Category Archives: smart growth
Redundant Rail Service In L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley Wastes Limited Transit Dollars

Los Angeles County is a big place, with lots of urban centers to connect with rapid rail transit. Funding is limited for these expensive trains, despite the passage of two recent sales tax increases and two others passed in 1980 and 1990 respectively.

So why is the region spending these limited dollars on two rail lines in the mostly suburban, auto-oriented, low-density San Gabriel Valley? The issue is now front-and-center with the June approval of a $1.4 billion extension of the Foothill Gold Line light rail to Montclair.

The problem is that the line dovetails with an existing Metrolink line, which is a diesel train for commuters into downtown Los Angeles. This map tells the story:

Image result for metrolink map gold line

The existing Gold Line extension to Azusa already is cannibalizing nearby Metrolink service, as Urbanize LA reported:

In a report prepared for the Planning and Programming Committee, Metro staff notes that there has been a precipitous drop in ridership at a nearby station on the San Bernardino Metrolink line. In the year since the completion of the extension, which Metro calls the Gold Line Extension Phase 2A, boardings at Covina station have fallen 25 percent, despite being several miles from the Gold Line terminus at Azusa Pacific University.

Even more worrying for the future of Metrolink’s highest ridership line is the Gold Line Extension Phase 2B, which will extend the light rail line from Glendora to Claremont, and with a potential contribution from the County of San Bernardino, across the County line into Montclair. Three of the new stations, in the cities of Pomona, Claremont and Montclair, will be built in the Metrolink right-of-way and have stations directly adjacent to their commuter rail counterparts, offering perhaps an alluring alternative to the existing service. While Gold Line trains will take about 15 minutes longer to travel from Montclair to Union Station, they will be far cheaper and offer service every 7-12 minutes for most of the day.

I discussed this issue with KPCC radio recently, explaining that the reason for this extra rail service is simply politics.  To secure two-thirds voter approval on the recent sales tax measures for transit, local leaders had to essentially buy off San Gabriel Valley leaders with a gold-plated rail line promise, even though the region doesn’t have the ridership to justify the expense.

That’s not to say that duplicative rail service is a bad thing by definition.  If the population and job density is sufficient, two rail lines in proximity can make sense.  But in this case, the density isn’t there.  Metro leaders should have stood up to the San Gabriel Valley and funded a right-sized transit line.  That would have most likely meant bus rapid transit and not light rail, which still would have been a big transit win for the region.

It may be too late to downsize the train route, but perhaps in the meantime Metro can develop adequate policies to ensure that San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire leaders encourage maximum densities along the route.  More dense development will not only give local residents more housing and commercial service options, it will provide more riders to minimize the losses on this unfortunate decision.

L.A.’s Radical Rail Transformation

David Dayen in the American Prospect has a long piece describing the “revolt” in Los Angeles against the automobile and how the city is transforming before our eyes:

In January, the city received $1.6 billion in federal support for the Purple Line, and Mayor Garcetti has asked the Trump administration for more, to move up subway completion from 2035 to 2024, in time for that year’s Summer Olympics, for which L.A. is one of the two finalists. “We have become the infrastructure capital of the world,” says Phil Washington. “With two NFL teams, a rail spur to that stadium, the possibility of the Olympics, it creates this economic bonanza, what I call a modern-day WPA [Works Progress Administration].”

The risk, as Dayen points out, is that the Trump administration will withdraw federal funds, leaving Los Angeles to pay for much of this transformation on its own and essentially backfill the missing the federal dollars.

But cities have gone that way before. The Bay Area, for example, largely built BART on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, as the federal government didn’t provide funding for rail transit at the time.

The difference now is that costs have gone way up, making it harder for a region like Los Angeles to fund this transformation without getting its share of federal tax dollars back to reinvest locally.

The article also rightly points out (with some quotes from yours truly) that the great unanswered question is whether the region will allow growth to follow this new transportation infrastructure. Poor land use decision-making is what got the region into the mobility and air quality mess its in. Only smart growth near rail transit will provide residents the option of a way out.

But the necessary transit backbone, as Dayen describes, is finally coming into place, giving local leaders a viable foundation for rebirth.

Cap-And-Trade Extension A Lifeline For High Speed Rail

Last night the California Legislature scored a super-majority victory to extend the state’s signature cap-and-trade program through 2030.  It was a rare bipartisan vote, although it leaned mostly on Democrats.  My UCLA Law colleague Cara Horowitz has a nice rundown of the vote and its implications, as does my Berkeley Law colleague Eric Biber on the bill.

Lost in the politics is what this means for high speed rail.  The system has a fixed and dwindling amount of federal and state funds at this point, and it’s relying on continued funding from the auction of allowances under cap-and-trade to build the first segment from Fresno to San Jose and San Francisco.

If the auction was declared invalid or ended at 2020 with depressed sales, the system would be in major jeopardy of collapsing before construction even finished on the first viable segment.  Now it has some assurance of access to funds.

But of course it’s not that simple.  The bill that passed yesterday has diminished available funds set aside for the programs that have been funded to date with cap-and-trade dollars.  As part of the political compromises, more auction money will now go to certain carve-outs, like to backfill a now-canceled program for wildfire fees on rural development.

And another compromise may put a ballot measure before the voters, passage of which would require a two-thirds vote for any legislative spending plan for these funds going forward.  That means Republicans — who generally hate high speed rail — would be empowered to veto future spending proposals.

Still, high speed rail once again has a lifeline, as do the other programs funded by cap-and-trade, such as transit improvements, weatherization, and affordable housing near transit.  It’s an additional victory beyond the emissions reductions that will take place under this extended program.

Doubling Down On L.A. Sprawl In The High Desert

Image result for high desert corridorJoe Mathews usually writes insightful columns about California’s economic and environmental challenges.  But he whiffed in yesterday’s piece in the San Francisco Chronicle extolling the virtues of the notorious “high desert corridor” freeway project in Southern California.

I’ve discussed the project briefly before, but it’s basically a gold-plated freeway.  It’s hardly different than any other that Southern Californians have been building for over a half-century now, all of which have combined to create the region’s current sprawl, traffic, and air quality problems.

This particular freeway would connect Palmdale with Apple Valley in the ecologically sensitive high desert north of urban Los Angeles, just over the San Gabriel Mountains formed by the San Andreas Fault (see map above and below). It would run about 63 miles, in a three-to-six-lane configuration.  That route is currently served by a slow-going, mostly two-lane highway through cities like Lancaster, Adelanto, Victorville, and Hesperia.

In terms of its environmental impacts, the freeway would allow those cities along the route and any new ones off the new freeway offramps to sprawl unobstructed over these desert sensitive lands.  The end result will be a continued spread of the urban megalopolis over the desert.

Image result for high desert corridorSo why is this freeway gold-plated? The project includes space for high-speed rail, an energy transmission line, and even a bicycle lanes in parts. Importantly, it would allow high speed rail (and many cars) to travel easily from Interstate 5 near the Grapevine to the San Joaquin Valley across the desert to Interstate 15 in Victorville and Apple Valley, en route to Las Vegas.

Despite the sprawl risk, Joe Mathews seems to be enamored of the project in part because of this rail connection.  But also because of the potential for easier goods movement:

Today, international trade is slowed in the L.A. Basin by the dense traffic in the seaports and on the streets. Advocates of the corridor say it could become a new “inland international port,” with logistics facilities, rail and local airports tied close together to move cargo. Such a port would allow the logistics industry to expand beyond the basin, bringing more jobs to the desert for local residents and shortening their commutes.

At the same time, the project could take traffic off of Los Angeles’ roads, while providing infrastructure to encourage more green technology and transportation. (On the less green side, supporters believe manufacturers will flock to the High Desert Corridor, because it is outside the basin and its air regulation.)

Mathews never once mentions the obvious concern with building yet another Southern California freeway: more inducement to build car-oriented sprawl, which leads directly to the exact challenges crippling Los Angeles: crushing traffic, poor air quality, and lack of open space. Not to mention a harsh quality of life spent car commuting all day.  And any temporary alleviation of traffic in urban Los Angeles to the south will just induce more driving, as we’ve seen happen over and over again.

For this reason, environmental groups like Climate Resolve oppose the project. They note that the environmental review on the project failed to account for this sprawl inducement. Instead, the state’s transportation agency simply assumed in the environmental review documentation that this exurban growth will happen anyway.  Conveniently, with that baseline in mind, this freeway (they argue) will in fact lessen traffic.

The story of Los Angeles should by now be obvious to everyone, especially Mathews: freeways don’t work at promoting smart land use, and they don’t alleviate traffic. They create more of it.  And they crush a region’s environment, mobility, and quality of life in the meantime.

This project, with the exception of the needed high speed rail connection, should be stopped immediately, and Los Angeles leaders should ensure no more funding goes to support it.

Rather than reading Mathews’ column on it, we’d be better served reading Einstein: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Tiny Homes In Hawaii Could Be A Large-Scale Solution For The Mainland

Hawaii’s energy and land use challenges are very much a postcard from the future for mainland USA. I’ve written before about how renewables and EVs in Hawaii are trend-setting for the rest of the country. But it’s true on land use, too.

Native Hawaiians are allotted homesteads on lands that were property of the dethroned Hawaiian crown. Yet many Native Hawaiian have waited years to be able secure lands and affordable homes. Now pre-fabricated, tiny homes may offer the solution, thanks to financing from the nonprofit Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.  Hawaii News Now covered the story recently:

Hawaii News Now – KGMB and KHNL

Why is this useful for the mainland? Here in California, high construction costs are part of the reason for our housing shortage. Prefabricated homes, like those in Hawaii, represent a promising way to bring down the costs and ensure more affordable and ample homes for everyone.

We’ve already seen the movement start to take hold, such as tiny apartments in San Francisco and Sacramento. And prominent developers like the Bay Area’s Rick Holliday have begun building modular homes for the likes of companies like Facebook, all to bring down construction costs but still deliver high-quality homes.

If it can work in Hawaii, it can certainly work across the country.

Turning Exclusive L.A. Golf Courses Into Public Parks

Malcolm Gladwell (author and reporter for the New Yorker) has an entertaining and informative podcast focused on the unjust public subsidies for fancy private golf clubs, particularly in Los Angeles.  He talks about how much land they take up within the urban landscape that is otherwise starved for public parks.

Perhaps more damning, he discusses at length the tax subsidies these exclusive, wealthy country clubs receive, primarily due to Prop 13.  At one point, he estimates that one of these expansive golf courses is sitting on land worth about $9 billion, which would have triggered property taxes of $90 million per year.  But under Prop 13, the country club pays $200,000 per year.

An admitted golf-hater, Gladwell would ‘gladly’ see these spaces converted to public use.

My only quibble with his piece is that while urban Los Angeles is park-starved, it actually has a huge amount of open space, from the beach to the nearby mountains.  Sure, not everyone has easy means to get to these locations, but they are otherwise transit-accessible and beautiful places that most cities around the country would love to have.

The podcast is definitely worth your time, whether you like golf or not.

How The Wealthy Use Zoning To Keep Their Families Rich

Richard Reeves, a U.K. native, takes Americans to task in a New York Times op-ed for pretending that we’re not a classless society.  He points out how the wealthy use local housing policies to protect their wealth, advantage their children, and prevent the lower classes from accessing educational and job opportunities:

Things turn ugly, however, when the upper middle class starts to rig markets in its own favor, to the detriment of others. Take housing, perhaps the most significant example. Exclusionary zoning practices allow the upper middle class to live in enclaves. Gated communities, in effect, even if the gates are not visible. Since schools typically draw from their surrounding area, the physical separation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods is replicated in the classroom. Good schools make the area more desirable, further inflating the value of our houses. The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes. For the upper middle classes, regardless of their professed political preferences, zoning, wealth, tax deductions and educational opportunity reinforce one another in a virtuous cycle.

It takes a brave politician to question the privileges enjoyed by the upper middle class. Recently, there have been failed attempts to make zoning laws more inclusive in supposedly liberal cities like Seattle and states like California and Massachusetts. The handout on mortgage interest appears to be an indestructible deduction (unlike in Britain, where the equivalent tax break was phased out under both Conservative and Labour governments by 2000).

Considering that zoning was essentially invented as a tool for racial exclusion and white supremacy back in the 1920s, Reeves’ argument is pretty damning. As America’s income inequality worsens, local housing policies that prevent new multifamily developments only exacerbate the problem, from a moral, economic and environmental standpoint.

Google Goes Infill, While Apple Goes Full Donut Sprawl

Perhaps a metaphor for their approach to innovation, Apple is fully embracing the sprawl office model of the past, while Google embraces the future with talks to build a downtown San Jose campus near rail.

Apple’s soon-to-open donut office.

The Apple “donut” campus (photo right), set to open soon in Cupertino, is a giant parking lot with an office building on top, no matter how many solar panels and EV charging stations the company boasts about adding.  It was Steve Jobs’ last vanity project, and at heart it’s firmly of the decade he was born — the auto-oriented suburban office campus of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, Google looks to be following other advanced tech companies, like Amazon, LinkedIn, and Salesforce, by exploring options for a high-rise, infill mixed-use office right next to the future high speed rail stop and current Amtrak and Caltrain depot in downtown San Jose.

Silicon Valley is an an absolute housing and traffic crunch, due to those cities’ willingness to permit office sprawl but no accompanying housing.  The choice by Apple will only reinforce that failed dynamic, while Google’s efforts show that the worker of tomorrow does not want to repeat the insanity.

Responding To Criticism Of UC Berkeley’s 2030 Housing Report

Jennifer Hernandez of the law firm Holland & Knight and John Gamboa of the Greenlining Institute criticized our recent UC Berkeley report on 2030 housing scenarios for California that could help meet the state’s long-term greenhouse gas goals.

Their piece in the Fox & Hounds website makes the hard-to-argue-with point that California policy makers should design climate policies — and particularly cap-and-trade — with an eye toward the costs on average Californians.

From my perspective, the state is already moving in that direction, with detailed assessments of the impacts of these programs on everything from gas prices to electricity rates.  The state is also mitigating the impact for residents, with “climate credits” on our electricity bills, a guaranteed set-aside of cap-and-trade auction revenue for disadvantaged communities, and greater electric vehicle rebates for low-income residents, among other efforts.

But sure, more could be done, and it’s smart to examine these policies critically.  Certainly from a pure political perspective, California’s climate efforts won’t retain support if they cause price and other shocks to residents.

So I’m all with Hernandez and Gamboa on the general point, although I think they fail to acknowledge how much care and analysis the state has already put into the programs involved.

But then the article singles out “Right Type, Right Place” report for criticism for being obtuse on the impacts of climate-friendly housing on everyday Californians:

In one recent report, for example, some of the most respected housing policy thinkers in the state make the case that if California could only build more high-density housing in a narrow subset of urban areas along the coast—where transit is already in place—greenhouse gas emissions from cars could be reduced by nearly two million metric tons per year, household utility bills trimmed by $5 a month, and monthly transportation costs lowered by $58. All while requiring people to spend only $38 more per month on rent—and less than $14,000 more for an average home.

Where do we sign up, right? What the study, like so many others, fails to account for is the social cost—and the economic unlikelihood—of this “infill-only” scenario actually coming to pass. The authors’ housing cost data doesn’t factor in the cost, for example, of relocating hundreds of thousands of people already living in existing lower-cost, lower-density homes in these areas. The study doesn’t account for the fast-growing fees many coastal jurisdictions are imposing to slow this very type of housing (as much as $100,000 per unit in some places). Nor does it account for the stark differences in the cost of land, which is between three and 10 times higher in coastal areas than inland California (and which is the biggest reason so many workers slog through three-hour commutes each day).

Most importantly, the study seems to accept the fact that this “preferred,” coastal-focused housing scenario will produce an average monthly rent of $2,702. Even without factoring in massive displacement, rising local exactions, and land costs that are likely to push development elsewhere, this number alone should give everyone pause. To pay that much rent, an “average” household would need to earn $97,200 a year! The median income in California today is only $62,000.

First, let’s look at the claim that our study limited development in the infill scenario to just a “narrow subset of urban areas along the coast.” One look at the map below of “purple” infill areas should dispel that characterization:

Sure, some of the purple areas are near the coast, but so is the vast majority of California’s population.  This map shows that there’s actually a lot of land that could meet the preferred criteria all around the state.

Second, while it’s true our report methodology didn’t include a way to measure “social costs,” our policy recommendations addressed concerns around gentrification and displacement from infill development.  And we offered ways to mitigate those impacts.

Third, the policy recommendations in the report also addressed the need to remove local barriers to housing in prime infill areas, such as the escalating fees on urban development that Hernandez and Gamboa mentioned.

Finally, Hernandez and Gamboa’s effort to compare the average rent in our infill scenario to median household income seems less important than comparing that rent amount to what Californians are actually paying today, when you combine average current household and transportation costs.  That would be a more interesting comparison.

I should also note that if California actually succeeded in building enough housing to meet population growth, as our scenario assumed but as is not happening in reality, my personal view is that the extra housing supply would stabilize prices and rents in these infill areas (although we didn’t model that effect in our report).

As a general response to this criticism, our report did not do a financial feasibility analysis of the scenarios, so I think critiques related to that lack of information are valid. But we were up front about missing that level of analysis and recommend that future research build on this work.  After all, this is the first comprehensive, academic effort to look at 2030 housing scenarios and how they can fit with the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.  This report is an important starting point for this discussion, and we hope others build on it.

But it’s not accurate to suggest we didn’t think about these “social” and other economic costs.  And this criticism also misses the added benefit of more infill housing for low-income residents which we also didn’t quantify: access to high-paying jobs in cheaper overall housing.  Right now, with lower-cost housing out in sprawl areas, these residents not only face long commutes at high cost to access good jobs, they’re contributing to environmental degradation for everyone.

Solving that problem would be an environmental and economic win-win for all of California’s residents.  And in any back-and-forth over details, we should not lose sight of that larger, more important point.


Budget Fight 2017 & Its Environmental Consequences For Transit And Clean Energy

With so much noise coming out of Washington DC these days, from phony bill signing ceremonies to endless provocative tweets and misinformation, it’s easy to lose sight of the real, consequential policy battles going on at the moment.

On the environment, the big battle in Congress will take place over the budget late this summer.  A temporary stopgap measure helped preserve funding for key environmental initiatives, such as clean energy research and transit projects like Caltrain electrification.  But that bill just kicked the can down the road to September, when the government must act to avoid a shutdown.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would zero out basically all environmental programs, including all new transit projects. I’m following the fate of clean energy research at the uber-successful ARPA-E in particular, at the Department of Energy:

September is now the new showdown date for the future of federally-funded breakthrough energy research in the United States. And if Trump has his say, the September fight could be waged in a higher-stakes, post-filibuster, 51-votes-to-pass-a-bill Senate. (Regardless, apparently, of any consequences for Republicans when Democrats next control the White House and/or Congress.)

On transit, the administration wants to end all federal support for urban transit projects, essentially ending a half-century of federal involvement in this area. As Transportation for America writes:

The administration reiterates their belief that transit is just a minor, local concern.

“Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects,” they write, making it clear that they see no benefit in providing grants to cities of all sizes to build new bus rapid transit or rail lines, or expand existing, well-used lines so they can carry more passengers.

The administration even uses the example of local cities approving their own funding measures for transit as a reason to discontinue federal support, when those local measures were actually sold as ways to leverage federal dollars in this longstanding partnership.

The good news is that many of these programs and initiatives have bipartisan support.  We saw that in action with the stopgap measure passed this spring.  But that support will be put to the test as we witness an assault on federal dollars for the environment and public health like we’ve never seen before.

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