, expensive, and energy-intensive infrastructure to produce and dispatch the hydrogen.

Here’s Toyota’s response:

Research at the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) has found that 68 stations, located at the proper sites, could handle a FCV population of at least 10,000 vehicles. Those stations are on their way to becoming a reality. By the end of 2015, 3 of California’s 9 active hydrogen stations and 17 newly-constructed stations are scheduled to be opened to the general public, with 28 additional stations set to come online by the end of 2016, bringing the near-term total to 48 stations.

Nineteen of those 48 stations will be built by FirstElement Fuels, supported by a $7.3 million loan from Toyota. The company has also announced additional efforts to develop infrastructure in the country’s Northeast region. In 2016, Air Liquide, in collaboration with Toyota, is targeting construction of 12 stations in five states – New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Personally, I think the expense and energy needs for the fuel disqualifies hydrogen fuel cells as a viable technology, at least for passenger vehicles.  However, given that we need to electrify pretty much all of our transportation to meet our long-term greenhouse gas reduction goals, I could see hydrogen being useful (and maybe necessary) for heavy-duty shipping, as batteries may not be able to provide the power necessary.

In any event, we can see how Toyota and other fuel cell-committed companies like Honda do with their technologies.  But from a public policy standpoint, we should not be subsidizing the fueling infrastructure for vehicles like the Mirai.

Is Rail Worth It? New Essay In UC Berkeley Planning Journal

Martin Wachs and I take a stab at answering this question in the new issue of the UC Berkeley Planning Journal (PDF here).  Excerpt from my recommendations:

[S]cholars and practitioners need to better link land-use development to transit infrastructure. They should support policies that
require density (or local plans to enable density) around transit stations and corridors. Such requirements at the federal and/or state levels could change the rail and land-use decision-making dynamic for local officials, whom otherwise might be easily influenced by well-resourced constituents at the expense of the regional good. The requirements could also deprive local groups of litigation opportunities to slow, stop, or drive up the costs of rail and related development.

Planners and practitioners should also advocate for nonrail options that can catalyze land-use changes, such as bus-rapid transit systems
on bus-only lanes. These lower-cost transit modes can be as clean, fast, and reliable as rail.  Advocates need to communicate these benefits as an antidote to the negative bus stereotype.

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