High-speed Rail

Deal reached in Transbay Tower tax district showdown

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The deal almost sounds too good to be true. After threats of lawsuits, frantic backdoor dealmaking and a very harried week for the Board of Supervisors, a deal was finally reached yesterday on a dispute over taxes in the area around the new Transbay Terminal and the Salesforce Tower. 

The initial dispute started over the amount of taxes devlelopers around the new Transbay Terminal were required to pay for the project. A special tax district established in the area would require the developers to pay up to $1.4 billion for public infrastructure in the area, including San Francisco’s high-speed rail connection, in exchange for upzonings that allow them to exceed city building height limits.

This was a critical deal. That $1.4 billion sticker-shock is based on recent property values, which as any San Franciscan not living under a rock knows, have shot up with our housing boom. But the developers balked at the numbers, saying the higher taxes were not part of the original deal. The city, the supervisors, and the mayor disagreed, saying the original agreement was clear. At yesterday’s hearing, Sup. Jane Kim repeatedly hinted at a deal they had reached, saying “I’m excited for what we’ll be able to announce after the closed session.”

The stakes were high. If the developers managed to stall the deal, they may have managed to not pay any of these taxes at all.

“When I woke up this morning, I said there’s no way I’d let this stall,” Sup. Scott Wiener, who has taken the lead on trying to hold the developers to the original deal, told us.

But the deal actually turned out to be pretty rosy for the city, he said, at least at first blush.

The developers will still end up paying up to $1.4 billion (officials say the actual figure will be closer to $1 billion) in the special tax district, but now will pay over 37 years instead of 30, allowing them to make smaller payments. The developers would also be bound to a later vote, further cementing the tax deal. The developers may also forefit their right to sue the city over the negotiations. 

Pressure on the supervisors was strong. At yesterday’s hearing on the tax deal, advocates and developers alike showed up in force. Patrick Valentino, a staunch advocate of market-rate housing development in the city, reminded the supervisors that the initial agreement wasn’t exactly mystifying.

“It was made very clear in (the initial contract) that the fees could go up and down based on the market,” he said. “We certainly aren’t spending millions of dollars for just a bus station.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, threw some barbs the supervisors’ way as well. There’s no time for waffling,” he told them, in public comment. He then made an argument for the high developer fees. “Why don’t people make 1,000-foot skyscrapers in the Nevada desert? There’s no society there, no infrastructure, no water. The value for the land is created by the infrastructure from the Bay Area’s pockets, which added billions of dollars to downtown land. We need more capacity.”

But supervisors didn’t waffle, and a deal was reached.  But to be clear, it is still preliminary, with the devil in the myriad details.

The Board of Supervisors issued a continuance on the final vote for the deal for two weeks, in order to give Mayor Ed Lee and the developers time to cement all the details. 

So far, the deal looks great, Wiener said. “It’s not even a compromise,” he told us. “The phrase I used was, ‘this is too good to be true.'”

But, he said, “We’ll learn new details in two weeks.”

Defend the deal

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EDITORIAL Creating a functional and equitable San Francisco for tomorrow requires political will and foresight today. Do our current political leaders have the requisite courage and commitment to the broad public interest, or are they too willing to give away the farm to powerful private interests wielding promises or threats?

This week at City Hall, there was a fascinating test case for these questions, one that we laid out on Sept. 8 on the SFBG.com Politics blog (“Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail”). In a nutshell, it involves developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco reneging on promises to pay for vital public infrastructure, which they made in exchange for lucrative upzoning of their properties.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they hired top political fixer Willie Brown to make their case to politicians, including those he helped bring to power, giving him a cut of whatever money this shakedown can shake loose. The Board of Supervisors was set to consider the issue after the Guardian press time for this issue, so check our Politics blog for what happened, but there a few observations we can make without even knowing what the outcome was.

This power play would never happen unless these developers and their allies — including Salesforce, which has leased most of the Transbay Tower, what would be the tallest building on the West Coast — thought they had a reasonable chance of success. And given how the Mayor’s Office seems willing to give developers and business leaders whatever they want, it seems likely that this lobbying effort will more than pay for itself, to the detriment of the public.

Mayor Ed Lee isn’t a political leader, he’s really just the city’s chief administrator, a role he’s been playing since Brown was mayor and that he continues playing since Brown helped put him into Room 200. Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa, another loyalist to Brown and downtown, dishes out discipline to supervisors who don’t toe the line.

City leaders should be willing to play hardball, stick to the original deal, and call the bluff of these developers, even if that means risking that these towers might not get built in their proposed form and timeline. Yes, that strategy might involve some legal liability, but these massive towers were always proposed as a means to an end.

San Francisco doesn’t need a 1,000-foot office building. But given its commitment to rebuild the Transbay Terminal, it does need to ensure that expensive project includes 21st century rail service connecting to the rest of the state, as well as the open space and neighborhood amenities that these developers should fund.

Equally important, San Francisco needs to show that it’s not for sale, that it won’t be bullied, and that its leaders are looking out for more than their own political interests.

Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail

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Will the San Francisco Board of Supervisors let developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco renege on promises to help pay for the Transbay Terminal reconstruction, extension of rail service to that site, and other public amenities? Or will Willie Brown successfully use politicians that he helped get into office — most notably Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim — to let the developers keep hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits?

The answers to those questions will become clearer tomorrow [Tues/9] as the board considers a complex yet crucially important agenda item. It involves creation of a special tax district around the Transbay Terminal, where office tower developers have been awarded huge upzonings — including the Transbay Tower, which would be the tallest building on West Coast at more than 1,000 feet — in exchange for paying for public works projects to serve the area.

But those developers, including Hines, Boston Properties, TMG, and others (it’s not clear whether all six upzoned parcels are participating in the current lobbying effort and threatened lawsuit), are now objecting to paying about $1 billion in special taxes and seeking to get that amount lowered to about $400 million. And to do so, they’ve already paid Brown at least $100,000 just this quarter, kicking off a lobbying effort so intense that Brown has finally registered as a lobbyist after questionably resisting it for many years.

Leading the charge against that effort is Sup. Scott Wiener, who said the promised payments are crucial to paying for about $200 million in work on the Transbay Terminal and paying for the first $450 million of the $2.5 billion project of bringing high-speed rail and electrified Caltrain trains into the facility, as well as a promised public park on top of the terminal.

“The downtown extension is one of the most important transportation projects we will deliver in the foreseeable future. It’s a legacy project with huge benefits for San Francisco and the entire state,” Wiener told us. “We have to go to the mat to get it built, and a reduction in this assessment will significantly undermine our ability to deliver the project and get the train downtown. The last thing we need is a very expensive bus station with no train service.”

The developers and their spokespeople (including the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross, who announced Brown’s involvement in the project this summer) argue that their fees have gone up substantially since the plan was first hatched in 2007 and fleshed out in the 2012 Implementation Document (which relied on 2007 land values).

That’s true, but that’s mostly because the value of the properties have shot up in recent years (incidentally, so have the costs of bringing the trains downtown), which also makes the projects far more lucrative for the developers. And Adam Alberti, who represents the Transbay Joint Powers Agency, notes that the tax rate hasn’t changed: it’s still the same 0.55 percent of assessed value that it’s always been.

“The rate is exactly the same, 0.55 percent, but the difference is the land valuations,” Alberti told us.

When the rates were formally set this year by the Rate and Method of Appointment (RMA) document, based on detailed studies of the properties and the district, it did charge the tallest buildings a little more than the shorter ones, under the logic that penthouses are more profitable (for example, the Saleforce lease of most of the Transbay Tower is rumored to be the largest commercial office deal in city history).

But the paper trail of documents and conditions for the four projects that have so far been awarded their entitlements always indicated such details would be hashed out by RMA. Indeed, when the city responded to the developers’ legal threats with a 14-page letter on July 14, it meticulously dismantled the convoluted claims by the developers that there’s been some kind of bait-and-switch here.

Still, the developers have been aggressively working the corridors of power in City Hall trying to get their fees reduced.

“Having not received any of the relief that the the Land Owner sought, the Land Owner is now forced to formally protest the formation of the CFD [Community Financing District], the levying of special taxes pursuant to the RMA, and the incurrence of bonded indebtedness in the CFD,” Boston Properties (which has not returned our calls for comment) wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to the city, which prompted Kim, the district supervisor, to continue the item for one week.

The decision to employ Brown upped the ante on this power struggle, given that Brown (who also didn’t return our calls) helped engineer Mayor Lee’s appointment to office in 2011 and worked behind-the-scenes to help Jane Kim beat progressive challenger Debra Walker the year before. Since then, Kim (who didn’t return our calls for comment) has helped do Brown’s bidding a couple of times and made misleading statements about their relationship.

Kim will be a central figure in this unfolding drama, given that it’s taking place in her supervisorial district. Her predecessor, Chris Daly — who says that he’s already been burned once by Hines (which also wouldn’t comment), which he said broke a promise for another $100 million in fees to the TJPA — said the current lobbying effort is essentially a raid on the public coffers that endangers an important project.

“The last redeeming thing about Willie Brown was his unwavering support for Transbay Terminal,” Daly told us, “and now that’s gone too.”

Unfortunately, the complexities of this deal might make it difficult for the general public to digest just how it changes, particularly as they are engineered by Brown, a legendary political dealmaker who spent decades as speaker of the California Assembly before becoming mayor of San Francisco.

But Daly said this project is crucially important for Kim’s district, and it’ll be intriguing to see what happens: “I don’t think she can make a bad vote, but behind the scenes, I’m not sure how much she can stand up to Willie Brown.”  

If the board approves the special tax district and the RMA tomorrow, then the affected property owners will vote on whether to create this Mello-Roos District in December, with a two-thirds vote required for passage. The projects can’t proceed with their current entitlements unless such a district is created, so the effort now is to slash the payments that such a district would require.

“Smart development means, among other things, making sure that development pays for supporting infrastructure,” Wiener told us. “The creation and upzoning of this district were explicitly linked to to funding the transit center and the downtown train extension. By upzoning these properties, we provided the developers with massive additional value and, in fact, the properties have exploded in value. The transit assessment needs to reflect those current property values, not values from the bottom of the recession.” 

[UPDATE: Sup. Kim returned our calls this evening and said this was a difficult issue, but that she wants to defend the city’s stance. “At this point we’re in a legal dispute, an impasse,” Kim told us, noting that she supports the fee structure from the RMA rather than earlier estimates. “The city was very clear those rates were illustrative.”

She said this isn’t simply about getting more money for the Transbay Terminal projects, but holding developers accountable for the upzoning they received. “The question isn’t what is the most money we can extract from the developer,” she said. “The question is: What did we agree to?”

Kim said she has met with Willie Brown about the issue, but she isn’t feeled pressured by him or the developers he’s representing. “Are they making threats? No,” she said. “I didn’t feel pressure at the meeting.”

But she did say she’d always be willing to hear out Brown’s side of the story. “He can just pick up the phone and call me,” she said.

Tomorrow’s meeting will include a closed session discussion of the issue, given its potential for legal actions. As for whether she and other supervisors may be swayed by the legal threat to settle on a lower fee amount, she told us, “That’s what the closed session is for.”

Kim indicated she intends to support the fees the parties originally agreed to. “I think the rates were set clearly,” she said. 

But we may have to take that promise with a grain of salt. Kim has sometimes talked tough, only to compromise later on, as she did with her Housing Balance legislation. After tomorrow’s closed session, we’ll see if her vote is as fiery as her rhetoric. ]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report. 

Carmageddon cometh

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STREET FIGHT

San Francisco — already overwhelmed with private automobiles — faces a grim future of gridlock unless there is a radical change in how we think about city streets, parking, and regional transportation.

The facts are clear. Every day there are 1.7 million private car trips to, from, or within the city, according to the city’s transportation plan. Coupled with almost 10,000 vehicles registered per square mile, San Francisco today has one of the densest concentrations of cars on the planet, more than any peer city in the United States. In the business-as-usual scenario, the streets are forecast to absorb another half-million car trips. By 2040 there will be 2.2 million car trips on the exact same street grid we have today.

This is madness and it is dysfunctional for everyone. If you think Muni is unreliable now, it will be useless in 2040 as it stalls in the morass of 2.2 million car trips jammed onto city streets. Pedestrian injuries and deaths will rise with another 160 cars hitting pedestrians annually, simply due to oversaturation of automobiles. Cyclists might be able to weave around the stalled traffic, but it will be an ugly scene that fouls the air. Motorists will be stuck in their own gridlock, evermore impatient, distracted, honking, lurching through blocked intersections, sneaking through yellow lights, blocking crosswalks, double parking, and irritated with fellow drivers and everyone around. No one will be happy

This does not have to be. The city’s transportation agency hopes to reduce car trips from 1.7 to 1.6 million by 2018, a modest goal but barely holding the line. Reducing existing car trips by 100,000 while also adding thousands upon thousands of housing units and jobs, most coming with more parking, will quickly undo this humble ambition. The city can do more and the data shows us that there are many opportunities.

Consider that 68 percent of car trips within San Francisco are less than three miles. That’s 650,000 car trips per day that are generally pretty short — with a bicycle it’s less than a half-hour ride on relatively even terrain. If the city were able to get half of those car trips to switch to bicycle trips, it would be well on its way to averting carmageddon.

A more ambitious goal, increasing cycling to 20 percent of all trips, is the official city policy adopted by the Board of Supervisors. That’s 500,000-600,000 trips by bicycle every day, most of which can take place within that three-mile range, especially if cleverly arranged “wiggles” (level routes circumventing steeper hills) are laid out on the most logical corridors. But to carry that many cyclists, real space has to be allocated for them.

Out at San Francisco State University, where I teach a new Bicycle Geographies course that aims to increase cycling to the campus, there is tremendous opportunity to shift these kinds of short trips to bicycling. For students, faculty, and staff, bicycling is compatible with rapid transit, particularly for the “last mile” segments, such as between BART and SF State.

Bicycling is also a way to relieve local bus and light rail transit crowding — the 28 bus line on 19th Avenue, for example, is often jam packed and the city has only modest goals to improve that key line. Unlike transit or highways, bicycles do not require costly, long-term capital investment or operating funds and so can be deployed much more quickly.

It will be decades and cost hundreds of millions to improve the M-line, only now in the planning phase. We can lay down cycletracks much more quickly. Bicycling is also among the most equitable forms of urban transportation because it is affordable and accessible to almost everyone. This is obviously relevant to working-class students at SF State.

SF State has a memorandum of understanding with the city that obliges the university to reduce drive-alone automobile trips to campus, and the campus will not build any more car parking. With 4 percent of commute trips to SF State by bicycle (and only 2 percent among faculty) there is potential to increase the mode-share of bicycling as a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and auto trips.

The spatial proximity to Daly City and Balboa Park BART stations, as well as the Excelsior and Sunset, all under three miles from campus, means that the bicycle is well-suited to be a substitute for many short-range automobile trips and help the campus meet its goals. Yet what my students have found this semester is that it is all but impossible to bike safely to and from SF State, and the southwestern quadrant of San Francisco is largely left out of current bicycle planning in the city.

Taking multiple bicycle field trips over the past few months, we surveyed the opportunities for making safe routes to campus and envisioned what it would take to increase cycling to 20 percent of trips to and from SF State. Starting with the Balboa Park station, which is next to a deplorable tangle of freeway ramps, we ask what it would look like if fully-separated cycletracks were built on Geneva or Ocean avenues. These could connect City College and the Excelsior, and by way of a westward and southward jog, to a bicycle boulevard on Holloway Avenue, enabling a safe and convenient, 1.7-mile, 15-minute bike ride to SF State. Expanding the nascent Bay Area Bike Share to connect SF State and Balboa Park BART would create even more opportunity for cycling.

To the south of SF State, Daly City BART is a 1.4-mile, 10-minute bike ride that is daunting and poorly signed. It could be made safe and inviting with bicycle boulevards on streets parallel to traffic-clogged 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra. Borrowing from signature bicycle and pedestrian bridges in Pleasant Hill and Berkeley, perhaps there is an opportunity to build a bridge across Brotherhood Way toward the BART station, leveling an otherwise steep climb that discourages cycling.

To the north of campus, describing the designated 20th Avenue bicycle route as “a bit of a challenge” is an understatement. Cyclists must thread a cluttered shopping mall parking lot and overbuilt wide streets, and then confront a median blockading the way across Sloat Boulevard. While the megaproject to improve the M-line could include a cycletrack on this stretch of 19th Avenue, we should not wait a generation to increase cycling between SF State and the Sunset. The 20th Avenue route can be made welcoming now, with a fully-separated cycletrack and fixes on the Sloat intersection.

SF State, probably one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, has highly motivated students seeking real solutions to the huge problems society faces. The students are coming of age under extreme pressure of economic inequity and ecological duress, but they also see ways out of the mess created by the wasteful car culture and its linkages to ecological and social problems. They want to act now, and unlike past generations, they are shunning driving and many of them desire to reside in livable cities that offer choices for how they get around.

But what we have found this semester is that the campus is extremely isolated, difficult to access by bicycle, and walled-off by car sewers. Older, uninviting bicycle lanes are fragmented, disjointed, and seem to be an afterthought. With imagination, ingenuity, and political will, this can be remedied with bicycle improvements that cost far less than adding more car lanes and parking to the campus or surrounding area. And this would go much further at improving quality of life for neighbors who now have to put up with campus-generated traffic. Keeping the status quo, which means even more car trips but within the same space, is a dead end.

 

TRANSBAY DREAMS

Speaking of dead ends, San Francisco seems to specialize in dead-end train projects. The Central Subway, which is experiencing cost overruns and possible mismanagement, is one of these dead ends. There is no current option to have trains exiting to Geary or onto Columbus and possibly running on Lombard into the Marina, and that is a shame. Having the subway exit to the surface is probably the only way to make this project worthwhile.

There’s another dead end train project at the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco. Yet unlike the Central Subway quagmire, I am impressed with the scale and possibilities for the Transbay Terminal project and there is opportunity to fix this dead end. Going back to the city’s business-as-usual traffic forecast, in 2040 car trips into the city from the Bay Bridge would increase 18 percent, and by 21 percent from San Mateo County. Aside from scratching my head wondering where exactly all of these cars are supposed to go, we simply need to stop this onslaught before the city becomes too dumb to move.

BART cannot solve it alone, as it will probably approach half a million riders per day by 2016, placing many downtown stations at or near capacity. BART also does not run all the way down the peninsula. Sometimes there are back-of-the envelope proposals to build a second BART tunnel under the bay, but this idea should be weighed against another idea. Rather than build a second BART tunnel to Oakland, how about a joint Amtrak California/Caltrain tunnel under the bay, and creating a true Grand Central Station of the West at Transbay? Let’s punch through the dead end currently planned for the east end of the Transbay Terminal “train box” and truly connect Northern California by rail.

This does not need to be high-speed rail, but rather the conventional, off-the-shelf electric rail already planned for Caltrain, of the variety that operates in the Northeastern US and much of Europe — efficient, high capacity trains that can travel 100-120 mile per hour comfortably and safely. In conjunction with a new transbay rail tunnel, the Capitol Corridor should be electrified and right of way captured from the freight railroads. One could take an electrified “baby bullet” from San Jose, through San Francisco, and continue to the East Bay and Sacramento. As Caltrain is electrified to the south, let’s also electrify the Altamonte Commuter Express trains, bring them across a rebuilt Dumbarton Bridge, and run high-frequency rail service into the new Transbay Terminal.

Understanding that this will take time to build, in the short term the Bay Bridge should be reconfigured to have bus-only lanes (and a bicycle lane on the bottom deck of the west span) and a greatly expanded AC Transit service that can relieve the looming BART crowding to the East Bay.

How to pay for these transbay dreams? A transbay rail project could get funding from Amtrak and other federal sources, requiring our congressional delegation to work for it. The state gasoline tax or eventual carbon taxes, and revenue from tolling Bay Area freeways, should be in the mix. The 101 and 280 should be tolled as well as the Caldecott Tunnel and I-80 in the East Bay, with revenue directed at electric rail in the long term and regional buses short term. And while people are talking about reforming Proposition 13 to end the artificially low property taxes on commercial land, let’s remember that transit — whether Muni, BART, or Caltrain — brings massive value to commercial property owners. They should be realistically expecting to pay in. In short, there are possibilities and ways to do this.

Here’s one small additional idea for raising seed money: In the wake of the Google bus controversy, the SFCTA, SFMTA, SF Planning Department, and City Attorney’s Office should assemble a crack team of California Environmental Quality Act experts and send them (on Caltrain and bike share!) down to comment on every large-scale suburban office project proposed in Silicon Valley. For example, Mountain View, where Google has its campus, is effectively displacing part of its transportation and housing responsibility to San Francisco.

As part of the CEQA mitigation for these suburban office projects, San Francisco ought to be demanding that Google/ Mountain View contribute to paying for the Transbay Terminal and electrifying Caltrain (a separate fund would be directed to affordable housing as mitigation for displacement). This is a similar line of reasoning to the May 1 lawsuit against the Google bus pilot, but it draws in those responsible for the poor planning in suburban sprawl. Regardless, the city ought to take a look at a CEQA mitigation angle for addressing the impacts these suburban decisions are having on the city.

 

PRAYING FOR ENLIGHTENMENT

One last point about transit finance: I sure hope Mayor Ed Lee, his political advisors, and all those religious ministers who complained about paying for metered parking on Sundays (see “Politics over policy,” April 22) have a plan to advocate for the November ballot proposals to help finance Muni.

They sold out sustainable transit advocates, their biggest ally on the November ballot initiatives, and have offered no rational explanation for their strategy, just an emotional hunch that somehow some people can’t cope with Sunday metering, and that making it free again will convince them to support increased public transit funding.

I imagine there is a well-thought-out campaign strategy, whereby every Sunday between now and November, the mayor is visiting all the churches in the city, and cajoling the ministers to use their pulpits to enthusiastically preach the merits of increasing the vehicle license fee (as well as approving a related general obligation bond).

After all, the VLF is a progressive tax — the more expensive your car, the more you pay. The older and cheaper your car, the less you pay. And bringing in $73 million annually would contribute to making God’s green earth cleaner, and help transport God’s children safely to work and on their errands. Praise the Lord and free parking on Sunday! Amen.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a geography professor at SF State and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.

Guardian endorsements

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OUR CLEAN SLATE VOTERS GUIDE TO TAKE TO THE POLLS IS HERE.

 

Editor’s Note: Election endorsements have been a long and proud part of the Guardian’s 48-year history of covering politics in San Francisco, the greater Bay Area, and at the state level. In low-turnout elections like the one we’re expecting in June, your vote counts more than usual, and we hope our endorsements and explanations help you make the best decisions.

 

GOVERNOR: JERRY BROWN

There is much for progressives to criticize in Jerry Brown’s latest stint as governor of California. He has stubbornly resisted complying with federal court orders to substantially reduce the state’s prison population, as well as shielding the system from needed journalistic scrutiny and reforms of solitary confinement policies that amount to torture. Brown has also refused to ban or limit fracking in California, despite the danger it poses to groundwater and climate change, irritating environmentalists and fellow Democrats. Even Brown’s great accomplishment of winning passage for the Prop. 30 tax package, which eased the state back from financial collapse, sunsets too early and shouldn’t have included a regressive sales tax increase. Much more needs to be done to address growing wealth disparities and restore economic and educational opportunity for all Californians.

For these reasons and others, it’s tempting to endorse one of Brown’s progressive challenges: Green Party candidate Luis Rodriguez or Peace and Freedom Party candidate Cindy Sheehan (see “Left out,” April 23). We were particularly impressed by Rodriguez, an inspiring leader who is seeking to bring more Latinos and other marginalized constituencies into the progressive fold, a goal we share and want to support however we can.

But on balance, we decided to give Brown our endorsement in recognition of his role in quickly turning around this troubled state after the disastrous administration of Arnold Schwarzenegger — and in the hope that his strong leadership will lead to even greater improvement over his next term. While we don’t agree with all of his stands, we admire the courage, independence, and vision that Brown brings to this important office. Whether he is supporting the California High-Speed Rail Project against various attacks, calling for state residents to live in greater harmony with the natural world during the current drought, or refusing to shrink from the challenges posed by global warming, Jerry Brown is the leader that California needs at this critical time.

 

LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR: GAVIN NEWSOM

Gavin Newsom was mayor of San Francisco before he ascended to the position of Lieutenant Governor, and we at the Bay Guardian had a strained relationship with his administration, to put it mildly. We disagreed with his fiscally conservative policies and tendency to align himself with corporate power brokers over neighborhood coalitions. As lieutenant governor, Newsom is tasked with little — besides stepping into the role of governor, should he be called upon to do so — but has nevertheless made some worthwhile contributions.

Consider his stance on drug policy reform: “Once and for all, it’s time we realize that the war on drugs is nothing more than a war on communities of color and on the poor,” he recently told a crowd at the Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles. “It is fundamentally time for drug policies that recognize and respect the full dignity of human beings. We can’t wait.” In his capacity as a member of the UC Board of Regents, Newsom recently voted against a higher executive compensation package for a top-level administrator, breaking from the pack to align with financially pinched university students. In Sacramento, Newsom seems to come off as more “San Francisco” than in his mayoral days, and we’re endorsing him against a weak field of challengers.

 

SECRETARY OF STATE: DEREK CRESSMAN

Although the latest Field Poll shows that he has only single-digit support and is unlikely to make the November runoff, we’re endorsing Derek Cressman for Secretary of State. As a longtime advocate for removing the corrupting influence of money from politics through his work with Common Cause, Cressman has identified campaign finance reform as the important first step toward making the political system more responsive to people’s needs. As Secretary of State, Cressman would be in a position to ensure greater transparency in our political system.

We also like Alex Padilla, a liberal Democrat who has been an effective member of the California Senate. We’ll be happy to endorse Padilla in November if he ends up in a runoff with Republican Pete Peterson, as the current polling seems to indicate is likely. But for now, we’re endorsing Cressman — and the idea that campaign finance reform needs to be a top issue in a state and country that are letting wealthy individuals and corporations have disproportionate influence over what is supposed to be a democracy.

 

CONTROLLER: BETTY YEE

The pay-to-play politics of Leland Yee and two other California Democrats has smeared the Assembly. Amid the growls of impropriety, a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting has painted Speaker of the Assembly John Perez, a leading candidate for Controller, with a similar brush. CIR revealed Perez raised money from special interest groups to charities his lover favored, a lover later sued for racketeering and fraud.

Betty Yee represents an opportunity for a fresh start. On the state’s Board of Equalization she turned down campaign donations from tobacco interests, a possible conflict of interest. She also fought for tax equity between same-sex couples. The Controller is tasked with keeping watch on and disbursing state funds, a position we trust much more to Yee’s careful approach than Perez’s questionable history. Vote for Yee.

 

TREASURER: JOHN CHIANG

While serving as California’s elected Controller, John Chiang displayed his courage and independence by refusing to sign off on budgetary tricks used by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some legislative leaders, insisting on a level of honesty that protected current and future Californians. During those difficult years — as California teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, paralyzed by partisan brinksmanship each budget season, written off as a failed state by the national media — Chiang and retiring Treasurer Bill Lockyer were somehow able to keep the state functioning and paying its bills.

While many politicians claim they’ll help balance the budget by identifying waste and corruption, Chiang actually did so, identifying $6 billion by his estimate that was made available for more productive purposes. Now, Chiang wants to continue bringing fiscal stability to this volatile state and he has our support.

 

ATTORNEY GENERAL: KAMALA HARRIS

Kamala Harris has kept the promise she made four years ago to bring San Francisco values into the Attorney General’s Office, focusing on the interests of everyday Californians over powerful vested interests. That includes strengthening consumer and privacy protections, pushing social programs to reduce criminal recidivism rather than the tough-on-crime approach that has ballooned our prison population, reaching an $18 billion settlement with the big banks and mortgage lenders to help keep people in their homes, and helping to implement the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.

Harris has maintained her opposition to the death penalty even though that has hurt her in the statewide race, and she brings to the office an important perspective as the first woman and first African American ever to serve as the state’s top law enforcement officer. While there is much more work to be done in countering the power of wealthy individuals and corporations and giving the average Californian a stronger voice in our legal system, Harris has our support.

 

INSURANCE COMMISSIONER: DAVE JONES

We’ve been following Dave Jones’s legislative career since his days on the Sacramento City Council and through his terms in the California Legislature, and we’ve always appreciated his autonomy and progressive values. He launched into his role as Insurance Commissioner four years ago with an emergency regulation requiring health insurance companies to use no more than 20 percent of premiums on profits and administrative costs, and he has continued to do what he can to hold down health insurance rates, including implementing the various components of the Affordable Care Act.

More recently, Jones held hearings looking at whether Uber, Lyft, and other transportation network companies are adequately insured to protect both their drivers and the general public, concluding that these companies need to self-insure or otherwise expand the coverage over their business. It was a bold and important move to regulate a wealthy and prosperous new industry. Jones deserves credit for taking on the issue and he has earned our endorsement.

 

SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS: TOM TORLAKSON

This race is a critical one, as incumbent Tom Torlakson faces a strong challenge from the charter school cheerleader Marshall Tuck. An investment banker and Harvard alum, Tuck is backed by well-heeled business and technology interests pushing for the privatization of our schools. Tech and entertainment companies are pushing charter schools heavily as they wait in the wings for lucrative education supply contracts, for which charter schools may open the doors. And don’t let Waiting for Superman fool you, charter schools’ successful test score numbers are often achieved by pushing out underperforming special needs and economically disadvantaged students.

As national education advocate Diane Ravitch wrote in her blog, “If Tuck wins, the privatization movement will gain a major stronghold.” California ranks 48th in the nation in education spending, a situation we can thank Prop. 13 for. We’d like to see Torlakson advocate for more K-12 school dollars, but for now, he’s the best choice.

 

BOARD OF EQUALIZATION: FIONA MA

Fiona Ma was never our favorite member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and in the California Legislature, she has seemed more interested in party politics and leadership than moving legislation that is important to San Francisco. There are a few exceptions, such as her attempts last year to require more employers to offer paid sick days and to limit prescription drug co-payments. But she also notoriously tried to ban raves at public venues in 2010, a reactionary bill that was rejected as overly broad.

But the California Board of Equalization might just be a better fit for Ma than the Legislature. She’s a certified public accountant and would bring that financial expertise to the state’s main taxing body, and we hope she continues in the tradition of her BOE predecessor Betty Yee in ensuring the state remains fair but tough in how it collects taxes.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 17: DAVID CAMPOS

The race to replace progressive hero Tom Ammiano in the California Assembly is helping to define this important political moment in San Francisco. It’s a contest between the pragmatic neoliberal politics of Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and the populist progressive politics of Sup. David Campos, whom Ammiano endorsed to succeed him.

It’s a fight for the soul of San Francisco, a struggle to define the values we want to project into the world, and, for us at the Bay Guardian, the choice is clear. David Campos is the candidate that we trust to uphold San Francisco’s progressive values in a state that desperately needs that principled influence.

Chiu emphasizes how the two candidates have agreed on about 98 percent of their votes, and he argues that his effectiveness at moving big legislation and forging compromises makes him the most qualified to represent us in Sacramento. Indeed, Chiu is a skilled legislator with a sharp mind, and if “getting things done” — the prime directive espoused by both Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee — was our main criterion, he would probably get our endorsement.

But when you look at the agenda that Chiu and his allies at City Hall have pursued since he came to power — elected as a progressive before pivoting to become a pro-business moderate — we wish that he had been a little less effective. The landlords, tech titans, Realtors, and Chamber of Commerce have been calling the shots in this city, overheating the local economy in a way that has caused rapid displacement and gentrification.

“Effective for whom? That’s what’s important,” Campos told us during his endorsement interview, noting that, “Most people in San Francisco have been left behind and out of that prosperity.”

Campos has been a clear and consistent supporter of tenants, workers, immigrants, small businesses, environmentalists — the vast majority of San Franciscans, despite their lack of power in City Hall. Chiu will sometimes do right by these groups, but usually only after being pushed to do so by grassroots organizing and lobbying efforts.

Campos correctly points out that such lobbying is more difficult in Sacramento, with its higher stakes and wider range of competing interests, than it is on the local level. Chiu’s focus on always trying to find a compromise often plays into the hands of wealthy interests, who sometimes just need to be fought and stopped.

We have faith in Campos and his progressive values, and we believe he will skillfully carry on the work of Ammiano — who is both an uncompromising progressive and an effective legislator — in representing San Francisco’s values in Sacramento.

 

ASSEMBLY, DISTRICT 19: PHIL TING

Incumbent Phil Ting doesn’t have any challengers in this election, but he probably would have won our support anyway. After proving himself as San Francisco’s Assessor, taking a strong stance against corporate landowners and even the Catholic Church on property assessments, Ting won a tough race against conservative businessman Michael Breyer to win his Assembly seat.

Since then, he’s been a reliable vote for legislation supported by most San Franciscans, and he’s sponsoring some good bills that break new ground, including his current AB 1193, which would make it easier to build cycletracks, or bike lanes physically separated from cars, all over the state. He also called a much-needed Assembly committee hearing in November calling out BART for its lax safety culture, and we hope he continues to push for reforms at that agency.

 

PROPOSITION 41: YES

Over a decade ago, Californians voted to use hundreds of millions of our dollars to create the CalVet Home and Farm Loan Program to help veterans purchase housing. But a reduction in federal home loan dollars, the housing crisis, and a plummeting economy hurt the program.

Prop. 41 would repurpose $600 million of those bond funds and raise new money to create affordable housing rental units for some of California’s 15,000 homeless veterans. This would cost Californians $50 million a year, which, as proponents remind us, is one-tenth of 1 percent of the state budget. Why let hundreds of millions of dollars languish unused? We need to reprioritize this money to make good on our unfulfilled promises to homeless veterans.

 

PROPOSITION 42: YES

This one’s important. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to gut the California Public Records Act by making it optional for government agencies to comply with many of the requirements built into this important transparency law. The CPRA and the Ralph M. Brown Act require government agencies to make records of their activities available for public scrutiny, and to provide for adequate notice of public meetings. Had the bill weakening these laws not been defeated, it would have removed an important defense against shadowy government dealings, leaving ordinary citizens and journalists in the dark.

Prop. 42 is a bid to eliminate any future threats against California’s important government transparency laws, by expressly requiring local government agencies — including cities, counties, and school districts — to comply with all aspects of the CPRA and the Brown Act. It also seeks to prevent local agencies from denying public records requests based on cost, by eliminating the state’s responsibility to reimburse local agencies for cost compliance (the state has repeatedly failed to do so, and local bureaucracies have used this as an excuse not to comply).

 

SF’S PROPOSITION A: YES

Prop. A is a $400 million general obligation bond measure that would cover seismic retrofits and improvements to the city’s emergency infrastructure, including upgrades to the city’s Emergency Firefighting Water System, neighborhood police and fire stations, a new facility for the Medical Examiner, and seismically secure new structures to house the police crime lab and motorcycle unit.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to place Prop. A on the ballot, and a two-thirds majority vote is needed for it to pass. Given that San Franciscans can expect to be hit by a major earthquake in the years to come, upgrading emergency infrastructure, especially the high-pressure water system that will aid the Fire Department in the event of a major blaze, is a high priority.

 

SF’S PROPOSITION B: YES

As we report in this issue (see “Two views of the waterfront”), San Francisco’s waterfront is a valuable place targeted by some ambitious development schemes. That’s a good thing, particularly given the need that the Port of San Francisco has for money to renovate or remove crumbling piers, but it needs to be carefully regulated to maximize public benefits and minimize private profit-taking.

Unfortunately, the Mayor’s Office and its appointees at the Port of San Francisco have proven themselves unwilling to be tough negotiators on behalf of the people. That has caused deep-pocketed, politically connected developers to ignore the Waterfront Land Use Plan and propose projects that are out-of-scale for the waterfront, property that San Francisco is entrusted to manage for the benefit of all Californians.

All Prop. B does is require voter approval when projects exceed existing height limits. It doesn’t kill those projects, it just forces developers to justify new towers on the waterfront by providing ample public benefits, restoring a balance that has been lost. San Francisco’s waterfront is prime real estate, and there are only a few big parcels left that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the Port and the city. Requiring the biggest ones to be approved by voters is the best way to ensure the city — all its residents, not just the politicians and power brokers — is getting the best deals possible.

 

SF SUPERIOR COURT JUDGE: DANIEL FLORES

Daniel Flores has an impressive list of endorsers, including the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties of San Francisco — a rare trifecta of political party support. But don’t hold the GOP nod against Flores, who was raised in the Excelsior by parents who immigrated from El Salvador and who interned with La Raza Centro Legal while going to McGeorge School of Law. And he did serve in the Marines for six years, which could explain the broad range of support for him.

Flores is a courtroom litigator with experience in big firms and his own practice, representing clients ranging from business people to tenants fighting against their landlords. Flores told us that he wants to ensure those without much money are treated fairly in court, an important goal we support. We also liked Kimberly Williams and hope she ends up on the bench someday, but in this race, Flores is the clear choice.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 12: NANCY PELOSI

This was a hard decision for us this year. Everyone knows that Pelosi will win this race handily, but in past races we’ve endorsed third party challengers or even refused to endorse anyone more often than we’ve given Pelosi our support. While Pelosi gets vilified by conservatives as the quintessential San Francisco liberal, she’s actually way too moderate for our tastes.

Over her 21 years in Congress, she has presided over economic policies that have consolidated wealth in ever fewer hands and dismantled the social safety net, environmental policies that have ignored global warming and fed our over-reliance on the private automobile, and military policies that expanded the war machine and overreaching surveillance state, despite her insider’s role on the House Intelligence Committee.

Three of her opponents — Democrat David Peterson, Green Barry Hermanson, and fiery local progressive activist Frank Lara of the Peace and Freedom Party — are all much better on the issues that we care about, and we urge our readers to consider voting for one of them if they just can’t stomach casting a ballot for Pelosi. In particular, Hermanson has raised important criticisms of just how out of whack our federal budget priorities are. We also respect the work Lara has done on antiwar and transit justice issues in San Francisco, and we think he could have a bright political future.

But we’ve decided to endorse Pelosi in this election for one main reason: We want the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives this year and for Pelosi to once again become Speaker of the House. The Republican Party in this country, particularly the Tea Party loyalists in the House, is practicing a dangerous and disgusting brand of political extremism that needs to be stopped and repudiated. They would rather shut the government down or keep it hopelessly hobbled by low tax rates than help it become an effective tool for helping us address the urgent problems that our country faces. Pelosi and the Democrats aren’t perfect, but at least they’re reasonable grown-ups and we’d love to see what they’d do if they were returned to power. So Nancy Pelosi has our support in 2014.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 13: BARBARA LEE

Barbara Lee has been one of our heroes since 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, braving the flag-waving nationalism that followed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to warn that such an overly broad declaration of war was dangerous to our national interests. She endured death threats and harsh condemnation for that principled stand, but she was both courageous and correct, with our military overreach still causing problems for this country, both practical and moral.

Lee has been a clear and consistent voice for progressive values in the Congress for 16 years, chairing both the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, taking stands against capital punishment and the Iraq War, supporting access to abortions and tougher regulation of Wall Street, and generally representing Oakland and the greater Bay Area well in Washington DC. She has our enthusiastic support.

 

CONGRESS, DISTRICT 14: JACKIE SPEIER

Jackie Speier has given her life to public service — almost literally in 1978 when she was an aide to then-Rep. Leo Ryan and survived the airstrip shootings that triggered the massacre at Jonestown — and she has earned our ongoing support. Speier has continued the consumer protection work she started in the California Legislature, sponsoring bills in Congress aimed at protecting online privacy. She has also been a strong advocate for increasing federal funding to public transit in the Bay Area, particularly to Muni and for the electricification of Caltrain, an important prelude to the California High-Speed Rail Project. In the wake of the deadly natural gas explosion in San Bruno, Speier has pushed for tough penalties on Pacific Gas & Electric and expanded pipeline safety programs. She has been a strong advocate of women’s issues, including highlighting the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, seeking greater protections, institutional accountability, and recourse for victims. More recently, Speier has become a key ally in the fight to save City College of San Francisco, taking on the federal accreditation process and seeking reforms. Speier is a courageous public servant who deserves your vote.

Time for a carbon tax

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EDITORIAL

For this week’s Green Issue, our cover story (“Save the world, work less”) looks at how our economic system is accelerating climate change, proposing that we slow down and work less. It’s a fun little thought experiment that revives an important goal that has somehow been forgotten in modern political discourse.

But there’s another solution that attacks the global warming problem more directly and immediately, one that is compatible with our modern capitalist framework and which could and should be adopted now. It’s time to institute a carbon tax, which would place a price on greenhouse gas emissions and help to curb them.

California Senate President Darrell Steinberg made waves in February when he proposed replacing key parts of California’s cap-and-trade program with a carbon tax and using two-thirds of that money for tax rebates to Californians making $75,000 per year and less to offset the higher cost of gasoline, utility bills, and other areas affected by the tax, and one-third to improve public transit.

The logic behind the proposal is unassailable: If we want to control greenhouse gases, tax the burning of the molecule that creates them. A carbon tax is a far better and more direct means of addressing climate change than California’s new cap-and-trade system, an overly complex half-measure that can be gamed or used to excuse unacceptable forms of pollution.

Of course, a range of capital interests and other powerful players lined up to oppose Steinberg’s proposal, leading the pundits to declare it dead. So his Senate Bill 1156 was modified this week to allocate revenues from the cap-and-trade auction, which could total $5 billion annually, to specific needs: 30 percent to public transit, 40 percent to affordable housing and sustainable communities, 10 percent to complete streets programs (bike lanes), and 20 percent to the California High-Speed Rail Project.

Those are good priorities and we support them all, but we’re disappointed to see Steinberg shrink from a fight that was worth having. The country needs a carbon tax if we’re going to meet our obligation to help mitigate a problem that Americans have created more than anyone else in the world on a per-capita basis. This is our mess and we need to play a big role in cleaning it up, rather than passing that obligation onto poor countries and future generations.

Taxes are a time-honored tool to regulating behaviors and providing for the common good. A carbon tax would finally make users pay the full cost of their choices, such as driving a car or traveling by airplane, thus encouraging less carbon-intensive lifestyles. If this state can’t implement a carbon tax. the federal government should.

 

SF bans water bottles

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San Francisco continues to lead the way in the nation’s environmental policy, with the Board of Supervisors on March 4 voting unanimously to bar the city from buying plastic water bottles and to ban distribution of plastic water bottles smaller than 21 ounces on city property starting Oct. 1. The ban excludes city marathons and other sporting events.

"We all know with climate change, and the importance of combating climate change, San Francisco has been leading the way to fight for our environment," Board President David Chiu, who authored the legislation, said at the hearing. "That’s why I ask you to support this ordinance to reduce and discourage single-use, single-serving plastic water bottles in San Francisco."

Chiu held up a water bottle at the board meeting, a quarter of the way full with oil, to illustrate how much oil is used in the production and transport of plastic water bottles. He also reminded San Franciscans that the current fad of buying bottled water only started in the 1990s when the bottled water industry mounted a huge ad campaign that got Americans buying bottled water.

Somehow, Chiu noted, "for centuries, everybody managed to stay hydrated." (Francisco Alvarado)

Mass action against Keystone XL

Nine environmental activists were arrested in San Francisco for marching through the financial district and entering One Spear Tower on March 3, the building that houses local offices of the State Department, to express opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

A day earlier, a mass protest against the oil pipeline was staged outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Roughly 200 protesters were arrested after using plastic zip ties to lock themselves to the White House fence.

Meanwhile, thousands more have made a vow — at least in the sense of clicking to add their name to a petition — to engage in peaceful civil disobedience if President Barack Obama grants ultimate approval for the oil infrastructure project, which would transport 830,000 barrels of crude oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

Nonprofit Credo Action has created an online petition urging people to get ready to respond with peaceful civil disobedience if the pipeline wins final approval. (Rebecca Bowe)

City weighs lawsuit over Airbnb

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office is finally preparing to take action against the illegal short-term housing rentals facilitated by Airbnb, something we’ve been hearing that the Examiner also reported on March 6 ("SF landlords could face legal fight over rentals on Airbnb, other services"), an action that would address the company’s apparent stall tactics.

Despite a business model that violates a variety of San Francisco laws — most notably zoning, planning, and tenant regulations — and Airbnb’s flagrant flouting of a two-year-old city ruling that it should be collecting and paying the city’s transient occupancy tax (see "Into thin air," Aug. 6), the City has appeared unwilling or unable to enforce its laws or address these issues.

"We’re aware of multiple housing allegations, including some that community leaders have brought to us," City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey told the Guardian, confirming that the office is considering taking legal action to enforce local laws governing short-term housing rentals but refusing to provide details.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu took on the problem over a year ago, working with the company and its critics to develop compromise legislation that would legalize and tax the activities of Airbnb and its hosts, but the multi-layered legal and logistical challenges in doing so have so far proven too much for the otherwise effective legislator.

"My staff has held meetings with Planning staff and its enforcement team to discuss enforcement and related challenges. We’ve also been in touch with the City Attorney’s Office on these issues," Chiu told the Guardian, saying he and his staff have recently been focused on other tenants and secondary unit legislation, but they "plan to refocus on our shareable housing efforts soon." (Steven T. Jones)

Blaming pedestrians

ABC7 News Investigative Team’s new "investigative report" on pedestrian safety stirred controversy last week as street safety advocates called out the video for its insensitivity towards pedestrian deaths and lax attitude towards unsafe drivers.

Streetsblog SF and others in San Francisco said the report engaged in "victim blaming."

ABC7’s pedestrian safety coverage comes on the heels of a number of high-profile traffic collision deaths, including that of 6-year-old Sofia Liu, killed on New Year’s Eve. Since then, the Walk First program to create safer streets has garnered more attention, culminating in Mayor Ed Lee’s announcement today to partially fund safety improvements to the city’s most dangerous intersections, to the tune of $17 million — improvements that languished due to funding gaps since the program was announced in April.

But making all the needed improvements though would cost $240 million, according to city estimates, and that funding has yet to be identified. Suffice to say, the traffic enforcement debate still rages in San Francisco, with emphasis on the word ‘rage.’

"We’ve seen ‘blame the pedestrians’ from police and in the media," Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition, said at a pedestrian safety hearing in January. Police Chief Greg Suhr that night apologized for his officers’ lax enforcement of drivers, and focus on pedestrians, and pledged to change policies to focus on drivers going forward.

It’s too bad ABC 7’s I-Team didn’t get that memo.

"In San Francisco, simply stepping off the curb can be deadly," ABC reporter Dan Noyes narrates in their video report. The word ‘deadly’ is capped off with a Hollywood-style musical flourish, like a horror movie moments before the big scare.

"Pedestrians are making mistakes over and over again," Noyes narrates. The video cuts to pedestrian after pedestrian looking at cell phones, jaywalking, or otherwise engaging in unsafe behavior. It’s fair to say the piece, headlined "I-Team investigates what’s causing pedestrian deaths," places responsibility of pedestrian safety squarely on the shoulders of pedestrians. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

High-speed challenges

The California High Speed rail project has been facing resistance that threatens to derail the project. Not only has public support for the $68 billion project wavered in recent years, now the project faces a legal battle that could delay the project before the first rail is laid.

On March 4, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled that a lawsuit brought on by King County can go to trial. The lawsuit raises questions about the legality of using 2008’s voter-approved Prop 1A funding, $9.95 billion worth of bonds, to upgrade and electrify Caltrain’s tracks and incorporate them into the high speed system.
Another concern was that the proposed high-speed system would not be able to pull through with its promise of a 2 hour 40 minute nonstop ride from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles’ Union Station if the high speed system had to share tracks with Caltrain.

The lawsuit also threatens to leave San Francisco’s new $4.5 billion Transbay Terminal without its planned underground high speed rail station, which could be disastrous for that project as well.

None of this seems to faze Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute based out of San Jose State University and former founding board member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board. He told the Guardian: "I think that [the project] will happen now. I think that our wonderful governor and our legislative leaders are going make it happen now…. If it was delayed it would only be a matter of time before it came back." (Francisco Alvarado)

Is Newsom on the wrong side of high-speed rail history?

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As California struggles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and meet the long-term transportation needs of a growing population, officials from Gov. Jerry Brown to Mayor Ed Lee have steadfastly supported the embattled California High-Speed Rail Project, which Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom recently withdrew his support from. California now has until July 1 to find funds to match the federal grants.

It’s not exactly surprised that this calculating and politically ambitious centrist would cave in to conservatives like this, particularly as Newsom tries to set himself up to succeed Brown in four years. But it’s a sharp contrast to more principled politicians like Brown, and to those trying to create the transportation system future generations will need, as President Barack Obama took a step toward doing today by announcing new federal transportation funding.

US Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox is also taking part in the three-day High Speed Rail Summit, sponsored by the United State High-Speed Rail Association, that began yesterday in Washington DC. Its theme is Full Speed Ahead.

“Secretary Foxx’s experience at the local level as mayor of Charlotte is extremely valuable for shaping national transportation policy. We look forward to working with the Secretary to advance high speed rail in America across party lines,” USHSRA President and CEO Andy Kunz said in a press release. 

While Newsom’s new tact may play well with myopic, penny-pinching, car-dependent moderate and conservative voters, many of his allies and constituents were furious with his about-face on a project that promises to get riders from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in less than three hours. 

Among those unhappy is San Francisco resident Peter Nasatir, who forwarded the Guardian a well-written letter that he has sent to Newsom’s office:

Dear Lt. Gov. Newsom,

I am a long time San Francisco resident, and although I have criticized many of your policies, I’ve always respected your commitment to be at the forefront of controversial issues.  Even if the issue could have wrecked your political career, you still had the guts to take the lumps for a righteous cause.

That is why I’m so shocked you would publically decry the High-Speed Rail project.  Yes there are cost overruns.  Yes the public is sour to it today, but what would you propose as an alternative:  more freeways, more runways?  Every expert in the field has already signed off that runways and freeways have expanded as far as they can.  Are you not a leading voice in demanding technical innovation in all levels of government? 

In your book, Citizenville, did you not put forth the clarion call for citizens to embrace technological change?  Did you not say that San Francisco was behind the likes of Estonia and South Korea in terms of digital governance?  Is it not fair to say that California is behind Europe and Asia when it comes to high speed rail?

Could you have said something along the lines that the trajectory the project is going is troubling, but Californians for generations to come will benefit from it.  This project must be saved, because to do otherwise will send California back 60 years.

You are a political maverick who had put his career on the line many times with such controversial positions as same-sex marriage, and walking the picket line with hotel workers on Union Square.  High-speed rail is coming.  The economy demands it, the environment demands it, and Central Valley population growth demands it.  You may get some votes from moderates in the short run, but in the long run, you have positioned yourself as the most prominent person in the state to be on the wrong side of history.

 

Peter Nasatir

 

 

 

California joins Oregon, Washington and British Columbia in climate action plan

Gov. Jerry Brown announced a regional agreement Oct. 28 with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to align policies for combating climate change.

“This is what is totally unique: We have a problem whose timescale is beyond anything we’ve ever dealt with,” Brown said as he gathered with Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Washington Governor Jay Inslee and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark (who joined remotely) to sign the agreement. “So, we have to take action before we see or experience all the problems we’re dealing with.”

In most political venues, “to actually utter the word ‘global warming’ is deviant and radical in 2013,” Brown said. “But you just watch … this will spread until we have a handle on the world’s greatest existential challenge.”

Called the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, the pact commits all the jurisdictions to take a leadership role in national and international climate change policy by agreeing to emissions reduction targets; to transition the West Coast to cleaner modes of transportation such as high-speed rail; and to invest in clean energy and infrastructure through actions like streamlining permitting of renewable energy infrastructure and supporting integration of the region’s electricity grids.

Apart from this accord, Brown noted that “California has already signed a memorandum of understanding with several provinces in China,” concerning the need to work together on climate change, “and in fact with the national government itself.”

Meanwhile, a group of protesters gathered outside the Cisco-Meraki offices in Mission Bay, where the event was held, to oppose Brown’s unwillingness to support a statewide ban on fracking, an oil and gas extraction technique that environmentalists fear could contribute to groundwater contamination and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s starkly hypocritical for Governor Brown to be inking climate agreements while he’s at the same time green-lighting a massive expansion of fracking for dirty oil in California,” said protester Zack Malitz.

Asked to respond to the protesters’ concerns, Brown responded, “I signed legislation that will create the most comprehensive environmental analysis of fracking today,” referring to a bill that requires environmental review but has been criticized as flawed because it does not impose an outright ban.

“The big issue is the Monterey Shale,” he added, referring to an expansive underground oil reserve that environmentalists fear could be opened up to fracking, “and nobody is talking about doing anything there for an extended period of time, and not before the environmental document.”

Everybody likes Jerry; now what?

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For the first time in many years, Californians seem to like their governor. Jerry Brown’s approval rating is now above 50 percent; actually, it’s closer to 60 percent. And the Legislature is more popular, too. (Although ratings of the state Leg, like ratings of Congress, are pretty bogus — I may think the Legislature as a whole is doing a crappy job, because there are too many conservatives, but I think my own Assemblymember, Tom Ammiano, and my own state Senator, Mark Leno, are excellent. Republicans feel the opposite way. Nobody likes the body as a whole, because the body as a whole will never be liberal enough for me or conservative enough for Orange County.)

So here’s the question:

In politics, one of the things you do is build capital. You build it with your reputation, by doing things well (or at least things that make some group of constituents happy). You can’t keep it in the bank forever, or it gets stale and eventually starts to fade away; at some point, you have to use it.

The typical younger politician builds capital for future races — you get high marks as a city council member or county supervisor and you cash in some of that to get elected to the state Leg, then maybe to statewide office or Congress. But our guv isn’t typical in any way, and he’s not young; he might have one more term in office, which at this point he would win easily if he seeks it. But that’s almost certainly the end of the line. For better or for worse, I just don’t see a President Jerry Brown in our future.

So what’s he going to do with his political capital? What are the Democrats in the state Leg, who finally have the confidence of the voters, going to do?

If Jer thinks he’s going to build a couple of giant tunnels under the Delta to move more water south, he’s even battier that we think; that’s never going to happen. The entire environmental world is against it, it’s way too expensive, it will wind up getting delayed by lawsuits until long after Brown is out of office, and there’s no guarantee a future governor will keep Jerry’s Big Dig alive.

He’s got high-speed rail, a much better use of money that has widespread support, but that’s also a long-term project.

So what about reforming Prop. 13? He knows it’s a policy disaster. It’s not going to be repealed, but with the governor’s support, a split-role measure or some other credible reforms could transform local government and do more for the public schools than any pointed-headed “education reform” plan will ever do.

Or single-payer health care. Everyone knows that California’s getting screwed by the insurance industry. We have to write new rules for implementing Obamacare anyway. Twice, the state Leg has passed single-payer bills that were vetoed by the governor (not this governor).

It’s actually possible to lead the way to some changes that people will remember for decades. Jerry: You won’t get this chance again.

 

 

 

 

BART could shed light on shady contest between rival developers for Millbrae station

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The BART Board of Directors will next week consider rival private development proposals for property it owns adjacent to BART’s Millbrae station, the latest step in a long and potentially lucrative process that has been highly politicized and marred by accusations of unethical behavior.

As we reported in November, BART Director James Fang was criticized for his close ties to developer Lawrence Lui and his Justin Development Corp., whose hotel and office building proposal for the site Fang had lobbied the Millbrae City Council to support without fully disclosing his relationship with Lui or the existence of another proposal for the site that BART is still considering.

The rival proposal by Republic Urban Properties is a housing and office project with some high-profile backers, including BART Director Joel Keller, that have been leading an aggressive legal and public relations effort coordinated by Singer Associates, which is insisting that the board’s discussion of the item on Feb. 14 be done in open session.

“We think an open session is vital to the transparency of this project given its history,” Singer’s Adam Alberti told the Guardian. He claims the Republic Urban proposal is a “transit-oriented project” that is best suited to the site and more lucrative to BART than the hotel-based proposal. “We hope they consider the project on its merits.”

Because the project involves real estate negotiations, the board is allowed under state law to consider the matter in closed session, and it has been placed on the agenda in both open and closed session. Board President Tom Radulovich told us, “At least some part of it will be open, and there is an interest in having as much of it open as possible.”

Keller also said that he will push for a full open discussion of the project merits. “I think the discussion of the proposal should be done in public, in open session, and there’s nothing that requires it to be in closed session,” Keller told us, adding that while he has long-supported Republican Urban project, he is keeping an open mind. “Whichever way the discussion goes, the public will be well-served.”

BART staff hasn’t prepared recommendations or a staff report for the board to consider, and part of the problem so far is that they have been too deferential to Fang and Keller, both longtime directors. Radulovich is critical of how BART staff has handled this project.

“Staff did everything they could to make this as political and non-fact-based as possible,” Radulovich said. “It’s just a really corrupt process and the people who are going to lose on this is the public….They’ve turned this into a lobbying contest because BART let them do that.”

While Republic Urban may have the inside track on that lobbying contest with the BART board, Lui’s team might have recently pulled ahead with the Millbrae City Council, which would ultimately have to approve any project at the site.

In a Jan. 30 letter to Radulovich signed by four of the five council members, including Mayor Gina Papan, Millbrae officials say they want a hotel and retail outlets at the site. “In moving forward, the Council agrees that the most beneficial use of BART Sites 5 and 6 is a mixed-use development which includes a hotel element. This type of project is ideal for this location and our city,” they wrote, noting that it is a key transportation hub. “A mixed-use development including hotel will bring much needed revenue to our city and BART, and establish Millbrae as a destination to do business, eat, shop, recreate, or stay and sleep. This is an exciting opportunity for everyone.”

Yet the letter also reiterates the city’s position that it is not willing to share transient occupancy tax revenues with BART, which Fang and Lui had previous said was a possibility and which could be key to making that project pencil out for BART, which uses long-term leases of its properties to subsidize it operating revenues.

Neither Fang — who previously told us he’s done nothing wrong and blamed Urban Republic for politicizing the process — nor a BART spokesperson returned our calls for comment. Keller said that the Republic Urban project seems to be better for BART, but he said, “If I can be persuaded the hotel project is better for BART, I’m open to it.”

The Millbrae BART station connects with Caltrain and other San Mateo County public transit systems, and it could become an even more important station once the California High-Speed Rail Project gets built, making Millbrae station the first access point to the greater Bay Area via BART for riders coming from Southern California.

Our freak of a governor

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We all know this, but I have to say it again: Jerry Brown is one strange agent.

His State of the State address was blessedly short: Jer doesn’t waste a lot of time. In fact, a few minutes in, the crowd in the state Assembly chambers was applauding for the second or third time, and he told them to stop; “this is my longest speech and we’re not going to get out of here.” I clocked it, applause and all, at about 16 minutes.

But lordy, lordy, what a crazy amalgam of stuff he packed in. From Montaigne to the Little Engine that Could, the Ten Commandments to Pharoh’s dream about the seven cows, Franklin Roosevelt to Gaspar Portola … all over the map would be a gentle way of describing it.

And that was the political message, too: We can do great things, spend billions on a massive underground peripheral canal and high-speed rail — but we can’t backfill the cuts that are leaving tens of thousands in poverty because we have to live within our means. The mandate for renewable energy is great, but we shouldn’t just keep on passing laws:

Constantly expanding the coercive power of government by adding each year so many minute prescriptions to our already detailed and turgid legal system overshadows other aspects of public service. Individual creativity and direct leadership must also play a part. We do this, not by commanding thou shalt or thou shalt not through a new law but by tapping into the persuasive power that can inspire and organize people. Lay the Ten Commandments next to the California Education code and you will see how far we have diverged in approach and in content from that which forms the basis of our legal system.

Serious, Guv? “Constantly expanding the coervice power of government?” That’s channelling your inner Ronald Reagan, no? Oh, and weren’t you the mayor of Oakland who let the cops do pretty much anything they wanted in the name of public safety — and who is the darling and best pal of the prison guards union? Talk about the coercive power of government. And one of the bills you’ve never supported is Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s effort to legalize marijuana — eliminating a particularly troubling “coercive power of government” — because you’re worried that we can’t compete with China if everybody’s stoned.

I like high-speed rail, and investing in education, and I agree that there’s too much emphasis on one-size-fits-all standardized tests and measurement tools in the public school system. The school funding formula is, generally, a good idea. And I am utterly on the side of our tightwad leader in the battle to keep tuition from rising at CSU and UC.

So on some of the substance, Brown’s speech made sense. But I’ve been a Jerry watcher for many, many years, and he never ceases to baffle me. I supose that’s part of his point.

Let’s remember: Brown grew up in a wealthy patrician family, and he’s never had to worry about working for a living or finding an affordable place to live. He’s way out of touch with what millions of Californians face every day — and that’s why it’s easy for him to sit up in Sacramento and talk about “living within our means.”

Proposal to raze I-280 linked to train and real estate deals

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It’s a bold idea, discussed for years behind closed doors and recently announced in a strangely understated and pro-growth way: Tear down the last mile of Interstate 280 and replace it with an wide boulevard – reminiscent of the removal of the Central and Embarcadero freeways – in order to facilitate the extension of electrified Caltrain and high-speed rail tracks into the Transbay Terminal.

For almost three years, city planners have been discussing the idea and drawing up closely guarded plans to tear down the freeway, discussions sparked by the state’s Environmental Impact Reports on electrifying the Caltrain tracks and bringing high-speed trains into town. With an increasing number of trains traveling those tracks, access to the rapidly growing Mission Bay area from the west on 16th Street would turn into a traffic nightmare, either with long waits for an at-grade train crossing or the creation of ugly and uninviting underpasses for cars and bikes.

Mayor Ed Lee and other top politicians have long sought to bring those trains downtown in Transbay Terminal through a still-unfunded tunnel, rather than having them stop at the existing Caltrain station at 4th and King streets. But the existence of the I-280 pilings made it structurally impossible to send the train underground before it got to 16th street.

So the idea was raised to raze the elevated 280 freeway and better integrate Mission Bay and the Potrero Hill/Showplace Square area, where Kaiser plans to build a huge new medical facility, creating a bike- and pedestrian-friendly corridor without the shadow of an antiquated freeway overhead.

“If you get the freeway out of the way, it’s a ton of space,” said Greg Riessen, the city planner who developed and studied the idea. “The whole corridor of the freeway is blocking the ability to do anything else.”

But it wasn’t until the political class and their capitalist partners also realized the enormous development potential of the idea – raising money that could be used to fund the train tunnel – that it was finally floated as a public trial balloon for the first time this week. The Chron’s Matier & Ross led their Sunday column with a short item on the idea, apparently tipped off to its quiet debut a couple weeks earlier.

The city’s Transportation Policy Director Gillian Gillett unveiled the idea in a Jan. 7 letter to the Municipal Transportation Commission, repeating it Jan. 10 at a forum on high-speed rail held at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. The letter was a response to the MTC’s request for information on “San Francisco’s policy goals and objectives regarding the much-needed electrification of Caltrain.”

Yet rather than deal directly with that issue, the letter said the answer “must be broadened to address the need for growth in the downtown and South of Market areas,” which it said requires funding to bring the trains into Transbay Terminal and to then let developers have at the 21 acres of land surrounding the existing Caltrain station, where transportation officials planned to store the trains.

“We need to create a faster and cheaper DTX [Downtown Extension project] alignment, realize the full value of the 4th & King Streets Railyard site, and eliminate the intrusiveness of I-280 in Mission Bay by terminating it at 16th Street and replacing it with a boulevard, based on the lessons learned from the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway to create a new Rincon Hill neighborhood, and the Central Freeway to create the new Market-Octavia neighborhood. Reenvisioning Caltrain electrification and the DTX could increase ridership, reduce costs considerably and create additional real estate value that would, in turn, provide for both more jobs to create revenue for both Caltrain and DTX and attract investment,” Gillett wrote.

She calls current plans to electrify Caltrain “shortsighted because it reduces the City’s ability to meet its regional job growth allocations, because more than 20 acres are covered with trains, and it eliminates an important opportunity to create real estate value which can be used to fund transit and Caltrain investments,” she wrote.

The letter doesn’t address where the increasing number of trains coming into San Francisco would be stored if the railyard is turned into luxury condos and commercial spaces, which has long been a goal of SPUR and other pro-development cheerleaders. High-speed rail officials have suggested Brisbane, but sources say city officials there have balked at the idea. Although Gillett hasn’t returned our calls with follow-up questions, the Mayor’s Office seems to see such logistical questions as secondary to this cash-cow idea.

So a staff-level proposal to solve a transportation challenge with an elegant multi-modal solution that follows in the city’s tradition of tearing down freeways has morphed into a real estate deal. Quentin Kopp, the father of high-speed rail in California, has already derided the Transbay Terminal project (which is funded by the sale of state land surrounding the site to office tower developers) as little more than a real estate deal, and now the city is apparently seeking to extend that deal further into Mission Bay.

Former Mayor Art Agnos, who worked on both the Embarcadero and Central freeway tear-downs, told us, “In general, I really support the concept of demolishing freeways that bisect the city.”

Yet he said there are many key details and questions that need to be addressed, particularly given the Mayor’s Office support for the new Warriors arena on the Central Waterfront, a project whose unaddressed traffic impacts would be exacerbated by an intensification of development at the Caltrain station, into Mission Bay, and further south.

“It could drown the city, this tsunami of cars, particularly with all the development planned all the way down to Hunters Point,” Agnos said. “I like the idea, but we need a serious discussion of the details, particularly with all these development proposals.”

 

Manhattanization forgotten, Transbay Tower moves without the trains

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Times in San Francisco have changed since the battles in the ‘80s against increased high-rise development and the “Manhattanization of San Francisco,” which peaked in 1986 with the passage of Prop. M placing limits on the rapid development pushed by then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein and her downtown allies.

Now, in 2012, the tallest building on the West Coast — Transbay Tower, the first in a series of new high-rises envisioned for downtown — gathered its final approvals with only scattered opposition (such as Quentin Kopp, the former judge and legislator, who derides the project as nothing but a “real estate scheme” involving lucrative publicly owned land being turned over private developers).

Whether we were all too distracted by a year of political scandals real and contrived, or whether it was the project proponents’ savvy marriage of the real estate deal to the high-speed rail project and Caltrain extension that environmentalists want to see become a reality, this behemoth building is now all but a done-deal.

Yet despite the slick and compelling interactive videos and project descriptions on the Transit Joint Powers Authority website, San Franciscans aren’t really on the verge of realizing this utopian urban vision of 21st century high-speed rail burrowing its way into SoMa over the next few years.

“The projection of that is less clear now. The delays with the high-speed rail have created some challenges for us,” said Adam Alberti of the high-powered communications firm Singer Associates, which represents the TJPA. Contributing to the delay and uncertainty is the indefinitely delayed plan for the electricification of Caltrain tracks that would be a precursor to bringing the trains downtown.

Now, even though the current Transbay Terminal rebuild (scheduled for completion in 2017) includes a “train box,” funding hasn’t yet been identified for the tunneling to get the trains there. That depends on federal allocations and the New Starts program administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“Those things take awhile. It’s a long process,” Alberti said.

But the 930-foot Transbay Tower has its approvals, with the property scheduled to be formally transferred to the Hines/Boston Properties building team in the next couple months, followed in the coming years by other parcels in the area for more high-rises.

“The other parcels will be metered out and put out when we get maximum return for taxpayers,” Alberti said. “The transit center itself is on schedule and on budget, so it’s moving forward.”

That’s great, even if it’s just going to be a glorified bus station for the foreseeable future as the high-rises that are being built as part of this trade-off for trains help inch San Francisco a bit closer to Manhattanization

Millbrae BART development conflict raises ethical questions about Fang

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BART Director James Fang is coming under fire for his close relationship with a developer who is trying to build a hotel project on BART property next to its Millbrae station, a project that Fang promoted with a misleading presentation to the Millbrae City Council in September. But Fang says the attacks on him are coming from a powerful rival developer and that he’s only trying to get something moving on the long dormant site.

Underlying the conflict are questions about how BART develops the properties it owns around the Bay Area, questions that have increasingly high stakes around the Millbrae station. Critics say the station was badly designed and hasn’t lived up to hopes that it would promote economic development in the area, but that could change if it becomes a California high-speed rail station and the southernmost direct connection into the BART system.

On one side of the conflict is Fang, a longtime director who also owns Asian Week newspaper, and his friend and political supporter Lawrence Lui, who is proposing to build a hotel and office building at the site through his company, Justin Development Corp. The BART Board of Directors voted 6-2 in closed session in May 2011 to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement with him.

But city officials in Millbrae have refused to share their hotel tax revenue with BART, a key aspect of making the project pencil out as a long-term revenue source for the district (BART’s policy is to lease property rather than sell in order to bolster annual operating revenues and retain control of properties that increase in value). “It turned out the economics of the project didn’t work, they wanted a kickback, for lack of a better word, in the [Transient Occupancy Tax charged to hotels] for the city of Millbrae,” said Adam Alberti with Singer Associates, which is representing the Republic Urban project.

So the BART board earlier this year voted to re-open negotiations Republic Urban Properties, which Lui had beat out in the previous vote, requesting best and final offers from the two rival developers by Sept. 28. They are still being evaluated. Once a project is selected, that developer and BART would essentially become partners in going through the city’s project approval process.

But Fang left out the competing proposal when he appeared with Lui and BART Property Manager Jeff Ordway before the Millbrae City Council on Sept. 25, trying to build support for Lui’s hotel project. “Mr. Fang stated that he is looking for official direction from the City in joining with BART to build a hotel,” according to official minutes from the meeting.

Two days later, BART General Manager Grace Crunican sent the City Council a letter clarifying the status of the property and the two competing bids. “I regret that this information was not made clear during the City Council meeting and I apologize for any confusion that this omission may have caused,” she wrote.  

The Republican Urban proposal calls for 140,000 square feet of office space, 350 housing units (probably rental), and 17,300 square feet of restaurants and retail. It would replace the 851 BART parking spaces now on site with 623 spaces, but it would also include 420 parking spaces for the offices and 410 for the residents. Lui’s project calls for a 200-room hotel, 180,000 square feet of office space, 40,000 square feet of retail, and 200 “corporate service apartments.”

Since negotiations were reopened, Republic has gone on the offensive to overcome that it says is improper and unfair interference by Fang: hiring high-powered PR firm Singer Associates, attorney Scott Emblidge, and a design team with connections to other BART directors.

“I did not expect the venom that Republic Urban has launched against me,” Fang said. “It might be high-speed rail, maybe that’s why Urban is pulling out all the stops….That would be a large part of it. Maybe Urban thinks this is something they’ve got to do.”

Fang admits his friendship with Lui and to having received $3,500 in campaign contributions from him, but he denies doing anything improper or of having a conflict-of-interest in the case, a position BART lawyers have supported, ruling that Fang doesn’t have a direct interest that would keep him from voting on the project.

“You have a piece of property at BART that has just been sitting there for 10 years, doing nothing,” Fang said. “My bottom line is whatever is the best deal for the district, I’m going to go for…If it turns out Urban Republic has the best deal, I’ll vote for it.”

In a letter to the BART, Emblidge said the Republic Urban project is clearly better: “Republic simply wants to play on a level playing field. It has presented BART with the objectively superior proposal. It asks that all further Board decisions about the Property be made in public and without the participation of Director Fang in order to ensure the competing proposals are truly evaluated on their merits. To do otherwise would be to do a disservice to BART, its riders and the general public and community of Millbrae.”

Alberti cast the decision as one of improper political influence pushing a bad project over a rival project that he called a “true transit-oriented development project.” But Tom Radulovich, a BART director who also heads the urban design nonprofit Livable City, doesn’t quite agree with that assessment.

“None of the projects seem very transit-oriented. They’re all very automobile dependent,” Radulovich said. “We should be more focused on what kind of development we want for the site and find the right developer.”

He called on BART to work more closely with Millbrae and other cities earlier in the process, and to pursue projects that are in the best interests of both entities and are smart planning for the region, particularly given the coming high-speed rail improvements.

As Radulovich said, “We’re talking about a very important hub in the regional transit system, and for that reason it’s important to get it right.”

 

Governor signs high-speed rail funding bill at Transbay Terminal

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The mood was jubilant at the Transbay Terminal construction site in downtown San Francisco this afternoon as political leaders gathered to watch Gov. Jerry Brown sign Senate Bill 1029, the hard-won recent authorization for selling the first $4.7 billion in state bonds to fund the California High-Speed Rail Project.

That money – part of the $10 billion that voters approved for the project in 2008 – and $7.9 billion in federal matching funds will go mostly to build the first high-speed rail section linking Merced to the San Fernando Valley. But it also includes money for related projects in the Bay Area, including $820 million to electrify and improve the Caltrain tracks that the project will share, $145 million for BART replacement cars and track improvements, and $61 million for SF’s Central Subway project.

The fact that Brown chose Transbay Terminal – the northern terminus for trains expected to travel at up to 220 mph between there and Los Angeles’ Union Station in less than three hours by the year 2027 – was an indicator of his focus on the long-term benefits of the project rather than its immediate impacts, a theme he emphasized in his speech.

“What this is about is investing in the future,” he said, pointing to the high-rises around him and noting how they were also the products of people with long-term vision. “The buildings that are up here didn’t come out of fear, they came from bold risk-taking.”

High-speed rail has been under increasing criticism from conservatives who complain about its cost (the total project cost is estimated at about $68 billion) and SB 1029 squeaked through the Legislation, with not a vote to spare in the Senate, where President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and other political leaders had to twist arms to get it done.

“The people know we can cut, the people know we can patch and mend, but the skeptics wonder whether we have the will to build,” Steinberg said at the event, which he said answered that question. “This is about economic vitality.”

Mayor Ed Lee praised state leaders for moving the project forward and said, “This project means more than just celebrating a great transit system, which high-speed rail is,” noting that the overall Transbay Terminal project will also include about 40,000 new residential units being built on a dozen surrounding buildings, including what will be the tallest on the West Coast.

But that project has its critics, including Quentin Kopp, the retired judge and former legislator who sponsored the bill that created the California High-Speed Rail Project and was the first chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority. He has derided Transbay Terminal as simply a “real estate deal,” noting that the tunnel from there to the Caltrain station is too expensive, still unfunded, and shouldn’t be built.

Asked about that $1 billion-plus funding shortfall, Brown replied, “Let’s see the first phase, then the second phase, then we’ll figure out how to get it here.” He criticized the “NIMBYs and fearful men” and emphasized the long view of the project: “I signed my first high-speed rail bill 30 years ago. It’s taken some time to get this going.”

Several speakers cast the project as an obligation to future generations. Deputy US Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari said most of the country’s most important infrastructure we enjoy today was built by past generations, and he asked, “Are we doing right by the next generation? Are we paying it forward?”

Housing and highrise offices

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EDITORIAL It's something of a civic shame that the only way San Francisco can build a new transit terminal is to sell a private developer the rights to stick a 1,070-foot highrise office tower on public land. In fact, it's a sad statement on the city, state, and local government: Once upon a time — and it wasn't the long ago — tax dollars collected through a progressive system paid for major infrastructure projects.

But there's no easy way to raise $4 billion in tax money for the Transbay Terminal — even though it ought to be seen as part of the high-speed rail project, and the federal and state government ought to be picking up the tab. So San Francisco ambles forward, selling land and lease rights to the highest bidder.

In this case, Gerald Hines of Houston won the right to build the largest highrise west of the Mississippi on property owned by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. There are all sorts of drawbacks to the deal — among other things, it will cast shadows on a number of city parks, all the way to Portsmouth Square in Chinatown. Like any massive office complex, it will put pressure on Muni, on city streets, on police and fire and other city services — and no commercial office building ever pays its fair share of that burden. And since in this case the major recipient of the money from the project will be the TJPA, the city's General Fund will suffer.

Oh, and the building is ugly.

Meanwhile, city planners want to increase height limits all around the Transbay Terminal and allow hundreds of units of new (luxury) housing and more commercial office space. It's going to be a new highrise neighborhood, complete with a rooftop park and a few little patches of ground-level open space, which won't get a whole lot of sun, particularly in the morning and evening.

And at this point, there's been very little focus on what ought to be the defining issue of this and the other major developments on the city's planning horizon, and that's affordable housing.

This city has a terrible jobs-housing mix. The vast majority of the people who currently work in San Francisco can't afford to buy a house here, and many of them can only rent if they pay for more than the federal standard of one-third of their income for housing. So people who work in hotels and restaurants and city, state and federal offices and hospitals and even financial district companies wind up living far from the city and commuting. Nobody thinks that's a sound environmental policy.

And this kind of full-scale rezoning and development will only make it worse. According to the City Planning Department, the Hines project will pay about $27 million into the city's affordable housing fund, enough to pay for maybe 60 or 70 housing units. That won't even begin to cover the need created by the thousands of employees who will fill that tower. The market-rate housing on the site will almost certainly be beyond the reach of most San Franciscans, and probably many of the office workers who fill the Hines building. And only 35 percent of the new housing — at maximum — will be affordable.

San Francisco has to get a grip. The city can't keep allowing more high-end housing and highrise office space without a plan to meet its housing needs. We're glad to see the mayor talking about a $50 million a year fund, but that will barely meet existing needs; it can't possible keep pace with new development.

So before the supervisors rush ahead to approve this ambitious new downtown district, they need to ask Hines, and the TJPA, and any other developer who comes along, how it intends to meet the demonstrated need for affordable housing that these projects will create — and demand a much higher level of payment that what's currently on the city's books.

Does electrifying Caltrain really help high-speed rail?

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Mayor Ed Lee and other regional political and transportation officials are celebrating this week’s agreement to take bond money approved by state voters for the California High-Speed Rail Project and apply it to electrifying the Caltrain’s tracks up the peninsula, which has long been a goal for that troubled transit agency. Electrification will lower operating costs, reduce noise, and be better for the environment.

“Electrifying Caltrain as an early investment and extending Caltrain into the heart of downtown San Francisco at the new Transbay Transit Center are essential for the success of high speed rail and the future economic growth of our region,” Lee said in a prepared statement released yesterday.

Yet his office didn’t respond to questions about how the new agreement – which will apply $700 million in high-speed rail bond money from Prop. 1A to the $1.5 million electrification project, arguing it lays the foundation for high-speed trains to come later – will help the Transbay Terminal. That project needs to come up with the more than $2 billion for the 1.2-mile tunnel from the current Caltrain station at 4th and King streets to bring the trains downtown. The mayor’s press release argued only that it would “provide the momentum upon which to build the Downtown Extension to the Transbay Transit Center.”

Transbay Terminal Joint Powers Authority spokesperson Adam Alberti called the latest agreement “a big deal for transportation” and told us, “The MOU agrees that the early investment of Prop 1A funds should be placed on the electrification of Caltrain.” Even though it doesn’t give money directly to Transbay Terminal, Alberti said it advances a project in which that station is the designated terminus and it frees up future transportation funding for the needed tunnel.

But Quentin Kopp, who launched the high-speed rail project as a state legislator in the ’90s and until recently served on the project’s board, said this latest agreement doesn’t help Transbay Terminal (which he has derided as little more than a real-estate deal) and it represents a violation of Prop. 1A and other high-speed rail provisions.

“Here’s a pot of money and everybody wants to steal from it,” said Kopp, who has criticized recent changes in the high-speed rail plan, such as San Francisco-bound passengers having to transfer to Caltrain in San Jose rather than coming directly into San Francisco and how Caltrain’s tracks limit how many trains can run per hour, hurting the overall project’s financials. “It’s hardly the project that was envisioned.”

As we reported in January, the high-speed rail project has been working to overcome doubts and attacks by fiscally conservative politicians here, in Sacramento, and in Washington DC. And this latest agreement helps overcomes Caltrain’s deep fiscal problems and the opposition of many peninsula politicians and neighborhood groups to creating a larger and more robust high-speed rail line up the peninsula.

5 PM UPDATE: Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey just responded to my inquiry and said, “The region is pursuing funding the $1.5 billion Downtown Extension through a combination of additional sources, including New Starts, and we expect to announce additional good news on this front soon.” It’s unclear why there is a discrepancy between Alberti’s figures and Falvey’s. Lee has pledged to make a priority of ensuring the train extension to Transbay Terminal gets built.

The Obama budget, beyond the politics

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Man, the way the president’s talking it sounds as if he’s appointed the General Assembly of OccupySF to write his budget plans. He’s going to make everyone pay a fair share of taxes. He’s going to invest in affordable higher education. He’s going to spend $350 billion on jobs programs. Just about everyone in the news media is calling it a “populist budget.

I love the politics. It’s the year Occupy will dominate the national political debate, and for Obama to decide that he wants to hitch his wagon to the tax-the-rich star can only be a positive development. Washington is listening, and is starting to talk. We’re making progress.

But we haven’t made that much. Because the actual Obama budget isn’t such a radical departure from what he and his predecessors have been doing for years: Spending far too much on the military, cutting tax rates for high incomes and leaving largely intact the class divide.

There’s a good NYT analysis here but you have to go through it carefully. Here’s what our populist leader wants to do:

1. He’s going to spend $613.9 billion on the military, more than most other departments combined. When you add in the $64 billion we’re spending to clean up the human costs of former wars (which isn’t enough) and the $40 billion we’re spending on Homeland Security, that’s a big, big number. Yeah, it’s about 2 percent less than last year. It’s still far too large, dwarfing all other federal spending. And we’re supposed to be winding down wars.

2. He’s not going to raise the marginal tax rate on the rich. In fact, he’s talking about lowering it. That’s crazy, that’s criminal, that’s a recipe for continued deficits and increased wealth disparity. All he’s proposing is to raise the tax rate on stock dividends — yeah, that’s something that mostly benefits the wealthy (although also some middle-class retired people), but it’s a tiny fraction of the money that would be available if the top bracket was raised just a little bit. His goal for new taxes? About $20 billion a year. Peanuts.

3. He’s not investing heavily in critical transportation priorities like high-speed rail. The funding for the transpo system of the nation’s future: $47 billion over six years. That’s less than $8 billion a year, which won’t build much track. His annual commitment to a project that would create tens of thousands of jobs and go a long way to end fossil-fuel reliance? About what the Pentagon will spend every four days. Whoopee.

So while I get the rhetoric, and it demonstrates that he’s going to make a few nods to the left during the campaign, I wouldn’t get too excited about this budget. It’s really business as usual.

 

 

Gov. Brown backs high-speed rail and other big ideas

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California Gov. Jerry Brown this morning used a big portion of his annual State of the State speech to promote the construction of a high-speed rail system for California – a project that has been under attack by conservatives, as we reported in this week’s paper – chiding those who believe the state can’t do big things anymore.

“Contrary to those declinists, who sing of Texas and bemoan our woes, California is still the land of dreams,” Brown said, a theme that he developed and returned to throughout his speech, calling them “critics who fantasize that California is a failed state.”

Instead, Brown optimistically called for California to take on big projects, singling out high-speed rail, the conversion to sustainable energy sources, and a major water project that will address environmental issues in the Delta and the needs for drinking water and agricultural uses.

But it was the high-speed rail project, for which the Legislature must approve the issuance of bonds this year, that Brown used to make his strongest statement against retreating from big ideas, noting that California can’t simply build enough new freeway and airport expansions to handle a growing population.

“Those who believe that California is in decline will naturally shrink back from such a strenuous undertaking. I understand that feeling but I don’t share it, because I know this state and the spirit of the people who choose to live here,” he said.

And he exhorted Californians to remember the past as they plan for the future: “Critics of the high-speed rail project abound as they often do when something of this magnitude is proposed. During the 1930’s, The Central Valley Water Project was called a ‘fantastic dream’ that ‘will not work.’ The Master Plan for the Interstate Highway System in 1939 was derided as ‘New Deal jitterbug economics.’ In 1966, then Mayor Johnson of Berkeley called BART a ‘billion dollar potential fiasco.’ Similarly, the Panama Canal was for years thought to be impractical and Benjamin Disraeli himself said of the Suez Canal: ‘totally impossible to be carried out.’ The critics were wrong then and they’re wrong now.”