Government Waste Negates Justification for Transportation Tax Hike

LA-Freeway-Xchange-110-105A personal digression: My father was head of the Iowa Department of Transportation (then called the Iowa Highway Commission) in the late ’60s and early ’70s before he was appointed by President Ford to serve as Deputy Federal Highway Administrator. (Of course, he lost that job when Jimmy Carter became president, but he continued to work in the private sector for a transportation think tank.) When I was in high school, I remember him coming home from an ASHTO conference. That organization, the Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, was a pretty well respected group and still is. He was complaining bitterly about what was going on in California. I don’t recall his exact words, but the gist of it was that the new head of California’s transportation agency, called CalTrans, had been taken over by a certifiably crazy person (with no background in transportation policy) by the name of Adriana Gianturco. According to my father, in the 1950s and ’60s, California had the best transportation agency in the entire world. But all that changed with the election of a new, anti-growth, small-is-beautiful governor by the name of Jerry Brown.

Now, fast forward 40 years. Gov. Brown, version 2.0, proposes a budget that assumes a big increase in transportation taxes and fees. The California Legislature shouldn’t just say no, it should say hell no.

Where to start? First, let’s take judicial notice of the fact that California is already a high tax state with the highest income tax rate and the highest state sales tax in America. But more relevant for the issue at hand, we also have the highest fuel costs in the nation. This is because of both the 4th highest excise tax on fuel and the fact that refineries are burdened with additional costs to comply with California’s environmental regulations.

The high cost to drive in California might be understandable if we were getting value for our tax dollars. But we aren’t. A big problem is that Caltrans is dysfunctional, plain and simple. It has never fully recovered from the days when the agency was effectively destroyed by Gianturco. A report by the California State Auditor just a couple of months ago concluded that a primary responsibility of Caltrans – maintenance of our highways – is not being executed in a manner that is even close to being efficient or competent. Senator John Moorlach, the only CPA currently serving in the California legislature, reacted saying that “This audit reinforces the fact that our bad roads are not a result of a lack of funding. They’re a result of a lack of competence at Caltrans.” Moreover, a report by the Legislative Analyst concluded that Caltrans is overstaffed by 3,500 employees costing California taxpayers over a half billion dollars a year. All this compels the obvious question: Why, for goodness sake, do we want to give these people even more money?

Another unneeded and costly practice consists of project labor agreements for transportation construction projects. These pro-union policies shut out otherwise competent companies from bidding on projects resulting in California taxpayers shelling out as high as 25% more than they should for building highways and bridges.

Finally, California’s environmental requirements are legendary for their inefficiency while also doing little for the environment. Exhibit A in this foolishness is Gov. Brown’s incomprehensible pursuit of the ill-fated high speed rail project. Not only has the project failed to live up to any of the promises made to voters, it is currently being kept alive only by virtue of the state’s diversion of “cap and trade” funds which are supposed to be expended on projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the Kafkaesque world of California transportation policies, the LAO has concluded that the construction of the HSR project actually produces a net increase in emissions, at least for the foreseeable future.

No one disputes the dire need for improvements in California’s transportation infrastructure. But imposing draconian taxes and higher registration fees that serve only to punish the middle class while wasting billions on projects that don’t help getting Californians get to work or school cannot and should not be tolerated. Legislators who present themselves to voters as fiscally responsible need to understand that a vote for higher transportation taxes will engender a very angry response from their constituents.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piecd was originally published by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

Hyperloop vs. High-Speed Rail

HyperloopWhen Elon Musk first proposed the hyperloop as a transportation alternative, he projected sealed tubes would hurl a pod between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 35 minutes. At the time, Musk’s vision was compared to the newly minted high-speed rail project that was projected to cover the same ground in 2.5 hours and be outmoded before it was finished.

Yesterday, in the Nevada desert the hyperloop had its first test. A sled rocketed from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.1 seconds propelled along a track by magnets for 300-plus yards. The company behind the test, Hyperloop One, was satisfied with the results. The Los Angeles based company is aiming to run a full-scale, full-speed hyperloop prototype through what is often described like a vacuum tube by the end of the year.

While the hyperloop system was projected by some as an alternative to high-speed rail, former California secretary of business, transportation and housing, Dale Bonner, told a Milken Institute Global Conference forum at the beginning of the month that both forms of transportation would be necessary for a burgeoning population. Saying that he heard that in 10-20 years an entire population the size of Chicago would be dropped on Los Angeles, Bonner argued all innovate transportation systems would be needed, from hyperloop to high speed rail to the sharing economy transportation systems.

Brogan BamBrogan, co-founder and chief technical officer of Hyperloop One (formerly Hyperloop Technologies), which is running with Musk’s idea, told the conference that while most people have been talking about hyperloop pods as people movers, one great advantage of hyperloop would be carrying freight.

BamBrogan noted that California had two of the busiest ports in the country. He envisions the system as energy efficient, weather proof, and non-polluting. Anyone stuck behind the slow-moving line of trucks coming from the San Pedro ports up the Long Beach Freeway spewing exhaust will appreciate BamBrogan’s vision.

But the people mover aspect also could have profound impact on other social issues, if the predictions made at the conference play out.

California’s steep cost of housing is driven, in part, by the lack of places to build. BamBrogan suggested the hyperloop could reset land values and grow suburbs 30 or more miles from the city when it only takes six minutes to commute to downtown Los Angeles’s Union Station.

Hyperloop is counting on investors to help fund the project, something that has been lacking with high-speed rail.

However, Bonner warned that re-thinking might be necessary with dramatic changes in transportation. If fewer people use cars in a shared economy, there will be fewer fees and taxes paid associated with car ownership. There would also be fewer citations issued with accompanying fines.

The Milken Global Conference panel was called Harnessing Technology for the Future of Cities. BamBrogan’s hyperloop discussion starts around minute 18.

This piece was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Endargered Fox Could Halt High-Speed Rail in Its Tracks

The California High-Speed Rail Authority faces a new obstacle on its railroad track to construction: the endangered San Joaquin kit fox. The environmentalist group Defenders of Wildlife labels it “one of the most endangered animals in California.”kit fox

On Jan. 26, the Sacramento office of the Fish and Wildlife Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior sent the CHSRA a letter about the kit fox’ habitat in the project’s 29-mile-long Construction Package 1. The letter charged the CHSRA and the Federal Railroad Authority with causing “the loss of nine acres of suitable habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox, located outside the project footprint … and the destruction of a potential San Joaquin kit fox den.”

The nine-acre land take violated the federal Endangered Species Act “and its implementing regulations.”

The contractor allegedly expanded outside the approved footprint of the Merced-to-Fresno Section for staging building materials and machinery. These project-related activities included:

  • “grading the first few inches of soil to level the surface”;
  • “installation of earthen berms for containment and stormwater pollution control”;
  • “installation of road base and other measures for dust control”;
  • “installation of a perimeter fence for security”;
  • “mobilization of equipment and materials.”

The CHSRA is working under a tight time frame to spend the $3.5 billion in federal money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and any delay would be unwelcome at this stage.

The CHSRA must turn in to federal authorities its bills for the project by March 2017, six months before the Sept. 2017 deadline to spend all the money. So the deadline now is just over two years away.

‘Better job’

CHSRA spokesperson Lisa Marie Alley told the Fresno Bee the kit fox issue was a minor problem. “I think this is an example,” she said, “in undertaking one of the largest infrastructure projects in decades in this country, to make sure that we’re streamlining and coordinating with all of our partners. We are looking for ways to do a better job in the future.”

And the Los Angeles Times reported that, despite the FWS letter, “the effect of the violations may be limited. The wildlife service said that the rail authority and its partners had initiated a formal consultation on the project, which was the ‘appropriate’ action, and that no fines were being considered.”

The kit fox habitat also could be moved to a different location by the CHSRA, “which wildlife service officials deemed adequate in an email exchange over the weekend.”

Rushed project

But opponents saw the FWS letter as a major problem for the project. Aaron Fukuda is a key litigant in a new lawsuit against the project and co-founder of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability.

“When you rush a project,” he said, “you don’t have your plans ready, you use shoddy engineering and you hire the least technically competent contractor you get these sorts of incidents, which I believe is simply the first of numerous to take place. The Authority will try and minimize the importance of this. However, it clearly highlights the rough road ahead.” 

Doug Carstens is an attorney suing the CHSRA for filing an insufficient environmental report for the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the project. He said:

“In the Authority’s haste to begin construction, they and their contractors have violated the federal Endangered Species Act.  Without a permit, they destroyed nine acres of suitable habitat, including collapsing a potential San Joaquin kit fox den without a permit.  The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service should be commended for calling on them to comply with the ESA and reinitiate consultation.  But the Authority never should have let the damage happen.” 

Validation

Jason Holder is an attorney who represented litigants challenging the environmental reports for the Merced-to-Fresno section of the project. Now he represents Kern County in pending litigation on the Fresno-to-Bakersfield Section concerning the environmental reports. He said:

“The notification letter from the Fish and Wildlife Service validates what close observers of the HSR Project have been saying for several years now — that you cannot conduct legally sufficient environmental impact analysis based on only a ’15 percent’ level of design

“The Rail Authority’s ‘design-build’ approach, where the agency completes only a general level of design for purposes of environmental review and permitting and the contractor refines the design post-approval, is simply inadequate. 

“Commenters noted during the EIR/EIS [Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement] process for the Merced to Fresno Section that the vague level of project design precludes full assessment of its environmental impacts.  They pointed out that the design omitted critical details, including, among other things, the specific locations of construction staging areas.  Now, the ramifications of the inadequate level of design are beginning to come to light.  Here, because the Authority did not identify staging areas, the contractor selected the two sites with no agency guidance or oversight. The result: a major violation of the federal Endangered Species Act and the potential to further delay Project construction.”   

Holder concluded, “This is a case where the proverbial chicken, or here the endangered kit fox, has come home to roost.”

Penalties 

If the critics are right and the charges of environmental violations are severe, the penalties imposed on the project could be severe. The Endangered Species Handbook of the Animal Welfare Institute detailed:

“Stiff penalties may be imposed for violations of the Endangered Species Act.  Felonies may be punished with fines up to $50,000 and/or one year imprisonment for crimes involving endangered species, and $25,000 and/or six months imprisonment for crimes involving threatened species.  Misdemeanors or civil penalties are punishable by fines up to $25,000 for crimes involving endangered species and $1
2,000 for crimes involving threatened species.  A maximum of $1,000 can be assessed for unintentional violations.  Rewards of up to $2,500 are paid for information leading to convictions.”
 

However it turns out, the FWS letter is another twist in the long and winding road of attempting to start the controversial project.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Gov. Brown faces high-speed rail hurdles

 

 

 

high-speed rail front pageRepublicans’ triumph last week in the U.S. Congress already is rippling across the country. Does that bother Gov. Jerry Brown and his push for getting more federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project? So far, Congress allocated only $3.5 billion as part of President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan.

Apparently not. The Los Angeles Times reported:

“Gov. Jerry Brown played down concerns Thursday about Republicans killing the state’s $68-billion bullet train, saying that ‘they’re going to join the chorus’ in support of high-speed rail once construction around Fresno and Bakersfield gains momentum.”

But he’s going to need all his skills to convince them.

Even with Democrats in control of the Senate, for three years no additional funding was passed for the project. That majority included California’s two powerful, high-seniority senators. Sen. Dianne Feinstein even sits in the powerful Committee on Appropriations. And Sen. Barbara Boxer sits on the Committee on Commerce Science and Transportation and on the Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In the House, if anything the situation is worse. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of the 23rd Congressional District, who became the majority leader in the House earlier this year, just was re-elected with 75 percent of the vote. He staunchly opposes the high-speed rail project.

Other Central Valley Republicans also oppose it. Rep. Devin Nunes of the 22nd District branded it a “trillion-dollar boondoggle.” He just was re-elected with 62 percent of the vote.

On Nov. 7, McCarthy and Nunes were joined by two other California Republicans, Reps. David G. Valadao of the 21 District and Jeff Denham of the 10th District, in writing a letter to Daniel R. Elliott III, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board of the U.S. Department of Transportation. They wrote (full letter reproduced below):

“This project has changed drastically from what was promised to voters, and this is another attempt by the CHSRA to skirt the law.  On behalf of our constituents, we urge you to reject the CHSRA petition and require CHSR to adhere to state and federal laws, as well as any judicial determinations, as it continues to develop and construct high-speed rail in California.” 

Trouble ahead from Union Pacific Railroad

Part of the plan of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is constructing the train, was to use some existing infrastructure to cut the cost to the current estimate of $68 billion from $98 billion to $117 billion. It’s called the “blended plan.”

The CHSRA proposed this for the San Francisco-to-San Jose segment by using the Caltrain tracks, instead of building dedicated tracks for high-speed rail. That modification also would save billions by not having to buy pricey properties along the peninsula stretch.

The catch is, Union Pacific Railroad has vestige rights on that track and has not agreed to the blended system. They have exclusive rights to say yes or no to new interstate passenger rail systems along that corridor. As outlined in the CHSRA’s April 2014 Business Plan, it has been unable to get Union Pacific permission for the blended system.

Union Pacific Railroad filed a commentary with the STB:

“In some locationsmost notably the San Francisco Peninsula, CHSRA contemplates operating high-speed trains on the same tracks as freight and conventional passenger trains. Blended service would interfere with UP’s existing and future freight operations, including access to existing and future customers.”

Construction

In sum, no significant construction has begun for the high-speed rail project because the CHSRA doesn’t have the money, the land, the railroad approvals or the environmental clearances to go forward.

And it also doesn’t have the second funding plan mandated by the July 31 ruling of the 3rd Appellate District Court, which allowed the first segment of the project to go forward.

Such funding is not on the CHSRA’s agenda for November. And the CHSRA is not planning to meet in December.

So unless the CHSRA calls a special meeting in the waning weeks of 2014, the project is bumped into 2015, seven years after voters approved it with Proposition 1A in 2008.

Meanwhile, other priorities Brown is seeking to tackle – especially water, education and pension reform – will make increasing demands on a limited state budget.


Valadao letter

 


Kathy Hamilton is the Ralph Nader of high-speed rail, continually uncovering hidden aspects of the project and revealing them to the public.  She started writing in order to tell local communities how the project affects them and her reach grew statewide.  She has written more than 225 articles on high-speed rail and attended hundreds of state and local meetings. She is a board member of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail; has testified at government hearings; has provided public testimony and court declarations on public records act requests; has given public testimony; and has provided transcripts for the validation of court cases. 

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com