Towards a Grand Bargain on California Water Policy

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirWhen it comes to water policy in California, perhaps the people are more savvy than the special interests. Because the people, or more precisely, the voters, by huge majorities, have approved nine water bonds in the past 25 years, totaling $27.1 billion. It is likely they’re going to approve another one this November for another $8.9 billion.

The message from the people is clear. We want a reliable supply of water, and we’re willing to pay for it. But the special interests – or whatever you want to call the collection of politicians, unelected bureaucrats with immense power, and other stakeholders who actually decide how all this money is going to be spent – cannot agree on policy. A recent article in the Sacramento Bee entitled “Why San Francisco is joining Valley farmers in a fight over precious California water,” says it all. “Precious California water.” But what if water were so abundant in California, it would no longer be necessary to fight over it?

As it is, despite what by this time next year is likely to be $36 billion in water bonds approved by voters for water investments since 1996, the state is nowhere close to solving the challenge of water scarcity. As explained in the Sacramento Bee, at the same time as California’s legislature has just passed long overdue restrictions on unsustainable groundwater withdrawals, the political appointees on the State Water Resources Control Board are about to enact sweeping new restrictions on how much water agricultural and municipal consumers can withdraw from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

This is a perfect storm, and every conservation, recycling and storage project currently funded or proposed will not make up the shortfall. In 2002, well before these new restrictions were being contemplated, the California Dept. of Water Resources issued an authoritative study, “Averting a California Water Crisis,” that estimated the difference between demand and supply at between two and six million acre feet per year by 2020. An impressive response from the public during the most recent drought, combined with some investment in water infrastructure has narrowed that gap. But the squeeze is ongoing, with tougher challenges and tradeoffs ahead.

Abundance vs Scarcity

When thinking about solutions to California’s water challenges, there is a philosophical question that has to be addressed. Is it necessary to persistently emphasize conservation over more supplies of water? Is it necessary to always perceive investments in more supplies of water as environmentally unacceptable, or is it possible to decouple, or mostly decouple, environmental harm from investment in more water supplies? Is it possible that the most urgent environmental priorities can be addressed by increasing the supply of water, even if investing in more water supplies also creates new, but lessor, environmental problems?

This philosophical question takes on urgent relevance when considering not only the new restrictions on water withdrawals that face Californians, but also in the context of another great philosophical choice that California’s policy makers have made, which is to welcome millions of new immigrants from across the world. What sort of state are we inviting these new residents to live in? How will we ensure that California’s residents, eventually to number not 40 million, but 50 million, will have enough water?

It is this reality – a growing population, a burgeoning agricultural economy, and compelling demands to release more water to threatened ecosystems – that makes a grand political water bargain necessary for California. A bargain that offers a great deal for everyone – more water for ecosystems, more water for farmers, more water for urban consumers – because new infrastructure will be constructed that provides not incremental increases, but millions and millions of acre feet of new water supplies.

The good news? Voters are willing to pay for it.

How to Have it All – A Water Infrastructure Wish List

When considering what it would take to actually have water abundance again in California, the first step is to try to determine the investment costs, imagining a best case scenario where every good idea got funded. Here’s a stab at that list, not differentiating between local, state and federal projects. These are very approximate numbers, rounded upwards to the nearest billion:

Projects to Increase Supplies of Water

(1) Build the Sites Reservoir (annual yield 0.5 MAF) – $5.0 billion.

(2) Build the Temperance Flat Reservoir (annual yield 0.25 MAF) – $3.0 billion.

(3) Raise the height of the Shasta Dam (increased annual yield 0.5 MAF) – $2.0 billion.

(4) So Cal water recycling plants to potable standards with 1.0 MAF capacity – $7.5 billion.

(5) So Cal desalination plants with 1.0 MAF capacity – $15.0 billion.

(6) Desalination plants on Central and North coasts with 0.5 MAF capacity – 7.5 billion

(7) Central and Northern California water recycling plants to potable standards with 1.0 MAF capacity – $7.5 billion.

(8) Facilities to capture runoff for aquifer recharge (annual yield 0.75 MAF) – $5.0 billion.

Total – $52.5 billion.

Projects to Increase Resiliency of Water Distribution Infrastructure

(9) Retrofit every dam in California to modern standards, including Oroville and San Luis – $5.0 billion.

(10) Aquifer mitigation to eliminate toxins with focus on Los Angeles Basin – $7.5 billion.

(11) Retrofit of existing aqueducts – $5 billion.

(12) Seismic retrofits to levees statewide, with a focus on the Delta – $7 billion.

Total – $24.5 billion.

The total of all these projects, $77 billion, is not accidental. That happens to be the latest best case, low-ball estimate for California’s completed high speed rail project. Without belaboring the case against high speed rail, two comparisons are noteworthy.

First, an ambitious program to create water abundance in California and water infrastructure resiliency in California based on this hypothetical budget is achievable. These numbers are deliberately rounded up, and the final costs might actually be lower, whereas it is extremely unlikely that California’s high speed rail project can be completed for $77 billion.

Second, because people will actually consume these new quantities of water that are being supplied and delivered, private financing will be attracted to significantly reduce the taxpayer’s share.

The Impact of a $77 billion Investment on Water Supply, Resiliency, and Ecosystems

As itemized above, at a capital cost of $52.5 billion, the total amount of water that might be added to the California’s statewide annual water budget is 5.5 million acre feet.

This amount of water would have a staggering impact on the demand vs. supply equilibrium for water. It is nearly equal to the total water consumed per year by all of California’s urban centers. Implementing this plan would mean that nearly all of the water that is currently diverted to urban areas could be instead used to ensure a cool, swift flow in California’s rivers, while preserving current allocations for agriculture. The options for environmentalists would be almost unbelievable. Restore wetlands. Revive the Delta. Refill the shrinking Salton Sea.

The environmentalist arguments against the three dams are weak. Shasta Dam is already built. The impact of expanding the Shasta Dam is purportedly the worst on McCloud creek, where it will affect “nearly a mile” of what was “once a prolific Chinook salmon stream,” (italics added). That negative impact, which seems fairly trivial, has to be balanced against the profound benefit of having another 500,000 acre feet of water available every summer to generate pulses of swift, cool water in the Sacramento River. The proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir is proposed on a stretch of the San Joaquin River that already has a smaller dam. The Sites Reservoir is an offstream reservoir that will not interfere with the Sacramento River.

The environmental benefits of these dams are not limited to their ability to ensure supplies of fresh water for California’s aquatic ecosystems. They can also be used to store renewable electricity, by pumping water from a forebay at the foot of the dam into the reservoir during the day, when solar energy already brings the spot price of electricity down to just a few cents per kilowatt-hour, then generating hydro-electric power later in the evening when peak electrical demand hits the grid. This well established technology has already been implemented on dams throughout California, and remains one of the most cost-effective ways to store clean, but intermittent, renewable energy. It will also be a profit center for these dams.

The environmentalist arguments against desalination are also weak. The energy required to desalinate seawater is comparable to the energy necessary to pump it from Northern California to the Los Angeles Basin. The outfall can be discharged under pressure a few miles from shore, where it is instantly disbursed in the California current. The impact from the intakes is grossly overstated by environmentalists, when considering that even if all of these contemplated desalination plants were built, the water they would intake is only a fraction of the amount of water taken in for decades by California’s power plants that are sited on the coast and use seawater for cooling.

As for the Delta, the primary environmental threat to that ecosystem is the chance that an earthquake destroys the hundreds of miles of levees, causing the agricultural areas behind those levees to be flooded. Not only would agricultural contaminants enter the water of the Delta, but the rush of water flooding into the areas behind the levees would cause salt water from the San Francisco Bay to rush in right behind, creating conditions of salinity that would take years to remove, if ever.

This is why investing in levee upgrades and a Delta Smelt hatchery is a preferable solution to the Delta tunnels. The tunnels would ensure a resilient supply of water from north to south, but the Delta would still be vulnerable to levee collapse. Levee upgrades and a Delta Smelt hatchery would accomplish both goals – resiliency of the water supply and of the Delta ecosystem. Moreover, the presence of massive water recycling and desalination facilities in Southern California would take a great deal of pressure off how much water would need to be transported through the Delta from north to south.

How to Finance $77 Billion for Water Infrastructure

Funding capital projects depends on three possible sources: operating budgets, general obligation bonds, or revenue bonds. Operating budgets, which used to help pay for capital projects, and which ought to help pay for capital projects, will never be balanced until real pension reform occurs. So for the most part, operating budgets are not a source of funds.

A useful way to differentiate between general obligation bonds and revenue bonds are that the general obligation bonds impose a progressive tax on Californians, since wealthy individuals pay about 60% of all tax revenues in California. Revenue bonds, on the other hand, because they are serviced through sales of, for example, water produced by a desalination plant, are regressive. This is because all consumers see these costs included in their utility rates, and utility bills constitute a far greater proportion of the budget for a low income household.

The Grand Bargain – Creating Water Abundance in California
(MAF = million acre feet)

Projects to increase supplies of water

By financing water infrastructure through a combination of revenue bonds and general obligation bonds, instead of solely through revenue bonds, water can remain affordable for ordinary Californians. The $24.5 billion portion of the $77.0 billion wish list, the funds for dam, aqueduct, and levee retrofits, along with aquifer mitigation, are not easily serviced through revenue bonds. A 30 year general obligation bond for $24.5 billion with an interest rate of 5% would cost California’s taxpayers $1.6 billion per year. Some of these projects, to the extent they are improving water delivery to specific urban and agricultural consumers, might be funded by bond issuances that would be serviced by the agencies most directly benefiting.

To claim that 100% of the revenue producing water projects can be financed through revenue bonds is more than theoretical. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant financing costs, principle and interest payments a nearly $1.0 billion for the plant’s construction, are paid by the contractor that built and operates the plant, with those payments in-turn funded through the rates charged to the consumers of the water. The contractor also retains an equity stake in the project, meaning that additional capital costs incurred privately are also funded via a portion of the rates charged to consumers.

Some of the revenue producing assets on the grand bargain wish list may also have a portion of them paid for by general obligation bonds. Determining that mix depends on the consumer. For example, a revenue bond for the reservoir projects may be applied to agricultural consumers who are willing to pay well above historical rates to have a guaranteed source of water for their orchards, which have to survive through dry years.

For urban consumers in particular, making the more expensive projects financially palatable may require general obligation bonds to cover part of the costs, so the remaining costs are affordable for ratepayers. For example, desalination is a relatively expensive way to produce water, making it harder to finance 100% with revenue bonds. But without desalination, wastewater recycling and runoff capture are not sufficient local sources of water in places like Los Angeles. The overall benefit to Californians of adding another 1.5 million acre feet per year to the state’s water supply, using desalination which is impervious to droughts, may be worth having some of its cost financed with general obligation bonds.

To fund roughly 50% of the revenue producing water supply infrastructure ($26.2 billion) and 100% of the water resiliency and distribution infrastructure ($24.5 billion) on this list would cost taxpayers about $3.0 billion per year. While this might strike some as an unthinkable amount to even consider, these projects meet all the criteria for so-called “good debt.” Constructing them all would solve California’s challenge of water scarcity, possibly forever. All of the projects are assets yielding ongoing and long-term benefits that will outlast the term of the financing. At the same time, water would become so abundant in California that prioritizing water allocations to revive ecosystems would no longer provoke bitter opposition. And California’s residents would live again in a state where taking a long shower, planting a lawn, and doing other water-intensive activities that are considered normal in a developed nation, would once again become affordable and normal.

Other Ways to Help Pay for Water Abundance in California

Enable and Expand Water Markets

Even if a grand bargain is struck between environmentalists, farmers, and water districts, and massive investments are made to increase the supply of water, enabling and expanding water markets will help optimize the distribution of available water resources. Similarly, reforming California’s labyrinthine system of water rights might also help, by making it easier for owners of water rights to sell their allocations. Fostering water markets while protecting water rights have interrelated impacts, and ideally can result in more equitable, appropriate water pricing across the state. It might also help make it unnecessary to impose punitive tiered rates or rationing on household consumers.

Reform Environmentalist Barriers to Development

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, is a “statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.” While the intent behind CEQA is entirely justifiable, in practice it has added time and expense to infrastructure projects in California, often with little if any actual environmental benefit. An excellent summary of how to reform CEQA appeared in the Los Angeles Times in Sept. 2017, written by Byron De Arakal, vice chairman of the Costa Mesa Planning Commission. It mirrors other summaries offered by other informed advocates for reform and can be summarized as follows:

  • End duplicative lawsuits: Put an end to the interminable, costly legal process by disallowing serial, duplicative lawsuits challenging projects that have completed the CEQA process, have been previously litigated and have fulfilled any mitigation orders.
  • Full disclosure of identity of litigants: Require all entities that file CEQA lawsuits to fully disclose their identities and their environmental or, increasingly, non-environmental interest.
  • Outlaw legal delaying tactics: California law already sets goals of wrapping up CEQA lawsuits — including appeals — in nine months, but other court rules still leave room for procedural gamesmanship that push CEQA proceedings past a year and beyond. Without harming the ability of all sides to prepare their cases, those delaying tactics could be outlawed.
  • Prohibit rulings that stop entire project on single issue: Judges can currently toss out an entire project based on a few deficiencies in environmental impact report. Restraints can be added to the law to make “fix-it ticket” remedies the norm, not the exception.
  • Loser pays legal fees: Currently, the losing party in most California civil actions pays the tab for court costs and attorney’s fees, but that’s not always the case with CEQA lawsuits. Those who bring CEQA actions shouldn’t be allowed to skip out of court if they lose without having to pick up the tab of the prevailing party.

Find Other Ways to Reduce Construction Costs

The Sorek desalination plant, commissioned in Israel in 2015, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 185,000 acre feet of water per year. Compared to Carlsbad, which also began operations in 2015, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. Imagine if the prices Israelis pay to construct desalination plants could be achieved in California. Instead of spending $15 billion to build 1.0 million acre feet of desalination capacity, we would spend less than $3.0 billion. How did they do this?

The bidding process itself adds unnecessary costs to public infrastructure projects. Moving to a design-build process could significantly reduce duplicative work during the plant’s engineering phase. Project labor agreements are another practice that at the very least deserve serious reconsideration. Would it be possible objectively evaluate the impact of project labor agreements, and determine to what extent those mandates increase costs?

What about economies of scale? If ten desalination plants were commissioned all at once, wouldn’t there be an opportunity for tremendous unit savings? What about creativity? Elon Musk, who has disrupted the aerospace industry by building rockets at a fraction of historical prices, said “the construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.” Is he even partly correct? Is that worth looking into?

Shift Government Spending Priorities

Cancel High Speed Rail: The most obvious case of how to redirect funds away from something of marginal value into water infrastructure, which is something with huge public benefit, is to cancel the bullet train. The project is doomed anyway, because it will never attract private capital. But what if Californians were offered the opportunity to preserve the planned bond issuances for high speed rail, tens of billions of capital, but with a new twist? If voters were asked to redirect these funds away from high speed rail and instead towards creating water abundance through massive investment in water infrastructure, there’s a good chance they’d vote yes.

Cancel the Delta Tunnels: By investing in levee hardening, the Delta’s ecosystems can be fortified against a severe earthquake. Reducing the possibility of levee failure protects the Delta ecosystems from their worst environmental threat at the same time as it protects the ability to transfer water from north to south. Investing in hatcheries to increase the population of the threatened Smelt is a far more cost-effective way of safeguarding the survival of that species. And investing in infrastructure on the Southern California coast to make that region water independent greatly reduces the downside of a disruption to water deliveries through the Delta. Canceling the Delta Tunnels would save $20 billion, money that would go a long way towards paying for other vital water infrastructure.

Reform Pensions: The biggest out of control budget item, by far among California’s state and local agencies, is the cost of public sector pensions. A California Policy Center analysis released earlier this year, based on public announcements from CalPERS, estimated that the total employer payments for pensions for California’s state and local government employees is set to nearly double, from $31 billion in 2018 to $59 billion by 2024. And that is a best case baseline. If there is a severe market correction, those required contributions will go up further. No discussion of how to find money for other government operations can take place without understanding the role of pension costs in creating budget constraints.

Reduce State Spending: Other ways to shift spending priorities in California, while worth a discussion, are mostly controversial. Returning the administrator to faculty ratio in California’s UC and CalState systems to its historical level of 1:2 instead of the current 1:1 would also save $2.0 billion per year. Outsourcing CalTrans work and eliminating redundant positions could save $2.5 billion per year. Reducing just state agency headcount and pay/benefits by 20% would save $6.5 billion per year. Just enacting part of that, incremental pension reform for state workers, could stop the runaway cost increases that are otherwise inevitable.

California’s state budget this year has broken $200 billion for the first time. Of that, general fund spending is at $139 billion, also a record. Revenues, however, have set records as well. The rainy day fund is full, and an extra deposit of $2.6 billion has it overflowing. Why not spend that $2.6 billion on water infrastructure? For that matter, why not spend all of the $1.4 billion of cap and trade revenue on water infrastructure?

Financing more water infrastructure will more likely come via public and private debt financing. But redirecting intended future borrowings, in particular for high speed rail and for the Delta Tunnels, could cover most if not all of the infrastructure investments necessary to deliver water abundance to Californians. And at the least, redirecting funds from government operating budgets can defray some of the operating costs, if not some of the capital costs.

Work to Build a Consensus

How many more times will California’s voters approve multi-billion dollar water bonds? The two passed in the last four years, plus the current one set for the November ballot, raise $20 billion, but only $2.5 billion of that goes to reservoir storage. Only another $3.3 billion more goes to any type of supply enhancements – mostly to develop aquifer storage or fund water recycling. Meanwhile, consumers are being required to submit to permanent water rationing, and dubious projects are being funded to save water. Artificial turf is a good example. There isn’t a coach in California who wants their athletes to compete on these dangerous surfaces. On a hot day in Sacramento, the temperature on these “fields” can reach 150 degrees. They are actually keeping sprinkler systems operating on these horrendous boondoggles, just to reduce the deadly heat buildup.

Credibility with voters remains intact to-date, but cannot be taken for granted. If a grand bargain on California’s water future is struck, it will need to promise, then deliver, water abundance to California’s residents.

Change the Conventional Wisdom

California’s current policies have stifled innovation and created artificial scarcity of literally every primary necessity – not just water, but housing, energy and transportation. Each year, to comply with legislative mandates, California’s taxpayers are turning over billions of dollars to attorneys, consultants and bureaucrats, instead of paying engineers and heavy equipment operators to actually build things. The innovation that persists despite California’s unwelcoming policy environment is inspiring.

California’s policymakers have adhered increasingly to a philosophy of limits. Less water consumption. Less energy use. Urban containment. Densification. Fewer cars and more mass transit. But it isn’t working. It isn’t working because California has the highest cost of living in the nation. Using less water and energy never rewards consumers, because the water and energy never were the primary cost within their utility bills – the cost of the infrastructure and overhead was the primary cost.

Changing the conventional wisdom applies to much more than water. It is a vision of abundance instead of scarcity that encompasses every vital area of resource consumption. A completely different approach that could cost less than what it might cost to fully implement scarcity mandates. An approach that would improve the quality of life for all Californians. Without abandoning but merely scaling back the ambition of new conservation and efficiency mandates, embrace supply oriented solutions as well. Build wastewater recycling and desalination plants on the Pacific coast, enough of them to supply California’s massive coastal cities with fresh water. Instead of mandating water rationing for households, put the money that would have been necessary to retrofit all those homes into new ways to reuse water and capture storm runoff.

Paying for all of this wouldn’t have to rely exclusively on public funds. Private sector investment could fund a large percentage of the costs for new water infrastructure. Water supplies could be even more easily balanced by permitting water markets where farmers could sell their water allotments without losing their grandfathered water rights. If the bidding process and litigation burdens were reduced, massive water supply infrastructure could be constructed at far more affordable prices.

The Grand Bargain

Water abundance in California is achievable. The people of California would welcome and support a determined effort to make it a reality. But compromise on a grand scale is necessary to negotiate a grand bargain. Environmentalists would have to accept a few more reservoirs and desalination plants in exchange for plentiful water allocations to threatened ecosystems. Farmers would have to pay more for water in exchange for undiminished quantities. While private financing and revenue bonds could cover much of the expense, taxpayers would bear the burden of some new debt – but in exchange for permanent access to affordable, secure, and most abundant water.

*  *  *

This is the third and final part of an investigation into California’s water future. Part one is “How Much California Water Bond Money is for Storage?,” and part two is “How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion.” Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and served as its first president.

Silicon Valley’s Leftists and the Night of the Slap Drones

internetSome of them, the big ones, will intrude the old fashioned way, beating down the door. Maybe others will look like insects, crawling innocuously across your property to come inside through your drains and A/C ducts. Or they’ll find an open window.

Across America, they’ll come by the millions, having manufactured themselves. They’ll be several generations smarter than the smartest smart phone in existence today. They’ll know everything about you, and at 4:30 a.m., on a hot night in late June, all at once they’ll come for you and everyone like you. Some of you will die, deemed to dangerous to live, but most of you will just be humanely incapacitated. Against all this technology, your AR 15 rifles are pathetically inadequate. Remember that. When it comes to protecting yourself from a tyrannical government, your guns are obsolete.

This may be a hypothetical scenario, but it isn’t a fantasy. It’s less than a decade from being technically feasible, if it isn’t already.

The Virtual Panopticon is Already Here

High technology has already transformed our military and law enforcement. Autonomous warfare is a new reality, relegating inhabited ships and planes to irrelevance in a transformation of stupefying velocity and consequences. Robots now patrol shopping malls and parking lots. Police drones watch us from above. Cameras (with blinking lights) now surveil even residential neighborhoodsNetworked cameras are using AI to monitor license plates, identify individuals via facial recognition, and respond to “suspicious anomalies.” Applying the concept of “crime prevention via environmental design,” police camera surveillance is being augmented by “directly linking into residential and business cameras.”

So what, right? We want to be safe. We’re not doing anything wrong.

Hold that thought. Let’s continue.

Do you use the internet? Of course you do. This means the government is able to (1) monitor your phone records, (2) mandate ISPs to turn over records of your online activity, (3) hack your mobile and wireless devices, (4) utilize “back doors” into your encrypted apps, (5) track your location at any time via your cell phone, (6) tap into any internet line, (7) monitor all your financial transactions, and (8) read your email.

Big deal. My life is boring. Have a look. Knock yourself out. I don’t care. Ok, here are a few more reminders of just how far big tech has intruded into our lives.

Do you use a washer, a dryer, a dishwasher, a refrigerator, an air conditioner, and, of course, a television? What about a coffee maker, an oven, an air purifier, or a clock or a radio? Do you have a swimming pool? Do you water your lawn?  Well guess what, the “internet of things” means all of that is being remotely monitored. And if none of your appliances are “connected,” it doesn’t necessarily matter. If you use electricity, there is now software that “profiles” anything that’s plugged into an electrical outlet, then generates a database of unique appliance signatures to “train an artificial neural network that is employed to recognize appliance activities.”

And then there are our new and omnipresent digital helpmates, SiriAlexaGoogle Assistant, and all the rest of those devices who talk to you and listen to you.

It’s all wondrous. Bring it on. The fun has just begun. Wait till the androids arrive; we’ll marry themgive them rightslet them vote and own property. Because they aren’t going to be remotely monitored, and they won’t adhere to programs written by human beings with an agenda. Of course not. Relax. But someday soon, try to tell an atheist who married his android that it’s just a toaster, and that apart from big brother watching from afar, nobody’s home inside.

If you think the millions are brainwashed today, imagine tomorrow.

The Owners of the Panopticon are Leftist Oligarchs

Which brings us to the big tech giants who have created near monopolies on how we communicate online, how we learn, how our opinions are shaped, and what we believe in. We have seen how, in order to influence elections and mass political sentiments, Google manipulates search results, Facebook meticulously curates fantastically detailed profiles of its billions of users at the same time as it suppresses politically incorrect views, YouTube selectively demonetizes or restricts videos, and Twitter “shadowbans.” And we know they coordinate their efforts. Where’s this headed?

If you want to know where high technology is taking us, go to the Silicon Valley, in sunny California. In this epicenter of high tech, Santa Clara County, 45% of working age residents (25-45) are foreign born. These foreigners tend to be either wealthy, highly educated Asians who own and work in high tech companies, or relatively poor, uneducated Latin Americans who do menial service jobs. That dichotomy is reflected in the price of housing, bid upwards by Asian immigrants who bring with them suitcases full of cash, and the poverty rate, pushed up by hard working, low wage Latino immigrants who can’t afford the cost of living. Santa Clara’s median home price is $925,000 and the poverty rate is 9.4%. But how are these demographics represented in Silicon Valley’s politics?

The White liberal elite, who love to hire Asian programmers on H-1 visas (thousands of whom are foreign agents), and love to hire Mexicans and Central Americans to cook, clean, landscape, and drive down wages for service workers across the board, have concocted a winning political message. It is cynical and dishonest, but devastatingly effective. They posture and bellow as loud and as often as they can how much they care about “people of color” and “diversity,” at the same time as they enact draconian restrictions on land development, conventional energy use, or any sort of infrastructure investment that might actually help lower the cost of living. For them, it doesn’t matter. They’re rich.

And now they have Donald Trump, the most convenient boogeyman in the history of American liberalism.

Leftists Want to Turn America into California

One recent and very representative expression of the liberal arrogance that informs the Silicon Valley elite is an influential article written early in 2018 by Peter Leyden, a journalist and entrepreneur who calls Silicon Valley home. Entitled “The Great Lesson of California in America’s New Civil War,” the article claims “there’s no bipartisan way forward at this juncture in our history — one side must win.” Perhaps, sadly, that is the only thing in this frighteningly arrogant manifesto where everyone might find agreement.

Leyden’s partisan certainty is only matched by his astounding failure to recognize the cold reality of his state’s supposedly enlightened policies. He writes “Since 1980, their [Republican] policies have engorged the rich while flatlining the incomes of the majority of Americans. But California has the fourth highest rate of income inequality in the U.S., eclipsed among major states only by the equally Democrat-controlled New York. Leyden is invited to take a walk through the barrio in East San Jose, or the ‘hood up in San Francisco’s Hunters Point. He should ask the residents how they feel they’re being served by the politicians running California. He should ask them how they like watching millions of wealthy Asian immigrants buy up all the homes and drive up the prices, while poor Latino immigrant workers drive down all the wages.

When it comes to “climate change,” Leyden’s pronouncements are also representative of California’s liberal elite. In between his despicable use of the term “Deniers,” which equates climate skeptics with holocaust deniers, Leyden writes “California is leading the world in technological innovation and creative policies to counter climate change.” But what if Leyden and all his alarmist cohorts are dead wrong? What if the debate over climate change should not be silenced? Because what if including clean fossil fuel and safe nuclear power is the only possible way humanity can rapidly and effectively empower aspiring billions of people in the developing world, delivering the energy-driven prosperity to their cultures that is absolutely correlated to lower birthrates? What if renewable power is actually less sustainable? More immediately, what if creating this artificial scarcity of energy is making it impossible for low-income Californians to pay their bills? But the elite don’t care about that. They’re rich.

By the way, try to search for balanced material on clean energy on Google – you pretty much can’t find it. And if you can still find robust links to credible information produced by climate contrarians on your Facebook feeds, know that you are only seeing them because Facebook has put you into a “silo.” Those with online activity patterns that indicate they aren’t already receptive to climate contrarianism will NOT see those links. They won’t know. They will view monolithically packaged information spreading one message – the debate is over, fossil fuel and nuclear power are bad for humanity and the earth. Case closed. Ditto for every other important, politically incorrect premise of conservatism.

The War for America’s Future is Happening Now, and Later will be too Late

There’s nothing wrong with some immigration; there’s nothing wrong with investing in renewable energy. But to brand the skeptics as “racists” and “deniers,” and to suppress their arguments in the electronic public square – that is where the Silicon Valley abuses their power. And it has just begun.

The most chilling part of Leyden’s discussion on the virtues of California’s “one party state” is when he asserts “America today does exhibit some of the core elements that move a society from what normally is the process of working out political differences toward the slippery slope of civil war.” He goes on to write “two different political cultures already at odds through different political ideologies, philosophies, and worldviews can get trapped in a polarizing process that increasingly undermines compromise. They see the world through different lenses, consume different media, and literally live in different places. They start to misunderstand the other side, then start to misrepresent them, and eventually make them the enemy. The opportunity for compromise is then lost. This is where America is today. At some point, one side or the other must win – and win big. The side resisting change, usually the one most rooted in the past systems and incumbent interests, must be thoroughly defeated — not just for a political cycle or two, but for a generation or two.”

Leyden’s remarks epitomize the implacable resolve of the left wing in America. He should be taken seriously. “One side or the other must win – and win big.”

The problem here, of course, is that we “deplorables” don’t want to be “thoroughly defeated.” We don’t want to live in a nation where we can’t afford homes, we can’t find good jobs, we can’t afford heating or cooling, and our transgressions are perpetually monitored inside and outside our rented apartments. We don’t want to live in “smart growth” communities where the only places we can afford to live are in high rises and the only transportation we can afford to use are trains and buses. We don’t want our culture destroyed by mass immigration nor do we want our economic ambitions crushed by unfair trade and punitive environmental mandates. We don’t like what the Democrats have done to California. We’re not going to accept their way of life.

Silicon Valley is the origin of modern high technology. It has offered innovations, most of them desirable if not the stuff of dreams. It is transforming the world. But it is easy to imagine how so much power can be misused. And Silicon Valley today is controlled by leftists. These high-tech titans form the most powerful group in a leftist coalition that includes academia, entertainment, mainstream media, and the HR departments in every major corporation in America. If you don’t think this coalition is powerful enough to take over the federal government and turn America into California, you’re dreaming.

Which brings us back to the Night of the Slap Drones. Back in June, 1934, another virulent pack of leftist utopian fascists decided that the “side resisting change” had to be “thoroughly defeated.” Within hours, on this “Night of the Long Knives,” hundreds of people identified as the resistance were silenced forever – shot in their beds at 4:30 in the morning, or arrested and hung within days. And if it happens this time, it won’t be knives and guns that do the killing. It will be robots and drones, controlled by the left-wing oligarchs and their minions of “anti-fascist” true believers, the elite of the Silicon Valley.

Stop them now. Because if and when they take power, resistance will be futile.

Ed Ring is a fifth-generation Californian with more than 20 years experience in business and politics, primarily with start-up and early-stage organizations. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development. Ring has an undergraduate degree in political science from UC Davis, and an MBA in finance from the University of Southern California.

This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

Why Teachers Unions are the Worst of the Worst

Teachers unionWhen considering the influence of unions on American society, there are vast differences depending on what type of union one considers.

Private sector unions, for all the criticisms they may deserve, have nonetheless played a vital role in securing rights for the American worker. Subject to appropriate regulations, private sector unions have the opportunity to continue to play a vital role in American society. If they would bother to embrace the aspirations of their members, instead of the multinational corporations their leaders now apparently collude with, they might even support immigration reform. That would elevate the wages and benefits of all American workers, especially those doing low paying jobs.

Public sector unions, on the other hand, should be illegal. They negotiate with elected officials who they help elect. They negotiate for a share of coerced tax revenue, rather than for a share of profits, meaning there are no competitive checks on how much they can demand. The agenda of public sector unions is inherently in conflict with the public interest. But given the reality of public sector unions, it is important to recognize that some public sector unions are worse than others.

Public safety unions, for example, have successfully lobbied for pension benefits that are not sustainable. This calls for a difficult but necessary economic discussion that can only end two ways – either these pension benefits are going to be reduced, or cities and counties across California and elsewhere will go bankrupt in the next major recession. But public safety unions have not undermined their profession the way the teachers unions have.

The teachers unions are guilty of all the problems common to all public sector unions. They, too, have negotiated unsustainable rates of pay and benefits. They, too, elect their own bosses, negotiate inefficient work rules, have an insatiable need for more public funds, and protect incompetent members. But the teachers union is worse than all other public sector unions for one reason that eclipses all others: Their agenda is negatively affecting how we socialize and educate our children, the next generation of Americans.

Work Rules Harm Public Schools

One of the most compelling examples of just how much harm the teachers union has done to California’s schools was the 2014 case Vergara vs. the State of California. In this case, attorneys representing public school students argued that union negotiated work rules harmed their ability to receive a quality education. In particular, they questioned rules governing tenure (too soon), dismissals (too hard), and layoffs (based on seniority instead of merit). In the closing arguments, the plaintiff’s lead attorney referenced testimony from the defendant’s expert witnesses to show that these and other rules had a negative disproportionate impact on students in disadvantaged communities.

Despite winning in the lower courts, the Vergara case was eventually dismissed by the California Supreme Court. Teachers still get tenure after less than two years of classroom observation. Incompetent teachers are still nearly impossible to fire. And whenever it is necessary to reduce teacher headcount in a district, the senior teachers stay and the new teachers go, regardless of how well or poorly these teachers were doing their jobs. The consequences of these self-serving work rules are more than academic.

The evidence that California’s public schools are failing is everywhere. Los Angeles, a city whose residents are – perhaps more than anywhere else – representative of America’s future, is home to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with 640,000 K-12 students. And as reported earlier this year in the LA School Report, according to the new “California School Dashboard,” a ratings system that replaced the Academic Performance Index, LAUSD is failing to educate hundreds of thousands of students. In the most recent year of results, 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts, and 50 percent earned a D or F in math. Fifty percent of LAUSD’s schools are failing or nearly failing to teach their students English or math.

Attack Innovative Charter Schools

In the face of failure, you would think LAUSD and other failing school districts would embrace bipartisan, obvious reforms such as those highlighted in the Vergara case. But instead, these unions are relentlessly trying to unionize charter schools, which would force those schools to adhere to the same union work rules. In Los Angeles, the Alliance Network of charter schools has delivered demonstrably better educational outcomes for less money, while serving nearly identical student populations.

How does it help to impose union work rules on charter schools that are succeeding academically? How does that help the children who are America’s future?

A Left-Wing Political Agenda

The other way the teachers union is unique among public sector unions is their hyper-partisanship. Despite and often in defiance of their memberships, nearly all unions are left-wing partisan organizations. Nearly all of them support left-wing causes and Democratic political candidates. But the teachers unions do so with a zeal that dwarfs their counterparts. Larry Sand, a former LAUSD teacher and prolific observer of teachers union antics, has spent years documenting their left wing agenda.

For example, reporting on the annual conventions of the two largest national teachers unions, Sand writes: “The National Education Association convention at the beginning of the month gave us a clue which theory would become reality when the union passed quite a few über liberal New Business Items, maintained its lopsided leftward political spending, and gave rogue quarterback Colin Kaepernick a human rights award. And here in the Golden State, the California Teachers Association continues its one-way spending on progressive initiatives and endorsed 35 state legislators in the June primary – all Democrats.

A week after the NEA convention, the other national teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers held its yearly wingding and left absolutely no doubt as to its future political direction. The resolutions passed by the union at the convention would make any socialist proud. Universal health care – whether single-payer or MediCare for All, full public funding for, and free tuition at all public colleges and universities, and universal, full-day, and cost-free child care are what AFT wants for the country. Additionally, the union resolved to double per-pupil expenditures for low-income K-12 districts and to ‘tax the rich’ to fully fund ‘IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Title I and state allocations to public colleges and universities.’”

Left-Wing Student Indoctrination

This left-wing political agenda finds its way into the classroom, of course. At the same time as California’s K-12 public school students are not being effectively taught English or math skills, they are being exposed to agenda-driven political and cultural indoctrination.

Again, as documented by Larry Sand: “Nor are textbooks safe. Communist and notorious America-hater Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is assigned in many high school history classes. Zinn felt that the teaching of history “should serve society in some way” and that “objectivity is impossible and it is also undesirable.” As a Marxist, he’d prefer a society that resembles Stalin’s Russia. Additionally, Pacific Research Institute’s Lance Izumi notes that pages and pages of the latest California History, Social Science Framework ‘are devoted to identity politics, and the environmentalist, sexual, and anti-Vietnam War movements, with detailed and extensive bibliographical references. In contrast, the contemporaneous conservative movement, which succeeded in electing Californian Ronald Reagan as president, with its complex mixture of social, economic and national security sub-movements, is given cursory and passing mention, with no references provided.’”

Public sector unions are going to be with us for a long time. But in the wake of the Janus ruling, members who don’t agree with the political agenda of these unions can quit, depriving them of the dues that – to the tune of nearly a billion per year just in California – make them so powerful.

Teachers, in particular, should carefully consider this option. America’s future depends on it.

Ed Ring is the co-founder of the California Policy Center and served as its first president.

California’s Transportation Future – The Common Road

LA-Freeway-Xchange-110-105With light rail, high speed rail, and possibly passenger drones and hyperloop pods just around the corner, it’s easy to forget that the most versatile mode of transportation remains the common road. Able to accommodate anything with wheels, from bicycles and wheelchairs to articulated buses and 80 ton trucks, and ranging from dirt tracks to super highways, roads still deliver the vast majority of passenger miles.

As vehicles continue to evolve, roads will need to evolve apace. Roads of the future will need to be able to accommodate high speed autonomous vehicles. They will also need to be smart, interacting with individual vehicles to safely enable higher traffic densities at higher speeds. But can California build roads competitively? How expensive are road construction and maintenance costs in California compared with other states in the U.S.? How can California make the most efficient use of its public transportation funds?

PHYSICAL VARIABLES AFFECTING CONSTRUCTION COSTS

The Federal Highway Administration maintains a cost/benefit model called “HERS” (Highway Economic Requirements System) which they use to evaluate highway construction and highway improvement projects. One of the products of HERS is the FHWA’s most recent summary of road construction costs, updated in 2015. Its findings reveal both the complexity facing any cost analysis as well as the wide range of results for similar projects.

For example, on the FHWA website’s HERS summary page, Exhibit A-1 “Typical Costs per Lane Mile Assumed in HERS by Type of Improvement” data is presented in nine columns, each representing a typical project category for which the FHWA analyzes costs. They are: “Reconstruct and Widen Lane,” “Reconstruct Existing Lane,” “Resurface and Widen Lane,” “Resurface Existing Lane,” “Improve Shoulder,” “Add Lane, Normal Cost,” “Add Lane, Equivalent High Cost,” New Alignment, Normal,” “New Alignment, High.”

The FHWA then break their results in each of the nine project categories into two broad groups; rural and urban. Within each of those two groups, they offer the subgroups; “Interstate,” “Other Principal Arterial” (these two are combined in the “Rural” group), “Minor Arterial,” and “Major Collector.” This creates seven cost groups, each of which are then further split. For “Rural” categories, they split into “Flat,” “Rolling,” and “Mountainous.” For “Urban” categories, they split into “Small Urban,” “Small Urbanized,” “Large Urbanized,” and “Major Urbanized.”

To make a long story short, and to state the obvious, “cost per lane mile” is never one number. The FHWA’s HERS table, which itself is a reductive, arguably arbitrary summary, there are 252 distinct cost per lane mile estimates, 24 per project category. And within these nine categories, the range of costs is dramatic.

According to the HERS analysis, adding a new lane to an interstate on flat terrain in a rural area costs $2.7 million per lane mile. To do the same thing in a major urbanized area costs $62.4 million per lane mile, more than twenty times as much. Even minor projects display wide ranges in cost. Resurfacing an existing lane of a principal arterial in a flat, rural area costs $279,000 per lane mile. To do the same in a major urbanized area costs $825,000 per lane mile, three times as much.

The fact that topography, existing usage and population density affect road construction costs isn’t news. But the wide variation in costs that result from these physical variables compounds the other major factor affecting road construction costs, which is the political and economic environment of the states where projects occur. As will be seen, the FHWA compiles state by state data on road construction. This data, however, is apparently not sufficient to allow the FHWA to produce a HERS summary showing costs per lane mile by state.

EXAMINING FEDERAL DATA ON ROAD EXPENDITURES BY STATE

The FHWA Office of Highway Policy Administration does issue a highway statistics report, updated annually, that provides valuable per state data on highway mileage and transportation budgets. Their 2016 report is available but incomplete (still missing key tables such as “Disbursements by States for Highways”) so the 2015 report is still the most current. These tables are uniformly formatted and downloadable.

California’s Spending per Mile vs. Condition of Roads

An excellent analysis of FHWA data is produced every year by the Reason Foundation. Earlier this year they released “23rd Annual Highway Report,”ranking each state’s highway system in 11 categories, including highway spending, pavement and bridge conditions, traffic congestion, and fatality rates.” Highlights from this study can offer insights into how efficiently California is spending its highway dollars compared to other states through using the following logic: How does California rank in terms of how much it spends per mile, compared to how California ranks in terms of the condition of its roads.

Overall California is ranked 43 among the 50 states “Total Disbursements per mile.” California is ranked 41 in “Capital & Bridge Disbursements per mile,” 47 in “Maintenance Disbursements per mile, and 46 in “Administrative Disbursements per mile.” In terms of road condition, California is ranked 33 in “Rural Interstate Pavement Condition,” 45 in “Urban Interstate Pavement Condition,” and 46 in “Rural Arterial Pavement Condition.”

There’s not too much you can conclude from that in terms of efficient use of funds. Among the 50 states, California appears to be at or near the bottom 10% in spending per mile of road, and also in pavement condition.

In terms of cost-efficiency, among all states, this data suggests California is in the middle of the pack.

How Centralized Are California’s Road and Highway Agencies?

Within the FHWA data an interesting finding is the great variation between states in road mileage under state administration vs. road mileage under other administration – mostly cities and counties, but also federal. Only a few states, mostly the larger western states, have any significant mileage administered directly by the federal government – Alaska 14%, Arizona 22%, Idaho 16%, Montana 16%, New Mexico 16%, Oregon 28% and Washington 11%, and Wyoming 13%. Most all other states have low single digit percentages of roads administered by the federal government. The national average is 3%. California, only 6%.

State administration of road construction is higher, but still relatively low. The national average is 19% of road mileage administered by state agencies. California’s is significantly lower than average, at only 8%. Altogether, nationally, 78% of road mileage is administered by local agencies, mostly cities and counties. In California, 87% of road mileage is administered locally.

Before inferring too much from this fact, that road construction and administration is overwhelmingly ran by local agencies, FHWA funding data is useful. The data shows that total funding for roads in California in 2015 was $19.0 billion. Of that, 44% ($8.3 billion) was for “Capital Outlay,” which refers to new roads, new lanes on existing roads, new bridges, and bridge upgrades. The national average is 47% of all road spending on capital.

More to the point, the CalTrans budget in 2015 was $10.5 billion. According to the California Office of Legislative Analyst, that “includes $3.9 billion for capital outlay, $2 billion for local assistance, 1.8 billion for highway maintenance and operations, and $1.7 billion to provide the support necessary to deliver capital highway projects. How much of that was reported to the FHWA as part of the total $8.3 billion spent on capital? Certainly the $3.9 billion “for capital outlay.” Probably the “$1.7 billion to provide the support necessary to deliver capital highway projects”? What about the $2.0 billion of local assistance? For capital projects, it appears that between $5.6 billion and $7.6 billion of the total spending of $8.3 billion came from CalTrans.

The State of California’s role in total spending on road transportation is also reflected in the budget allocations in that year for the California Highway Patrol, $2.4 billion, which is included in the FHWA’s total for California, under “Law Enforcement” ($3.4 billion). It is possible, if not likely, that the state’s $1.1 billion for the Dept. of Motor Vehicles is included either in the Law Enforcement or Administration categories in the FHWA data, or allocated between them. Finally, the finance charges – interest payments and debt retirement totaling $1.5 billion – are not coming out of the budgets for the state’s transportation agencies, but some percentage of that total is paid by the state. Altogether it is likely that the State of California directly funded about $12 billion, roughly 63% of the $19 billion spent on road construction and administration in 2015.

Based on funding data, state agencies clearly play a central role in constructing and maintaining California’s roads.

California’s Spending per Lane Mile vs. Percentage of Lane Miles in Urban Areas

An interesting alternative way to get at how efficiently California uses its public transportation funds is to evaluate based on the expanded variables of total lane-miles instead of state administered road mileage, and total spending on roads by all public transportation agencies instead of just Caltrans. The rationale for using lane-miles relies on the assumption that it is more costly to build a mile of six lane highway (three lanes in each direction) than a mile of two lane road, meaning that lane miles provides a more meaningful denominator, if the numerator is total public spending on roads. The rationale for examining spending by all public transportation agencies relies on the assumption that many, if not most of the political and economic factors that govern road construction costs in California are common throughout the state, having the same effect on construction costs regardless of the funding source.

Using FHWA data on lane miles and total spending by state to calculate spending per lane-mile, California was found to average $43,999 in total spending per lane-mile. This ranks California 42 among all states. The national average is $25,474 in transportation spending per lane-mile. Put another way, for every dollar that, on average, is spent to build and maintain a lane-mile in the nation as a whole, California spends $1.73. This suggests that California is not spending its transportation funds nearly as efficiently as the most other states, but without considering other variables this is a misleading statistic.

One of the largest factors determining cost per lane-mile is urbanization. This is clearly evident in the previously mentioned FHWA website’s HERS summary page, Exhibit A-1 “Typical Costs per Lane Mile Assumed in HERS by Type of Improvement,” where costs per lane-mile are uniformly higher in urban areas, and in some cases far higher. As noted earlier, “According to the HERS analysis, adding a new lane to an interstate on flat terrain in a rural area costs $2.7 million per lane mile. To do the same thing in a major urbanized area costs $62.4 million per lane mile, more than twenty times as much.”

The idea that road construction costs more in urban areas can be attributed to several interrelated factors: Land values are typically greater in densely populated areas. Construction challenges are greater in urban areas where it is more likely that existing structures may have to be acquired and demolished to permit road construction or widening. Labor costs are typically higher in urban areas. Urbanized regions also are likely to have more local restrictions on development, leading to more costly permitting processes and higher fees. There are other key factors influencing road construction costs – for example, climate and topography – but urbanization is easily quantifiable and likely the most significant of them.

For this reason, the following chart includes not only spending per lane-mile by state, but also includes the percentage of lane-miles, by state, that are in urban areas. Here, California distinguishes itself as one of the most urbanized states, having 59% of its lane-miles within urban areas. The national average, by contrast, is almost half that; only 31% of the nation’s lane miles are located in urban areas. Tracking these two rankings, spending per lane-mile and percentage of urban lane miles, permits an illuminating comparison. If one assumes there is a correlation between cost per lane mile and percentage of lane miles in urban areas, then how a state ranks in one should be similar to the how it ranks in the other.

Six states conform exactly to this assumption. Utah, for example, is the 24th most expensive state to construct roads per lane-mile, and it has the 24th most rural percentage of roads. Similarly, Illinois has a $/mile rank of 34, and it has a rural road % rank of 34. Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the District of Colombia all have $/mile rankings exactly equal to their rural road % ranking. Five more states have a deviation between their $/mile rank and their rural road % rank of only one. California’s is only two – it is ranked 42 in its cost per lane mile, making it quite expensive relative to most states, but it is ranked 44th in its percentage of lane-miles in rural areas, meaning it is one of the most urbanized states.

The final set of columns on the chart, on the right, show a score for each state based on the rural road percent ranking less the $/mile ranking. If the score is negative, that means the state spending on lane miles ranks better (less per mile) than its rank based on its percentage of rural lane-miles. In other words if the score is negative, that means the state is spending less per lane mile than one might expect based on their level of urbanization, and if the score is positive, the state is spending more per lane mile than one might expect based on their level of urbanization.

Once again, California is in the middle of the pack.

Spending per Lane-Mile by State; Percentage of Urban Lane-Miles by State
(Source: Federal Highway Administration, 2015)

If one assigns any credence to these rankings, it presents interesting questions. Why is it that states like Georgia and Tennessee, which are relatively urbanized, are among the top performers in terms of being able to cost-effectively construct and maintain their roads? In the case of Tennessee, it isn’t as if they’ve neglected their roads, they are in the top ten in all three FHWA measurements of pavement condition. Georgia’s scores on pavement condition put them in the middle among states.

In some of the poorly ranked states, topography and climate may be factors. Alaska, the one of the least urbanized states nonetheless is one of the most expensive states to build and maintain roads, which should come as no surprise. Most of the states with low scores have harsh climates.

A final note regarding California – while it shows a high correlation between its cost per lane-mile and its level of urbanization, it does not score well in the three pavement condition indexes; 33 out of 50 for rural interstates, 45 out of 50 for urban interstates, and 46 out of 50 for rural arterial roads.

California can do better.

OBSERVATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Federal data indicates that while California scores poorly compared to other states in terms of road conditions, California also spends less than other states in terms of expenditures per lane mile. Considered in isolation, those two facts only suggest that California is using its transportation funds no more and no less efficiently than the average state. While federal data also indicates that California, overall, spends nearly twice as much per lane-mile as the national average, California is also more heavily urbanized, and normalizing for that reveals again that California is being roughly as cost effective in its use of transportation dollars as the average state.

When factoring in the condition of California’s roads, however, which are near the bottom in pavement condition indexes, California is not using its transportation dollars as well as it could.

Anecdotally, literally everyone surveyed – and we talked with representatives from dozens of agencies, research firms, and transportation agencies – agreed that per mile road construction costs are higher in California than most other states. But the federal data we had access to does not offer documentary proof of that, and Caltrans, despite numerous attempts, could not produce data on per mile construction costs that could be compared to national averages.

The lack of transparency, the complexity, and the subjective nature of any resulting analysis makes it difficult to assert with any certainty where California falls relative to other states – it is either somewhat below average, or far below average, but making that call requires a level of evidence and clarity that is simply not available. Ultimately it does not matter where California falls in that continuum, because regardless of how efficiently California spends their public transportation funds per lane mile of new or upgraded roads, there are ways to improve. The following recommendations were heard repeatedly, from contractors, trade associations, and researchers familiar with the topic. The first two in particular:

(1) Reform CEQA

CEQA, or the California Environmental Quality Act, is a “statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions and to avoid or mitigate those impacts, if feasible.” While the intent behind CEQA is entirely justifiable, in practice it has added time and expense to infrastructure projects in California, often with little if any actual environmental benefit. An excellent summary of how to reform CEQA appeared in the Los Angeles Times in Sept. 2017, written by Byron De Arakal, vice chairman of the Costa Mesa Planning Commission. It mirrors other summaries offered by other informed advocates for reform and can be summarized as follows:

  • End duplicative lawsuits: Put an end to the interminable, costly legal process by disallowing serial, duplicative lawsuits challenging projects that have completed the CEQA process, have been previously litigated and have fulfilled any mitigation orders.
  • Full disclosure of identity of litigants: Require all entities that file CEQA lawsuits to fully disclose their identities and their environmental or, increasingly, non-environmental interest.
  • Outlaw legal delaying tactics: California law already sets goals of wrapping up CEQA lawsuits — including appeals — in nine months, but other court rules still leave room for procedural gamesmanship that push CEQA proceedings past a year and beyond. Without harming the ability of all sides to prepare their cases, those delaying tactics could be outlawed.
  • Prohibit rulings that stop entire project on single issue: Judges can currently toss out an entire project based on a few deficiencies in environmental impact report. Restraints can be added to the law to make “fix-it ticket” remedies the norm, not the exception.
  • Loser pays legal fees: Currently, the losing party in most California civil actions pays the tab for court costs and attorney’s fees, but that’s not always the case with CEQA lawsuits. Those who bring CEQA actions shouldn’t be allowed to skip out of court if they lose without having to pick up the tab of the prevailing party.

(2) Restructure Caltrans

Caltrans currently outsources only about 10% of its work. Despite repeated attempts to legislate changes that would require Caltrans to use contractors to lower costs, no action has been taken. In a report prepared in 2015 by state senator Moorlach, the failure of California’s legislature to implement reforms is described: “In previous administrations, Governor Schwarzenegger pushed for an 89/11 ratio and could not achieve it. Even Governor Brown proposed a reduced ratio that was rejected by the Legislature.”

By maintaining permanent engineering staff instead of contracting, whenever projects are concluded these engineers are often idle until another project comes along. The Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2015 reported that there were 3,500 of these positions created for programs that have expired, requiring an extra $500 million each year.

The advantage of contracting out engineering work isn’t merely based on more efficiently allocating personnel to projects to avoid down time. When Caltrans does the designing, then puts the project out for bids, the contracting companies have to conduct redundant design analysis in order to prepare their bids. This also contributes to increased costs which are passed on to the taxpayer as well as extra time. In moving to a system where Caltrans just specifies the project goals and lets the contractors prepare competitive bids based on in-house designs, the taxpayer saves time and money. Ways to restructure Caltrans might include:

  • Immediately increase the ratio of contracted work from 10% to 20%.
  • Permit the headcount of in-house engineers at Caltrans to reduce through retirements and voluntary departures, systematically increasing the ratio of contracted work as the number of Caltrans in-house engineers decreases. Set a goal of at least 50% contracted work within five years.
  • Abolish the current requirement that the state legislature has to approve any projects that are contracted by Caltrans instead of designed in-house.

(3) Decentralize and Innovate

On the FAQ page for Elon Musk’s Boring Company, the following innovations are proposed to lower the cost of tunneling by a factor of between 4 and 10: (1) Triple the power output of the tunnel boring machine’s cutting unit, (2) Continuously tunnel instead of alternating between boring and installing supporting walls, (3) Automate the tunnel boring machine, eliminating most human operators, (4) Go electric, and (5) Engage in tunneling R&D. More generally, on that FAQ page the following provocative assertion is made: “the construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.”

How can California use public transportation dollars to nurture innovation that will deliver more people to more places, faster, safely, for less money? One way would be to nurture competition by nearly eliminating Caltrans. Why should one state agency control nearly two-thirds of the funds for road construction and maintenance in California? Why not reduce Caltrans to a couple dozen administrators to handle federal regulations and direct federal funds and move all road work, expansion and maintenance to the counties? The counties can conform to a general state plan, but there’s no reason to have a state bureaucracy any more when the counties can be challenged to be more efficient, effective and non-duplicative in their work.

Imagine the innovation that might come out of Santa Clara County, where stretches of roadway could be immediately prioritized to add smart lanes where autonomous cars – including mini-buses and share cars – can operate safely at much higher densities and speeds. Imagine the innovation that might come out of Los Angeles County, where entire transit corridors could have congestion greatly relieved because thousands of cars are being swiftly and safely transported from point to point in underground tunnels. Imagine the innovation that might come out of San Francisco, where congestion pricing completely eliminates their chronic gridlock, or out of Orange County, where private investors team up with public agencies to use roboticized equipment to perform heavy road construction at a fraction of the cost for conventional processes?

Why not decentralize transportation management in California and turn the counties into laboratories of innovation?

(4) Expand Into the Vastness of California

It is an accident of history that California is so densely urbanized. Most metropolitan regions on the east coast, developed gradually over three centuries or more, have thousands of square miles of spacious suburbs, and tens of thousands of even more spacious expanses of moderately settled lands on the edges of remaining wilderness areas. California, in stark contrast, has nearly 18 million people residing in greater Los Angeles and over 7 million people residing in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. If you add residents of the San Diego region and Sacramento regions, you account for 32 million out of a population of 39 million. And yet all of California’s urban areas, the most densely urbanized in the nation, only constitute five percent of its 163,696 square miles! The math is compelling – you could settle ten million people in four person households on half-acre lots and it would only consume 1,953 miles. Double that for roads, parks, commercial and industrial space, and you are still only talking about urbanizing another 2.4% of California’s land. The idea that we cannot do this is preposterous.

The cost of infrastructure, roads in particular, is much higher in urban areas. So why not expand along the nearly empty Interstate 5 corridor, creating new towns and cities that are spacious and zoned to never become congested? Why not upgrade I-5 to accommodate high speed smart vehicles that provide nearly the speed of high-speed rail, while preserving the point-to-point convenience that only a car can offer? Why not expand along the entire fringe of California’s great Central Valley, where currently thousands of square miles of cattle rangeland are being taken out of production anyway? Why not build more roads on this raw land, bringing down the cost both for roads and the homes that will be built around them?

(5) Change the Conventional Wisdom

California’s policymakers have adhered increasingly to a philosophy of limits. Urban containment. Densification. Less energy use. Less water consumption. Fewer cars and more mass transit. But it isn’t working. It isn’t working because California has the highest cost of living in the nation. Using less energy and water never rewards consumers, because the water and energy never were the primary cost within their utility bills – the cost of the infrastructure and overhead was the primary cost, and those costs only go up with renewables. Cramming home construction into limited areas not only destroys the ambiance of existing neighborhoods, but simply cannot increase the supply of homes enough to lower the cost.

There is a completely different approach that would cost less and improve the quality of life for all Californians. Without abandoning but merely scaling back the ambition of new conservation and efficiency mandates, free up funds to build safe, generation III+ advanced nuclear reactors. At the same time, construct desalination plants on the Southern California coast, enough of them to supply the entire Los Angeles basin with fresh water. Instead of mandating water rationing for households, put the money that would have been necessary to retrofit all those homes into new ways to reuse water and capture storm runoff.

Paying for all of this wouldn’t have to rely exclusively on public funds. Private sector investment could fund most of the energy and water infrastructure. Water supplies could be even more easily balanced by permitting water markets where farmers could sell their water allotments without losing their grandfathered water rights. If the permit process and mandated design requirements were reduced, builders could carpet former cattle ranches with new homes, sold for a profit at affordable prices.

CONCLUSION

This is the final segment of a four part excursion into California’s transportation future. In each section the same themes emerged: It isn’t just what gets built to serve future Californians, it’s how cost effectively the money is spent. Innovation and regulatory reform – CEQA in particular, but also repealing SB 375AB 32, and related anti-growth legislation – together have the potential to lower the cost of infrastructure, transportation in particular, by at least 50%.

California’s current policies have stifled innovation and created artificial scarcity of literally every primary necessity – housing, energy, water and transportation. Each year, to comply with legislative mandates, California’s taxpayers are turning over billions of dollars to attorneys, consultants and bureaucrats, instead of paying engineers and heavy equipment operators to actually build things.

The innovation that persists despite California’s unwelcoming policy environment is inspiring. Right here are the pioneering companies that will deliver flying cars, commercial access to outer space, breakthrough modes of transportation such as hyperloop and urban tunnels. Right here are the companies that will deliver self-driving cars, cars on demand, high-speed smart cars. These things will happen within a time frame that is, by the standards of human history, breathtakingly short. And with the right assortment of pro-growth policies in place, more of them will happen right here.

California’s transportation future cannot be predicted with any certainty. If the past few decades have taught us anything, it is that innovation routinely delivers products and solutions that nobody could have possibly imagined. But it is a reasonably safe bet that the common road is the most useful mode of transportation infrastructure for which public policy can risk public funds. A flat surface where wheeled conveyances of every conceivable design can all travel from point to point, clean, smart, versatile, sustainable, and fast.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its first president.

California’s Transportation Future, Part One – The Fatally Flawed Centerpiece

California’s Transportation Future, Part Two – The Hyperloop Option

California’s Transportation Future, Part Three – Next Generation Vehicles

REFERENCES

[1] Federal Highway Administration – Highway Economic Requirements System

[2] Office of Highway Policy Information – Highway Statistics 2015

How to Resurrect California’s Republican Party

CA GOPAnyone taking a look at California’s June 2018 state primary ballot would have plenty of evidence to suggest the Republican Party in that state is dead. For starters, California’s GOP has two credible candidates for governor, businessman John Cox and State Assemblyman Travis Allen, which in a normal state might be a good thing. But California’s Republicans are a super-minority party in an open “top-two primary” that pits them against at least two well-funded Democratic candidates, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Although Cox is polling better than Allen, they’re both likely to be aced off the ticket in November.

Worse, California’s Republicans have no viable candidate for U.S. Senate. The most recognizable candidate — indelibly listed as “Republican” on the ballot despite being kicked out of the recent GOP state convention — is Patrick Little, whose campaign website’s home page includes a “learn more” button on the topic of “How We Will End Jewish Supremacism.”

There is not one higher state office in California where a Republican has a realistic chance of victory. Nearly every position — lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, controller, and state superintendent of schools — Democratic candidates are likely to win. The lone exception is insurance commissioner, where the respected Steve Poizner, who has already held that office as a Republican from 2007 to 2011, is now running as an independent.

California’s GOP Party Organization Has Failed

If you go to the California GOP website to view endorsements, you will see the party faithful failed to choose a gubernatorial candidate. This failure of leadership means that their two candidates, Allen and Cox, are likely to split the support of GOP voters, which increases the likelihood that neither Republican will advance to the general election. (Though current polling suggests Cox could squeak through.) Given the fierce determination of both these candidates, one might forgive the state GOP for not managing to make a selection.

But the state GOP’s failure to make endorsements, which are critical in open primaries where only the top two candidates advance, continues down the ticket.

For state treasurer, there is “no endorsement,” despite two Republican candidates on the ballot. For U.S. Senate, there is “no endorsement,” despite 11 Republican candidates on the ballot. That lapse renders it likely that the top Republican vote-getter in the race for U.S. Senate will be the candidate with the most name recognition — you guessed it, the loathsome Patrick Little.

For insurance commissioner, the state GOP apparently didn’t know what to do, since most of them realize former Republican Steve Poizner is a good choice. So instead of “no endorsement” showing up, they simply omitted that position from their list of endorsements. Why couldn’t the state GOP recruit and promote top candidates? Is there really any excuse for this, when there are still tens of thousands of highly successful men and women who are registered Republicans in California and would be good candidates?

When you look for leadership in California’s Republican party, you might consider the last candidate for governor who had a respectable showing: Meg Whitman. (The less said about Neel Kashkari, the better.) But Whitman just publicly endorsed a Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa. With leadership like that, who needs enemies? Is Whitman a RINO? Is she a turncoat? Or, to be brutally honest, is she just recognizing the cold reality that California is a one-party state, so she wants to support the person she perceives to be the lesser evil?

Demographic Trends Favor the Democrats

If demographic trends and current voting patterns persist, California is going to be a one-party state for a very long time. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, among California’s “likely voters,” more whites are registered as Republicans, 39 percent, than Democrats, 38 percent. But “whites” are only 38 percent of California’s population, and that percentage is dropping fast. Among residents under 18 years old, excluding illegal aliens, whites are now barely 25 percent of California’s population. Why does this matter?

Because among likely voters, Latinos registered as Democrats (62 percent) far outnumber Latino Republicans (17 percent). Among blacks, the disparity is even greater—82 percent Democrat versus 6 percent Republican. Among Asians, where the disparity is less, the Democrats still have a nearly two-to-one advantage, 45 percent to 24 percent.

California’s Democrats successfully have tainted Republicans as racist ever since Governor Pete Wilson supported Proposition 187 in 1994. That citizens’ initiative, narrowly passed by voters then utterly decimated by liberal judges, would have—gasp!—denied taxpayer-funded public services to illegal immigrants. Ever since, any attempt to place realistic curbs on benefits for illegal aliens has been met with militant opposition by Democrats who control a supermajority in California’s legislature. California’s Democrats have played the race card with impunity.

In late 2016, when incoming President Trump proposed to deport criminal aliens, Democratic Assemblyman Ricardo Lara—now running for insurance commissioner—threatened to “fight in the streets” to preserve “the work we have done.” Democratic State Senator Kevin de León—now running for U.S. Senate against long-time incumbent Democratic Dianne Feinstein—frequently refers to “President Trump’s racist-driven deportation policies.” California attorney general Xavier Becerra has been quoted stating that “Trump was showing himself to be a racist in every respect.” Examples are endless. This November, California’s Democrats are going to make Patrick Little and Donald Trump the running mate of every Republican on every ballot in the state.

But will this work forever? Does California’s GOP have to stay dead? Will “people of color” continue to believe that California should be a one-party state?

Demographics Is Not Destiny

Eventually, California’s Democrats are going to go too far, because their policies are economically unsustainable. Gavin Newsom, the favorite to occupy the governor’s mansion in 2019, proposes a single-payer health care system for the state, something that would cost at least $200 billion a year, in addition to sowing chaos throughout California’s healthcare industry. Meanwhile, California’s Democrats propose to offer full health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants, spend tens of millions to provide free college tuition to illegal immigrants, in a state where taxpayers already fund over $25 billion per year to provide public services to illegal immigrants.

How long can this go on?

Objecting to these costly programs may attract accusations of racism, but growing numbers of Latinos, blacks, and Asians, along with white liberals, may eventually decide that Democrats no longer have the answer. All it will take is one major stock correction, or one more downturn in the historically cyclical tech industry, and California’s public finances will implode. All of a sudden, hundreds of billions in tax receipts necessary to sustain free health care, free tuition, and public-sector pensions, to say nothing of benefits for illegal aliens, will vaporize. Economic calamities that reach deep into the pocketbooks and tragically disrupt the lives of ordinary voters have a way of focusing the mind.

The GOP’s case in such times, and to prevent such times, is not abstruse. It goes like this: For decades, Democrats have told you that the most important issue in the world was protecting yourselves from white racism. But while you were voting for the people who kept telling you this, their government unions, controlled by Democrats, were destroying the public schools that might have provided your children with a useful education.

Their government bureaucracies, controlled by Democrats, were driving small businesses out of business with ridiculous, punitive regulations, forcing many of them to flee the state, denying you jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Instead of investing in transportation and water infrastructure to enable a reasonable quality of life to long-time residents and new arrivals alike, Democratic politicians used taxpayers’ money to overpay the government employees, so that government unions would fund the Democratic Party.

The GOP’s case doesn’t end with exposing racism as a diversion from the real issues of economic growth. It also exposes extreme environmentalism, and the synergy between the environmental movement, the overbuilt public sector, and left-wing oligarchs.

For decades, these extreme environmentalists, all of them Democrats, prevented perfectly benign land development in a state literally sprawling with open space. They did this in the name of saving the earth, downplaying how the resulting real estate bubble pumped up government property tax receipts and goosed the returns for the real estate portfolios in government pension funds. They prevented private investment in cheap conventional energy—in particular, clean natural gas and nuclear power—so residents have to pay twice as much (or more) for electricity as people in other states. Democrats barred private investment in oil drilling and refining, and imposed automotive and fuel standards in conflict with the rest of the United States, so Californians pay substantially more at the gas pump.

A Pro-Growth Economic Opportunity Agenda for California

Turning California back into the land of opportunity isn’t that hard, since it still has the best universities, the best weather, and the largest, most diverse economy in America. And California’s GOP politicians can make it happen, by promoting a pro-growth agenda at the same time as they expose identity politics and extreme environmentalism for what they are — a gigantic scam that distracted voters from the real issues. Here is a pro-growth, economic opportunity agenda for California:

Education

Restore the balance in California’s colleges and universities so that the ratio of faculty to administrators is 2-to-1, instead of the current ratio that allows administrators often to outnumber teachers.

End all discrimination and base college admissions purely on merit. Expand STEM curricula so it represents 50 percent of college majors instead of the current 20 percent.

Enforce the Vergara reforms so it is easier to retain quality public school teachers and easier to fire the incompetent ones. Eliminate barriers to charter schools.

Criminal Justice

Restructure the penal system to make it easier for prisoners to perform useful public services. For example. along with working the fire lines during fire season, they could work all year clearing dead trees out of California’s forests. Use high-tech monitoring devices to reduce costs. Reserve current prisons only for the truly incorrigible.

Infrastructure

Scrap the high-speed rail project and instead use the proceeds to add one lane to every major interstate in California, and upgrade and resurface all state highways.

Use additional high-speed rail funds to complete plant upgrades so that 100 percent of California’s sewage is reused, even treated to potable quality.

Pass legislation to streamline approval of the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and fast-track applications for additional desalination plants, especially in Los Angeles.

Spend the entire proceeds of the $7 billion water bond, passed overwhelmingly by Californians in 2014, on storage. Build the Los Banos GrandesSites, and Temperance Flat reservoirs, adding over 5.0 million acre feet of storage to the California Water Project. Pass aggressive legislation and fund aggressive legal actions and counteractions, to lower costs and enable completion of these projects in under five years (which is all the time it used to take to complete similar projects).

Energy

Permit slant drilling to access 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from land-based rigs along the Southern California coast. Build an LNG terminal off the coast in Ventura County to export California’s natural gas to foreign markets. Permit development of the Monterey Shale formation to extract oil and gas.

Permit construction of “generation 3+” nuclear power plants in geologically stable areas of California’s interior. Permit construction of new natural gas power plants.

Housing

Repeal the 2006 “Global Warming Solutions Act” and “Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act” of 2008 and make it easy for developers to build homes on the suburban and exurban fringes, instead of just “in-fill” that destroys existing neighborhoods.

Pensions and Infrastructure

Require California’s public employee pension funds to invest a minimum of 10 percent of their assets in infrastructure projects as noted above. They could issue fixed rate bonds or take equity positions in the revenue-producing projects, or a combination of both. This would immediately unlock approximately $80 billion in construction financing to rebuild California’s infrastructure. At the same time, save the pension systems by striking down the “California Rule” that prevents meaningful pension reform.

These reforms would lower the cost of living in California, at the same time as they would create resource abundance and hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.

Why Republicans Are the Most Qualified to Rescue California

Once you’ve debunked the narrative that Republicans are racists, it is easier for voters, regardless of their ethnicity, to see their virtues. To a startling degree, California’s Republican legislators typically come from business backgrounds, whereas most Democratic legislators come from a government agency or a nonprofit background.

In 2016, an analysis of the biographies of California’s state legislators showed that 69 percent of Republican legislators came from a business background, 19 percent of them had some business and some government or nonprofit experience, and only 11 percent of them came exclusively from a government or nonprofit background. By contrast, only 6 percent of Democrats came from a business background, only 18 percent of them came from a mixed business and government or nonprofit background, while a whopping 76 percent of them came exclusively from a government or nonprofit background. One can draw profound conclusions from this unambiguous data.

In business, competence is emphasized; in government, personal connections are everything. In business, the objective is to competitively build and run productive companies; in government, to control, coerce, and redistribute. To work in business one must study engineering or finance and accounting. To work in government, one may study sociology or earn a major in any number of social justice-oriented “studies.”

What is the result of California’s Democratic lawmakers, in overwhelming numbers, lacking any experience in business? A state where financial realism is eclipsed by confrontational, utopian fantasy. A state where self-righteousness and self-deception are the currency of governance, instead of factual analysis and hard choices. A state where the infectious optimism that defines and is a prerequisite for business leadership is absent from a dismal capital.

Republicans can offer an irresistible alternative. They can promote abundance instead of scarcity; prosperity instead of an “era of limits;” hope and opportunity instead of resentment, retribution and redistribution; universal upward mobility instead of divisive scrapping for diminishing wealth.

They need to get busy.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. This article originally appeared on the website American Greatness.

California’s Transportation Future – Next Generation Vehicles

The next generation of vehicles will transform transportation in several fundamental ways. What is coming will be as revolutionary in our time as the transition from horses to horseless carriages was over a century ago. Some increments of this dawning revolution are already here in realized products. Electric drivetrains. Collision avoidance systems. Self-driving cars. Cars on demand. Aerial drones. Nearly all of the enabling technology for this dawning revolution is already here. Artificial intelligence. Visual recognition and sensor systems that use radar, sonar and LIDAR laser scanning. Mapping capabilities. GPS. Data collection. Memory chips. Communications systems. And every one of these technologies, along with investment capital, more than anywhere else, is concentrated in California.

As this revolution unfolds, our conception of what constitutes vehicular transport will change. Many vehicles will be modular and reconfigurable. On the road surface, the wheeled chassis, or “skateboard,” will contain the essentials to power and navigate the vehicle. Depending on the duty cycle, a skateboard chassis may be small, only capable of carrying a two passenger cabin, or small freight payload. Other skateboards will range in size from those capable of carrying a sedan or SUV sized passenger unit, all the way to the largest versions which, with freight or passenger units attached, would weigh up to 80,000 pounds.

Even more variation will be present in the passenger modules. An SUV sized passenger module, for example, might hold 6-8 passengers like a mini-bus. Or it might be a conference room or an office where a group of passengers could conduct work while being transported. Or it might be a sleeper unit, a rolling hotel room, where a lone passenger or a family or work crew would sleep while en-route to their destination.

Perhaps even more amazing are the aerial modules that are coming. A passenger module may arrive at a staging area on a wheeled chassis, where an aerial drone will attach itself to the top of the passenger module at the same time as that module is released from the skateboard chassis. In an automated, seamless process, the occupants will then be flown beneath this drone to their intended destination.

SELF DRIVING VEHICLES

All of the above is happening with surprising rapidity. Dozens of partnerships between major automakers and the technology partners they need to complete this process have already been formed and continue to be formed. San Francisco based Uber is working with Volkswagon and Nvidia, a major chipmaker and world leader in visual computing. Uber is also working with Toyota to develop self driving cars. Silicon Valley based Tesla continues to test “full self-driving hardware,” competing with Google spin-off Waymo, also located in Silicon Valley. Another credible Silicon Valley self-driving car startup is Aurora, which as reported by the San Jose Mercury earlier this year, is “formed by one-time heads of autonomous car projects at Google parent Alphabet and Tesla [and] will develop self-driving electric vehicles with Volkswagen and Hyundai Motor.”

Not to be excluded, Silicon Valley heavyweight Apple is confounding critics who claimed they might find achieving their business model of vertical integration too challenging to include vehicles. According to a March 2018 report in Fortune, referring to testing in California, “with 45 cars on the road, Apple is now testing more vehicles than its top rivals. Tesla, for instance, has 39 permits. Uber has 29 permits, according to the report. Alphabet’s Waymo had more than 100 permits in June 2017 and has 24 now.”

According to the same report, “Apple is now second behind General Motors’ Cruise company, which has 110 self-driving car permits in California.” The GM owned company, Cruise Automation, is headquartered in San Francisco. GM’s strategy? According to The Street, GM intends to “deploy self-driving taxis in dense urban environments to take passengers from point A to point B. Rather than a one-time sale of the vehicle, the automaker can milk hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per vehicle.” And in that same report, Ford’s strategy is “using a new vehicle capable of carrying both people or items. The unit will run a hybrid engine and operate about 20 hours per day.”

The Mercedes F 015 “Luxury in Motion” Self-Driving Concept Car

Mercedes F 015

The above photo of the Mercedes F 015 “Luxury in Motion” Self-Driving Concept Car provides a glimpse into just how much vehicular travel is going to change. Note that the dashboard and control surfaces, including an almost vestigial steering wheel, are on the right side of the compartment. The front seats are swiveled to face the rear seats, turning the area into more of a lounge or conference room than a traditional vehicle compartment. The presumption is that most of the time the car will be self-driving, allowing the passengers to pursue many of the same sedentary activity options in the vehicle that they might pursue outside the vehicle.

When it comes to major automakers and high-tech corporations, it’s hard to find a company that’s not getting involved in autonomous vehicles. A March 2018 report in TechWorld attempts to catalog all of them – some not already mentioned above include Rinspeed AG, a Swiss automaker teamed up with Samsung; Volvo, teamed up with Uber; Chinese internet giant Baidu’s self-driving vehicle platform Apollo, which includes vehicle hardware, software and cloud data platforms to help others in the autonomous cars industry; Intel, which bought Israel-based driverless car technology firm Mobileye, in partnership together with BMW; Audi in partnership with graphics cards maker Nvidia; the list goes on.

Convinced yet? Driverless vehicles are coming. They are coming in myriad forms and will employ myriad business models. Stepping to the curb and using your phone to dial up a robotic ride, any type of ride, to any destination, will become commonplace. Scheduling personalized transportation services in advance will become routine. Ownership models will become more diverse. Individuals will own cars, but so will automakers, transit agencies, taxi services; who will own these cars of the future and to what purpose is only limited by one’s imagination.

PASSENGER DRONES

If the world of self-driving cars is just around the corner, then just down the street, also set to arrive sooner than expected, are passenger drones. And again, most of the major players are operating in California. Uber has formed “Uber Air,” or Elevate, to develop aerial transportation systems. Google has two companies, operating in stealth, Cora, and Kitty Hawk. Also active in California are the companies Aurora, in partnership with Boeing, and Vahana, in partnership with Airbus.

Cora’s experimental electric powered “Air Taxi” –
takes off like a helicopter, flies like a plane

Air Taxi

An interesting company based in Santa Cruz is Joby Aviation. While over a $130 million in financing and over 120 employees isn’t all that much so far, Joby Aviation appears to be a serious contender. Investors include Intel Capital, Toyota AI Ventures, JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Capricorn Investment Group. Despite being one of the most secretive startups in a sector where stealth is the rule, not the exception, an excellent report on Joby’s progress was published by Bloomberg earlier this year.  From a remote test station deep in the mountains of California’s central coast, the Bloomberg reporters were given a ride. From the article: “Powered by electric motors and sophisticated control software, the taxi performs like a cross between a drone and a small plane, able to zip straight up on takeoff and then fly at twice the speed of a helicopter while making about as much noise as a swarm of superbees.”

This is fascinating stuff. Apparently most “air taxis” (or “sky cabs”) being developed are powered by electricity, and in many respects are just enlarged versions of the drones now commonly used by hobbyists and photographers. Joby Aviation intends to build an aircraft with a range of 150 miles on a single battery charge, carrying up to four passengers. They would travel at relatively low altitudes to avoid having to pressurize the cabin. They expect to be “100 times more quiet during takeoff and landing than a helicopter and near-silent during flyovers.”

LAND/AIR HYBRIDS

No discussion of the imminent revolution in vehicle transportation is complete without considering the possibility of travel by land and by air in the same passenger module, with a separate wheeled module for land travel, which detaches from the passenger module when it is lifted airborne by a flight module. As reported earlier this year in Electrek.co, Audi and Airbus are working on just such a solution. The following two images are from a visualization of this futuristic transportation option prepared by Italdesign in partnership with Audi and Airbus.

Aerial drone/electric car hybrid concept –
passenger module prepares to detach from land module

Aerial drone electric car

Aerial drone/electric car hybrid concept –
passenger module now attached to flight module

flight module

The Hyperlane Option

If the Hyperloop might represent the fastest conceivable mode of land based travel, then, similarly, the “Hyperlane” might represent the fastest conceivable mode of travel by autonomous wheeled vehicles on a flat road surface. The hyperlane concept was conceived by UC Berkeley graduate students, Baiyu Chen and Anthony Barrs, who proposed the hyperlane concept in 2017 as their winning entry in the Association of Equipment Manufacturers “Infrastructure Vision 2050 Challenge.” AEM’s 2017 challenge to entrants was to present concepts to “support high-speed transportation by the year 2050.”

As reported in Fortune, “The duo’s idea was to construct a ‘Hyperlane,’ or a single platform the size of four interstate lanes that would run parallel to pre-existing highways in order for self-driving cars to travel at high speeds with no chance of getting into a jam. …’we realized we could remove the tracks and deploy new, emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles.’”

Whether the Hyperlane is a dedicated four lane highway, elevated over existing highways on existing right-of-ways, or additional specialized lanes similar to the HOV lanes we’ve already got, emerging automotive technologies support safer, denser traffic at higher speeds. Electric traction motors not only have extraordinary torque which delivers impressive acceleration, they also have a wide functional RPM range, zero to 20,000, far greater than combustion engines. Back in the 1990s, a prototype version of the now legendary General Motors EV1 was clocked at 183 MPH. The current crop of electric vehicles have top speeds that are deliberately limited by software; the Chevy Volt tops out at 100 MPH, the Tesla Roadster at 125 MPH, and the Tesla Model S at 130 MPH.

Using dedicated lanes for high speed vehicular travel has been tried already. The fast lanes on the German autobahns easily qualify. If you’re driving 120 MPH in the fast lane on the autobahn, you’d better watch your rear view mirror, because if a car traveling 160 MPH crashes into your rear end, it’s your fault. German drivers obey strict rules, the most critical of which is slower drivers must always yield to faster drivers by moving promptly into the left lanes, and faster drivers must never pass on the right. And it works. The fatality rate on the autobahn is much lower than on the United States interstate system.

The Case for Cars

The conventional enlightened policy wisdom is that driving cars on roads is an obsolete way for millions of people to travel. Policy driven alternatives, costing billions each year, include light rail, high-speed rail, trolleys and bike lanes. In support of these policy alternatives, “transit villages” are zoned, along with “densification,” based on the theory that if more people live near mass transit stations, and, in general, if more people live and work in smaller urban footprints, there will be less need for people to own cars.

To explore the costs and benefits of densification and urban containment goes beyond the scope of this report. But the primary problems currently inherent in relying on cars to fulfill the requirements of mass transportation – low speeds, unsafe, congested roads – are all being solved through innovation. With upgraded roads and updated driving laws, modern cars can sustain speeds as fast or faster than California’s proposed high speed rail. And there are a variety of ways that the new innovations that are transforming vehicular travel will increase safety and relieve congestion.

Private sector funding:

With minimal government investment, the private sector is creating connected and autonomous vehicles, completely redefining the car. The enabling technologies draw from diverse industries, resulting in consortiums that bring together participants from sectors including automotive, semiconductor, telecommunications, smart phones, aerospace, robotics and AI. One challenge is ensuring that the makers of this next generation of vehicles incorporate common standards.

To navigate the roads without a driver, self-driving cars rely on vehicle to vehicle (V2V) and vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) communications. The Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research, (CAR) with a mission ” to educate, inform and advise stakeholders, policy makers, and the general public on critical issues facing the automotive industry,” has produced several recent reports evaluating what they call “intelligent transportation systems.” In their 2017 report “Planning for Connected and Automated Vehicles,” they define V2V systems as “wireless communication between vehicles, such as safety warnings and messages.” They define V2I systems as “wireless communications between vehicles and the infrastructure, such as a system that connects a vehicle to cellular towers for navigation purposes.”

As the technology matures, several industry associations are working to harmonize standards for intelligent transportation systems, nationally and globally. In CAR’s 2016 report “Global Harmonization of Connected Vehicle Communications Standards,” they explain how interoperable communications systems in vehicles are necessary to resolve the following questions:

  • Which entities communicate and to whom (e.g., vehicle, pedestrian, roadside infrastructure, central servers)?
  • Which message set is used within the communication?
  • What media and channel allocation is used (e.g., 5.9 GHz)?
  • What application is implemented and how?

Private entities supported by industry are funding this effort and working closely with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation as well as with most states. Just a few of the major organizations involved in this effort include the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ASTM InternationalSAE InternationalInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), National Transportation Communications for Intelligent Transportation System Protocol(NTCIP), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), European Committee for Standardization (CEN), European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), and the European Telecommunications Institute(ETSI).

In April 2018, as reported in the industry publication Transport Topics, two of the most prominent associations involved in setting standards, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Center for Mobility announced they have signed a memorandum of understanding with the  to help accelerate development and deployment of voluntary technical standards for connected and autonomous vehicles.

Lower costs to the consumer:

To some extent, the fact that consumers will spend less for transportation is a function of the convergence of increasingly automated manufacturing, the availability and superiority of new composite materials to replace expensive steel, global competition, and progressively lower costs for software, chip sets, sensors and other high-tech components. Moore’s law is alive and well, and doesn’t just apply to semiconductors. But lower costs and more options for consumers of transportation will not only result from ongoing advances in manufacturing, they will also result from the rollout of a variety of new business models that offer a variety of new modes of transportation.

The disruptive impact of Uber, a ride hailing service that has challenged the taxi industry to its roots, is an early example of what is coming. Uber and its competitors are already testing autonomous vehicles, something that will become common. These driverless taxis will cost less to ride, since there won’t be a driver. Similarly, privately funded “micro-transit” services will offer mini bus services based on a connectivity and AI driven dynamic awareness of consumer demand and road conditions, offering shared rides based on aggregating riders who are boarding and exiting the mini bus along routes that are optimized to move the most passengers the fewest miles in the lowest amount of time.

Ride sharing, the 21st century version of picking up a hitchhiker, will also become a more viable option than ever. For example, participants in many ride sharing services will be members, vetted in a manner similar to the vetting that occurs with the hosts and the occupants of Airbnb properties. The advantage for the vehicle owner, of course, is a having a paying passenger join them on their commute, with the added benefit of becoming eligible to drive in carpool lanes.

Car sharing, where the user takes over a vehicle, is similar to a conventional car rental. The differences are a reflection of the new technologies. For example, using their smart phone or other connected device, consumers will order a car, and within minutes the driverless vehicle will arrive wherever they are. The car can be rented by the hour, or per day, or for a longer period. The price includes fuel and insurance costs.

Also on the way are mobility services, online aggregators of all transportation options. These mobility services will offer consumers transportation options tailored to their preferences. A consumer will be presented with a variety of ways to reach their destination, ranging from a single vehicle going point-to-point to a collection of travel legs utilizing public and private transit services.

The sheer variety of these emerging transportation options, primarily funded by the private sector, suggest that there will be vibrant competition for the consumer, driving down prices. Another significant factor in lowering prices is the fact that in general, the transportation services being offered will involve multiple riders on each vehicle, spreading the per-mile costs over more people, lowering per-mile costs for each of them.

Less traffic congestion:

The ability of next generation vehicles to create cost-incentives for individuals to opt out of purchasing their own cars will reduce the number of cars competing for space on congested roads. It will also reduce the demand for parking spaces and parking garages. This will be accomplished in a variety of ways. Through ride hailing, ride sharing and micro-transit services, fewer cars will be used to deliver the same number of commuters from bedroom communities to urban centers. Through sharing of self driving cars, an early commuter may arrive at their destination, but the car itself will immediately drive itself to the nearest next consumer, transporting them to their destination instead of taking up a parking space for the rest of the day. Mobility services will present consumers with customized options, resulting in compelling incentives for them to opt out of purchasing a car, or a second car.

The other way 21st century vehicles will alleviate traffic congestion is because as semi-autonomous vehicles – for example, collision avoidance systems which are already standard on most new cars – and fully self-driving vehicles become widely adopted, the safe distance between vehicles will shrink, as will the safe speed for vehicles. The adoption of next generation vehicles will mean that the same network of lanes and roads will be able to deliver more people. Michigan’s  Center for Automotive Research, in their 2017 “Future Cities” report, depicts how in the long term, once autonomous cars are fully adopted, urban boulevards may be reconfigured with narrower lanes and fewer lanes, without compromising mobility.

Autonomous Cars – Same Road Capacity With Narrower and Fewer Lanes

Autonomous Cars

PREPARING FOR NEXT GENERATION VEHICLES

It appears likely that the technologies for next generation vehicles, operating on roads and in the air, will mature faster than our ability to develop policies and infrastructure to accommodate them. This is particularly difficult since autonomous vehicles will not suddenly displace conventional manually controlled vehicles on our roads, but will share the roads with them for many decades. But the encouraging possibility with next generation vehicles is that the public infrastructure necessary to support them is relatively limited compared to the transit solutions that currently consume huge allocations of public resources.

For example, establishing uniform standards for autonomous vehicles is being actively coordinated and funded by the major automakers and aerospace companies, along with other private sector participants. The role of the state and federal departments regulating highway travel and aviation is vital, but will not consume significant funds compared to the cost of major infrastructure investments.

In the case of aviation, next generation solutions, ranging from passenger drones today to the supersonic electric airplanes that are likely tomorrow, are virtually all designed for vertical takeoff and landing, meaning that expensive airport runway infrastructure does not require expansion in order to accommodate them.

Similarly, autonomous land-based vehicles are designed to operate at higher speeds in closer proximity to each other, reducing the need to increase road capacity. Moreover, the emerging business model for next generation vehicles strongly incentivizes consumers to forego purchasing their own car, opting instead for ride hailing, ride sharing, car sharing and micro-transit services, which also reduces the number of cars sharing the road. These new mobility solutions will also reduce demand for parking spaces and parking garages, taking further pressure off of infrastructure requirements.

It may be that for urban areas, the impact of next generation vehicles combined with the contributions from aerial transportation options, combined with congestion pricing, will mean that the only road investment necessary within urban centers is to maintain and upgrade existing roads. For major intercity connector roads, highways and freeways, however, important policy decisions loom. Because as it is, these roads are not designed or maintained in a manner sufficient to allow next generation vehicles to reach their potential.

The implications of this are profound. Next generation vehicles, in all sizes and configurations, have the potential to replace most if not all proposed mass transit solutions both for intercity and long-range travel. The maximum safe and sustainable cruising speed of a modern electric vehicle is conservatively pegged at 120 MPH. Vehicles of the future will not only be configured similarly to conventional cars and SUVs, they will also be mobile hotel rooms, entertainment lounges, offices, conference rooms, and buses of all sizes, offering countless levels of services. On properly designed and maintained roads, there is no reason these vehicular solutions cannot replace literally all current or proposed modes of surface based transit, certainly including high-speed rail but probably including light rail as well.

Policymakers have a choice. They can recognize that private industry is creating new ways to travel on land and in the air. They can cooperate to develop uniform standards and updated laws to expedite this transformation. They can revise zoning laws, redirect funding priorities, and invest in new roads and communications infrastructure. Or they can neglect road construction and instead continue to build public mass transit systems that offer dubious prospects of ever solving growing transportation bottlenecks.

Elon Musk’s Boring Company is a privately funded transit solution that transports private vehicles point-to-point underground, moving them on and off surface streets with elevators. On the Boring Company’s FAQ page, focused on ways to dramatically reduce the costs of tunneling, a provocative assertion is made: “The construction industry is one of the only sectors in our economy that has not improved its productivity in the last 50 years.”

The next installment in this series will explore the implications of this assertion. What would it take to improve productivity in the heavy road construction industry? There has been a healthy public discussion regarding how much it will cost to build California’s high speed railroad. But how much would it cost to build roads in California? How much would it cost not only to catch up on all the deferred maintenance on California’s roads, and upgrade them incrementally, but to actually build new roads, north to south and coast to mountains, engineered for the cars of the future?

*   *   *

This article is the 3rd in a series on California’s transportation future. The first installment was “California’s Transportation Future, Part One – The Fatally Flawed Centerpiece,” published in April 2018. The second installment was “California’s Transportation Future, Part Two – The Hyperloop Option,” published in May 2018. Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

California’s Unsustainable Energy Policies

 

Solar panelsGlowing tributes to Gov. Jerry Brown’s environmental legacy obscure how long California has been proclaiming itself the leader in fighting “climate change.” The crusade began with Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promoted and signed the “Global Warming Solutions Act” in 2006, setting initial targets for greenhouse-gas reduction and empowering the California Air Resources Board to enforce compliance with laws and regulations aimed at achieving these goals. Other significant legislation followed. Senate Bill 107, also passed in 2006, mandated a “renewable portfolio standard,” wherein at least 20 percent of California’s electricity would come from renewable sources by 2010. In 2008, the landmark Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act directed cities and counties to increase the housing density of their communities.

When Brown took over as governor in 2011, major environmental legislation accelerated. A 2011 law raised the renewable-portfolio standard to 33 percent by 2020; another, passed in 2015, pushed the standard to 50 percent by 2030. In 2016, California set a greenhouse-gas emission-reduction target of 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and extended its “cap-and-trade” program to 2030. This is just a partial list. High-speed rail, water rationing, “urban-containment” policies, a virtual prohibition on conventional energy development, retrofit mandates for trucks and dwellings, and much more have come down from Sacramento in an attempt to “address climate change.”

Will any of it work? Is California setting an example that the world can follow?

The short answer: no. Renewables alone cannot power the global economy. The latest data on global energy consumption by source show how dependent the world remains on fossil fuels. In 2015, oil supplied 33 percent of all energy consumed globally, with coal accounting for 29 percent and natural gas 24 percent—adding up to 86 percent of all energy consumed. Hydro-electric power added another 7 percent and nuclear power 4 percent. Renewables—primarily wind and solar power—contributed the remaining 3 percent. Even tripling renewable capacity would scarcely affect the primacy of fossil fuel to the world’s economy. Moreover, renewables are not “greener” than conventional energy, particularly if conventional energy is produced using the cleanest technologies available. If all the governments on earth enforced on their people the experiment that California is committed to, the result would be the collapse of civilization.

Back in the 1990s, before environmentalism had become so politically divisive, the Worldwatch Institute published one of the most reputable environmentalist journals, in which the organization consistently advocated for methane (natural gas) as the “transitional fuel” to power the global economy until breakthrough technologies such as fusion power or satellite solar power stations became commercially viable. More recently, environmental activists such as Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore have championed nuclear power as an essential component of our energy future. No place on earth is more capable of developing clean fossil fuel and nuclear power than California. A 2012 report for the Congressional Research Service estimated that California offshore areas contain 10.13 billion barrels of oil and 11.73 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Onshore, the state boasts the Monterey shale, which may contain upward of another 15 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Recommissioning and expanding California’s San Onofre nuclear power station and retaining the Diablo Canyon nuclear facility could easily provide five gigawatts of baseload electricity—enough to keep millions of electric vehicles on the road.

Similarly, no place is more capable than California of developing abundant water resources—though the state’s wrongheaded policies have helped create chronic water shortages. California still boasts the most elaborate system of inter-basin water transfers in the world. Upgrading water storage by, for example, raising the height of the Shasta Dam could allow Californians to collect additional millions of acre feet of storm runoff each year. And if California embraced state-of-the-art desalination technology, additional millions of acre-feet could supply arid Southern California cities along the coast, where most Californians reside.

In short, California has a choice to make: it can impoverish its population by creating an artificial scarcity of land, energy, and water, enforcing draconian restrictions on development in the name of fighting climate change. Or it can face reality and become a pioneer in a new age of clean-energy development. If the Golden State chooses the second course, it will create a viable example for the world to follow.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. This article originally appeared in City Journal.

Will the California Supreme Court Reform the “California Rule?”

California Supreme CourtMost pension experts believe that without additional reform, pension payments are destined to put an unsustainable burden on California’s state and local governments. Even if pension fund investments meet their performance objectives over the next several years, California’s major pension funds have already announced that payments required from participating agencies are going to roughly double in the next six years. This is a best-case scenario, and it is already more than many cities and counties are going to be able to afford.

California’s first major statewide attempt to reform pensions was the PEPRA (Public Employee Pension Reform Act) legislation, which took effect on January 1st, 2013. This legislation reduced pension benefit formulas and increased required employee contributions, but for the most part only affected employees hired after January 1st, 2013.

The reason PEPRA didn’t significantly affect current employees was due to the so-called “California Rule,” a legal argument that interprets state and federal constitutional law to, in effect, prohibit changes to pension benefits for employees already working. The legal precedent for what is now called the California Rule was set in 1955, when the California Supreme Court ruled on a challenge to a 1951 city charter amendment in Allen v. City of of Long Beach. The operative language in that ruling was the following: “changes in a pension plan which result in disadvantage to employees should be accompanied by comparable new advantages.

To learn more about the origin of the California Rule, how it has set a legal precedent not only in California but in dozens of other states, two authoritative sources are “Overprotecting Public Employee Pensions: The Contract Clause and the California Rule,” written by Alexander Volokh in 2014 for the Reason Foundation, and “Statutes as Contracts? The ‘California Rule’ and Its Impact on Public Pension Reform,” written by Amy B. Monahan, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, published in the Iowa Law Review in 2012.

Pension benefits, most simply stated, are based on a formula: Years worked times a “multiplier,” times final salary. Thus for each year a public employee works, the eventual pension they will earn upon retirement gets bigger. Starting back in 1999, California’s public sector employee unions successfully negotiated to increase their multiplier, which greatly increased the value of their pensions. In the case of the California Highway Patrol, for example, the multiplier went from 2% to 3%. But in nearly all cases, these increases to the multiplier didn’t simply apply to years of employment going forward. Instead, they were applied retroactively. For example, in a typical hypothetical case, an employee who had been employed for 29 years and was to retire one year hence would not get a pension equivalent to [ 29 x 2% + 1 x 3% ] x final salary. Instead, now they would get a pension equivalent to 30 x 3% x final salary.

Needless to say this significantly changed the size of the future pension liability. For years the impact of this change was smoothed over using creative accounting. But now it has come back to haunt California’s cities and counties.

Amazingly, the California rule doesn’t just prevent retroactive reductions to the pension multiplier. Reducing the multiplier retroactively might seem to be reasonable, since the multiplier was increased retroactively. But the California rule, as it is interpreted by public employee unions, also prevents reductions to the multiplier from now on. And on that question the California Supreme Court has an opportunity, this year, to make history.

Ironically, the active cases currently pending at the California Supreme Court were initiated by the unions themselves. In particular, they have challenged the PEPRA reform that prohibits what is known as “pension spiking,” where at the end of a public employee’s career they take steps to increase their pension. Spiking can take the form of increasing final pension eligible salary – which can be accomplished in various ways including a final year promotion or transfer that results in a much higher final salary. Another form of spiking is to increase the total number of pension eligible years worked, and the most common way to accomplish this is through the purchase of what is called “air time.”

Based on fuzzy math, the pension systems have offered retiring employees the opportunity to pay a lump sum into the pension system in exchange for more “service credits.” Someone with, say, ten years of service, upon retirement could pay (often the payment that would be financed, requiring no actual payment) to acquire five additional years of service credits. This would increase the amount of their pension by 50%, since their pension would now be based on fifteen years x 3% x final salary, instead of 10 years x 3% x final salary. To say this is a prized perk would be an understatement. How it became standard operating procedure, much less how the payments made were calculated to somehow justify such a major increase to pension benefits, is inexplicable. But when PEPRA included in its reform package an end to spiking, even for veteran employees, the unions went to court.

The spiking case that has wound its way to the California Supreme Court with the most disruptive potential started in Alameda County, then was appealed to California’s First Appellate Court District Three. The original parties to the lawsuit were the plaintiffs, Cal Fire Local 2881, vs CalPERS (Appellate Court case). On December 30, 2016, the appellate court ruled that PEPRA’s ban on pension spiking via purchases of airtime would stand. The union then appealed to the California Supreme Court.

An excellent compilation of the ongoing chronology of the California Supreme Court case Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS (CA Supreme Court case) can be found on the website of the law firm Messing, Adam and Jasmine. It will show that by February 2017 the unions filed a petition for review by the California Supreme Court, and that the court granted review in April 2017. In November 2017, Governor Brown got involved in the case, citing a compelling state interest in the outcome. Apparently not trusting his attorney general nor CalPERS to adequately defend PEPRA, the Governor’s office joined the case as an “intervener” in opposition to Cal Fire Local 2881. For nearly a year, both petitioners and respondents to the case have been filing briefs.

This case, which informed observers believe could be ruled on by the end of 2018, is not just about airtime. Because whether or not purchasing airtime is protected by the California Rule requires clarification of the California Rule. The ruling could be narrow, simply affirming or rejecting the ability of public employees to purchase airtime. Or the ruling could be quite broad, asserting that the California Rule does not entitle public employees to irreducible pension benefits, of any kind, to apply for work not yet performed.

One of many reviews of the legal issues confronting the California Supreme Court in this case is found in the amicus brief prepared by the California Business Roundtable in support of the respondents. A summary of the points raised in the California Business Roundtable’s amicus brief is available on the website of the Retirement Security Initiative, an advocacy organization focused on protecting and ensuring the fairness and sustainability of public sector retirement plans. An excerpt from that summary:

“The Roundtable brief asserts the California Rule has numerous legal flaws:

(1) It violates the bedrock principle that statutes create contractual rights only when the Legislature clearly intended to do so.

(2) It violates black-letter contract law by creating contractual rights that violate the reasonable expectations of the parties.

(3) It violates longstanding constitutional law by assuming that every contractual impairment automatically violates the California and Federal Contract Clauses.

(4) It lacks persuasive or precedential value. The Rule was initially adopted without anything resembling a full consideration of the relevant issues.

(5) It has been almost uniformly rejected by federal and state courts—including by several courts that previously accepted it.

(6) It has had—and will continue to have—devastating economic consequences on California’s public employers.”

Pension reform, and pension reformers, have often been characterized as “right-wing puppets of billionaires” by the people and organizations that disagree. The fact that one of the most liberal governors in the nation, Jerry Brown, actively intervened in this case in support of the respondent and in opposition to the unions, should put that characterization to rest.

If the California Supreme Court does dramatically clarify the California Rule, enabling pension benefit formulas to be altered for future work, it will only adjust the legal parameters in the fight over pensions in favor of reformers. After such a ruling there would still be a need for follow on legislation or ballot initiatives to actually make those changes.

What California’s elected officials and union leadership, for the most part, are belatedly realizing, is that without more pension reform, the entire institution of defined benefit pensions is imperiled. Hopefully California’s Supreme Court will soon make it easier for them all to make hard choices, to prevent such a dire outcome.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

REFERENCES

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case
– California Policy Center

California Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act (PEPRA): Summary And Comment
– Employee Benefits Law Group

Allen v. City of of Long Beach
– Stanford University Law Library

Overprotecting Public Employee Pensions: The Contract Clause and the California Rule
– Alexander Volokh, Reason Foundation

Statutes as Contracts? The ‘California Rule’ and Its Impact on Public Pension Reform
– Amy Monahan, Iowa Law Review

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?
– California Policy Center

Cal Fire Local 2881, vs CalPERS (Appellate Court case)
– JUSTIA US Law Archive

Cal Fire Local 2881 v. CalPERS, California Supreme Court, Case No. S239958 – Case Review
– Messing, Adams and Jasmine

Intervener and Respondent State of California’s Answer Brief on the Merits
– Amicus Brief, Governor’s Office, State of California

Amicus Brief of the California Business Roundtable in Support of Respondents
– Amicus Brief, California Business Roundtable (CBR)

RSI Supports California Business Roundtable Amicus Brief
– Summary of CBR Amicus Brief by Retirement Security Initiative

Resources for California’s Pension Reformers
– California Policy Center

The Underrecognized, Undervalued, Underpaid, Unfunded Pension Liabilities

SACRAMENTO, CA - JULY 21: A sign stands in front of California Public Employees' Retirement System building July 21, 2009 in Sacramento, California. CalPERS, the state's public employees retirement fund, reported a loss of 23.4%, its largest annual loss. (Photo by Max Whittaker/Getty Images)

“It’s the economy, stupid.”
–  Campaign slogan, Clinton campaign, 1992

To paraphrase America’s 42nd president, when it comes to public sector pensions – their financial health and the policies that govern them – it’s the unfunded liability, stupid.

The misunderstood, obfuscated, unaccountable, underrecognized, undervalued, underpaid, unfunded pension liabilities.

According to CalPERS own data, California’s cities that are part of the CalPERS system will make “normal” contributions this year totaling $1.3 billion. Their “unfunded” contributions will be 41% greater, $1.8 billion. As for counties that participate in CalPERS, this year their “normal” contributions will total $586 million, and their “unfunded” contributions will be 36% greater at $607 million.

That’s nothing, however. Again using CalPERS own estimates, in just six years the unfunded contribution for cities will more than double, from $1.8 billion today, to $3.9 billion in 2024. The unfunded contribution for counties will nearly triple, from $607 million today to $1.5 billion in 2024 (download spreadsheet summary for all CalPERS cities and counties).

Put another way, by 2024, “normal contribution” payments by cities and counties to CalPERS are estimated to total $2.8 billion, and the “unfunded contribution” payments are estimated to total almost exactly twice as much, $5.5 billion.

So what?

For starters, every pension reform that has ever made it through the state legislature, including the Public Employee Pension Reform Act of 2013(PEPRA), does NOT require public employees to share in the cost to pay the unfunded liability. The implications are profound. As public agency press releases crow over the phasing in of a “50% employee share” of the costs of pensions, not mentioned is the fact that this 50% only applies to 1/3 of what’s being paid. Public employees are only required to share, via payroll withholding, in the “normal cost” of the pension.

Now if the “normal cost” were ever estimated at anywhere near the actual cost to fund a pension, this wouldn’t matter. But CalPERS, according to their own most recent financial report, is only 68% funded. That is, they have investments totaling $326 billion, and liabilities totaling $477 billion. This gap, $151 billion, is how much more CalPERS needs to have invested in order for their pension system to be fully funded.

A pension system’s “liability” refers to the present value of every future pension payment that every current participant – active or retired – has earned so far. In a 100% funded system, if every active employee retired tomorrowand no more payments ever went into the system, if the invested assets were equal to that liability, those assets plus the estimated future earnings on those invested assets would be enough to pay 100% of the estimated pension payments in the future, until every individual beneficiary died.

A pension system’s “normal payment” refers to the amount of money that has to be paid into a fully funded system each year to fund the present value of additional pension benefits earned by active employees in that year. When the normal payment isn’t enough, the unfunded liability grows.

And wow, has it grown.

CalPERS is $151 billion in the hole. All of California’s state and local pension systems combined, CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the many city and county independent systems, are estimated to be $326 billion in the hole. And that’s extrapolated from estimates recognized by the pension funds themselves. Scenarios that employ more conservative earnings assumptions calculate total unfunded liabilities that are easily double that amount.

With respect to CalPERS, how did this unfunded liability get so big?

An earlier CPC analysis released earlier this year attempts to answer this. Theories include the following: (1) Letting the agencies decide which type of asset smoothing they’d like to employ, (2) permitting the agencies to make minimal payments on the unfunded liability so the liability would actually increase despite the payments, (3) making overly optimistic actuarial assumptions, (4) not taking action sooner so the unfunded payment wouldn’t end up being more than twice as much as the normal payment.

One final alarming point.

CalPERS recently announced that for any future increases to the unfunded liability, the unfunded payment will have to be calculated based on a 20 year, straight-line amortization. This is a positive development, since the more aggressively participants pay down the unfunded liability, the less likely it is that these pension systems will experience a financial collapse if there is a sustained downturn in investment performance. But it begs the question – why, if only increases to the unfunded liability have to be paid down more aggressively, is the unfunded payment nonetheless predicted to double within the next six years?

CalPERS information officer Tara Gallegos, when presented with this question, offered the following answers:

(1) The discount rate (equal to the projected rate-of-return on invested assets) is being lowered from 7.5% to 7.0% per year. But this lowering is being phased in over five years, so it will not impact the 2018 unfunded contribution. Whenever the return-on-investment assumption is lowered, the amount of the unfunded liability goes up. By 2024, the full impact of the lowered discount rate will have been applied, significantly increasing the required unfunded contribution.

(2) Investment returns were lower than the projected rate of return for the years ending 6/30/2015 (2.4%) and 6/30/2016 (0.6%). Lower than projected actual returns also increases the unfunded liability, and hence the amount of the unfunded payment, but this too is being phased-in over five years. Therefore it will not impact the unfunded payment in 2018, but will be fully impacting the unfunded payment by 2024.

(3) The unfunded payment automatically increases by 3% per year to reflect the payroll growth assumption of 3% per year. This alone accounts, over six years, for 20% of the increase to the unfunded payment. The reason for this is because most current unfunded payments are calculated by cities and counties using the so-called “percent of payroll” method, where payments are structured to increase each year. CalPERS is going to require new unfunded payments to not only be on a 20 year payback schedule, but to use a “level payment” structure which prevents negative amortization in the early years of the term. Unfortunately, up to now, cities and counties were permitted to backload their payments on the unfunded liability, and hence each year have built in increases to their unfunded payments.

The real reason the unfunded liability has gotten so big is because nobody wanted to make conservative estimates. Everybody wanted the normal payments to be as small as possible. The public sector unions wanted to minimize how much their members would have to contribute via withholding. CalPERS and the politicians – both heavily influenced by the public sector unions – wanted to sell generous new pension enhancements to voters, and to do that they needed to make the costs appear minimal.

As a result, taxpayers are now paying 100% of an “unfunded contribution” that is already a bigger payment than the normal contribution, and within a few years is destined, best case, to be twice as much as the normal contribution.

Camouflaged by its conceptual intricacy, the cleverly obfuscated, deliberately underrecognized, creatively undervalued, chronically underpaid, belatedly rising unfunded pension liabilities payments are poised to gobble up every extra dime of California’s tax revenue. And that’s not all…

Sitting on the blistering thin skin of a debt bubble, a housing bubble, and a stock market bubble, amid rising global economic uncertainty, just one bursting jiggle will cause pension fund assets to plummet as unfunded liabilities soar.

And when that happens, cities and counties have to pay these new unfunded balances down on honest, 20 year straight-line terms. They’ll be selling the parks and libraries, starving the seniors, releasing the criminals, firing cops and firefighters, and enacting emergency, confiscatory new taxes.

Whatever it takes to feed additional billions into the maw of the pension systems.

Budget surplus? Dream on.

*   *   *

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center in 2010 and served as its president through 2016. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development.

RELATED ARTICLES

How to Restore Financial Sustainability to Public Pensions, February 14, 2018

How to Assess Impact of a Market Correction on Pension Payments, February 7, 2018

California Government Pension Contributions Required to Double by 2024 – Best Case, January 31, 2018

Did CalPERS Use Accounting “Gimmicks” to Enable Financially Unsustainable Pensions?, January 24, 2018

How Much More Will Cities and Counties Pay CalPERS?, January 10, 2018

If You Think the Bull Market Rescued Pensions, Think Again, December 7, 2017

Did CalPERS Fail to Disclose Costs of Historic Bump in Pension Benefits?, October 26, 2017

Coping With the Pension Albatross, October 13, 2017

How Fraudulently Low “Normal Contributions” Wreak Havoc on Civic Finances, September 29, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Jose Model, September 6, 2017

Pension Reform – The San Diego Model, August 23, 2017

A Post-Janus Agenda for California’s Public Sector Unions

School education“If you do not prevail in this case, the unions will have less political influence; yes or no?” Kennedy asked. “Yes, they will have less political influence,” Frederick answered.
–  an excerpt from the Janus vs. AFSCME trial, quoted in the Washington Post, February 26, 2018

This past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Janus vs. AFSCME case. Mark Janus, a public employee in Illinois, is challenging the right of unions to charge “fair share” fees, because he disagrees with the political agenda which he claims his fees help pay for.

What if government unions were accountable to their members? What if the politics of these unions mirrored the politics of the members? Would Mark Janus still want out?

It’s already possible for public employees to “opt-out” of paying that portion of their dues that fund explicitly political activity, although in practice the unions typically make that opt-out process very difficult. But Mark Janus is arguing that all dues paid to public sector unions are political, because the consequences of collective bargaining in the public sector impact taxes, government debt, budgets and spending priorities. He is arguing that the agenda of public sector unions, including collective bargaining, is inherently political.

In reality, saying all public sector union activity is inherently political is itself an understatement. In California, public sector unions spend about $300 million per year on explicitly political activity – funding political campaigns, political action committees, and lobbyists. But they spend at least another $700 million every year not just on collective bargaining – which for government workers is inherently political – but on education campaigns that attempt to influence voters on countless political topics.

Equally important is the influence California’s public sector unions wield that doesn’t derive its power from how much money they can spend, but from the fact that elected officials come and go, but the union hierarchy is permanent. Public employees who want to advance in their careers do not cross these unions.

Government unions are so powerful that only a very aggressive outcome in the Janus ruling will suffice to significantly undermine their power in California. The court must rule that union membership must be renewed annually via a transparent opt-in process. Only then will these unions become accountable to their members.

If there is an aggressive ruling in the Janus case that truly forces public sector unions to become accountable, imagine how it may affect the political agenda of these unions. One may hope it would ignite a civil war within these unions. Even in California, for example, about 40% of public school teachers identify as conservatives. Among public safety employees, a majority identify as conservative. Yet these unions are the power behind a state legislature ran by the most liberal politicians in the history of the United States.

Just for a moment, consider what these unions could do, if their leadership was committed to making California a land of opportunity again:

A PRO-WORKER AGENDA FOR CALIFORNIA’S PUBLIC SECTOR UNIONS
(if they actually cared about ALL of California’s working families)

1 – Restore the balance in California’s colleges and universities so that the ratio of faculty to administrators is 2 to 1, instead the current ratio wherein administrators often outnumber teachers.

2 – End all discrimination and base college admissions purely on merit. Expand STEM curricula so it represents 50% of college majors instead of the current 20%.

3 – Enforce the Vergara reforms so it is easier to retain quality public school teachers and easier to fire the incompetent ones. Eliminate barriers to charter schools.

4 – Restructure the penal system to make it easier for prisoners to perform useful public services. For example. along with working the fire lines during fire season, they could work all year clearing dead trees out of California’s forests. Use high-tech monitoring devices to reduce costs. Reserve current prisons only for the truly incorrigible.

5 – Scrap the High-Speed Rail project and instead use the proceeds to add one lane to every major interstate highway in California.

6 – Use additional High-Speed Rail funds to complete plant upgrades so that 100% of California’s sewage is reused, even treated to potable quality.

7 – Pass legislation to streamline approval of the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, and fast-track applications for additional desalination plants, especially in the Los Angeles basin.

8 – Spend the entire proceeds of the $7 billion water bond, passed overwhelmingly by Californians in 2014, on storage. Build the Los Banos Grandes, Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs, adding over 5 million acre feet of storage to the California Water Project. Pass aggressive legislation and fund aggressive legal actions and counter-actions, to lower costs and enable completion of these projects in under five years.

9 – Permit slant drilling to access 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits from land-based rigs along the Southern California coast. Build an LNG terminal off the coast in Ventura County to export California’s natural gas to foreign markets. Permit development of the Monterey Shale formation to extract oil and gas.

10 – Permit construction of “generation 3+” nuclear power plants in geologically stable areas of California’s interior. Permit construction of new natural gas power plants.

11 – Repeal AB32 and SB375 and make it easy for developers to build homes on the suburban and exurban fringes, instead of just “in-fill” that destroys existing neighborhoods.

12 – Require California’s public employee pension funds to invest a minimum of 10% of their assets in infrastructure projects as noted above. They could issue fixed rate bonds or take equity positions in the revenue producing projects, or a combination of both. This would immediately unlock approximately $80 billion in construction financing to rebuild California’s infrastructure. At the same time, save the pension systems by striking down the “California Rule” that prevents meaningful pension reform.

These reforms would lower the cost of living in California, at the same time as they would create resource abundance and hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs.

It is encouraging to think that the Janus ruling will reduce the political influence of public sector unions. But another possibility is equally tantalizing, that Janus will force unions to become accountable to their members. This, in turn, could be reflected in these unions fighting, for a change, to help all Californians.

To expect public sector unions to pursue the agenda outlined above is fanciful. But if California’s public sector unions were as committed to that pro-growth agenda as they are to their current agenda which is bankrupting California’s cities and counties at the same time as it obsesses over race, gender, and environmentalist extremism, they could probably get all of it done. And no other special interest could do this.

Only California’s public sector unions have enough power to successfully take on their current allies; the environmentalist lobby, the trial lawyers, and their puppet masters, the leftist oligarchy. No other special interest could take on these profiteers who have gotten filthy rich spouting leftist tripe, while they impoverished a generation of Californians.

Post Janus, it is time for a civil war within public sector unions. Using, hopefully, their option to not opt-in, it is time for public servants who care about ordinary Californians to make their voices heard.

Edward Ring is an analyst with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2010. He is a prolific writer on the topics of political reform and sustainable economic development, and has been interviewed, published or quoted by the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Economist,  Die Zeit, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, and other media outlets.