What’s The Future Of California High Speed Rail? Join My KALW Conversation Tonight With Chair Dan Richard

HSR1California’s high speed rail system has been moving at a low speed since voters approved a bond issue to launch it in 2008. That ballot measure authorized a bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles and eventually Anaheim, at speeds of 220 miles per hour and stops in Central Valley cities like Fresno and Bakersfield.  The total trip time would be no more than 2 hours and 40 minutes between the two big cities, at fares less than airplane travel.

The rationale for the system is that it will provide a cheaper way to move a growing population around the state than expanding airports and highways.  It will connect the relatively weak economies of the Central Valley with the prosperous coastal cities, providing an economic boost, all while enabling low-carbon transportation and promoting car-free lifestyles for communities connected to the system.

But since 2008, legal and political battles have slowed the system’s progress, as everyone from farmers in the Central Valley, wealthy homeowners in the San Francisco peninsula, and even equestrians in the hills above Burbank have fought to push the route away from their land. It’s local NIMBY politics on a statewide scale.

Current proposed high speed rail route

Current proposed high speed rail route

These legal and political challenges have in turn created funding headaches for the system. The original price tag of $40 billion ballooned to a projected $118 billion, before a revised business plan reduced it to an estimated $62 billion, as described in the 2016 business plan. Of that amount, the 2008 bond issues provides almost $10 billion, federal funds provide another $3.3 billion, and cap-and-trade funds may provide another few billion.  System backers hope the rest come from private sources, but so far none have stepped up.

With strong support from the governor, the state was able to dedicate 25% of cap-and-trade auction proceeds to high speed rail construction. But the auction faces legal uncertainty going forward, due to a pending court case brought by the California Chamber of Commerce.  An adverse verdict could mean that the money will halt either immediately or post 2020.

Meanwhile, the federal government has been unusually stingy with this infrastructure project. After Republicans took over Congress in the 2010 midterms, the federal dollars dried up, leaving the state to fund the project on its own. Only the 2009 stimulus provided some federal money for the train, but nowhere close to a match for the state contribution.  By comparison, the federal government typically contributes 50% of the money for urban rail systems and between 90 and 100% for highways.

The funding picture has now affected the route design. The initial connections were going to be from the Central Valley to somewhere north of Los Angeles, hooking into the commuter Metrolink train to deliver passengers to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Now there’s not enough money to get the train through the Tehachapi mountains that separate Southern California from the Central Valley. So the initial connection will now go to San Jose from the Central Valley, with a link to the commuter Caltrain to get passengers to San Francisco. High speed rail bond money will then pay for upgrades to Caltrain and Metrolink, to prepare those systems for eventual high speed rail connections.

So with all the controversy and politics for this important project, I look forward to interviewing California High Speed Rail Authority chair Dan Richard tonight on City Visions, on NPR affiliate 91.7 FM KALW radio in San Francisco, from 7-8pm.  For those out of the area, you can stream it or listen to the archived broadcast after the show here.  I’ll ask Dan for more information on the funding, politics, and current construction status.  And listeners are free to call in or email with questions.  Hope you can tune in and ask your questions about the system’s future!

Fake Meat Burgers Could Save The World

When people want to act to limit climate change and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, solar panels, LED bulbs, and electric cars may come to mind.  But an often overlooked step is changing your diet.

A non-meat burger made by Impossible Foods rests on a plate before being tasted, during a press event at the Impossible Foods headquarters in Redwood City, California, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Photo: Gabrielle Lurie, The ChronicleMeat production worldwide is a major contributor of greenhouse gases, particularly red meat.  Cows emit methane, but they also require a ton of feed (usually corn) that in turn requires a lot of fertilizer produced from natural gas.  Some studies indicate that you can make a bigger impact reducing your carbon footprint simply by avoiding meat consumption — even more than driving a hybrid.

So leave it to Silicon Valley to address the challenge.  A number of startups are figuring out alternative, cleaner ways to produce meat from plants, per the San Francisco Chronicle:

Impossible Foods, based in Redwood City, is one of two California companies racing to build a beefless burger so good that it fools carnivores. Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger debuted in one New York restaurant in July and arrives in California this week. The company’s rival, Beyond Meat, has produced a Beyond Burger that is on sale in Whole Foods stores in the mountain states and may make it to the Bay Area by the end of the year.

Most manufacturers of processed food market their products as if they’re one cardboard box away from grandma’s best dish. Not Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat. Their methods are nakedly high tech. Their funding comes from tech-sector investors. And though both companies are emitting a tremendous amount of hype in the food world, their intended audience isn’t the organic-minded or even the vegetarian. Like most of Silicon Valley’s unicorn aspirants, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat say they’re out to change the world.

If Silicon Valley can “science the hell” out of meat production (to paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian), it would be a major win for the environment. Convincing people not to eat meat is an almost impossible sell, and as more of the world industrializes, meat consumption is only increasing.

Sure, policy makers might be able to tax meat enough to discourage consumption, or meat prices may rise so much that it achieves the same effect, but that may be politically difficult or simply take too long. So it would be much better if we could instead provide people an alternative that tastes just like the real thing.

A guilt- and emissions-free burger? I for one certainly wish these companies well.

Fully Autonomous, Mass-Market Vehicles Just Showed Up

I’ve heard people refer to self-driving cars as nothing more than a “George Jetsons” future that won’t really happen, or at least is decades away. But Tesla just brought that reality into the present.

Yesterday the automaker announced that all their new cars going forward will be equipped with the hardware for full automation. That includes:

Eight surround cameras provide 360 degrees of visibility around the car at up to 250 meters of range. Twelve updated ultrasonic sensors complement this vision, allowing for detection of both hard and soft objects at nearly twice the distance of the prior system. A forward-facing radar with enhanced processing provides additional data about the world on a redundant wavelength that is able to see through heavy rain, fog, dust and even the car ahead.

The software won’t be activated right away, and customers will have to pay to access both the hardware and the software. Still, the era of autonomy is now within reach, and it will require policy makers to get ahead of the curve to ensure it doesn’t increase traffic.

The no-regrets solutions? Encourage car-sharing instead of vehicle ownership, and start charging drivers for the miles they drive rather than taxing them based on fuel.

You can see Tesla’s promotional video here, showing the self-drive in action:

The Pitfalls Of “Punishing” Volkswagen Through EV Charging Investment — Lessons From California

In the wake of the VW emissions-cheating scandal, the proposed settlement involves allowing VW to invest heavily in electric vehicle infrastructure, per E&E News [paywall]:

Under the settlement, Volkswagen AG will have to invest $2 billion over 10 years to increase access to EVs by supporting charging infrastructure and public outreach, with $800 million allotted to California. ChargePoint Inc. and California lawmakers including U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D) and state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D) argued that the special fund lacks oversight and risks stifling the EV-charging industry.

California has some experience with these kinds of settlements, and it’s not good. As I’ve written before, the state settled with NRG’s parent electricity company for defrauding California ratepayers during the phony electricity crisis and rolling blackouts at the turn of this century.

As “punishment,” NRG got to spend $100 million on a new line of business: EV charging infrastructure. The settlement terms though have never been followed, and the California Public Utilities Commission took over a year just to hire an auditor to find out what’s going wrong. The audit hasn’t even begun yet, a year-and-a-half later.

So if regulators and the court go down this path with VW, let’s hope they put real teeth into monitoring and enforcement of the settlement terms. Otherwise this deal won’t end up so well for taxpayers and the defrauded.

Is Direct Democracy Broken? Last Night’s KALW City Visions Discussion

Last night on City Visions on KALW radio we had a feisty discussion about direct democracy in California, with special attention on San Francisco’s crowded ballot.  City voters there are faced with 25 initiatives this year, many put on due to a quirk in the city charter that allows supervisors to place them as leverage over political opponents.

Joining me for the discussion were:

  • Bruce Cain, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University;
  • Joe Eskenazi, Senior Editor at San Francisco Magazine; and
  • Quentin L. Kopp, Member of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, retired California Superior Court judge, former San Francisco Supervisor, and prior California State Senator.

Bottom line: the advent of direct democracy has proven popular with the voters in concept and is tough to reform, even if voters don’t like having so many choices to make.  However, we discussed possible reform efforts related to paid citizen signature gathering and shorter ballot.

You can listen to the discussion here.  And next Monday, I’ll be hosting a one-on-one discussion with California High Speed Rail Authority chair Dan Richard, so mark your calendars now!

Tesla Need Investors More Than Customers, Says Former VP

In Fortune, former Tesla VP Cristiano Carlutti dishes on the company and the upcoming Model 3 (Tesla’s first mass-market EV, due in 2017):

As far as the downsides of the Tesla Model 3, let’s try to look at things from a different perspective: the biggest downside of Model 3 in my opinion is that it doesn’t exist yet. Lots of things can change until the launch date and I would assume that, when it was presented earlier this year, Model 3 was probably nowhere near a decent stage of development.

In order to understand this perspective, you have to take a different look at the way the company operates: in my opinion, it’s fundamentally a very focused marketing machine that until now has been focused on selling shares, with car sales instrumental to that. Before some fans attack me because of this comment, let me tell you that… it was the right thing to do!

In other words, Elon perfectly knew since the beginning that he would need a massive amount of money to become a car OEM and that, in order to raise that money, he had to create and sustain excitement in investors even more than in clients. Another way to look at it is that at this prices, the purchase of Tesla stock is more irrational than the purchase of a Model S: the latter is a very good car, competitive in its market, while the stock is more of a bet (or a gamble) on future dividends that nobody knows if they will ever appear. Car sales and car fans are just instrumental to raise the money Tesla needs to reach the point where it will be self-sustainable: the gamble is that financial markets keep drinking the company’s kool-aid at least until the company becomes self-sustainable. If they stop drinking it too soon, it will be game over and an historical failure, if believers sustain the company long enough, it will be a masterpiece of entrepreneurship and a tremendous success.

A lot is at stake with the future of Tesla. The company is, in my view, the most important private sector clean technology purveyor out there. Elon Musk has almost single-handedly pushed EVs to the forefront of the public imagination, spurring other automakers to follow suit. He also is betting big on energy storage and its marriage with solar PV, which will be essential to decarbonizing the grid. Combined with electric transportation, Tesla’s technology deployment promises to help the world decarbonize at a much greater rate than we otherwise would.Tesla-Model-3

I don’t want to overstate it, but Tesla is making a strong claim to being in position to quite literally save the world (at least from out-of-control climate change).

So we need the company to succeed and raise the capital it needs for the deployment it envisions.  If Carlutti is to be believed, let’s hope Musk can keep stoking the imagination of investors — and more importantly, that he and his team can deliver on their big promise with the Model 3.  They’ll need a car that meets expectations at the right price and delivery time, without some of the quality issues plaguing the Model S.

It’s possible to do, but not certain.  Reason for us all to be nervously optimistic.

Sometimes Simple Technologies Can Make All The Difference In Fighting Climate Change

In the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, glitzy technology like solar panels and electric vehicles get a lot of attention.  But often times there are some simple and relatively cheap technologies that can make just as much difference, particularly when looking at the costs.

lg_a-a_outside_unitEnergy efficiency measures are a great example.  Conserving energy is just as powerful, if not more so, than buying emissions-free energy like solar power.  But it’s much cheaper.  Case in point: updating your cable box to take advantage of new efficiency features can save you a lot on your utility bill.

Now David Roberts at Vox.com flags another promising technology: the heat pump.

A heat pump is a “mechanical-compression cycle refrigeration system” that can serve as both a furnace and an air conditioner (indeed, many air conditioners are just one-way heat pumps). From manufacturer Trane:

Even in air that seems too cold, heat energy is present. When it’s cold outside a heat pump extracts this outside heat and transfers it inside. When it’s warm outside, it reverses directions and acts like an air conditioner, removing heat from your home.

Because it merely moves, rather than generates, heat, it is far more efficient than combustion furnaces.

They key feature for our purposes is that heat pumps run on electricity. When Siemens modeled shifting 80 percent of citywide heat consumption over from natural gas to electric heat pumps, emissions declined another 14 percent…

Switching natural gas appliances to electric will be critical in the long term to reducing emissions from buildings.  Right now, most furnaces and ranges are natural gas powered, but heap pumps can make the transition to electric heating much easier.  Then when you combine it with emissions-free electricity such as from solar power, you’ve suddenly got a major climate win.

My guess is that with the right policy-based incentives (rebates and cheap financing), we could greatly spur consumer adoption of these technologies and ultimately bring the price down as economies of scale kick in.  It would be a big win for the climate and potentially a cost-effective use of our resources.

Preventing Fully Autonomous Vehicles From Creating A Sprawl And Traffic Dystopia

Self-driving cars are already here.  Automakers and software companies are testing them like crazy, and people like Elon Musk predict that they could be the norm within a decade.

There’s a lot to like about the technology: it can potentially make car accidents a thing of the past, allow us to avoid the pain and stress of driving and instead do something productive with that time, and potentially free up a lot of space in our built environment that is presently dedicated to parking cars, particularly if we switch to on-demand type ownership models (the “Netflix of cars” approach).

But from an environmental perspective, there’s a huge potential downside.  If driving is made easy, the technology could encourage more driving and therefore more traffic.  Just imagine how convenient it might be for people to live far from their jobs if the commute can involve a robot driving for them while they nap or work on a laptop.

So what can policy makers do to head off this dystopia?  The solutions look a lot like what we need to do to address traffic and sprawl anyway, even without the new technology taking over:

  • First, we should stop investing in highway expansion projects and instead use available dollars to maintain existing roads and highways.  We shouldn’t build more capacity to accommodate endless self-driving traffic, which will only encourage more sprawl and congestion.
  • Second, we should build more alternatives to traffic, such as bus-only lanes, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and rail transit.  When we do build highways, we should include congestion pricing features, with the revenue reinvested in mobility options for that corridor.  With viable and plentiful alternatives to driving, people won’t opt for self-driving cars as readily.
  • Finally, and most importantly, we need to price transportation better to reflect the true costs.  If people truly want to live far from job centers and use self-driving to navigate long commutes, that’s fine.  But they should then pay for the costs to us all from the increased traffic and environmental degradation.  That means switching from a gas tax to a vehicle miles traveled, or fee-per-mile, tax.  As cars get more fuel efficient and transition to battery electric models, gas tax revenue will decline.  Self-driving car owners will then need to help pay for the infrastructure they’re using.

There are other policy options to consider, but these three would be a great start to heading off a potential nightmare scenario of self-driving traffic and sprawl misery.  And in the meantime, we can encourage the environmentally positive features of self-driving technology by encouraging more car- and ride-sharing business models and the development of “right sized” vehicles that fit the vehicle size to the trip.

In the end, it’s always better to be prepared for the future than overwhelmed by it.

How California’s Wealthy Cities Push People Out Into Poverty

Valley infillAs housing growth in big cities fails to keep up with job growth, the inevitable surge in home prices and rents creates a squeeze on middle income earners.  But it also pushes many of these individuals out to low-cost sprawl areas, whether it’s the San Joaquin Valley by the Bay Area or high desert or Inland Empire by Los Angeles.

The consequence of that migration is not just a major environmental toll, as these individuals commute long distances to job centers while sprawling out over open space and agricultural lands.  It’s also further economic inequality.  As California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) reports:

This data suggests [sic] that those who work in relatively inexpensive inland California have a harder time making ends meet than those working in high cost coastal areas. It further suggests that many workers are made worse off by moving away from high-wage places like the Bay Area. Why then do households (especially low-income households) appear to be leaving high-wage coastal areas? Based on the research discussed above and our office’s prior work, it seems likely that a major contributing factor is their inability to find housing.

Restrictive housing policies in high-wage areas therefore push people into poor areas of the state, where they remain poor as they lack access to good jobs.

It’s not a recipe for a healthy, functioning society in the long term.

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Ranking Cities By Percentage Of People Who Can Walk To Transit — DC And LA Score Poorly

Mission-Meridian-01_article_slideshow_01Successful rapid transit is not complicated.  The best systems have a high percentage of people in the region who can walk to the stations.  That means density, and that means density served by rapid transit.

Now the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy has quantified how cities around the world fare (no pun intended) in these measures. In a new study called “People Near Transit: Improving Accessibility and Rapid Transit Coverage in Large Cities” [PDF], report authors Michael Marks, Jacob Mason, and Gabriel Oliveira found that cities like Paris and Barcelona score well both for population densities and for percentage of regional residents who can walk to transit (within one kilometer).

But the story is more mixed in cities like Washington DC. While the DC Metro scores pretty well in percentage of people in the city who live near transit (57%), only 12% of people in the region as a whole live near transit, due to the severe traffic-inducing sprawl of the greater metro area. Los Angeles fares even worse, with only 24% within the city near transit, and 11% of the region as a whole (of course LA’s system is less built out than DC’s).

It’s a variation of the study we released at Berkeley Law last year with Next 10, ranking California rail transit stations in part by their walkability.

And the same conclusions should be drawn from both studies: regions need to build more housing around rapid transit, and they need to make sure rapid transit serves only the densely built environment.

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