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Congress Boosts Transit, Clean Tech & Energy Efficiency Funding

The new federal spending bill that just became law represents a big win for transit, clean technology and energy efficiency. Despite efforts by the administration to gut funding in all of these areas, a bipartisan majority in congress resisted.

Curbed covered the increased spending for transit:

The bill, which covers spending through the end of September, includes significant increases in transit funding. The Community Development Block Grant program, which many local governments have used to fund streetscaping, cycling, and pedestrian-friendly projects, would receive a significant boost, rising to $3.3 billion from the $3 billion allocated in 2017. Initially, President Trump’s budget called for eliminating the program.

In addition, the bill includes more money for Capital Investment Grants, which help pay for transit projects, increasing spending from $2.4 to $2.6 billion, and would allocate $1.5 billion for the TIGER Grant program, tripling the $500 million spent on the program in 2017. This Obama-era program has been a key tool used by state and local governments to fund new rail and transit expansions.

Notably, even Amtrak funding increased under the package.

Meanwhile, some of the most important research and clean energy programs at the Department of Energy were bolstered, as E&E reported [paywalled]:

Instead of eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, DOE’s innovation arm, the package increases funding to a record level of $353 million. The Weatherization Assistance Program, which Trump also wanted to kill, would get a more than $20 million boost to $248 million. The deal keeps state energy grants and the Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program intact.

It also would increase funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which Trump wanted to slash by more than half.

This is all good news, and it points to the bipartisan support for these key components of our climate mitigation strategies. There’s still a larger issue about the availability of long-term funding for these programs, given the massive deficits the federal government is running, particularly with the budget-busting tax cut passed last December. But for now, these programs are safe and even stronger, in a rebuke to the administration and transit and clean tech opponents.

Underneath Downtown L.A.: My Tour Of The “Regional Connector” Rail Tunnel
Image result for regional connector transit project map

Map of the regional connector. Staging area was by the 1st and Central station on the right.

What’s a transit line without a tunnel? For densely populated areas, digging a tunnel can bring badly needed new capacity to congested corridors, while promising quick speeds underneath crowded roads. Plus tunnels represent interesting engineering and construction projects.

So when Jody Litvak of LA Metro invited me for a tour of the regional connector tunnel last spring, I jumped at the chance. At the time, the regional connector was under construction underneath Downtown Los Angeles, as you can see in the map above. I wrote about tunneling in Railtown, my book on the history of Metro Rail (I actually devoted a whole chapter to construction). But I’d never seen it up close until this tour.

I met Jody and her team at the staging area near Alameda and 1st Street in downtown. Olga Arroyo helped arrange the details, Dick McClane was the lead tunnel operator, and Bill Hansmire, Gary Baker and Glen Frank came along for the tour. Dick helps control the tunnel boring machine from a command center that resembles a miniature air traffic control tower. He monitors and corrects the machine’s every moment, using a complex network of sensors.

Dick MacLane and I by the ‘command center’ for the tunnel boring machine (TBM)

Dick also helps oversee the workers who do the tunneling. They call themselves “miners” — not “tunnel stiffs,” as the original tunnelers called themselves who built Metro Rail back in the 1980s, as I wrote in Railtown. The work is not for everyone: the miners described to me how some first-time workers have panic attacks when they get in the tunnel and simply can’t do the work.

But the regional connector and other train tunnels are actually a luxury — in the tunneling world. Many tunnels they work on are tiny and go miles deep, such as for sewers or other pipe infrastructure. The workers have to journey in the whole way on a makeshift train, leaning over to speed through the narrow tunnel. By comparison, this was a big, convenient tunnel. But still, there’s no daylight down there, so it’s a challenging work environment, and the miners work long shifts — sometimes 24 hours, 5 days straight on multiple shifts (with downtime in between, of course).

Big pile of prehistoric dirt from underneath L.A.

As the tour kicked off, safety was a priority. We were outfitted with helmets and reflective gear and instructed on proper procedures in the tunnel. Upon approach, the first thing we saw was the multi-block, fenced-off project site. The main feature was a conveyor belt from the shaft below, bringing up dirt that probably hadn’t seen the light of day in centuries, to be hauled off to help bury landfills. It created a huge pile that was actually just a couple days’ worth of excavation (see photo to the left).

The crew used this staging area to avoid disruption to the community from truck traffic coming out of tunnel. All that dirt requires a lot of vehicles to move it out of the area. In fact, truck traffic could be a limiting factor on tunnel boring, even if Elon Musk and his “Boring Machine” could speed the physical tunneling process.

Also visible up above were stacks of preset concrete slabs to line the tunnels, along with temporary steel rails. The rails help bring materials in and out of the tunnel, as they are hoisted down by crane and brought into the tunnel by temporary rail cars to lay more track.

We then journeyed down from the staging area to the giant shaft in the shape of the eventual station box. It had steep, temporary stairs leading down to the future station bottom and tunnel entrance. At the bottom, we could start walking through the actual tunnel.

Temporary rail cars from down inside the future “station box” shaft.

Getting close to the tunnel, we could see lots of utility lines through pipes above us, including an old aqueduct from original the original Pueblo settlement. As the workers told me, these “station boxes” are where they find all the archaeological finds. Otherwise, the boring machine pretty much grinds everything else up (although evidently the formation that the tunnel passes through doesn’t typically have archaeological finds). For more on the archaeological finds in the tunnel, check out this article.

Inside the tunnel, it was hot with an odd smell. It was loud, too, particularly when workers dropped new 30-foot steel rails to the ground. The rails were needed for the temporary cars that brought in equipment. The tunnel boring machine (“TBM”) itself was probably about 100 yards long. In fact, it was so long, I was walking through it for a while without even knowing it.

The TBM is operated by four people: an operator, engineer, and mechanic, along with an MTA inspector. The machines have sensors everywhere and are extremely high-tech, monitoring the ground movement above. The software can automatically brake the TBM if the machine starts going in the wrong direction. The TBM uses pressure within the tunnel to maintain the pressure in the ground around the tunnel as it’s bored. That stabilization reduces, if not eliminates, both ground subsidence and gas seepage into the tunnel. For example, at the time of the tour, we were directly under a Japanese market in Little Tokyo. Hopefully, the patrons up above had no idea what was going on below. Sometimes TBM workers have to tunnel quickly through some parts of the city, like through certain soils that aren’t as solid.

Tunnel touring group in the Tunnel Boring Machine

Progress was steady: the miners were clearing about 80 feet in one day, at an average of 65 feet. They were starting with just the “left” bore for now, drilling it out for one mile, then hauling the tunnel boring machine (TBM) back to the project site and reassembling it for the “right” bore in the same direction, to create two tracks for the line. Overall, the first tunnel was set to take 5 months to go the whole 5,000 feet, 2 months to reassemble, and then another 5 months for the other tunnel.

In terms of cost, the tunneling represented only 10% of the total project cost. The station boxes are the other big chunk of change, particularly the future Bunker Hill stop, because it’s so deep.

Overall, it was an interesting opportunity to see digging in action. The project is scheduled to be finished in 2021. Once I ride it, I’ll end up whizzing through the section I walked. But I’ll now know how much work went into building it.

If you want more tunnel tour accounts, check out Curbed.LA from July and then again last month.

Struggling High Speed Rail Authority Needs Political Change To Save The System

The California High Speed Rail Authority released its 2018 draft business plan on Friday, and the news is not good. Not only have costs gone up with no new revenue in site, the authority now admits it’s unlikely to build any actual high speed rail service for at least a decade.

How did we get to this unfortunate place? Since voters originally approved a $10 billion bond issue to launch the system in 2008, two important events happened:

1) Central Valley representatives insisted the system start in the Valley, with no benefit to the coastal cities. While the system was originally billed as a quick way to serve Los Angeles and San Francisco, San Joaquin Valley representatives saw it as an opportunity to diversify and grow the Central Valley economies, by linking this largely impoverished part of the state to the thriving coastal cities. As a result, they insisted on starting the system in the Valley, where it would provide no benefit to the major population centers on the coasts. It’s the equivalent of starting LA Metro Rail in the suburban San Fernando Valley, or BART in the East Bay suburbs. Most train systems need to go back to voters for multiple rounds of funding. But in this case, voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco have no stake in the system. Had the system instead been started between San Francisco and San Jose and also between Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim (and up to northern Los Angeles County), there would have been something to show for the initial investment and more political support to complete it (and less litigation and opposition from the Central Valley residents).

2) Republicans took over Congress in 2010 and have since refused to return Californians’ tax dollars to the project. With that Tea Party election that year, Republicans withdrew the federal purse strings for the project. While the federal government is happy to pay 90 to 100 percent of the costs of new highways, and 50 percent of the costs for new rail transit, so far California residents have been on the hook for $17 billion of the roughly $20 billion in costs to date.

Nothing can be done about the first event, which is a mistake that the authority has since tried to rectify by dedicating some funds to improve Caltrain and Metrolink in the coastal cities.

The second event could potentially be remedied this November, if a “blue wave” removes Republican control of Congress. While President Trump could veto any subsequent infrastructure plans that funds high speed rail, he will have lost leverage at that point. And revenue to fund non-automobile infrastructure like high speed rail could come from sources like a new carbon tax, passed via reconciliation in the Senate.

Still, hoping for a political shift is not exactly a great business plan. In the meantime, the authority appears set to finish the 119 mile first segment in the Valley. Then, absent new revenue, they’ll probably hand it over to Amtrak to run regular diesel trains on it, biding time until political and economic fortunes change in the state and the country at large.

Why Are Prominent L.A. Rail Transit Leaders Trying To Torpedo Transit-Oriented Development?

Back in 2008, and then again in 2016, transit advocates in Los Angeles came together to get county residents to fork over $160 billion over 30 years in new sales taxes revenue for transportation investments. A sizeable chunk of that money goes to major transit capital projects, including new rail and bus rapid transit lines.

They successfully secured approval for these tax hikes with 2/3 voter support. But now transit ridership is plummeting in Los Angeles. It’s a nationwide phenomenon, but it’s particularly severe in L.A. While there a few ways to counter-act these trends, the most proven and sensible one is to boost transit-oriented development of all types.

Yet given recent public debate on SB 827, which would upzone residential areas within a few blocks of major transit stops, it’s clear that many of these advocates are not committed to the land use changes necessary to achieve this density. Despite SB 827’s promise to accomplish the very increase in residential density needed to support transit, they remain opposed.

So who are the culprits? Most prominently, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (who championed the 2016 measure) still refuses to support SB 827, despite the recent amendments to address his legitimate displacement concerns. Instead, he stated concern for the area’s single-family homeowners, professing a desire to “protect” these mostly affluent residents from mid-rise apartment buildings near major transit.

And it gets worse. Move LA, the organization that has probably done the most to launch these voter sales tax measures, actually came out against the bill in a joint letter with various community groups. This opposition comes after their executive director Denny Zane already helped sink a major transit-oriented project near an Expo Line station that would have added more than 400 hundred badly needed homes in the area, including 50 affordable units. His main concern at the time was too much car traffic.

Even Sierra Club California used the fear of these land use changes in SB 827 as a reason not to support the measure. Specifically, the organization wants to see a new rail transit line in Sacramento, even though the line will be a massive money-loser without more density around the stations.

Based on these transit advocates’ arguments, it seems clear that many are only focused on one thing: building new transit lines. They don’t seem to care how cost-effective they are, and in many cases they actively don’t want to see much new development around the stations — especially not market-rate housing, and especially not in “quiet” affluent areas that are benefiting financially from these publicly funded investments.

So despite SB 827 being one of the most important pro-transit measures put forth by the legislature in recent years, some key transit advocates seem unlikely to join a coalition in support.

It’s a disheartening — though clarifying — turn of events. What it means is that the help to save transit agencies from plummeting ridership may not come from advocates for expanding new lines. It will instead come from those who favor more density of homes near transit in general, which is apparently a distinct cause for many in the “transit advocacy” community.

Amendments To SB 827 Would Make It Expensive To Displace Rent-Controlled Tenants & Require Full Compensation

Some opponents of SB 827 (Wiener) — to essentially upzone residential areas adjacent to major transit stops — simply reject the idea of any new housing in their neighborhoods. Others are generally hostile to new market-rate development. But besides those non-helpful objections, the one compelling knock on the SB 827 approach is that the new residential development it would unleash could displace low-income renters.

There’s a clear moral objection to that happening. With the housing shortage and jobs boom leading to high home prices and rents everywhere, low-income residents of rent-controlled units will basically have no place affordable to go if they’re displaced. The bill shouldn’t force some of the most economically insecure and impoverished among us out of their homes.

And displacement also potentially undermines one of the key purposes of the bill: to boost transit ridership. Low-income people are more likely to use transit than higher-income people. So replacing them with market-rate renters or owners could be a loss for the nearby transit system.

That said, I do believe the concern is overstated, as low-income neighborhoods are not likely to be a prime target of developers risking capital on expensive multi-family buildings and needing a high return to justify the expense.

But still, we knew anti-displacement measures in SB 827 were coming, and yesterday Sen. Wiener introduced them. They essentially boil down to two things:

1) Explicit recognition that SB 827 does not preempt local policies preventing demolition of rent-controlled units or displacement of those tenants or requiring affordable units to be built with market-rate ones. This recognition is probably not needed legally, but it’s a handy reminder to critics that SB 827 takes nothing away from locals on the issues of affordability and displacement.

2) Making it expensive to displace residents of rent-controlled units.

This second approach is where the amendments get interesting. Basically, if any SB 827 project displaces these residents, the developer must honor a “Right to Remain Guarantee.” As Sen. Wiener explains in a blog post:

[The guarantee] must, at minimum, provide all of the following, at the developer’s expense:

  • All moving expenses for a tenants moving into, and out of, an interim unit in the area while the project is being built.

  • Up to 42 months of rental assistance that covers the full rent of an available, comparable unit in the area.

  • Right of first refusal for housing units in the new building, and offered with a new lease at the rent previously enjoyed by the tenant in their demolished unit.

So displacement could still happen, but only at significant expense and with displaced residents being “made whole” by the process. It’s essentially a quasi-market-based approach to discouraging displacement. It will incentivize developers to seek to redevelop properties that don’t have rent-controlled units on them to avoid these costs.

In addition, a separate amendment requires a local jurisdiction to adopt a demolition process for rent-controlled units if they don’t already have one, for any SB 827 project to occur.

It remains to be seen whether anti-displacement critics of the bill will be mollified by this approach. But I do think these changes make the bill stronger, without conceding too much of the market-rate development we still need for residents of all incomes in our state.

Why California Legislators Should Be Investigating High Gas Prices

Are oil companies gouging California drivers? And if so, why aren’t legislators looking into it? I blogged this past fall about UC Berkeley energy economist Severin Borenstein making the case for possible price gouging and how the California Legislature is not heeding his commission’s advice to investigate.

Borenstein is now back at it, in the face of continued legislative intransigence:

The extra payments since February 2015 have cost California drivers about $15 billion. And if the differential continues at its current level, which shows no sign of abating, it will cost Californians about $3 billion in 2018. Is that small potatoes?

What should California do about the mystery surcharge? First, set up a commission with real resources to investigate the cause. Give them the funding necessary to hire (or borrow from other parts of state government) the very best experts in the oil and gasoline supply chain, and in market economics and competition policy. Then give them the authority to examine all the confidential data from companies that city, county and state offices collect. And compel the executives at those companies to meet with this commission – not the trade association representatives or outside consultants they sent to PMAC meetings — and answer questions, behind closed doors if necessary to protect confidential or competitively-sensitive information.

What’s particularly peculiar about the legislative inaction on this topic is that legislators are about to face a political hammer for passing last year’s SB 1 (Beall), which raised the gas tax and vehicle license fees to help pay for backlogged repairs to our crumbling transportation infrastructure. In response, opponents are mobilizing a recall campaign against state senator Josh Newman of Orange County over the vote and also to repeal the legislation by voter initiative (the initiative would also prevent any new gas tax increases from passing without a vote of the people).

So why won’t legislators seize on this issue to 1) show that they care about high gas prices and 2) see if there truly is industry malfeasance taking place? If the latter, that would give them a pretty big political win to help defend the SB 1 measure. After all, wouldn’t voters be less likely to complain about a few extra cents in gas taxes for road repair when it’s the industry that is gouging them by much more? And in turn, it’s the legislature that has helped save drivers gas money through an investigation?

At the very least, it seems like both smart public policy and politics to heed Borenstein’s advice.

Automation Leading To Job Losses At California’s Ports

Automation has already helped wipe out many manufacturing jobs around the world, as robots now perform factory line tasks that used to be done by humans. Now the technology is starting to be deployed through self-driving vehicles in places like ports, with similar results.

KQED radio in San Francisco ran an excellent piece recently that describes the battle going on in Southern California’s ports. These critical areas of goods movement typically offer some of the highest-paying union jobs around for longshoremen. But a new project with automated, self-driving cargo vehicles and cranes has led to layoffs.

This video below, shot by one of the laid off workers at the Long Beach port, shows in stark terms both the promise of these amazing (and zero emission) technologies as well as the human cost (profanity included):

We certainly can’t turn our back on new technology that offers societal benefits, from cleaner transportation to cheaper goods. But we can’t be insensitive to the human costs from this deployment. One would like to think that the benefits will outweigh the costs, that the savings will help the economy overall to create more jobs, and that new jobs will be created to work on these automation technologies.

But we know there will be losers, and policy makers will need to devise ways to address what they’ve lost. Meanwhile, the trend will only intensify, as automation through self-driving technologies will eventually displace jobs from truck driving to airport shuttles to taxis, and everything in between.

Alameda Housing Debate — Tonight At 7pm

The Alameda Democratic Club is hosting a meeting tonight at 7pm with a panel on housing — specifically the challenges facing Alameda and the region from the statewide housing shortage. I’ll be one of the speakers on the panel, which features a wide range of viewpoints (including a member of the Alameda City Council):

  • Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, Alameda City Council
  • Victoria Fierce, East Bay for Everyone
  • Paul Foreman, Alameda Citizens Task Force
  • Catherine Pauling, Alameda Renters Coalition
  • Jose Cerda-Zein, Realtor

Members of the public are welcome, and it will be held at the Alameda Hospital, Second Floor Room A. I’ll be sure to discuss SB 827 (Wiener) and other policies needed to address the housing shortage. Hope you can attend!

Trump’s Puny Infrastructure Plan Seeks To Boost Privatization & Weaken Environmental Laws

The Trump Administration yesterday unveiled its long-heralded “infrastructure plan,” which Trump himself claimed would be a top priority in his 2016 election night speech.

While some headlines described it as a $1.5 trillion plan, it actually boils down to $200 billion in new spending, supposedly from offsetting savings elsewhere in the budget. And that $200 billion is conditioned on state and local government funding together with private investment. Think toll roads, which create a necessary revenue stream in order for the federal money to flow, as my colleague Dan Farber explained.

But even if the $200 billion didn’t have the privatization strings, it’s a drop in the bucket. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the current infrastructure backlog amounts to $4.59 trillion in needed investments by 2025, per Politico. $200 billion is therefore negligible (although arguably at least a start). But to make matters worse, his proposed federal budget seeks to gut other infrastructure spending programs on badly needed investments like new rail transit and Amtrak.

In addition, the infrastructure plan proposes putting a hard time limit on environmental reviews, ostensibly to weaken their efficacy. I’m definitely in favor of re-examining our environmental review processes, as I’m sure there are efficiencies that could be gained. But knowing the people involved in the Trump Administration and their record on the environment versus business interests, it’s hard not to be skeptical of this proposal.

Ultimately, a robust infrastructure bill without the privatization strings should have been passed during the last recession, when we needed the jobs and the construction and labor costs were much lower. Now we have a tepid proposal which mostly seeks to privatize public assets and weaken environmental laws, during a time when the economy is humming and construction costs are high.

My guess is the bill is either not going to pass Congress anywhere near its current shape, or it simply won’t be effective in spurring much infrastructure investment. Either way, the country has missed an important economic window for this needed investment, and now only has this relatively weak offering to show for it.

Cape Town’s “Day Zero” Water Shutdown Could Be A Postcard From A Climate Future

Image result for cape town reservoirCape Town, South Africa, a city of about 4 million people, is just three months away from having to shut down their water supply for residents, barring rain between now and then. Residents will then have to line up at 200 sites around the city to pick up a ration of 6 gallons of water per day per person.

How did this major city, which ironically won an international award for water conservation at the Paris UN climate talks in 2015, end up in this situation? Climate change-induced drought, a growing population, and poor planning are the major culprits. As Warren Tenney from Arizona Municipal Water Users Association explained:

Cape Town’s reservoirs are drying up. There is no precedent in their records for three consecutive years this dry. The extreme drought is compounded by a 79 percent growth in population since 1995, while water storage capacity increased only 15 percent. Plans for developing new water supplies, including a desalination plant, are behind schedule. Steps were not taken early enough to head off this slow-moving disaster. Cape Town is now trying to catch up by lowering water pressure in its distribution system and investing in a far-reaching public information campaign to conserve water. These actions have helped to cut the city’s daily water consumption by 45 percent. If Cape Town can reduce consumption yet another 25 percent, they may make it to the rainy season that is supposed to begin in May – if the drought eases and it rains.

Cape Town’s situation should be particularly alarming for California and other parts of the American West that only get rain during winter seasons. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate like California with long dry spells, plus a similar agricultural industry. Climate change is already contributing to major droughts on the West Coast, and our growing population could one day face Day Zero conditions as well.

What can be done? The obvious step is to encourage as much water conservation as possible, and use recycled wastewater as much as possible as well. Secondarily, we need to be smarter about our groundwater usage and ensure that we leave enough groundwater in our aquifers as possible (California’s 2014 groundwater legislation is for the first time spurring needed management of this resource here). And finally, we’ll need to explore options to boost supplies through desalination. But this costly and potentially polluting step should be a last resort, after conservation and recycling measures (my Berkeley Law colleague Mike Kiparsky is featured in this Wired article explaining the drawbacks of desalination).

These steps may help other jurisdictions avoid a Day Zero scenario — but for how long? As climate change takes us into unprecedented weather changes, even these actions may not be enough. But that’s no excuse for not trying or not planning.

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