High-speed Rail

Staying on track



After weeks of attacks from critics of the high-speed rail system now being built in California — a campaign that even came home to San Francisco City Hall last week, when Sup. Sean Elsbernd challenged Mayor Ed Lee on the issue and called for a hearing — Gov. Jerry Brown and other supporters have stepped up efforts to keep the train from being derailed.

With seed money from a $10 billion bond measure that California voters approved in 2008 and an initial federal grant of $3.3 billion to help build the Central Valley section of the track, the California High Speed Rail Authority is working on construction of a bullet train that would carry riders from San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in about 2.5 hours, traveling at speeds of up to 220 mph. That project is slated to cost nearly $100 billion, and the next phase would extend service to Sacramento and San Diego.

But Republicans in Congress and the California Legislature began to balk at funding the project last year. Earlier this month, a report by the California High-Speed Peer Review Group recommended that the Legislature indefinitely delay issuing $2.7 billion in rail bonds, citing the uncertainty of future funding sources and problems with the project’s business plan.

“It does not take a rocket scientist to see the future of high-speed rail is in serious doubt,” Elsbernd said at the Jan. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting, where he used the monthly mayoral question time to ask Lee, “What is Plan B with Transbay Terminal if the high-speed rail money does indeed go away? What do we do?”

The Transbay Terminal is now being rebuilt downtown. The first phase includes a $400 million “train box” being built with high-speed rail funds, and the next phase will require billions of dollars more to build train tunnels into the station from the current Caltrain terminus at 4th and King streets.

“I’m committed to seeing the full implementation of high speed rail, which includes having a northern terminus at the Transbay center,” Lee replied, refusing to entertain the idea that the bullet trains won’t be coming into San Francisco, a stand he communicated to state officials in a recent letter. “I want to state my unwavering support for the notion of high-speed rail. It is the future of transportation in this state.”

Lee acknowledged that cost estimates for the project have gone up and there are uncertainties over future funding, but he said the state will need to make the investment either way. “California is growing and those people need to move up and down the state. The question is do we make transportation investments on bigger, wider highways and airport runways? I’d say no, that this perpetuates a car-dependent culture.”

Instead, Lee says the state must find a way to build high-speed rail, whatever the obstacles. But Elsbernd called for a hearing on the issue before the Board of Supervisors, telling the Guardian that he supports the project, “but high-speed rail is in trouble and we need to acknowledge that.”

Meanwhile Gov. Brown — who has rejected calls to delay issuing the rail bonds — was working behind-the-scenes to get the project back on track. Sources say he asked for CHSRA Executive Director Roelof van Ark and CHSRA Board Chair Tom Umberg to resign, which they did at the Jan. 12 meeting, with Brown appointee Dan Richard becoming the new chair.

Richard and fellow new Brown appointee Mike Rossi spearheaded the creation of a proposed new business plan for the project that was unveiled in November. While it addresses some of the criticisms of the project, it raises fresh concerns about whether the bullet trains will arrive in Transbay Terminal.

In fact, it calls for high-speed rail service to end in San Jose, where S.F.-bound riders would have to transfer to Caltrain, largely to placate citizens and politicians on the peninsula who have objected to trains rocketing through their communities and filed lawsuits challenging the project.

“That business plan is unrealistic and unreasonable,” said Quentin Kopp, the former state senator from San Francisco who authored of the original legislation to create high-speed rail and has helped shepherd the project. He said having to transfer twice from S.F. to L.A. would discourage riders and hurt the project.

Kopp isn’t a fan of the Transbay Terminal rebuild, which he derides as “a real estate project” because its funding plan relies on significant private residential and commercial development; he’s called for the trains to stop at the current Caltrain station for financial reasons. But Elsbernd — who also chairs the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates Caltrain — wants to ensure the Transbay project is completed and worth the investment.

“I’m terrified that we continue moving along and then we end up with that being just a big, beautiful bus terminal,” he told us.

Adam Alberti, a spokesperson for the TJPA, said California needs to have improved rail service to handle a growing population and the Transbay Terminal is being build to accommodate that, whether it be Amtrak, Caltrain, or high-speed rail trains coming into the station.

“We are steadfast in our belief that it makes sense to have high-speed rail in California,” he said. “When it does happen, we will have the infrastructure already in place to receive it.”

Furthermore, he expects that the CHSRA business plan, which is the subject of a public comment period that ends Jan. 17, will extend the service beyond San Jose. “They’ll lose significant ridership and revenues if they don’t bring it into San Francisco,” Alberti said.

Sen. Mark Leno, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, also expressed confidence that current efforts to derail high-speed rail won’t be successful.

“What is the alternative if we don’t do this? California will grow by 10-20 million people in the next decade. There’s no way we could build enough freeways and airport expansions to handle that,” Leno told us. “I don’t think we have the option not to make this work.” Leno also said he was pleased to see top political leaders stepping up to defend the project: “I’m impressed by the governor’s steadfastness, as well as President Obama’s stand. Leadership from the top is important, particularly during difficult times like this.”

Stuck in reverse


Some days, you wake up, check the news, and wonder just what the hell happened to this country. And I’m not talking about that nutty right-wing view that we’ve strayed from the original vision laid out for us by the authors of the Constitution or the Bible. I have just the opposite view: I’m wondering why those people seem so intent on dragging us back into the bad old days of bygone centuries, when white male property owners ran things as they saw fit.

A dangerously intolerant religious fundamentalist who longs for the Puritan days, Rick Santorum, essentially tied for first place in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses. And he was part of an entire field of candidates that wants to revoke women’s reproductive and LGBT rights, deny that industrialization has affected the environment and should be addressed, dismantle already decimated government agencies, simply let the strong exploit the weak, and hope that Jesus comes back to save us from ourselves. Their strange reverence for the Constitution apparently stems from wanting to drag us back into the 18th century.

And don’t even get me started on President Barack Obama and his worthless Democratic Party, which is only a bit better than the truly heinous Republicans. At least Obama says some of the right things – like wanting to raise taxes on millionaires, reverse Bush-era attacks on civil liberties, respect states’ medical marijuana laws, and use diplomacy rather than only bellicosity with concerning countries like Iran – even though he acts in contradiction of those statements, over and over again.

It’s no better in the Golden State, where the yestercentury crowd now wants to abandon plans for a high-speed rail system that has already been awarded $3.5 billion in federal transportation funding and for which California voters authorized another $10 billion in bond funding. Why? Because a panel headed by an Orange County douchebag says the business plan isn’t detailed enough and the money for the entire $100 billion buildout isn’t nailed down yet. Well guess what? California also doesn’t have a plan for when its highway and airport systems get overwhelmed by population growth over the next 20 years. And criticizing the viability of high-speed rail – something most other advanced countries figured out how to build decades ago – isn’t exactly going to help secure private equity commitments. It’s a super fast train, folks – not some scary satanic iron horse from the future – people will pay to ride it.

But the situation must be better here in liberal San Francisco, right? Wrong! Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and all their business community allies continue to relentlessly push their belief that the main job of government is to create private sector jobs, even though most economists say a politician’s ability to do so is limited at best.

Lee is pushing for all city legislation to be measured by whether it creates private sector jobs, as if protecting the environment, preserving public sector jobs, or safeguarding the health, welfare, and workers’ rights of citizens weren’t also under the purview of local government. A Chronicle editorial today called Lee the most “realistic city leader in memory. He’s all about creating jobs, repaving streets, sprucing up faded Market Street and fixing Muni’s flaws,” the same goals the paper was focused on a century ago.

But the main trust of the editorial was calling for Lee to also focus on homelessness. Not poverty, mind you, but homelessness. “A decrease in jobless numbers is important, but so are fewer shopping carts pushed along sidewalks and a drop in the numbers of mentally ill in doorways and on park benches,” they wrote. In other words, they just don’t want to see poor people on the streets, because that newspaper and its fiscally conservative editorial writers and base of readers certainly haven’t been calling for a fairer distribution of this city’s wealth, or even higher taxes on the rich that might fund more subsidized housing programs or mental health treatment. I get the feeling they’d be content to just allow shanty towns on our southern border where our low-wage workers can live, just like the Third World cities that they seem to want to emulate.

Ugh, so depressing, so ridiculous, so regressive. I think I’m going back to bed now.

That high-priced high-speed rail


Even Democrats in the state Legislature are starting to get nervous about continuing the high-speed rail program. After all, the price has gone up to close to $100 billion. That’s such a vast sum of money; the state can’t possibly afford that, right?

Well, let’s think about that and put it in a little historical perspective.

The Golden Gate Bridge was constructed during the worst years of the Great Depression. Cost in today’s dollars: $1.2 billion. That’s for one bridge.

BART was built in the 1960s. Cost in today’s dollars: $6.4 billion. For a transit system serving (at the time) three counties.

The California Aqueduct was also built in the 1960s. Cost in today’s dollars: $31 billion.

I can’t find good figures on the historical cost of building the California freeway system, but in 2006 dollars, highway construction runs between $3 million and $19.5 million per lane-mile. That is, a four-line highway costs between $12 million and almost $80 million a mile. If you take just the ten biggest highways in the state (a total of 3,547 miles) and figure a middle-of-the-road average of $40 million a mile, building the backbone of the state’s freeway system would cost $141 billion today.

High-speed rail, of course, gets cars off the road, reduces pollution and fossil-fuel dependence, and offers a much better transportation experience for people moving around California.

Sounds like a bargain to me.

The Performant: Hamburger helpers


There’s certainly no shortage of live comedy in the Bay Area, but you have to hand it to Club Chuckles for keeping it weird. Avoiding line-ups packed with middle-aged men whining about their therapy bills, or cosmonaut princesses with pubic hair obsessions, Club Chuckles can often be found lurking in the rock-saturated shadows of the Hemlock Tavern’s back room performance space, infused with the kind of punk rock vibes you’ll never pick up at the buttoned-down, two-drink minimum comedy clubs. The sold out, eight-year anniversary show at the considerably swankier digs of the Verdi Club might have been better lit, but the rowdy element still prevailed, as an entire line-up devoted to the comedy of the awkward braved the hecklers to bring the laffs.

Imagine if you will an idiot savant of the yo-yo who turns out to just be an idiot, and you’ve got a good idea of what to expect when Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser takes the stage. The befuddled alter-ego of Mark Proksch, “K-strass” is a yo-yo wielding man-child out to save the environment from the ill-effects of too much toilet flushing. Determined to wow the crowd with one of his patented yo-yo tricks, The William Tell, Strasser put a bucket and an apple on the head of his first of two volunteers, who quipped, “is this like Guantanamo?” “I don’t know him,” Strasser responded immediately, nervously readying his yo-yo to fly, uncontrolled, in the general direction of the apple.

The most traditional comic of the evening, affable Duncan Trussell delivered a stand-up set filled with references to medical marijuana, tripping at Great America, and the embarrassment of being human. But then he veered into prop comedy territory with a long rambling story about his Wiccan parents and The Book of Shadows, which culminated in an impromptu séance and an appearance by ventriloquist dummy “L’il Hobo”. A classic, hinge-jawed variant, L’il Hobo became apparently possessed by Lucifer halfway through the otherwise standard dummy/ventriloquist act, culminating in an eerie duet of “Wish You Were Here,” and the devil’s gruff demand for worship.

Dressed like a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century butterfly collector, Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show fame, launched into his bumbling act clutching a cheat sheet like a lifeline, dropping his punchlines as often as he dropped the mic. Declining to indulge in any of his recently released Herman Cain-inspired anthems (“Cainthology: Songs in the Key of Cain”), he instead turned his affection to Newt Gingrich’s presidential aspirations, and introduced an ambitious high-speed rail project dubbed “Zazz Rent-a-Train.” “Why own when you can rent?” intoned the movietone narrator of the video-screened infomercial on the rail project designed to connect all the continents by rail.

Kicking the emotionally tone-deaf dial to eleven, headliner Neil Hamburger emerged at last, his trademark greasy comb-over and bow-tie suggesting the desperation of the small-time Vaudeville circuit. “Get some drinks up here asshole,” he snarled at booker Anthony Bedard, before launching into a series of dead-weight knock-knock jokes, a lengthy segment focused on the dubious “talents” of Britney Spears, embittered rants against various oddience members (“laugh your fool head off…this is fun. Everyone else is having fun…with your girlfriend”), and “an award-winning tribute to ice cream” which segued into a ribald joke about Ben and Jerry’s and prostitutes.

Like Kenny “K-Strass” Strasser, the Hamburger character is a long-inhabited alter ego, whose public appearances often appear more painful for the character than for his cringing fans, who really ought to have some kind of convenient moniker by which to call themselves, like “Hamburger-heads,” or “total masochists.” And indeed, by the show’s end only the true total masochists remained, each empty seat in the rows attesting to that peculiar comedic format of anti-success that Hamburger wields so well.

Editor’s Notes



I want to take a few Republicans on a road trip.

A few days after the GOP-led Congress cut off funding for high-speed rail in California, I drove to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving. I wish the critics of the project were with me in the car, with two kids fighting in the back seat, constant traffic delays, and about as unpleasant an automobile excursion as you can imagine.

I hate driving. When I was 16, in the New York suburbs, all I wanted to do was drive; now I can’t stand it. But when you’re invited to a friend’s house 380 miles away and flying is too expensive and the one rail line that lumbers along the north-south corridor takes 14 hours and is always three or four hours late, there’s not much of an option.

And even by my standards, I-5 is a miserable experience. It’s crowded, it stinks like the piss of 5,000 doomed cows, and it goes on forever. On and on and on, through fields where big agricultural corporations using heavily subsidized water grow cotton in the desert, up the grapevine, down the grapevine, fighting trucks and too many cars, no place to stop and stretch your legs … I-5 isn’t a working road like 101, where people commute to work and go shopping and get on and off after a few miles. Most of the way from Sacramento to L.A., there’s nowhere to go — 40 miles or more between exits. Everybody on the road — all 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 or however many gasoline-powered steel boxes were crammed onto the concrete ribbon Thanksgiving week — were in it for the long haul. People drive I-5 to get from one end of the state to the other; that’s why the thing exists.

And that’s why it’s about the best place in the country to run a high-speed rail line.

Seriously: I bet 90 percent of the people on that wretched roadway Thanksgiving week would have been thrilled to take a train directly from downtown San Francisco (or Sacramento) to Union Station in L.A. — particularly if the ride took half the time of the drive and cost about the same.

I can talk forever about fossil fuels and climate change and air pollution and all the reasons people should get out of their cars. But all you have to do to convince any reasonable person that driving from S.F. to L.A. is a bad idea is to do it.

What if you were rich?


There seem to be more and more millionaires coming out of the nicely paneled woodwork to tell us that they should pay higher taxes.  I heard one of these folks on NPR yesterday and she was talking about what made her happy in life. She’s loaded, young, and could have anything she wanted, but what she said made a lot of sense: She said she would be better off and a lot happier if everyone in the country had access to decent housing, enough to eat, quality transportation and a chance at a good education. 

So I started thinking about it, I guess there’s a reason that I’m a horrible capitalist, because I totally agree with her. If I hit the lottery …  well (geek alert), I’ve had my eye on that cool Visconti lava fountain pen, but there’s really not of lot of stuff that I want. And maybe I’m not that odd – maybe most people really don’t want isn’t Michael Moore’s mansion (gawd, who would keep it clean? I can’t even get the dog hair off the floor of my little place in Bernal Heights). Maybe most of us want to make sure our family has a place to live and there’s money for the kids to go to college and medical care for our aging parents and a job that’s not awful.

What else do I want? I want to be able to ride high-speed rail to L.A. instead of driving the car on I-5 on Thanksgiving week. I want the kids to be able to take buses directly to school so I don’t have to drive them. I want more nudity on TV (well, that’s not really about money, I guess). I want the rec centers and libraries to be open every day and on the weekends, and I want them to have great programs, and I want to have more swim classes at the public pools so I don’t have to pay to send my daughter to the YMCA, and I want to be able to see a doctor when my leg hurts without waiting a month for a manged-care appointment. A nice fishing boat would be cool, but I could share.

Seriously: I’m like the rich girl on NPR (kind of): Most of what I want is stuff that the government ought to be providing to everyone anyway. If only she and the rest of the rich people in the country, who already have everything they want, were paying fair taxes. I got no problem with people wanting to be the next Bill Gates, and even in a really good capitalist system (is that possible?) there will always be rich people, and I suppose the desire for financial success drives progress.

But wouldn’t we all be better if … we were all better? What would you want if you were rich?

And if I do hit the lottery, do I get a tax deduction on the boat?

How to create jobs


I listened to the Obama speech, and at least he showed some energy (although this bipartisan shit clearly doesn’t work and I don’t know when he’s going to give it up). But here’s what makes me crazy: The whole point of this $447 billion stimulus is to create jobs. Why not just, you know, create jobs?

I agree that a cut in the payroll tax (which, for a lot of working Americans, amounts to more money than the income tax) will put money in the pockets of people who are likely to spend it, and will stimulate, to some extent, consumer demand. That, of course, is the crux of the issue — unless there’s demand for goods and services, the economy’s not going to turn around.

Of course, some of that money will go to replenish savings and pay down debt — not a bad thing, but not what we need right now.

Cutting the payroll tax for businesses will also be a direct stimulus, particularly for smaller employers, who create most of the new jobs. But again, let’s be real: I just ran the numbers, and a company the size of the Guardian would get enough of a tax break to hire one part-time person at not much more than the city’s minimum wage. Sure, you spread that across millions of small businesses, and you’ll get some new job creation. But I wonder: Is this the most efficent way to achieve the objective?

Let’s see. An economist at Moody’s says the plan could create 1.9 million jobs. That, of course, includes not just the jobs created by the tax cuts, but the multiplier effect (you hire someone to dig a ditch, that person buys shoes so the shoestore needs more help, etc.) And the prediction is just that — a prediction. It assumes, for example, that most of the employers who get the tax break will use the extra money to hire more people. I’m not so sure about that. Businesses tend to hire not because they have spare cash (which might just as well end up in the owner’s pocket) but because they need more workers to meet growing demand for goods and services. If that demand isn’t there, the jobs won’t magically appear just because employers have more cash on hand. (In fact, some of the biggest employers in this country have plenty of cash on hand; they aren’t using it to hire anyone.)

How about we try it another way? Let’s assume that $50,000 a year is a decent wage in most parts of the country. (You want to make it $60,000? Whatever. It just changes the calculus a little bit).

For $1 million, you can hire 20 people at $50K. For $1billion, you can hire 20,000 people. For $400 billion, you can hire 800,000 people.

Why not just do that? Why not take that stimulus money and hire public employees — to teach in schools, to build roads and bridges, to repair the nation’s electricity infrastructure, to construct high-speed rail lines, to rebuild crumbling housing in inner cities …. there’s plenty to do.

Yeah, some of the money would go to the dreaded “bureacrats” who would oversee the hiring programs and fill out the forms. But the world needs accountants and managers, too — and the ranks of the unemployed include quite a few people with those skills.

Now: There’s lots of debate about the size of the multiplier; when it comes to job creations, I’ve heard numbers from 1.4 to 5.0, depending on the circumstances. But there’s no doubt that direct federal hiring — 800,000 new living-wage jobs — would have a direct impact on consumer demand and create a guaranteed need for more private-sector workers. I’d bet it’s about one for one — the 800,000 federal jobs would lead to another 800,000 private-sector jobs. That’s 1.6 million jobs — and unlike the current plan, those are jobs that are not dependent on what employers decide to do with their tax breaks.

Hell, we want to cut unemployment in half? For, say, $1.5 trillion, you could create 7 million jobs pretty easily. That’s just about the annual cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The government knows how to create jobs. Federal, state and local agencies hire people every day. The whole thing seems so silly; why give money to private employers and hope for the best when you can use the same money to hire people directly? Why waste time and money on the middleman?



Editor’s notes



I’m not prone to agreeing with right-wing nuts from Riverside County, but there’s a county supervisor down there named Jeff Stone who has a dandy idea. He wants to secede.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Stone is proposing that 13 counties in the southland and inland empire split off and become their own state, which would be called South California. We’re talking everything south of Madera, with the coastal counties (and Los Angeles) left behind. A real conservative haven of low taxes and limited regulation.

And I say: Go for it, pal. I’m completely with you.

Imagine what would happen if Supervisor Stone got his way. There would be no more budget paralysis in the California Legislature. Democrats would control two-thirds of both houses and could pass a budget that included higher taxes on the rich and big corporations. Candidates for governor wouldn’t have to worry about getting votes from the conservative parts of the state, so they could talk more honestly about the major issues. Same-sex marriage would pass the first week. Pot would be legal. The death penalty would be gone in a year or two.

It might take a while longer to amend Prop. 13, but with the ability to raise revenue instead of just cutting, California could begin to fund the schools adequately, rebuild the state university system, and move forward with projects like high-speed rail.

And let’s remember: those counties that want to leave? They elect representatives who won’t vote for taxes — but they are the biggest beneficiaries of state revenues. The northern and coastal counties, the more liberal ones, pay more in taxes than we get in services. Our taxpayers are subsidizing their tax haters.

So go on — leave. We’ll keep our money here.

Now, just to our south and east would be a train wreck of a state with few public services — but South California would still be part of America, so people could move north without worrying about immigration papers. I’d propose that we set up a state fund to resettle refugees from Republicanland.

And maybe, after a while, the people who have to live with crappy schools and crumbling roads will look across the border and say, Why do they have it so good? And maybe they’ll start to think differently about the role of government.

Keep David Crane away from your government


Sen. Leland Yee continues to strongly push his case against confirming San Francisco venture capitalist David Crane to the UC Board of Regents, finding allies among labor unions and Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), chair of the Senate Labor Committee, but failing so far to win over legislative leaders that Yee has alienated himself from with his quixotic budget stands of recent years.

It’s a sign of just how bad things have gotten for public employee unions that Crane, a last minute appointment by former Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger, wasn’t immediately rejected by Legislature after writing an op-ed siding with right-wing attacks on public employees in Wisconsin and calling for an end to public employee union’s collective bargaining rights in California.

After all, Crane – while he considers himself a Democrat – is little more than a right-wing shill wielding misleading data to justify his thinly veiled contempt for the public sector. He didn’t return my call about the latest controversy, but I did interview him a few years ago as he and Arnold tried to torpedo the California high-speed rail project before voters could approve it.

I didn’t expect much from a corporate Democrat who was working for a Republican governor, but I was still fairly astounded by his arrogant condemnation of public officials and agencies and his indignation at being challenged in his basic belief in the infallibility of capitalists. Simply put, the guy was a world-class jerk (an opinion that’s widely shared) who has no business working for government agencies because his only interest in them seems to be to weaken or destroy them.

George W. Bush loved to put guys like this in charge of government agencies, which is why Halliburton fleeced taxpayers, FEMA utterly failed New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, oil companies ran dangerously amuck, and on and on. But in California under Gov. Jerry Brown and a big Democratic majority in the Legislature, someone like David Crane should have the door to government quickly slammed in his face if there’s any integrity left to the political system.

UPDATE: Crane just returned my call, but he did little to forthrightly answer my questions, instead referring me to his interview with KGO’s Ronn Owens last week. When I asked whether he thinks it’s fair that his critics are calling him hostile to the public sector, he told me to read his op-ed. And when I said that I did and the he seemed to be siding with the Republican governor of Wisconsin, he said disdainfully, “That’s an interesting interpretation.”

That seemed to be the clear intention of his piece, to tell readers that they’re simply wrong in seeing Wisconsin (and then Ohio, and other states that might eventually include California) as a right-wing attack on public employee unions, which is itself part of a long-running attack on the public sector by conservative capitalists like Crane. As Crane wrote in his first sentence, “The battle in Wisconsin is not over collective bargaining rights generally but rather the appropriateness of those rights in the public sector.”

Sure, this former attorney tries to couch his narrow, convoluted argument in legalisms and distorted history lessons, but the message seems clear, even if he acts as people just aren’t smart enough to understand his wise point (one that he didn’t use the opportunity of our interview to clarify). And when I noted that he has a history of anti-government animus, including trying to derail the high-speed rail project, he said indignantly, “I’m responsible for that thing making the ballot.”

By which he probably means that after trying and failing to delay the vote, he led the effort to require more detailed financial analysis of the project’s fiscal challenges, which he helped execute — and which had nothing to do with voters approving a measure that the Legislature had placed on the ballot years earlier, only to go along with Arnold’s efforts to delay it twice.

Or maybe I’m wrong and this self-described libertarian really just wants to make government stronger and more efficient. What do you think?

Could California go bankrupt?


Not today, not under current federal law. But Calitics alerts me to a really disturbing story that I didn’t know about: Congressional Republicans are pushing legislation that would allow (and actually encourage) state bankruptcies. The idea, of course, is to break public-employee unions and wipe out pensions that people have paid into and earned.

Oh, and by the way: The bill would almost certainly make it harder for states to borrow money for infrastructure projects. The cost of bonds would go up, California would have less money to build new schools, roads, high-speed rail etc. Again, something the Republicans like.

It’s crazy: California is such a wealthy state, and should be nowhere near bankruptcy. I heard on the radio the other day that Jerry Brown is going to have to do now what he should have done in 1978: Make Californians feel the affects of Prop. 13. Back then, after warning that the tax-cutting measure would have calamitous results, he used state money to bail out local governments and prevent the impacts from being felt. Now, when there’s no state money left, local governments are going to get hit really hard. The disaster that Prop. 13 opponents warned about 32 years ago is finally going to hit.

At the very least, if that’s Brown’s approach, he’s going to have to work to allow local governments more freedom to raise revenue on their own. Unless he wants cities and counties (which by law CAN go bankrupt) to follow that route. And I don’t think he does.

Editor’s notes



The New York Times, the old established voice of the liberal media elite, ran a piece on Sunday looking for answers to the nation’s persistent economic crisis. Reporter David Segal interviewed prominent economists on the left and right — the likes of John H. Cochrane at the University of Chicago, James K. Galbraith at the University of Texas, even Gar Alperowitz at the University of Maryland, who’s kind of (God help us) a socialist.

The right-wingers talked about the need to cut government, the left-wingers talked about community co-ops and green technology, and all sides agreed that the situation was dire and would probably get worse. But nobody even mentioned wealth inequality.

It’s kind of mind-boggling. It’s as if the entire subject is off the table, taboo, something that doesn’t get discussed in the company of polite economists. And that’s just crazy.

Look: the 400 richest Americans today have combined assets of about $1.5 trillion. Raise that number to 5,000 and you can about double the total wealth. This is a very rich country; our prospects aren’t bleak at all. With a bit of enlightened public policy, we could profoundly improve the economic situation in just a few months.

I have no PhD. I barely escaped Wesleyan University with an economics degree in 1980, squeaking out a D in my last class by promising the (very conservative) professor that if he failed me, I’d be back next year. But it doesn’t take econometric wizardry to add up the figures. They go like this: A one-time 20 percent wealth tax on the 5,000 richest Americans — including many people who have pledged to give away half their wealth anyway — would generate about $600 billion. Nobody would miss any meals; no families would lose their homes, or even their second or third homes, or their personal jets. Expand the pool a little and you could easily reach $1 trillion.

With that money, you could immediately create 7 million jobs (at an average of $50,000 a year) and fund them for three years. That would cut the unemployment rate in half. What would those people do? Plenty. They could rebuild the country’s roads and highways and bridges, and build high-speed rail systems, and work in health care clinics, and teach art and music and writing, and clean up environmental messes … there’s loads of work in this country. And even with a modest estimate of the economic multiplier, those 7 million public sector jobs would create another 3 million private sector jobs, and all of a sudden, the country’s booming again. And a lot of those people who were hired by the government could now transition to private business. (And those very rich people would do well in the boom, as they always do, and might even make most of their money back.)

Raise taxes on the top 5 percent of the nation’s wage earners and corporations and you would generate enough money to keep the program going until the private economy could pick up the slack. Then eliminate the Social Security tax on the first $25,000 of income and expand it to cover all income up to $250,000 and suddenly — a huge incentive for small businesses to hire new workers and a stable retirement system for the next two generations.

It’s not that hard. It’s not a socialist revolution. Nobody really gets hurt, and a lot of people benefit. I mean, it seems to me that it ought to be part of the discussion. Maybe that’s why I was such a lousy economics student.


Editor’s notes



The pollsters like to call it the Santa Claus effect, and we’ve seen it over and over in surveys of California voters in the past few months. I think of it more as some sort of deep political pathology, a schizophrenia combined with delusions that underlies the state’s inability to get anything done.

Here’s what the data shows:

California voters don’t want cuts to higher education; in fact, they want to see more money spent on the University of California system, the California State University system, and local community colleges. They don’t want cuts to K-12 education either. Nor do they want to shut down state parks, release prisoners early, close public hospitals, stop building high-speed rail, reduce state support of local government … or do anything else that would save a significant amount of money.

And they don’t want tax increases.

If you ask people how they think the state should balance the budget, they talk about cutting waste — even though the current Republican governor admits there’s not that much waste left to cut.

I could spend hours talking about how we got here, how decades of corruption and bad governmental priorities soured people so much on the public sector that they don’t believe the state can be trusted to spend their money properly. But part of the issue is that the news media (which love to find a little waste here and there to trumpet) are very bad at presenting the choices.

Nobody in Sacramento’s going to do anything serious about the budget until Jerry Brown takes office; that’s just how it is. So this psycho-financial nightmare is going to fall in his lap — and I wonder sometimes if he ought to force us all to make the choices we want to avoid.

Maybe Brown ought to call a special election in February or March and put two — and exactly two — measures before the voters. Both would balance the state budget. One would do it almost entirely with cuts, and those cuts would be clearly defined: public schools would shut down all over the state. Class size would rise to 40 or more kids. UC would close half its campuses and admit half the number of qualified students it does today. At least 100,000 prisoners would be released as several prison are mothballed. The entire state park system would be shuttered. And that’s just the start. Consumer protection agencies would be abolished, public health devastated — there wouldn’t be a single thing that Californians take for granted that would survive.

Because that’s what a cuts-only, no borrowing budget would look like.

The other proposition would save those services by closing tax loopholes that benefit big business and raising income taxes on the wealthiest people in the state. Brown would have to travel up and down the state and make it clear: these are the choices we face. You can’t solve a $20 billion budget crisis without either tearing the state apart or raising taxes.

No more ducking. No more pretending. No more looking around for Santa Claus. Make the choice, folks: accept new taxes on a small percentage of the population, or give up on the state.

It’s a scary thought, but it may have to come to that.


Train tangle


The California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors is scheduled to meet Nov. 4 in Sacramento to approve criteria for selecting which of four sections of track will be built first — but the federal government appeared to predetermine that outcome Oct. 28 by awarding the project $715 million in economic stimulus funds that can only be used in the Central Valley.

A classic north-south political battle has been brewing for months as advocates for the San Francisco-to-San Jose section and those for the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles section each sought to get their project going first. But with both sections mired in political and design problems, the feds decided that only the Merced-to-Fresno or Fresno-to-Bakersfield sections could break ground quickly enough to qualify for the funds.

However, San Francisco will still see $16 million of that money, which was allocated to the current Caltrain Station at Fourth and King streets, a station that will also serve the high-speed rail project and the proposed Transbay Terminal downtown.

CHSRA board member Quentin Kopp, who helped create the project as a San Francisco-based state legislator back in the 1990s, had been engaged in a behind-the-scenes conflict with current chairman Curt Pringle, the outgoing mayor of Anaheim, whose dual roles seem to violate state conflict-of-interest rules. But Attorney General Jerry Brown has been dragging his feet on issuing an opinion in the matter while running for governor.

The southern California section is more expensive that the Bay Area one, and there are significant right-of-way issues in Los Angeles County, as well as problems with choosing a site for the station in Anaheim. By contrast, the Bay Area line would use the existing right-of-way for Caltrain, which has been pursuing electrification of its track to improve service and mesh with high-speed rail.

“This is the only section in which the right-of-way is owned by a public entity,” Kopp told the Guardian, although he was careful not to state a preference to avoid improperly predetermining his vote.

But the Bay Area section is also the target of a lawsuit by the cities of Palo Alto, Atherton, Brisbane, Menlo Park, and other jurisdictions that have complained about the fast-moving trains and challenged the project’s environmental impact report. There are also looming issues in San Francisco, where the impending release of this section’s EIR is also raising controversial design issues.

For example, city officials have complained about plans that call for the intersection of 16th and Seventh streets and other streets along the current Caltrain corridor to be grade-separated from the rail line, essentially lowering the streets into sunken culverts. “It seems like that issue is going to come to a head at some point,” Joshua Switzky, a city planner who has worked on it, told the Guardian.

CHSRA spokesperson Rachel Wall called the Central Valley earmark “a game changer. They have predetermined that it could only be used in the Central Valley.” But she also said the allocation was just the beginning of the $17–$19 billion the project hopes to get in federal funding.

“That’s what the private investors are looking for — is the federal government committed?” Wall said, noting that California voters stepped up last year by approving a $10 billion bond measure that will go toward the $40 billion project.

Plans call for the entire Anaheim to San Francisco project to be completed by 2020, with trains traveling at up to 220 mph and making the SF-to-L.A. trip in two hours and 40 minutes.

Kopp said he wasn’t too disappointed that the feds restricted the initial funds to the Central Valley. “It wouldn’t offend me if that is our ultimate decision,” Kopp said. “The Central Valley loves high-speed rail.”

Whitman criticized for opposing high-speed rail


By Brittany Baguio

Although Republican gubernatorial Meg Whitman claims job creation is one of her top priorities, she recently stated that she opposes the plan to build a high-speed rail system in California – a project that is being eagerly anticipated in San Francisco, its northern terminus.

Whitman says the state does not have enough money to fund the project because of the state’s current budget deficit, but labor, environmental, and other groups say it will be a boon to the state’s economy and environment. Voters approved Proposition 1A in November 2008, supporting the construction of a high-speed rail system with an initial investment of $9.95 billion in bond money.

Proponents say the project will alleviate freeway and airport congestion and provide a green transportation option that has both short- and long-term economic benefits. According to the California High-Speed Authority website, the project would create 160,000 constructed-related jobs as well as 450,000 more jobs by 2035. The construction of the rail system would also improve the movement of people, goods, and services throughout California and ultimately raise more than $1 billion in surplus revenue a year.

“We are eager to thoroughly brief whoever the next governor is on this project and work with him or her to make California’s high-speed rail system a reality,” California High-Speed Rail Authority representative Rachel Wall told the Guardian.

Supporters of the bullet train disagree with Whitman’s analysis and contend that the construction of a bullet train would create revenue and jobs. In a press release, California Labor Federation Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski said, “In her glossy TV ads, Whitman says she understands the daily hardships facing our state’s unemployed, but it’s clear that’s just more campaign rhetoric. In opposing high-speed rail, she’s shown her true colors on jobs. It’s shocking that a candidate for Governor could be so detached from the economic hardships facing our state’s families. With one in eight Californians out of work, how can we afford not to invest in the creation of hundreds of thousands of permanent, good new jobs?”

Communications director of the California Labor Federation, Steve Smith, believed that Whitman’s opposition exhibited her political inexperience and uninformed decisions. “She’s out there talking a big game about job creation, but no specifics about how she would create jobs,” Smith told us. “Her proposals would be devastating to California and would lead to higher unemployment in California. She says that California can’t afford the project, but what we can’t afford is not to take advantage of improving our economy and environment.”

Whitman isn’t the only one opposing the project. Bay Area cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Burlingame, Belmont, and Atherton have all voiced concerns about the project and the impact of trains move rapidly through those communities, filing a lawsuit seeking to halt the project.

The bullet train project was awarded $2.25 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act last January and is currently undergoing supplemental environmental reviews. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2012, with improvements such as rail electrification expected to improve rail service on the San Francisco peninsula even before the high-speed trains start running around 2020.

Assuming the public-private project isn’t derailed politically and can raise the estimated $40 billion total cost, the trains will travel at speeds of up to 220 mph and take passengers from the LA Union Station to San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal in less than 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Fiona Ma’s cash machine


Why does Assembly member Fiona Ma take on odd causes like ending rent control for trailer parks?

Maybe it’s because almost 90 percent of the money she raises comes from outside her district. From the Chron today:

But San Francisco’s Fiona Ma, who was elected in 2006 and quickly rose to power within the Democratic Caucus, took the top spot when it came to sheer cash collected out of district: $1.68 million. Ma, now speaker pro tempore, raised more campaign cash from outside her district than either of the leaders of both houses. Her outside contributions made up 88 percent of the money she raised, placing her 29th in funds raised outside the district. Ma attributed the prolific fundraising to her involvement in statewide issues, such as high-speed rail, agriculture and domestic violence, that take her on the road. She said that as a member of the Assembly’s Democratic leadership – and someone from a safe Democratic district – she funnels a lot of money to other candidates. But she said the interests of her San Francisco constituents are well served because her high profile helps her promote those interests.

The dubious high-speed rail report


The Chron’s blast at the state’s high-speed rail system is a big headline, but the report it’s based on is pretty dubious.

As the always-insightful Robert Cruikshank at Calitics points out, the state auditor is trying to blame the High Speed Rail Authority for the fact that federal funding for the project isn’t yet in place. But there’s no reason to believe that situation will remain forever; both Congress and the Obama administration have been friendly toward high-speed rail, and California is in line to get a significant amount of it.


And in the worst-case scenario, if there’s no federal funding at all, the money California voters have already approved won’t go to waste — it will go, for example, to improve the existing Caltrain lines.




For some HSR critics and skeptics, the uncertainty around federal funding is a reason to either not build the project, or to not build it in their backyard. The proper response, however, is not to be a passive actor, but to instead actively work to secure federal funding for HSR. You can go to the FourBillion.com site and told their Congressional representatives they want $4 billion in the FY 2011 budget, as a first step toward advocacy for the $50 billion in the transportation bill reauthorization.


ENDORSEMENTS: San Francisco ballot measures





This measure would extend a 1990 parcel tax that expires in 2010 by another 20 years, keeping it at its current rate ($32 a year for single family homes and commercial enterprises, $16 a year per dwelling unit for mixed use buildings). The tax brings in $7 million a year for San Francisco school facilities and would finance seismic upgrades, structural strengthening and related improvements of its facilities, and child care centers. Vote yes.





It’s hard to argue against a $430 million bond act to upgrade police, fire, and water facilities to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the city’s most basic public safety infrastructure in the event of an inevitable earthquake. Hard — but not impossible: Sup. Chris Daly, the lone vote against Prop. B, points out that the bond money would be used to upgrade police stations but that the old County Jail at 850 Bryant St. wouldn’t get any help. Prisoners, it seems (even those who are awaiting trial and have been convicted of nothing) aren’t worth protecting. And the Fire Department has been very hazy about where it’s going to spend the cash. So we’ve got some concerns here — but on balance, we’re endorsing Yes on B.





By some accounts, this measure was put together in retaliation for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s November 2009 demand that Film Commission executive director Stefanie Coyote resign — shortly after her husband, actor Peter Coyote, supported Attorney General Jerry Brown over Newsom for governor. But Bill Barnes, who works as a legislative aide for Newsom ally Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, the author of Prop. C, says Alioto-Pier was working on this measure even before Coyote got ousted.

Either way, it’s a positive step. Prop. C would streamline a convoluted permitting process for shooting films in San Francisco — a process that can involve multiple departments — and would create a one-stop shop. It would also split the power to appoint the film commissioners between the mayor and the board (6-5, respectively), and require that all 11 commissioners have specific qualifications or experience. Vote yes.





Prop. D is a compromise. Sup. Sean Elsbernd wanted to reform the city’s pension system by mandating higher employee contributions and an end to what’s known as “spiking” — giving some employees a big raise just before they retire. Under current law, that worker would get a pension based on the inflated salary.

Elsbernd wanted to change the calculation and base pensions on an average of the final three years of salary an employee earned. Labor countered that some lower-paid workers only reach their top pay at the end of their careers. The final deal would base pensions on a two-year average. Prop. D would also require future employees to contribute and extra 2 percent to their pensions and require the city to set aside some money every year for the pension and retiree health care systems. In the end, progressive Sups. David Campos and Eric Mar signed on, and the city employee unions aren’t opposed. Vote yes.





Prop. E would make one simple tweak to the reporting requirements for San Francisco’s annual city budget: a line-item on how much is spent on security for city officials and visiting dignitaries. As things stand, the amount the police department spends to protect people like, oh, say Mayor Gavin Newsom while he is crisscrossing the state campaigning for (lieutenant) governor is kept secret. That’s information the public has a right to know. Vote yes.





Prop. F would allow a tenant facing a rent increase to file a petition with the Rent Board claiming financial hardship. If the tenant was unemployed, or had his or her wages cut by 20 percent or more, or didn’t get a cost of living increase in government benefits and was paying at least 33 percent of his or her income as rent, the rent hike would be delayed for 60 days pending a hearing. If the renter can establish hardship, the landlord would have to hold off on the increase until the tenant’s employment or benefit situation improved. Few San Francisco landlords would be hurt by the delay in what are typically modest rent hikes — but a lot of tenants could avoid eviction. Vote yes.





Prop. G, a policy statement, became a moot point earlier this year, but it’s still good for San Franciscans to affirm the city’s support for bringing high-speed rail service downtown. The California High-Speed Rail Project is moving to create bullet train service from SF to downtown Los Angeles using bond money approved by voters in 2008. Even though that bond measure named the Transbay Terminal as the northern terminus of the first phase, some officials raised doubts about whether the downtown location was the best choice. That rail service was integral to plans for the transit center, which is currently being rebuilt, so the Board of Supervisors placed this measure on the ballot to support that choice. Earlier this month, the California High-Speed Rail Authority considered other alternatives and voted to stay with the Transbay Terminal. That’s the right way to go; vote yes.

The people vs. corporate power



The June 8 election is shaping up to be one that pits the people against powerful business interests, a contest that will demonstrate either that money still rules or that growing public opposition to corporate con-jobs has finally taken root.

On the state level, the five ballot measures include two brazen money-making schemes and two experiments in election reform, along with primary races that are still in flux. In San Francisco, where the ballot measures still have a few more weeks to shake out, the election will feature two rarely contested judges races, recession relief for renters, City Hall fiscal reforms, and a fight for control of the local Democratic Party.

So far, only four local measures have qualified for the San Francisco ballot, all placed there by members of the Board of Supervisors. Progressives qualified the Renters Economic Relief package (which limits rent increases during recessions and sets conditions for landlords passing costs to tenants), an initiative establishing community policing standards, and one affirming city support for making Transbay Terminal the northern high-speed rail terminus. Supervisors were unanimous in supporting a charter amendment governing the Film Commission.

But the board is still hashing out changes to the more controversial ballot proposals, a debate that will continue at its Feb. 23 meeting. They include an overhaul of how the city funds its pension program and an effort to remove Muni salary minimums from the city charter, both by Sup. Sean Elsbernd; a $652 million seismic safety bond proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom; and a Sup. John Avalos charter amendment that would prevent the mayor from unilaterally defunding certain budget expenditures. All measures must be approved by March 5.

Also still forming up in the coming weeks are primary races for legislative seats (although no incumbents appear to be facing strong challenges) and all eight state constitutional offices, including governor (where Attorney General Jerry Brown seems poised to easily win the Democratic nomination), lieutenant governor, and attorney general (which District Attorney Kamala Harris is running for).

Candidates have until March 12 to declare themselves for statewide and legislative offices, as well as for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which could play a key role in this fall’s Board of Supervisors elections. Two years ago, a slate of progressives led by Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly launched a surprise attack to wrest control of the board away from the moderates who have long controlled it. Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and their downtown allies are expected to try hard to regain control over their party’s purse-strings and endorsements.



Another struggle from two years ago is also being replayed. In 2008, then-Sup. Gerardo Sandoval successfully challenged Superior Court Judge Thomas Mellon, arguing the Republican-appointed jurist was too conservative (and the entire court is not diverse enough) for San Francisco. This time the target is Judge Richard Ulmer, a conservative appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ulmer is being challenged by two LGBT attorneys, Daniel Dean and Michael Nava, the latter endorsed by Sen. Mark Leno, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and Peskin, who chairs the Democratic Party and could be helpful in the race. “He’s a brilliant guy,” Leno said of Nava.

Leno also has endorsed deputy public defender Linda Colfax, a Latina lesbian, in a four-way race to replace retiring Judge Wallace Douglass. The other candidates are Harry Dorfman, Roderick McLeod, and Robert Retana. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two finishers square off in a runoff election in November.

Leno said he’s thrilled to see a diverse crowd of attorneys seeking judgeships: “This governor has failed horribly in his appointments, not only with the LGBT community, but with communities of color as well.”



The struggle between the broad public interest and the wealthy power brokers that have long-dominated California politics is most apparent in the state propositions, which have been certified and for which ballot arguments are now being collected by the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Two of those ballot measures, Propositions 16 and 17, are blatantly self-serving efforts by a pair of powerful corporations to increase their profitability, however deceptively and with overwhelming amounts of campaign cash they are presented.

Prop. 16, sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would require local governments to get two-thirds of voters to approve creation of energy programs like Clean Power SF, San Francisco’s plan for developing renewable energy projects and selling that power directly to citizens.

As we’ve reported (“Battle royale,” Jan. 13, and “PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive,” Dec. 22, 2009), PG&E placed the measure on the ballot to avoid having to repeatedly crush public power initiatives around the state with multimillion dollar campaigns, even though political leaders like Leno and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi say the measure violates the state’s community choice aggregation law. That law allows local governments to create energy programs and prohibits PG&E from interfering with those efforts.

“The unregulated behavior of corporate arrogance is killing our democracy. Prop. 17, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, would let companies increase car insurance premiums for a variety of reasons that are now prohibited by the 1988 measure Prop. 103. Mercury has continuously attacked that landmark law, using lawsuits, huge political contributions, sponsored legislation, and, according to newly released documents from the California Department of Insurance (see “The malevolence of Mercury Insurance,” Feb. 10, Guardian Politics blog), blatantly illegal activity in setting premiums and excluding certain customers, such as artists, bartenders, and members of the military.

“The Mercury initiative is even more pernicious than what it was doing before,” Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote Prop. 103 and works for Consumer Watchdog, told the Guardian. “Under Mercury’s initiative, if you’ve never had prior insurance, you can be surcharged for the first time. Then they’ve thrown in some other tricks and traps.”

Mercury spokesperson Coby King told us the company has been unfairly maligned and denies that the measure is simply about boosting its profits: “Prop. 103 is the law of the land, but to the extent there are improvements that can be made that are pro-business and pro-consumer, Mercury has not been shy about acting in the public interest.”

Yet few public interest groups or public officials believe the claims being made by Mercury or PG&E, and they hope that the public won’t be fooled.

“These are measures designed to give a financial advantage to a specific industry or company,” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who battled Mercury as California’s first insurance commissioner, told us. He strongly opposes both measures, but did say, “Money talks. It always has, particularly in propositions.”

Yet Leno said he’s a bit more hopeful: “Californians have been savvy in the past, and I do believe they’ll be able to see through the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads.”

“To me, it’s a classic case study of what’s going on with the initiative process in California and with politics in general,” said Derek Cressman, western regional director of California Common Cause. “There are two initiatives literally sponsored by corporations to push very narrow interests.”

Yet Cressman said recent events could help. There’s been a big public outcry in recent weeks over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, the role that insurance companies played in sinking federal health care reform efforts, and the way businesses interests are hindering efforts to deal with global warming.

“It makes people aware of the overwhelming role corporations are playing in dictating government policy,” Cressman said.



A pair of election reform measures might help lessen the influence of money and political parties. Prop. 14 is an open primaries measure that Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) got placed on the ballot as a condition for breaking last year’s budget stalemate. It would create a single primary ballot and send the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party.

Prop. 15, the California Fair Elections Act, takes direct aim at the corrupting influence of money in elections, creating a pilot public finance program in the secretary of state races for 2014 and 2018. The measure, which has broad support from politicians and good government groups in the Bay Area, is modeled on successful programs in Maine and Arizona.

“No elected official should be in the fundraising game the way they are now,” campaign chair Trent Lange told us. “This is a way to change how we fund elections.”

The idea is to create a model that will eventually be used for other offices. The campaign fund would be generated by a $350 annual fee on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers. Currently lobbyists pay just $12.50 per year to register, which Lange said, “just shows the power of lobbyists in Sacramento.” *


Transbay Terminal’s two-station solution


By Steven T. Jones

As the deadline approaches for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to figure out how its massive new Transbay Terminal will accommodate the California High-Speed Rail project, it appears the agency may pursue a two-station solution to the capacity question.

TJPA spokesperson Adam Alberti tells the Guardian that involved agencies are hoping operational adjustments can be made to handle up to eight trains per hour at Transbay, and that the additional four trains per hour that the California High-Speed Rail Authority says it wants might have to stop at the existing 4th and Townsend station.

He said there is a growing consensus against building a second floor of train platforms, which could add $1 billion to the price of the project. The TJPA board needs to land on a plan by May so current contracts can be issued and so regional agencies can come together on a request for about $1 billion in federal stimulus money when the state makes its formal request for federal high-speed rail funding in June.

CHSRA Chair Quentin Kopp continues to question the Transbay Terminal project, saying its schedule and location have been dictated by its bus component and noting that its costs have been creeping ever higher. “This has all the earmarks of San Francisco’s Big Dig.”

Station leaves the train


› steve@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY The Transbay Terminal rebuild is moving forward, but this multi-modal downtown transportation station seems to be pulling away from what was supposed to be its showcase centerpiece — the California High-Speed Rail Project — before it can satisfy the design and capacity needs rail officials require.

San Francisco officials from Mayor Gavin Newsom to Sup. Chris Daly, who sits on the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) Board of Directors, all say high-speed rail must be a component of the Transbay Terminal. Yet they were caught off-guard when the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) recently made clear that the station would need to handle up to 12 trains per hour, more than double what current station designs can accommodate.

Even as phase one of the station got underway in December (see "Breaking ground," 12/10/2008), it lacked the more than $300 million needed for a so-called train box that would make it easier and cheaper to later bring high-speed rail and Caltrain into what would otherwise be a $4.3 billion bus station and commercial complex.

TJPA officials were struggling with how to secure that money, ideally through federal stimulus funds, when officials from CHSRA and Caltrain told a Feb. 25 Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting that current designs were inadequate for their needs (see "Stimuutf8g transit, 3/4/09).

While the demand for straight platforms, rather than the curved ones TJPA designed, can be fairly easily addressed, the volume issue is far more significant and costly. During a March 12 TJPA meeting on the issue, engineers said that adding the third floor of trains that would be needed to handle 12 trains per hour would add $1 billion to the cost. Even if no train box is built, TJPA officials say that just the foundation work and deeper dig needed for the higher capacity would add $500–$700 million to the cost of the project’s first phase.

The good news is the federal stimulus package sets aside $8 billion for high-speed rail development, and Transbay Terminal is one of the few shovel-ready projects out there that would qualify for immediate assistance. The bad news is the criteria for attaining those funds won’t be ready by the time TJPA plans to sign its construction contracts in late May.

Delaying the project would not only increase costs and forestall the immediate economic stimulus impacts of the construction, it would also anger bus transit agencies such as AC Transit, which kicked in $57 million to the project. "AC Transit expects the TJPA to meet its commitment to AC Transit and its passengers, as well as keep the construction of phase one on schedule," AC Transit attorney Kenneth C. Scheidig wrote to TJPA March 11.

At the March 12 meeting, TJPA members uniformly reacted with dismay to their dilemma, criticizing CHSRA for its unrealistic demands. Program manager Emilio Cruz said the agency had designed to high-speed rail specifications and only learned in January of the desire for trains to run up to every five minutes during peak hours.

"They were presented without adequate justification for why they need increased frequency," Cruz told the TJPA board as he offered his analysis for why that frequency isn’t needed to handle the 12 million annual riders the system predicts for 2030 and noting that Tokyo — which has far greater volume and density — is the only high-speed rail station in the world to run 12 trains per hour.

CHRSA executive director Mehdi Morshed said Cruz isn’t a rail expert and disputed his analysis, noting that Tokyo and Paris each have multiple stations that together run far more than 12 trains per hour. He also noted that the BART system is at capacity after just 30 years.

"We are building a train that has the capacity to hold not just the riders in 2030, but beyond that," he said. "They are trying to fit the high-speed trains of the future in a very limited space, and we’re telling them that’s not adequate."

Morshed said his agency is still years away from getting into station design, but has been as accommodating as possible with TJPA’s desire to move forward now. Daly and others have pointedly criticized CHSRA and its chair, Quentin Kopp, to which Morshed said, "Sure, we can take all the blame, but how is that going to help San Francisco get its station?"

Transbay Terminal still lacks rail solution


By Steven T. Jones

It’s still an open question whether the trains will ever arrive at the new Transbay Terminal, an impasse that the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors will discuss tomorrow morning in City Hall.
After breaking ground on the new terminal in December, the project was thrown into doubt last week with surprise revelations that officials with both the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain say there are fatal design flaws that could preclude their use of the multi-modal transportation hub.
Since then, there’s been lots of finger-pointing but no real progress, frustrating city officials and transportation advocates. As Dave Snyder, transportation policy coordinator for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), told the Guardian, “The most important thing really is that the different agencies stop fighting and figure it out so we can get this downtown extension.”

Spin vs. substance



Hollywood paparazzi crews are beginning to follow high-profile politicians, such as Mayor Gavin Newsom, the same way they track the likes of Britney Spears, the San Francisco Chronicle reported recently. And when a celebrity gossip photographer surreptitiously aims the lens at a political leader, the picture that emerges isn’t always flattering.

Likewise, the documents that can be extracted through public records laws — including the federal Freedom of Information Act, California Public Records Act, and San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance — don’t always paint political figures in the most favorable light.

Both end products leave the same impression of a glimpse behind the curtain — consumers feel they’re privy to the raw, unpackaged truth. But while photos may show politicians looking silly or meeting with controversial power brokers, documents show how the people’s business is being conducted. So the willingness of officials to promptly comply with requests for documents and information says a great deal about whether their public statements match their private deeds.

Nathan Ballard, Newsom’s press secretary, characterizes (through e-mail, the medium through which he insists on dealing with the Guardian) the mayor’s commitment to open government as being "as strong or stronger than any public official in this country."

But to hear some proponents of open government tell it — and in our experience here at the Guardian — the Newsom administration keeps much of the mayor’s business under wraps, leaving many info-seekers in the dark or reliant on Ballard’s spin. Responses to requests for public records tend to be delayed and incomplete, and queries directed to the mayor’s office of communications are often returned with terse, one-line e-mails that obscure more than illuminate.

Rick Knee, a longtime member of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force — the city body charged with upholding the open-government rule — says Newsom has been in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance on several occasions. "Mayor Newsom’s actual practices regarding Sunshine have been, shall we say, less than what one would desire of him," Knee says. Despite those violations, he adds, the mayor "continues to refuse to provide what remedies the task force calls for on his part."

Under Proposition 59, a state constitutional amendment that won overwhelming voter approval in 2004, the records kept by public officials are considered to be "the people’s business." In practice, however, it doesn’t always pan out that way.

For example, a group of citizens informally known as the Sunshine Posse who have made it a personal quest to improve government transparency by peppering city departments with Sunshine requests, have sounded alarm bells over the mayor’s refusal to release a more detailed daily calendar. One Sunshine Posse member began seeking more fleshed-out mayoral itineraries back in 2006, according to group member Christian Holmer, to gain an understanding of whom the mayor had met with and what had been discussed.

But he quickly ran into a slew of difficulties. "The Mayor’s Office ignored our simple request for 255 days," Holmer told the Guardian. "We sent weekly reminders to most of his staff and key members of the city attorney’s executive and government teams for months and months." After bringing the matter to the attention of the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Holmer says, a new set of problems cropped up. "For the Mayor’s Office, it was an ongoing tale of crashed hard drives, changing office personnel, lost documents, overt/covert confusion, and best intentions."

Nearly three years later, the scrutinizing crew remains frustrated with the results, saying the Mayor’s Office has only come forth with a watered-down schedule, called the Prop. G calendar ("scrubbed" and "virtually useless," in Holmer’s opinion), rather than the more descriptive document known as the working calendar. Many days, Newsom’s Prop. G calendar is blank, and seldom is there more than a few hours worth of activities, each one usually described in just a few words.

The Prop. G calendar seeks to comply with the minimum standards for calendars set forth in the city’s 1999 sunshine law: "The mayor … shall keep or cause to be kept a daily calendar wherein is recorded the time and place of each meeting or event attended by that official…. For meetings not otherwise publicly recorded, the calendar shall include a general statement of issues discussed."

The working calendar is a confidential document, the Mayor’s Office held in a letter responding to the Sunshine Posse’s complaint that the mayor was withholding public information. "The Mayor’s Office prepares a working calendar that is extremely detailed and accounts for his time from departure from home until his return in the evening," the letter states. "The working calendar contains not only the mayor’s meeting schedule, but also confidential information such as the officers assigned to protect him, security contact numbers, the mayor’s private schedule, details of his travel [etc.]. As with past administrations, the mayor’s staff keeps the working calendar and its contents confidential…. The computer system automatically deletes the working calendar after five days."

Despite this defense, the task force determined that the working calendar is in fact a public document that should be provided to the citizens. Doug Comstock was task force chair when the issue was heard. "We made it very clear that they have to turn over those documents," he says. "If there’s a document that’s being created using public monies and public funds, that is a more specific calendar, that’s the document that needs to be provided." Comstock also noted that it is possible for the Mayor’s Office to redact sensitive information that could pose a security risk. Nonetheless, he says, three years have passed and "the real calendar remains hidden from view."

When asked about the complaints regarding the calendar, Ballard responded, "Their criticism is baseless. We exceed far [sic] the requirements of the Sunshine Ordinance with the level of disclosure that we provide."

Erica Craven, an attorney who sits on the task force, believes there’s room for improvement on the mayor’s practices regarding sunshine. "My instinct is that there are a lot of people who work in the Mayor’s Office who are committed to open government," she says. "But there are some troubling things we’ve seen as well, such as complaints where the Mayor’s Office hasn’t sent a representative to respond to allegations. I would like to see a little bit more commitment and leadership on open government from the Mayor’s Office — I think it would set a good tone in City Hall."

In recent weeks, interest in the mayor’s schedule has intensified once again in light of the city’s financial predicament. In the face of a looming budget deficit of unprecedented size and with the economy in shambles and jobs at stake, journalists and affected citizens are seeking details about how the conundrum is being dealt with inside City Hall.

Last month, the Guardian filed a request under the Sunshine Ordinance for details on the mayor’s meetings about the budget, asking for "a list of all the labor and business leaders and supervisors that he’s met with about the budget, the dates of those meetings and how long they lasted, all documents associated with those meetings (including any agendas, communications to set up those meetings and follow-up communications after the meetings), and summaries of what was discussed at those meetings, including any outcomes or agreements."

Under the Sunshine Ordinance, such "immediate disclosure" requests are supposed be honored in two days’ time, but it took five days and a Guardian reminder for the Mayor’s Office to respond via e-mail, saying: "As you know, the Sunshine Ordinance does not require us to create documents. If you can point to a specific document that you’re seeking, I’d be happy to try and locate it for you."

Three days later, the Mayor’s Office forwarded the Prop. G calendar, which revealed that the mayor booked 7.5 hours of meetings about the budget crisis over the course of 17 days, none with labor representatives (whom Ballard said Newsom had met with). It included one-line entries disclosing whom he met with and when, but no information concerning the substance of the discussion. When the Guardian pressed for more information, the Mayor’s Office said there were no other documents associated with those meetings or any other information they were willing to provide.

Similarly, just last week, the Guardian tried to find out what the Mayor’s Office was doing about reports that Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority were balking at using the Transbay Terminal, citing technical concerns. On March 6, we asked who was working on the issue, what communications there had been with these agencies, and other basic information.

Ballard would say only that "The mayor is fully engaged in finding a comprehensive regional solution that ensures that high speed rail will come to the Transbay Terminal," and denied further requests for more substantive information.

Ballard acknowledges that the Mayor’s Office has "occasionally" been found to be in violation of the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. However, he noted, "I can’t remember a time when the Ethics Commission did not overturn a task force decision against our office. In other words, most if not all task force decisions against us have, upon review, been found to be without merit."

Actually, the chronically under-funded Ethics Commission isn’t charged with judging whether SOTF findings have merit. The SOTF is the arbiter of whether the Sunshine Ordinance was violated, but it has no enforcement authority and therefore must rely on Ethics to pursue violations — if it has the will and resources to do so.

This touches on a trend that Knee says is a fundamental challenge to upholding the Sunshine Ordinance. "If the [task force] finds that there has been a willful violation … we can refer our findings to any or all of four entities: Ethics, the Board of Supervisors, the District Attorney, and the California Attorney General," Knee explains. "At one time or another we have made referrals to any or all of those organizations. And every single time, those entities have thrown out our findings. Not one complaint we have submitted has been upheld."

To remedy this, he says, a package of proposed reforms is in the works. "We want to give the task force some teeth," he says. "We want enforcement power of our own."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.

Stimuutf8g transit


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Public transit agencies in the Bay Area are being hit with deep cuts to their operating budgets, thanks to the recent state budget deal, and are hoping to use money from the federal economic stimulus bill to maintain their operations.

That conflict played out during a Feb. 25 hearing by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland, the agency that distributes federal transportation funds to the nine Bay Area counties, which was considering how to distribute $341 million in funding intended for public transit agencies and $154 million for road projects.

Caltrain, AC Transit, Bay Area Rapid Transit, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, other Bay Area districts, and transit user groups urged the MTC board to direct most of the money to immediate needs rather than long-term projects.

Community groups urged the MTC to abandon plans to use $70 million for BART’s Oakland Airport extension and $75 million for the Transbay Terminal rebuild in San Francisco.

“People who are most affected when Muni makes fare increases and service cuts are people who are transit-dependent,” said Razzu Engen, who represents the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and the Transit Justice Project. “You can have the best capital expansion project there is out there, but if you don’t have the money to run it, forget it, it’s not worthwhile.”

While the MTC voted to remove the Transbay Terminal expenditure — noting that it could tap into a separate pot of $8 billion for high-speed rail projects in the stimulus measure — they kept the BART extension project in place, leaving $271 million to be divided among the transit agencies.

“Our ongoing need is to maintain continuing operations. But maintenance doesn’t have a very big constituency on the commission. We have a firm commitment to capital programs,” MTC spokesperson Randy Rentschler told the Guardian.

Judson True, spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (which operates Muni), said the money will help offset state funding losses of $61 million over the next two years and allow the agency to “rehabilitate the system.”

Among the expenditures approved by the MTC was $11 million to install 67 new Muni ticket vending machines and money for new Muni vehicles and rail interchanges.

Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of San Francisco County Transportation Authority, supported the MTC’s decision. “[We’re] going to see money flowing through formulas to Muni to alleviate service conditions on the T-Third, N-Judah, the L.”

Moscovich maintains that the region “needs to take the opportunity of the stimulus package to do things that are going to change the way we live. Paradoxically, these big projects like the Transbay project are the things that are going to take us in that direction.”

Yet the removal of the Transbay Terminal funding, while upsetting to Sup. Chris Daly — who serves on both the MTC board and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority board — turns out to be even more complicated than it seemed at the time.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported March 2 (“Transbay high-speed rail station hits a snag”) that both the California High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain — systems expected to share the new Transbay Terminal rail terminus — are now expressing doubts about whether they will use the facility after all because of design flaws with its rail component.

CHSRA chair Quentin Kopp was quoted as saying, “Three sets of engineers met and concurred that the design for the station was inadequate and useless for high-speed rail.”

TJPA spokesperson Adam Alberti, who has been sparring with Kopp in recent months over whether Transbay will be the terminus for a high-speed rail system extending from San Francisco to Los Angeles (see “Breaking ground,” 12/10/08), told the Guardian, “I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds.”

He said the TJPA is currently working to resolve the engineering problems and handle the increased volume expected from high-speed rail and Caltrain and he hopes to have a solution in place by March 12, when he said the MTC will revisit the matter.

BART General Manager Dorothy Dugger also defended the Oakland Airport extension, telling the Guardian, “The challenge in transit is not one over the other. We need to address all those requirements if we’re going to end up with an effective, functioning system that continues to attract people out of their cars and into the smart environmental choice — which is public transit.”