Traffic deaths climbing in California – Is there a fix?

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

It’s an unfortunate downside to the recession’s end: As more people return to work and more cars hit the road, fatal accidents are on the climb.

Nationally, road deaths jumped nearly 10 percent in the first three months of this year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California officials say they saw a 13 percent uptick over three recent years through 2013 and expect that trend to continue when 2014 numbers are finalized.

It’s no surprise, safety officials say.

“Realistically, when the economy started getting better, all indications …

Click here to read the full story

Chinese Venture Looks to Connect L.A. and Las Vegas Via High-Speed Rail

xpress-west-1 trainFor bemused Californians, there’s another bullet train in town, thanks to the Chinese government.

More specifically, credit — $100 million worth — goes to China Railway International USA, a venture spearheaded by Beijing’s national railroad, China Railway. The consortium has ponied up funds for XpressWest, “the transportation arm of Marnell Companies, a gaming resort development firm,” as the Sacramento Business Journal noted.

Formerly known as DesertXpress, the company has labored to send a high-speed track toward Las Vegas since “at least 2007,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

According to Chinese officials cited by the Times, passengers would travel “a 230-mile route with an additional stop in Palmdale and eventual service throughout the Los Angeles area using some of the same track that would be used by the publicly backed California high-speed rail project.” Past plans envisioned a run of 185 miles alongside I-15.

The logic behind the idea drew from some straightforward numbers. “About one-quarter of Las Vegas’s 41 million visitors in 2014 came from Southern California, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, many via a several hour highway drive,” Quartz noted. Vegas has been without a passenger train since Amtrak shut down its Desert Wind line in 1997.

Logistical doubts

This  train, which would share track with California’s state-funded high-speed rail, has run into its own version of a problem plaguing that track: reaching Los Angeles proper. “The project has the approval to cover about 190 miles from Las Vegas to the California desert city of Victorville, about 100-mile drive northeast of Los Angeles. It hasn’t broken ground. The project still needs government permission to connect with Southern California’s population centers,” Fox News reported.

“The project currently lacks permission to connect with the state of California’s planned high-speed rail project at a station to be built in Palmdale, 50 miles west of Victorville. A mountain range and about 50 more miles separate Palmdale from downtown Los Angeles.”

Skeptics quickly emerged with unflattering questions about the logistical constraints that could be imposed by the train’s pathway and travel times. “Anybody in L.A. keen to drive to Victorville to pay $89 to take an 80 minute ride to Vegas on a high-speed train?” tweeted Bloomberg View’s Adam Minter.

Adding to the speculation, estimates emerged that the train would require far in excess of the $100 million the Chinese have so far made available. “China’s CRRC Corp’s unit along with its peers from China will implement the rail corridor project at an estimated cost of $5 billion,” the Venture Capital Post noted.

Marshaling support

As yet, American officeholders have remained cagey. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said he hadn’t learned any details about the plans. “But in 2009,” according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, “the XpressWest project drew a key supporter: U.S. Sen Harry Reid, D-Nevada. ‘Senator Reid has been a cheerleader on this project for many years,’ Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said Thursday. ‘He’s glad to see this progress and remains committed to assisting as needed.’”

And the Chinese government appears to have a firm interest in seeing the project to completion. Beijing created CRRC with the specific purpose of throwing the country’s considerable industrial weight around in foreign territories. “The merger of China’s two largest state-owned rail equipment makers has created an industry behemoth, second only to General Electric in size, that will be competing aggressively for projects across Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America,” Quartz observed. “China, once a major importer of rail technology, wants to be a world leader in high-speed rail, with projects that span the globe, focusing especially on emerging markets.”

But growth in the U.S. has also been marked as a priority. An employee of the conglomerate told Caixin online that the company “views China Railway International USA an important part of its plan to expand abroad.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Governor and Democrats Intent on Raising Taxes

TaxesMajority Democrats have made it increasingly obvious that they are intent on raising taxes on hardworking Californians. In the clearest sign yet, the governor released a draft transportation funding plan on Thursday, which includes a $65 fee on vehicle owners, an 11-cent increase in the diesel tax, and a 6-cent increase in the gas tax. This comes on top of the estimated 10-cent increase in the gas tax that kicked in earlier this year due to cap and trade.

The governor and legislative Democrats are spending more than ever before, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our roads. California drivers pay one of the highest gas taxes in the nation, yet our infrastructure ranks near the bottom. The state has money to improve our highways without asking taxpayers for more. As Republicans, we continue to stand with families to say enough is enough and oppose new taxes.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats passed several measures that contained no substantive content to the state Assembly. The procedural move, a tactic frequently used during the state budget process, makes it easier to facilitate backroom deals, giving the public little time to review final products. These vehicles would likely be used to push through tax increases, such as those proposed by the Governor. New taxes require a two-thirds vote of the legislature.

Just one week before, Democrats on the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Development Committee approved a $35 increase in the vehicle registration fee and a 12-cent hike in the gas tax. A new poll out this week shows a majority of Californians oppose higher gas taxes.

California State Senate, 23rd District.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Déjà Vu in the Special Session: Taxes vs. Reforms

tax signWatching the maneuvering to pass a transportation revenue package in the special session, I can’t help but think of the observation by that great philosopher Yogi Berra who said: “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The legislative scrum over a legislative roads fix is similar to the struggle to find common ground before Proposition 30 was put on the ballot.

Remember those days at the beginning of Governor Jerry Brown’s third term. Brown tried to pick off a few Republican votes to secure the two-thirds margin he needed to put a tax increase measure on the ballot. In return, the Republicans who were courted by Brown sought reforms to the spending side of the budget, particularly, a spending limit and a rainy day fund. Pressured by public employee unions, Democrats in the legislature showed no interest in accepting these reforms.

The effort to achieve a compromise package went nowhere. The governor then turned to the ballot, working with union groups already pushing a tax increase initiative to create Proposition 30.

On transportation in the special session, Democrats put forward a series of tax and fee increases. Republicans countered with a package of spending proposals using cap and trade dollars, redirecting current transportation revenues for the roads, re-doing Caltrans employment, and reconsidering the high-speed rail project.

Republican senate leader Bob Huff said there is no support for tax increases in his caucus. Democratic majorities in committee killed the Caltrans and high-speed rail proposals. Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León said taking money from cap-and-trade for the roads is not a serious proposal. “There is no nexus between greenhouse gas emissions and potholes,” he said.

Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which supports a compromise that would include both tax increases and re-directing cap-and-trade funds said, “Both sides will likely experience some pain, both sides will need to have some wins.”

At this stage there seems no give to accept any part of the plan put forth by the other side.

Negotiations will continue. But will history repeat itself if no deal is struck?

The forces behind the tax and fee increases could play the initiative card. With supporters in labor and big business, and if the governor endorses an initiative, they certainly have the wherewithal to qualify a measure for the ballot. But, how likely is it that voters would embrace a 12-cent per gallon gas tax increase and higher car registration fees if such a proposal qualified for the ballot?

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

​California Taxpayers and the 20th Maine

20th-maine-round-topAlthough comparisons to actual wartime fighting should be used sparingly, California taxpayers can’t help but feel a bit like the 20th Maine Regiment at the battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War.  The actions of the 20th Maine, depicted in the Pulitzer Prize winning book “Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, are well known to Civil War buffs.

Led by Joshua Chamberlain, who later became Governor of Maine, the 20th Regiment became famous for its defense of Little Round Top, a small hill on the flank of the Union forces.  On July 2, 1863, the 20th Maine was positioned at the far left of the Union line with elements of the 44th New York, 16th Michigan, and 83rd Pennsylvania.  As the Confederacy began its attack, Chamberlain was alerted that the enemy seemed to be pushing toward the regiment’s left. Chamberlain ordered a right-angle formation, extending his line farther to the east.

After an hour and a half under heavy attack and running low on ammunition, Chamberlain saw the rebels forming for another push and ordered a charge down the hill with fixed bayonets, which caught the enemy by surprise. During the charge, a second Confederate line tried to make a stand near a stone wall. The isolated group of Union soldiers, now in a position from which to provide the rest of the regiment with support, fired into the Confederate’s rear, giving the impression that the 20th Maine had been joined by another regiment. This, coupled with the surprise of Chamberlain’s bold attack, caused panic among the Southerners’ ranks.

The Confederates scattered, ending the attack on the hill. If the 20th Maine had retreated instead, the entire line would have been flanked and the Union likely would have lost Gettysburg. Most Civil War historians agree that holding the hill helped the Union win Gettysburg and turn the tide of the war.

What is notable about the 20th Maine was the number of direct assaults launched directly against its ranks. Time and time again, enemy forces assailed the small force made up of mostly farmers, woodsmen and fishermen. Chamberlain himself was no professional soldier, but rather the Professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College.

Like the constant attacks on the 20th Maine, which depleted both the energy and ammunition of its members, political forces in California are lined up against taxpayers ready to make a final push as the current legislative session enters its final few weeks. The question is whether taxpayers and their allies in the Legislature – mostly Republicans – can repel all the tax hikes being proposed.

The proposals are many, varied and all dangerous. Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 seeks to rip Prop. 13 protections away from business owners, including tens of thousands of mom and pop stores. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 4 seeks to lower the two-thirds vote for local taxes which, if passed, will subject local citizens to massive new tax hikes. In a special session, which is not subject to the same time deadlines as the regular legislative session, there will be a huge push for new transportation taxes, slamming middle class working Californians who rely on their cars for both work and their family life.

Fortunately, there is plenty of ammunition taxpayers can use to counter the assault, starting with the argument that California is already a high tax state with a hostile regulatory environment that has driven many of its citizens and businesses to more friendly jurisdictions. Also, taxpayers will surely assert that, with a $6 billion surplus, the last thing we should be talking about is tax hikes. Finally, government waste in California continues to eat up tens of billions of dollars annually. All these contentions must be brought to the fore if taxpayers are to be victorious in stopping those who want even more money out of our pockets.

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.

Originally published by HTJA.org

7 Key Measures of California’s Transportation Challenges

1. CA’s gas taxes are the 4thhighest in the nation.

According to the American Petroleum Institute, California’s 61-cent-per-gallon gas taxes are the 4th highest in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania, New York and Hawaii. This does not include the recent addition of extra cap-and-trade taxes resulting from bringing fossil fuels under California’s AB 32 law.

2. CA’s gas prices are the nation’s highest.

According to AAA, the current national average price for a gallon of ‘regular’ gasoline is $2.63. California’s current average price is $3.69 per gallon (as of 8/5/15).

3. CA’s gas tax & transportation fees yield $10.6 billion annually.

According to the State of California, Department of Transportation, Division of Budgets, 2014/2015 Fiscal Year estimates, the State brings in at least $10.6 billion in taxes and fees “dedicated to transportation purposes.”

4. Caltrans spends just 20% of that revenue on state road repair & new construction.  

Last year, Caltrans spent $1.2 billion in state road maintenance & repair, and $850 million in new construction.  Similar amounts are planned for the 2015/2016 CA State budget.

5. Caltrans wastes half a billion $$ annually on extra staffing.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report on the review of the Caltrans’ Capital Outlay Support Program found that the agency is overstaffed by 3,500 positions at a cost of $500 million per year.

6. CA’s roads rank near the bottom in every category, including:

  • 46th in rural interstate pavement condition
  • 49th in urban interstate pavement condition
  • 46th in urban interstate congestion

7. Poor road conditions cost Californians $17 billion yearly in vehicle repairs.

34% of CA’s major roads are rated to be in “poor” condition. Driving on roads in need of repair costs California motorists $17 billion a year in extra vehicle repairs and operating costs – $702.88 per motorist.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

John Moorlach is a California State Senate, 37th District

Will California Republicans Dance With Wolves?​

Jerry Brown, who as a candidate for governor in 2010 repeatedly pledged he wouldn’t raise taxes without a popular vote, has called for a special session of the Legislature for the purpose of raising taxes.  This despite the fact that general fund revenues have outstripped estimates by almost $6 billion.  So now we have the very real possibility of higher gas taxes, higher registration and vehicle license fees with proceeds promised for roads – all without a vote of the people.

That a politician would change his views on adding to the public’s tax burden is hardly a surprise.  Those of a certain age will clearly remember presidential candidate George H.W. Bush proclaiming, “Read my lips, no new taxes,” before his later, as president, breaking his pledge.

In his effort to increase the tax burden on motorists, Brown is receiving support from the usual suspects including Democrats in the Legislature who have become the party of the public employee unions favoring more revenue for higher pay, and radical environmentalists for whom the price of fossil fuels can never be high enough. Even some in the business community are signaling that they, too, could support higher levies on California drivers if the result is improved roads. (By now you would think that these otherwise astute political players would realize that Faustian bargains with the tax-hikers always end badly.)

The impediment to the grand scheme of those who want ever higher taxes is, of course, Proposition 13 which requires a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature. Deprived of their supermajorities in the last election cycle, Democrats would need help from Republicans. So the big question is will the Democrats be able to pick off a handful of Republican votes.

We sure hope not. Not only would this be bad policy but the California Republican Party has, in recent years, made progress in establishing a reputation as the only party to represent average working folks against multi-billion dollar tax increases. And voting for tax hikes as a Republican is a surefire way to end a political career.

Moreover, to their credit, Republicans have proposed credible transportation plans of their own to provide needed funding for road construction and maintenance, but without raising taxes.

Nonetheless, we’re hearing rumors that a couple of Republicans might acquiesce to a tax increase. They should know better as California already ranks second in the nation in gas tax rates, even without counting the hidden carbon tax. The new tax would make the state an outright number one and would add to the already highest gasoline prices.

Expect Republican legislators to be wined and dined and invited to dance by those lobbing for higher taxes. These favor seekers will be wearing their most benign looking sheep costumes but legislative Republicans should be aware that these are actually wolves who, once they have gotten the votes they  want, will turn on them without provocation if it suits their interests.

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.

Special Tax Sessions Announced by Gov. Brown

taxesIn announcing the budget deal with the Legislature, Governor Jerry Brown announced two special sessions to deal with transportation and Medi-Cal funding. Call them the Special Tax Sessions.

In the press release announcing the sessions, the governor stated that the sessions were to “find more adequate funding for our roads and health care programs.”

The governor asked for “permanent and sustainable funding to maintain and repair the state’s transportation and critical infrastructure.” He also wants “permanent and sustainable funding to provide at least $1.1 billion annually to stabilize the state’s General Fund costs for Medi-Cal,” some of which would be used to meet the demands of programs Democratic legislators sought funds for in the current budget such as In-Home Supportive Services.

At the governor’s press conference announcing the budget deal, reporters asked Brown about his first term (third term?) campaign pledge to only seek tax increases with approval of voters. Brown brushed aside the old pledge indicating the pledge only applied to his first term.

Add it all up and there will be a push for tax or fee increases to support the governor’s call for “permanent and sustainable funding.” Discussions will revolve around gas taxes and a higher car tax or maybe a mileage fee for transportation; perhaps an increased cigarette tax and other healthcare taxes for Medi-Cal.

Brown might hope for support from the business community for the transportation and infrastructure fix. Those issues have been of on-going concern to business.

Still, the large influx of dollars in the current budget and the talk of tax proposals that may end up on next year’s ballot will only increase the anxiety of businesses and taxpayers alike and could result in stalemated special sessions.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

Bullet train puts California’s future in the hole

high speed rail trainThe California High Speed Rail Authority is in damage-control mode in Southern California.

Planning is underway for the Palmdale-to-Burbank section of the $68-billion bullet train, and the rail authority is required to solicit community input on proposed routes. On Monday, Team Bullet Train was at the Santa Clarita Activities Center to comply with that legal mandate.

The strain was evident. “Santa Clarita has been very effective at vocalizing its concerns to the High Speed Rail Authority,” a rail official stated with cool irritation.

“I will lead the City Council to file a lawsuit if it goes through Santa Clarita,” Councilmember TimBen Boydston said later.

Public meetings usually feature members of the audience asking questions of a panel of officials and experts. Everyone can hear the answers.

Not this time. The rail authority’s meeting took place in two large rooms, with chairs set up in one room and computer displays in the other. Two officials gave a presentation in the room with the chairs but would not take questions from the people sitting in them.

“We prefer that people ask their questions individually of the experts at the open house,” an information officer said, referring to the room where engineering and environmental consultants stood near their displays like bored vendors at a trade show.

So none of the other people attending the presentation heard the experts tell me that the automobile was “a 50-year experiment that did not work out well,” or that “Ansel Adams opposed the Golden Gate Bridge, and one day opposition to high-speed rail will seem just as ridiculous,” or that “we will learn from the Europeans” how to safely evacuate train passengers from a tunnel 60 feet underground in the event of a fire or explosion.

Actually, automobile sales have been rising since 1892, Ansel Adams was a photographer of nature’s untouched beauty, and the CHSRA’s own literature on project pros and cons lists “Fire & Life Safety” as one of the “cons” of the “HSR deep tunnel.”

In another questionable assertion, the team insisted that the bullet train is financially viable and won’t need taxpayer subsidies to operate. They offered up a stack of year-old letters from private sector companies as evidence.

But the letters are about construction loans, not financial self-sufficiency. In the very first letter a CEO writes, “we believe that long-term funding by the State is needed.”

The second letter says the project could be completed “with funds from the state” in combination with private financing, if the state provides “a multi-year source of repayment.”

The would-be private sector partners were offering to help us borrow money, which we would then give to them to build the bullet train. They were pleased that the state would be able to make loan payments using money collected from cap-and-trade fees assessed on gasoline, diesel fuel and industry.

At a news conference in May, Gov. Jerry Brown was asked about the cap-and-trade spending. A reporter wondered if he had a long-term plan, “because as pollution goes down, the revenues will go down.”

“No, not quite,” Brown answered. “Pollution — we’re not as successful with reducing carbon pollution as we are with what they call ‘criteria’ pollutants, like sulfur, carbon monoxide, NOx, things like that. Carbon pollution is still rising. Worldwide. And so one of the principal strategies is to put a price on carbon. And a price that will rise. To increase the burden of using carbon.”

The reporter asked again, “But these revenues will taper off at some point and begin to go down, yes?”

“I don’t think so,” Brown answered.

“Spending will continue,” the reporter said.

“Spending will continue,” Brown confirmed. “There will be a gradual rise. And I would imagine as, assuming climate change becomes more evident, there will be efforts to ramp up even further the price of carbon.”

The governor is widening the definition of pollution so the penalty fees can go up. The only way to maintain public support for this scheme is to incite guilt and panic with endless warnings that climate change is about to become “more evident.”

Meanwhile, production and transportation will grow more expensive, and California will lose businesses, jobs and revenue. But limits on greenhouse gas emissions can always be tightened further to generate higher penalty fees. Spending will continue.

The bullet train is worse than an unnecessary expense. Funded by debt and fines, it will be a permanent leech on California’s economic lifeblood.

Save the future. Take Southwest.

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

Is Hyperloop Technology the Future of CA Transportation?

Hyperloop mockupElon Musk proposed it years ago. This January, he announced he’d enable teams to test it out on a track in Texas. But the first entrepreneur to ink a deal for a Hyperloop test track will bring the concept to life in California.

According to Navigant Research and CBS News, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies — an entity that picked up independently where Musk left off with the idea — “has inked a deal with landowners in central California to build the world’s first Hyperloop test track.” Beginning in 2016, HTT would oversee construction of five miles of track along I-5, where, once completed, test speeds will be kept to around 200 miles per hours — less than a third of the top rate of travel envisioned by Musk.

Outlays for the fully-completed Hyperloop would likely come in far under the budget for California’s high-speed rail project, even with cost overruns:

The 5-mile test track is estimated to cost about $100 million, which Hyperloop Transportation Technologies hopes to pay for with its initial public offering (IPO) later this year, according to Navigant’s blog. Assuming building costs remain the same, a 400-mile (644 km) track between Los Angeles and San Francisco would cost about $8 billion (not including development costs), experts estimate. This price tag is still far less than that for California’s planned high-speed rail project, which could cost $67.6 billion, according to the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

Multiple teams

HTT emerged from a crowdsourcing platform, JumpStartFund, created in 2013 by Dirk Ahlborn. “He’s used it to attract experts with day jobs at universities and companies such as Boeing and SpaceX who moonlight on the project in exchange for future profits,” as National Geographic explained.

But HTT has developed a reputation as the scrappy upstart among contending Hyperloop initiatives. Hyperloop Technologies, based in Los Angeles, assembled an all-star team. NatGeo counted “Brogan BamBrogan, a key former SpaceX engineer; Jim Messina, the manager of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign; David Sacks, who worked under Musk at PayPal, and Shervin Pishevar, investor in ridesharing company Uber who prodded Musk to go public with his Hyperloop vision.”

Skepticism and savvy

As has long been the case with newfangled technologies, critics have not been shy about questioning the mechanics behind Hyperloop’s eye-popping goals. Beyond simple safety concerns — a leak in the vacuum created to make it move so fast would be disastrous — critics have claimed that “solar panels alone cannot generate the energy needed for 800mph travel. Even if successful, the issue of the enormous g-forces experienced by passengers when travelling at the Hyperloop’s top speed will also need to be addressed,” Alphr reported.

But for now, the intrinsic appeal and excitement of Hyperloop has brought enough momentum to carry the project forward. Looking to capitalize on the interest, Ahlborn has even teased the ultimate in futuristic transportation: a free ride. As Endgaget noted, he revealed “he’s considering a business model that apes what we see in free-to-play mobile games. The CEO is kicking around the idea that the travel itself would either be free or dirt cheap, with passengers charged for a series of as-yet undisclosed upgrades. Of course, since we’re still a decade or more away from a commercial version of the system, there’s plenty of time for him to change his mind.”

In the meantime, Hyperloop’s innovators have already encountered initial opposition from a potentially more formidable foe than armchair critics: California’s own government. “Transit authorities in California reportedly balked at the idea,” according to Fast Company, “concerned about earthquakes and the fact that such a system would have to span all kinds of terrain and privately owned land.” With his I-5 corridor test track, Ahlborn has begun to answer at least one of those objections.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com