California’s Illegal Weed Industry Is Doing Better Than Ever

Marijuana smokingIt was 2004 when William P. first got into the weed game. He was 18 years old and spent much of his life on the road, traveling between Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego to deliver chocolate edibles and sell weed. In the 14 subsequent years, he tried his hand at nearly every aspect of the cannabis supply chain, from starting a delivery service to hauling pounds of weed from the Emerald Triangle—Northern California’s famed farming epicenter—to dispensaries and buyers across Southern California.

“It’s an adrenaline rush that you cannot describe,” William told me. “That becomes a drug. And the money is good too.”

His plan was to secure a license and join California’s newly created legal market this year but “money talks,” as William said, and instead he ended up working with a illicit medical marijuana collective that funneled weed out of state, tapping into that “OT” or out-of-town money, as he calls it.

William, who operated largely out of Southern California, is just one small part of California’s booming illegal market. Even though recreational (or “adult-use”) marijuana has been legal in the Golden State since January 1, the cannabis industry is still functioning largely as it has for for decades—in the shadows. …

Click here to read the full article from Vice

How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion

The megapolis on California’s southern coast stretches from Ventura County on the northern end, through Los Angeles County, Orange County, down to San Diego County on the border with Mexico. It also includes the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Altogether these six counties have a population of 20.5 million residents. According to the California Department of Water Resources, urban users consume 3.7 million acre feet of water per year, and the remaining agricultural users in this region consume an additional 700,000 acre feet.

Much of this water is imported. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in these Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

California’s Plumbing System
The major interbasin systems of water conveyance, commonly known as aqueducts

California’s Overall Water Supplies Must Increase

Californians have already made tremendous strides conserving water, and the potential savings from more stringent conservation mandates may not yield significant additional savings. Population growth is likely to offset whatever remaining savings that may be achievable via additional conservation.

Meanwhile, the state mandated water requirements for California’s ecosystems continue to increase. The California State Water Board is finalizing “frameworks” that will increase the minimum amount of flow required to be maintained in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers order to better protect fish habitat and reduce salinity in the Delta. And, of course, these rivers, along with the Owens and Colorado rivers, are susceptible to droughts which periodically put severe strain on water users in California.

At about the same time, in 2015, California’s legislature began regulating groundwater withdrawals. This measure, while long overdue, puts additional pressure on urban and agricultural users.

California’s water requirements for healthy ecosystems, a robust and growing farm economy, as well as a growing urban population, are set to exceed available supply. Conservation cannot return enough water to the system to fix the problem.

How Can Water Supplies Increase?

In Southern California, runoff capture is an option that appears to have great potential. Despite its arid climate and perennial low rainfall, nearly every year a few storm systems bring torrential rains to the South Coast, inundating the landscape. Until the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic culvert starting in 1938, it would routinely flood, with the overflow filling huge aquifers beneath the city. Those aquifers remain, although many are contaminated and require mitigation. Runoff harvesting for aquifer storage represents one tremendous opportunity for Southern Californians to increase their supply of water.

The other possibilities are sewage recycling and desalination. In both cases, Southern California already boasts some of the most advanced plants in the world. The potential for these two technologies to deliver massive quantities of potable water, over a million acre feet per year each, is now predicated more on political and financial considerations than technological challenges.

Recycling Waste Water

Orange County leads the United States in recycling waste water. The Orange County Sanitation District treats 145,000 acre feet per year (130 million gallons per day – “MGD”), sending all of it to the Orange County Water District’s “Ground Water Replenishment System” plant for advanced treatment. The GWRS plant is the biggest of its kind in the world. After being treated to potable standards, 124,000 acre feet per year (110 million GPD), or 85 percent of the waste water, is then injected into aquifers to be stored and pumped back up and reused by residents as potable water. The remainder, containing no toxins and with fewer total dissolved solids than seawater, is discharged harmlessly into the ocean.

Currently the combined water districts in California’s Southland discharge about 1.5 million acre feet (1.3 billion GPD) of treated wastewater each year into the Pacific Ocean. Only a small percentage of this discharge is the treated brine from recycled water. But by using the advanced treatment methods as are employed in Orange County, 85% of wastewater can be recycled to potable standards. This means that merely through water reuse, there is the potential to recycle up to another 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Needless to say, implementing a solution at this scale would require major challenges to be overcome. Currently California’s water districts are only permitted to engage in “indirect potable reuse,” which means the recycled water must be stored in an aquifer or a reservoir prior to being processed as drinking water and entering the water supply. By 2023, it is expected the California Water Board will have completed regulations governing “direct potable reuse,” which would allow recycled water to be immediately returned to the water supply without the intermediate step of being stored in an aquifer or reservoir. In the meantime, it is unlikely that there are enough uncontaminated aquifers or available reservoirs to store the amount of recycled water that could be produced.

Desalinating Seawater

The other source of new water for Southern California, desalination, is already realized in an operating plant, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County. This plant produces 56,000 acre feet per year (50 MGD) of fresh water by processing twice that amount of seawater. It is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is co-located with the Encina Power Station, a facility that uses far more seawater per year, roughly ten times as much, for its cooling systems. The Carlsbad facility diverts a portion of that water for desalination treatment, then returns the saltier “brine” to the much larger outflow of cooling water at the power plant.

Objections to desalination are many, but none of them are insurmountable. The desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, for example, will not have the benefit of being co-located with a power plant that consumes far more seawater for its cooling system. Instead, this proposed plant – which will have the same capacity as the Carlsbad plant – will use a large array of “wet filters” situated about 1,500 feet offshore, on the seabed about 40 feet below the surface, to gently intake seawater that can be pumped back to the plant without disrupting marine life. The outgoing brine containing 6 percent salt (compared to 3% in seawater) will be discharged under pressure from an underwater pipe extending about 1,800 feet offshore. By discharging the brine under pressure, it will be instantly disbursed and immediately dissipated in the powerful California current.

While desalination is considered to be energy intensive, a careful comparison of the energy cost to desalinate seawater reveals an interesting fact. It takes a roughly equivalent amount of electricity to power the pumps on the California aqueduct, where six pumping stations lift the water repeatedly as it flows from north to south. To guarantee the water flows south, the California aqueduct is sloped downward by roughly one foot per mile of length, meaning pump stations are essential. The big lift, of course, is over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the only way to import water into the Los Angeles basin.

Barriers to Implementation – Permitting & Lawsuits

The technological barriers to large scale implementation of water recycling and desalination, while significant, are not the primary impediments. Permitting and financing are far bigger challenges. Moreover, financing costs for these mega projects become more prohibitive because of the difficulties in permitting.

The process necessary to construct the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is illustrative of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get construction permits. The contractor has been involved in the permitting process for 16 years already, and despite significant progress to-date, still expects approval, if it comes, to take another 2-3 years.

One of the problems with permitting most infrastructure in California is that several agencies are involved. These agencies can actually have conflicting requirements. Applicants also end up having to answer the same questions over and over, because the agencies don’t share information. And over the course of decades or more, the regulations change, meaning the applicant has to start the process over again. Compounding the difficulties for applicants are endless rounds of litigation, primarily from well-funded environmentalist organizations. The failure to-date of California’s lawmakers to reform CEQA make these lawsuits potentially endless.

Barriers to Implementation – Financing

Even if permitting were streamlined, and all technical challenges were overcome, it would be a mistake to be glib about financing costs. Based on the actual total cost for the Carlsbad desalination plant, just under $1.0 billion for a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year, the capital costs to desalinate a million acre feet of seawater would be a daunting $18.0 billion. On the other hand, with permitting reforms, such as creating a one-stop ombudsman agency to adjudicate conflicting regulations and exercise real clout among the dozens of agencies with a stake in the permitting process, billions could be shaved off that total. Similarly, CEQA reforms could shave additional billions off the total. How much could be saved?

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, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. While there’s undoubtedly more to this story, it is also undeniable that other developed nations are able to deploy large scale desalination plants at far lower costs than here in California.

Financing costs for water recycling, while still staggering, are (at least in California) not comparable to those for desalination. The GWRS water recycling plant in Orange County was built at a capital cost of $905 million – $481 million was the initial cost, the first expansion cost $142 million, and the final expansion cost $282 million. This equates to a capital cost of $7,300 per acre foot of annual yield. If that price were to apply for new facilities to be constructed elsewhere in the southland, one million acre feet of recycling capacity could be built for $7.3 billion. Until there is direct potable reuse, however, it would be necessary to add to that cost the expense of either constructing storage reservoirs, or decontaminating aquifers for underground storage.

It’s anybody’s guess, but with reasonable reforms to contain costs, and taking into account additional investments in aquifer mitigation, a budget to make California’s Southland water independent might look like this:

  • 1.0 million acre feet from water recycling – $7.5 billion
  • 1.0 million acre feet from desalination – $15.0 billion
  • 0.5 million acre feet from runoff capture and aquifer mitigation – $7.5 billion

Total – $30 billion.
How much again is that bullet train? Water abundance in California vs. high speed rail

While runoff capture, water recycling, and desalination have the potential to make Southern California’s coastal megapolis water independent, it will take extraordinary political will and innovative financing to make it happen. The first step is for California’s voters and policymakers alike to recognize that conservation is not enough, that water supplies must be increased. Once the political will is established, it will be necessary to streamline the regulatory process, so cities, water agencies, and private contractors can pursue supply oriented solutions, at realistic prices, with a reasonable certainty that their applications will be approved.

*   *   *

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president. This article originally appeared on the website of the California Policy Center.

How Much California Water Bond Money is for Storage?    

Drought water cropsCalifornians have approved two water bonds in recent years, with another facing voters this November. In 2014 voters approved Prop. 1, allocating $7.1 billion for water projects. This June, voters approved Prop. 68, allocating another $4 billion for water projects. And this November, voters are being asked to approve Prop. 3, allocating another $8.9 billion for water projects. This totals $20 billion in just four years. But how much of that $20 billion is to be invested in water infrastructure and water storage?

Summaries of how these funds are spent, or will be spent, can be found on Ballotpedia for Prop. 1, 2014, Prop. 68, 2018 (June), and the upcoming Prop. 3, 2018 (November). Reviewing the line items for each of these bonds and compiling them into five categories is necessarily subjective. There are several line items that don’t fit into a single category. But overall, the following chart offers a useful view of where the money has gone, or where it is proposed to go. To review the assumptions made, the Excel worksheet used to compile this data can be downloaded here. The five categories are (1) Habitat Restoration, (2) Water Infrastructure, (3) Park Maintenance, (4) Reservoir Storage, and (5) Other Supply/Storage.

California Water Bonds, 2014-2018  –  Use of Funds
($=millions)

The Case for More Water Storage

It isn’t hard to endorse the projects funded by these water bonds. If you review the line items, there is a case for all of them. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $200 million to restore Salton Sea habitat, a sum that joins the $200 million of Salton Sea habitat restoration approved by voters in June 2018 in Prop. 68. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $150 million to turn the Los Angeles River back into a river, instead of the concrete culvert that was completely paved over between 1938 and 1960.

Who would be against projects like this? But Californians are heavy water consumers in a relatively arid state. Habitat restoration and park maintenance spending must be balanced against spending for water infrastructure. And conservation mandates must be balanced with investments in infrastructure that increase the overall supply of water. Here’s how Californians are currently managing their water:

Total Water Supply and Usage in California

As can be seen on the above table, residential water consumption represents less than 6% of California’s total water diversions. Indoor water consumption, only about half of that. Yet conservation measures imposed on California’s households are somehow expected to enable more water to be returned to the environment. Even with farmers, where conservation measures have the potential to yield far more savings, putting more irrigated land into agricultural production easily offsets those savings.

Not only does conservation fail to return sufficient water to the environment for habitat maintenance, but there is a downside in terms of system resiliency. During the last drought, when households were asked to reduce water consumption by 20%, it wasn’t an impossible request to fulfill. But as these reductions in consumption become permanent, far less flexibility remains.

California’s climate has always endured periods of drought, sometimes lasting several years. Meanwhile, the population continues to increase, farming production continues to rise, and we have higher expectations than ever in terms of maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems throughout the state. We cannot merely conserve water. We need to also increase supplies of water. Ideally, by several million acre feet per year.

How Much California Water Bond Money is for Surface Storage?

Prop. 1, approved by voters in 2014, was called the “Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.” It was marketed as necessary to increase water storage in order to protect Californians against droughts, and was overwhelmingly approved by over 67% of voters. But only about one-third of the money actually went to water storage, and it took nearly four years before any of those funds were allocated to specific storage projects. It was only this month, July 2018, that the California Water Commission awarded grants under their “Water Storage Investment Program.”

A review of these grants indicates that only two of them allocate funds to construct large new reservoirs. The proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir will add 1.2 million acre feet of storage. Situated south of the delta, it will be constructed on the San Joaquin River above a much smaller existing dam. It is estimated to cost $2.7 billion, and the California Water Commission awarded $171 million, only about 6% of the total required funds.

The proposed Sites Reservoir is situated north of the delta, west of the Sacramento river. It is an offstream reservoir, meaning that it will be filled using excess storm runoff pumped out of the Sacramento river during the rainy season. It is designed to store up to 1.8 million acre feet of water and is estimated to cost $5.2 billion to construct. The California Water Commission awarded $816 million, a large sum, but only about 16% of the total required funds.

Two other surface storage projects were approved, expansion of the existing Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoirs. Both of these reservoirs serve water consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area, both are supplied water via the California Aqueduct, and both expansion projects are estimated to cost not quite a billion dollars – $795 million for Los Vaqueros and $969 million for Pacheco. The California water commission awarded Los Vaqueros $459 million, and they awarded Pacheco $484 million.

When you consider surface storage, the total capacity of a reservoir is a critical variable, but in many ways more significant is the annual “yield.” This is the amount of water that on average, over decades, the reservoir is planned to deliver to water consumers in normal years. While the Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoir expansions combined will add roughly 250,000 acre feet of storage capacity, most of this added capacity is to save for drought years. Los Vaqueros may actually yield up to 35,000 acre feet per year in normal years; Pacheco may yield around 20,000 acre feet per year in normal years.

With respect to annual yields, the case for the much larger Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs becomes more compelling. The Temperance Flat Reservoir is projected to yield 250,000 acre feet of water in normal years, the Sites Reservoir, a massive 500,000 acre feet. To put this in perspective, 750,000 acre feet represents 20% of ALL residential water consumption in California, or, put another way, each year these reservoirs will yield a quantity of water equivalent to 100% of the reductions achieved via conservation measures imposed on California’s residents during the drought. But will they ever get built?

According to spokespersons for the Sites and Temperance Flats projects, some federal funding is expected, but most of the funding will be from agricultural and urban water districts who will purchase the water (as well as the right to store surplus water in the new reservoir) as soon as its available. The projects still require congressional approval, and then will face a multi-year gauntlet of permit processes and the inevitable litigation. If all goes well, however, both of them could be built and delivering water by 2030.

How Else is Water Bond Money Being Used to Increase Water Supply?

All three of the recent water bonds had some money allocated to invest in water supply. Prop. 1 in 2014, in addition to investing $1.9 billion in surface water storage, allocated $1.4 billion to other projects intended to increase water supply. The projects they approved are either intended to store water in underground aquifers, or fund advanced water treatment and recycling technologies which have the practical effect of increasing water supply. While it isn’t clear from these groundwater storage proposals how much water they would then release in normal years, it appears that cumulatively the projects intend to eventually store as much as 1.0 million acre feet in underground aquifers.

At a combined cost total cost of under one billion, the aquifer storage projects just approved appear to be more cost effective than surface storage. It is also a critical priority to recharge California’s aquifers which have been drawn down significantly over the past several years, especially during the recent drought.

Prop. 68, the “Parks, Environment, and Water Bond” passed earlier this year, while mostly allocating its $4.0 billion to other projects, did allocate $290 million to “groundwater investments, including groundwater recharge with surface water, stormwater, and recycled water and projects to prevent contamination of groundwater sources of drinking water.”

The upcoming Prop. 3, the $8.9 billion “Water Infrastructure and Watershed Conservation Bond Initiative” that will appear on the November 2018 ballot, invests another $350 million to maintain existing, mostly small urban reservoirs, along with $200 million to complete repairs on the Oroville Dam. Prop. 3 also includes $1.6 billion to otherwise increase water storage and supply, including $400 million for wastewater recycling and $400 million for desalination of brackish groundwater.

It is important to emphasize again that all of the funds allocated in these three water bonds are paying for what are arguably worthwhile, if not critical projects. $6.3 billion for habitat restoration, $6.2 billion for water infrastructure, $1.6 billion to maintain our parks. But despite the worth of these other projects, Californians urgently need to increase their annual supply of water to ensure ecosystem health, irrigate crops, and supply urban consumers. And to address that need, out of $20 billion in water bonds passed or proposed between 2014 and this November, only $5.8 billion, less than one-third, is being used to increase water supplies.

What Other Ways Could Water Bond Money Be Used to Increase Water Supply?

Clearly the most important region to increase water supply is Southern California. Two thirds of all Californians live south of the Sacramento River Delta, while most of the rain falls on in Northern California. One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 120,000 acre feet of water per year.

Theoretically – because capital costs in California are far higher than in most of the rest of the developed world – desalination offers a cost-effective solution to water scarcity. Uniquely, desalination creates new water, not dependent on rainfall, not requiring storage for drought years, not requiring redirecting of water from other uses. Imagine if Californians invested in desalination plants along the entire Southern California Coast. Eight desalination plants the same size as the Sorek plant would cost $4.0 billion to build if constructed for the same cost as the one in Israel cost. They could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year.

The energy costs for desalination have come down in recent years. Modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water. This means it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one million acre feet of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 million acre feet. It is conceivable that desalination plants producing 1.0 million acre feet of new water each year, combined with comprehensive sewage reuse and natural runoff harvesting could render the most populous region in California water independent.

Why is Infrastructure so Expensive in California?

The Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego cost $925 million to build, and it has a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year. That is a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of $16,500. How is it that the Sorek desalination plant in Israel cost $500 million to build and has a capacity of 120,000 acre feet per year – a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of only $4,100? Why did it cost four times as much to build the Carlsbad desalination plant?

This is the prevailing question when evaluating infrastructure investment in California. Why does everything cost so much more? The Sites reservoir is projected to cost $5.2 billion. An off-stream reservoir of equal size, the San Luis Reservoir, was constructed in California in the 1960s at a total cost, in 2018 dollars, of $2.3 billion. That all-in cost includes not just the dam, but also includes pumping stations, the forebay, the intertie to the California Aqueduct, and conveyances to get some of the water over the Diablo Range into the Santa Clara Valley. All of these costs (in today’s dollars) for the San Luis Reservoir, compared to the proposed Sites Reservoir, cost less than half as much. Why?

It’s easy to become enthusiastic about virtually any project that will increase our resiliency to disasters and droughts, improve our quality of life, steward our ecosystems, and hopefully create abundance of vital resources such as water. But when considering the need for these various projects, it is equally important to ask why they cost so much more here in California, and to explore ways to bring costs back down to national and international norms. We could do so much more with what we have to spend.

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

Bullet Train’s Benefits to Southern California Questioned at Hearing

High speed rail constructionSouthern California Democrats have said few, if any, critical words about the state rail authority’s decision in 2016 to drop Los Angeles as the starting point of the first segment of the statewide bullet train.

Rail officials announced at the time that they would instead invest the vast majority of available money to begin building from the Central Valley to the Bay Area.

Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) broached the topic at a House rail subcommittee hearing on Thursday, asking state rail officials and other witnesses how he can justify the project to his constituents.

“What do I tell people in Los Angeles,” said Lowenthal, the former chairman of the state Senate transportation committee. “We talk about the [rail’s benefits] to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, but … when are we going to see things going on in Los Angeles? We are the population center.”

Under the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s plans, it is providing more than $700 million to install an electrical power system for the Bay Area’s Caltrain commuter system and another $400 million for a downtown San Francisco station, along with other much bigger investments that will flow through Santa Clara County. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times

Southern California median home price jumps to a record $536,250

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image14115451The Southern California median home sale price reached a new all-time high in June, jumping 7.3% from a year earlier, according to a report released Tuesday.

The six-county median — the point where half the homes sold for more and half for less — hit $536,250, real estate data firm CoreLogic said. That’s up $6,250 from the previous record high, reached in May.

Sales, though, plunged to 22,706, down nearly 12% from June 2017. It was the lowest number of closed sales for June in four years.

The drop in sales could signal that people are increasingly priced out of the market or simply unwilling to pay sky-high home prices. …

Click here to read the full article from the L.A. Times

Are builders catching up to Southern California’s housing shortage?

house-constructionSouthern California builders are putting a dent in the regional housing shortage, selling new homes at a pace not seen in nine years.

CoreLogic data shows 18,117 new residences sold in the 12 months ended in May across the four counties covered by the Southern California News Group. That’s the best performance since January 2009, and it’s up 7.7 percent in a year.

This means new housing’s share of sales also grows. Builders were responsible for 8.1 percent of all Southern California home purchases in the past year. That’s the highest share of sales since March 2009.

Still, the upswing looks sluggish compared with housing development before the Great Recession.

From 2000 through 2006, Southern California builders were selling homes more than twice as fast as today at a 43,000 units-a-year pace. (Don’t forget one reason for recently modest homebuilding — that last development frenzy ended badly when real estate’s bubble burst.) …

Click here to read the full article from the Orange County Register

California Supreme Court blocks ballot measure to divide state into three

Cal-3 (1)The California Supreme Court on Wednesday blocked a proposal to split the state into three from appearing as a ballot measure in November, according to multiple reports.

The proposal, championed by venture capitalist Tim Draper, had gathered at least 600,000 signatures which was enough to earn a spot on the midterm ballot.

The court said that it decided to remove the measure from the ballot “because significant questions have been raised regarding the proposition’s validity,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We conclude that the potential harm in permitting the measure to remain on the ballot outweighs the potential harm in delaying the proposition to a future election,” the court wrote.

If passed, the proposal, known as “Cal-3,” would have divided the state into California, Northern California and Southern California, each with similar populations. …

Click here to read the full article from The Hill

This California mayor is trying to ban neckties from the workplace

Neck tiesCalifornia has long been a place where the government has tried to influence the quality of life by enacting a ban on this or a mandatory adoption of that.

Now a mayor in Southern California says he wants to ban neckties from the workplace, claiming the fashion accessory restricts blood flow to the brain.

R. Rex Parris, mayor of Lancaster, said he conceived the idea after reading a science blog that claimed neckties restrict 7.5 percent of blood to the brain, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“I spend a lot of hours every week on an elliptical or a bike just to increase blood flow to my brain, and it turns out every morning when I put on a tie I’m diminishing it,” Parris said.

The mayor’s proposal comes as the necktie’s presence in corporate America is waning. In 2015 a New York City Human Rights Commission said compelling men to wear ties is akin to demanding that women wear skirts because of their gender. …

Click here to read the full article from Fox News

The Fatally Flawed Centerpiece of California’s Transportation Future

High speed rail constructionCalifornia’s transportation future is bright. In every area of transportation innovation, California-based companies are leading the way. Consortiums of major global companies have offices throughout the San Francisco Bay area, pioneering self-driving cars that consolidate technologies from not just automakers, but cell phone manufacturers, chip designers, PC makers, telecoms, and software companies. In Southern California from the aerospace hub surrounding LAX to the Mojave desert, heavily funded consortiums experiment with everything from passenger drones to hyperloop technologies to hypersonic transports. It’s all happening here. It’s wondrous.

Meanwhile, instead of preparing the roads for smart cars, or designing hubs that integrate buses and cars-on-demand with aerial drones and hyperloop systems, the centerpiece of California’s transportation future is a train that isn’t very fast, being built at what is probably the highest cost-per-mile in the history of transportation, which hardly anyone will ever ride.

There is a stark contrast between California’s private entrepreneurial culture, as reflected in the marvels of transportation engineering they are developing, and California’s political culture, as reflected in their ongoing commitment to “high speed rail,” in all of its stupefying expense, its useless grandeur, its jobs for nothing, its monumental initial waste, situated miles from nowhere. Exploring that stark contrast, its origins, the players, the projects, the problems and the solutions, will be the topic of this and subsequent reports.

HIGH SPEED RAIL – THE FATALLY FLAWED CENTERPIECE

The fatally flawed centerpiece of California’s transportation future, the “Bullet Train,” unfairly dominates California’s transportation conversation. Unfair not only because it represents a prodigious waste of public resources and an epic failure of public policy, but because in spite of the Bullet Train fiasco, California’s private sector is designing and building a transportation future for the world at dazzling speed. But before surveying the excellent progress being made elsewhere in the Golden State, it is necessary, yet again, to tick through the reasons why the Bullet Train is the wrong solution, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Fifty years ago, before air travel became affordable to nearly anyone, before you could fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles for less money than it would cost in gasoline to drive there in your car, rail travel might have made sense. But today, airfare is only about twice the cost of bus fare, with total air travel time a minute fraction of what the same trip would take on a bus.

Fifty years ago, before land values and environmentalist lawsuits rendered any capital project prohibitively expensive, building a high-speed rail corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles might have made sense. But today, the latest cost estimates for the SF/LA route exceed $100 billion.

Unrealistic Projections

High speed rail makes sense for intercity applications in megapolises. For example, a high speed rail line connects three of Japan’s largest cities, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. Nearly all of this 300 mile corridor is urbanized – in all, over 70 million Japanese live in this region of Japan.

By contrast, just phase one of the California high speed rail project, linking San Francisco with Los Angeles, will be 520 miles longconnecting about 24 million people. This doesn’t pass the density test. Compared to a successful high speed rail system – which the Tokyo/Osaka system certainly is – the San Francisco/Los Angeles system would be nearly twice as long, and serve only about one third as many people.

Put another way, there are 233,000 Japanese, per mile, living along the Tokyo/Osaka route, whereas there are 46,000 Californians, per mile, living along the proposed San Francisco/Los Angeles route. That means there are five times as many potential riders on Japan’s centerpiece bullet train as there might be on California’s.

Low ridership isn’t just a consequence of insufficient population density, although that is a critical precondition. Low ridership also stems from impracticality. The California High Speed Rail Authority’s 2018 “business plan” is disingenuous on this topic. They claim that travel to and from the airport chews up time, yet ignore travel time to and from a high-speed rail station. Travel time to these stations, air vs. rail, are entirely offsetting. Then they claim time that boarding high speed rail is quicker than boarding an airplane. Why? A frequent air traveler has TSA Pre, and typically sails through check-in and security. And won’t security be in place for high speed rail? Of course it will. Boarding time – also entirely offsetting. Which brings us to the actual travel time.

The current projection according to the CA HSR 2018 business plan (ref. page 7) is three hours for nonstop service from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This is definitely a best-case estimate. As reported on March 18th in the Los Angeles Times, “Of the roughly 434 miles of track between Los Angeles and San Francisco, 136 miles — nearly one-third of the total — could have at least some speed restrictions.” This would include tunnels, sharp curves, all transits through urban areas, and, incredibly, shared track and shared right-of-way with conventional rail carriers.

It is going to take twice as long to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles via high speed rail vs. an airplane. Let’s not forget there are three major airports in the San Francisco Bay Area – SJC, OAK, and SFO. Five major airports serve the Los Angeles area – LAX, ONT, BUR, LGB and SNA. And flights connect all of them to each other, all day, every day.

Perpetual Financial Drain

Even if you accept the official projections for California’s high speed rail, the financial projections are unlikely to attract private capital. The table depicted below uses baseline projections from the CA HSR 2018 business plan (numbers directly taken from the business plan are highlighted in yellow, with numbers in intermediate years, which were not disclosed in the business plan, arrived at by extrapolation) to construct a cash flow for the “Phase One” portion of the project, those segments connecting San Francisco to Bakersfield. All of the variables are taken from that document. Several generous assumptions are necessary to accept these projections. They are:

(1) The entire capital cost for construction of the Phase One system linking San Francisco to Bakersfield is $40.1 billion (ref. page 32, exhibit 3.2 “Summary of Cost Estimates by Phase and by Range”). This is crazy. It will probably cost half that just to bore a tunnel under the Pacheco Pass.

(2) Ridership on this segment will grow to 31.9 million fares per year by 2035. Assuming primarily commuter traffic, this assumes over 120,000 riders per day (ref. page 90, exhibit 7.1 “Ridership: Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line through Phase 1,” “Medium Ridership”).

(3) Incredibly, fare revenue will hit $1.86 billion by 2035. This assumes an average ticket price, in 2017 dollars, of $60. This, in turn, infers that the average commuter will be spending $1,220 per month to ride the bullet train (ref. page 90, exhibit 7.3 “Farebox Revenue: Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line through Phase 1,” “Medium Revenue”). This is perhaps the most far fetched of all assumptions made in the entire business plan. Imagine over 120,000 regular commuters spending $1,200 per month to ride this train, noting the fact that this sum would not include the additional costs virtually all commuters would incur to travel from their home to the HSR station, and then from the HSR station to their workplace, on both their outbound and inbound commute, day after day.

(4) Operations and maintenance for the train will be a mere $1.4 billion in 2035, then, after adjusting for 3% inflation, will only increase 11% by 2060 even though ridership is projected to rise from 31.9 million passengers in 2035 to 51.2 million by 2060 (ref. page 91, exhibit 7.5 “O&M Costs: Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line through Phase 1,” “Medium Cost Estimate”). This defies credulity. How will ridership increase by 61% between 2035 and 2060 while O&M costs only increase 11%?

(5) “Lifecycle Costs,” the capital reinvestment necessary to replace worn out rolling stock and other fixed assets, i.e. “capital rehabilitation and replacement costs for the infrastructure and assets of the future high-speed rail system,” as near as can be determined from the 2018 business plan, is estimated to only total around $5 billion between commencement of operations in 2029 and 2060, over 30 years (ref. page 91, exhibit 7.6 “Lifecycle Costs: Silicon Valley to Central Valley Line through Phase 1,” “Medium Lifecycle Cost”).

(6) In the analysis below, loan payments are deferred for up to ten years until rail operations begin in 2029. In reality, of course, payments begin as soon as the money is loaned. Notwithstanding that, the annual loan payments are calculated based on loan of $40.1 billion, a 30 year term, and 5% interest.

CALIFORNIA HIGH SPEED RAIL
CASH FLOW USING 2018 BUSINESS PLAN’S “BASELINE” PROJECTIONS, $=M

Taking into account these are – for the six reasons just stated – very optimistic projections, there remain problems with these numbers that would give any investor pause. For starters, there is a cumulative negative cash flow of $14 billion, representing the period up until 2039 when the system is projected to become cash-positive. This represents over 20 years of negative cash flow. Where will this $14 billion come from? Bear in mind it will be more than $14 billion, since payments on the loans commence when the monies are loaned, not when the system begins operations. Maybe some of it will come from “cap and trade” proceeds, although if so, it would consume nearly all of them. Would private investors step up?

The problem with that is if you review this best-case scenario, you can see that selling the future positive cash flow to finance the initial negative cash flow would yield an internal rate of return of 4.7%. While that’s not an impossibly low rate for a municipal financing, it is exceedingly low for a private financing subject to this level of risk. And what about the risk?

High Speed Rail Cash Flow Using Conservative Assumptions

The next chart shows a cash flow scenario for high speed rail, phase one, with key assumptions changed. Instead of costing $40.1 billion, it costs $49 billion, the “High” range of cost estimates as disclosed on the HSR 2018 business plan, page 32. Instead of an average ticket price of $60, a more affordable $30 price is used, based on the assumption that the average commuter will not be willing to spend more than $600 per month on train fare. As ridership grows by 60% between 2035 and 2060, operations and maintenance costs are escalated by 30% instead of only 11%. And instead of spending a mere $5 billion on ongoing capital investments between 2029 and 2060, that is doubled to a still paltry $10 billion. What happens?

CALIFORNIA HIGH SPEED RAIL
CASH FLOW USING ALTERNATIVE (CONSERVATIVE) PROJECTIONS, $=M

As can be seen on this alternative analysis, if ridership revenue is significantly lower than projected, and if – one might argue – realistic operations and capital budgets are projected, and, if one merely uses the HSR Authority’s own high estimate of capital costs, there is no financial viability whatsoever to this project. The internal rate of return formula basically blows up, which is what happens when you burn through $91 billion before having your first break-even year in 2059. The question instead becomes, what else might Californians have done with $50 billion? The other question raised by this more conservative financial scenario, more disturbing, is what if high speed rail never makes money? How many additional tens of billions will be required to subsidize its operation?

The problem with dismissing these more bleak financial scenarios is simple: this is the sort of analysis that any savvy investment banker would start with. Then they would ask questions. WHY do you think 120,000 people are going to be willing to spend $1,200 per month in train fares to commute, not even including their costs to get to and from the train station? WHY do you think you can increase ridership by 60%, but only increase operations costs by 11%? WHY do you think you can operate a $50 billion railroad, and only expect to reinvest ten percent of that amount in capital equipment over thirty years?

The “Monte Carlo” Method of What-If Analysis

Instead of confronting these questions in plain English, the high speed rail authority did what-ifs using a “Monte Carlo” analysis. Here’s how they describe this (ref. page 93):

“Breakeven forecasts measure the likelihood that farebox revenue is equal to or greater than operations and maintenance costs in a given operating year. The analysis works as though there are two large bags full of marbles, one with thousands of marbles each representing a potential operations and maintenance cost, with more of the marbles having values around the median cost estimate than around the extreme (high or low) values. The second bag of marbles contains potential revenue outcomes, again with more marbles with values around the median than the high or low outliers.

The breakeven Monte Carlo analysis simply “picks” one marble at random from the revenue bag and one marble at random from the cost bag, subtracts the number written on the cost marble from the one written on the revenue marble and records the value. The analysis then puts the marbles back into their respective bags and repeats the process thousands more times which builds a distribution of potential results and generates a degree of confidence (or confidence interval, expressed as a percentage) as to the likelihood of project breakeven.”

If anyone wonders why projects in California cost far more than they should, please consider the role of consultants. The variables governing success or failure for California’s high speed rail project are tangible. They require urgent debate by practical people. How much will it cost to bore a tunnel through the Pacheco Pass? How likely is it that Union Pacific will share their right-of-ways with high speed rail, and if so, how much will that reduce costs, and how much will that reduce the speed of the train along those segments, and why? What is the real cost of the many engineering and environmental studies, and how many of them are necessary? Why is it that so many other nations, from socialist Europe to fascist China, manage to build these systems for a fraction of what Californians must expect to pay?

These are the questions that require answers. Counting metaphorical marbles does not add value to the process, nor does it add credibility to the financial projections. These qualitative questions regarding California’s high speed rail project have not been answered, because perhaps they cannot be answered. But the reasons California’s high speed rail system is so staggeringly, prohibitively expensive, are not problems that are confined to the high speed rail project. They infect every infrastructure program in the United States, and especially in California. Identifying the reasons infrastructure projects cost far more than they should, along with exploring tantalizing alternatives to high speed rail, will be the topic of future reports.

*   *   *

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.

Housing bill with $230 million cost estimated to save renters only $20 per month

Housing apartmentState Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, and 16 co-sponsors have introduced legislation that sounds like a bold move to address the high cost of housing. Glazer’s Senate Bill 1182 would double the state tax credit for renters. But that turns out to only mean a maximum annual savings of $240.

The last time the rental tax credit was increased, in 1979, it set the credit at $10 per month for an individual filer and $20 a month for joint filers, with eligibility capped by total income. Senate Bill 1182 would increase the cap to $20 per month for individuals and $40 per month for joint filers. To be eligible, individuals have to have gross incomes of $40,078 or less and joint filers have to have incomes of $80,156 or less.

One-bedroom apartments routinely go for $1,700 or more per month in most metropolitan areas and the average home sale is above $500,000 in most of Southern California and over $1 million in the Bay Area. Glazer’s credit would mean that joint filers paying the average rent go from spending $20,160 in a year to spending $19,920 – a 1.2 percent savings. Individual filers paying the average rent would drop from $20,280 a year to $20,160 – a 0.6 percent savings. The percentage savings on a typical mortgage would be much lower.

In his news release announcing the legislation, Glazer noted attempts by the Legislature on many fronts to make it easier to build more housing, starting with streamlining regulations and giving qualified projects guaranteed approvals. He said these efforts could take years before they began helping Californians.

“None of those measures directed relief to the monthly budgets of struggling renters,” Glazer said. “The renter’s tax credit does.”

Three Republicans among co-sponsors

The news release listed these lawmakers, including three Republicans, as co-authors: Sens. Jim Beall, D-San Jose; Steve Bradford, D-Gardena: Bill Dodd, D-Napa; Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton; Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo; Ben Hueso, D-San Diego; Connie Leyva, D-Chino; Josh Newman, D-Fullerton; Janet Nguyen, R-Fountain Valley; Richard Pan, D-Sacramento; Anthony Portantino, D-Glendale; Richard Roth, D-Riverside; Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley; Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont; Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita; and Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale.

Glazer’s office said the higher renters’ tax credit would cost the state $230 million in annual revenue.

There are other restrictions on eligibility for the renters’ tax credit besides income caps, the Franchise Tax Board’s website notes. They include:

– Tax filers need to have paid rent for at least six months for shelter that served as their principal residence.

– The rented property was not on a parcel exempt from state property tax.

– The property was not shared for more than six months with a parent or a guardian or any individual who could claim the tax filer as a dependent.

– The tax filer was not a minor living with a legal guardian, parent or foster parent.

Glazer, 60, a former political and development consultant and aide to Gov. Jerry Brown, won a May 2015 special election to fill the final 19 months of Mark DeSaulnier’s state Senate seat after DeSaulnier was elected to Congress in 2014. He won a full four-year term in 2016.

This articles was originally published by CalWatchdog.com