To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In Seattle, a Sinking Feeling About a Troubled Tunnel


Supreme Court weighing Amtrak's power over U.S. railroads


December 10, 2014


WASHINGTON -- A divided Supreme Court wrestled Monday with a task that may be beyond its control: making the trains run on time.

Performance standards that Amtrak, the nation's passenger railway, helped to create in 2010 certainly moved in that direction. But when a federal appeals court negated them last year, performance dropped. The federal government wants them reinstated.

At least half the justices appeared to agree with the lower court, rather than the government, on the case's crucial point: Amtrak, they said, was a quasi-private corporation that shouldn't be allowed to write the rules of the railroad.

An equal number of justices appeared to disagree, arguing that the government created Amtrak, funds it and appoints most of its board members. As such, they said, the government can delegate power without violating the Constitution's "non-delegation principle" or due process clause.

How the court decides the issue could have a major impact on the quality of passenger and freight rail service. If Amtrak can set standards, it can establish priority over the private freight railroads on the other side of the legal dispute. If it lacks such authority, freight service would have greater influence.
The court's more conservative justices seemed to side with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which ruled last year that Congress cannot delegate such broad power to Amtrak.

"That's a significant regulatory impact, to tell railroads I, a private party, get to start a governmental proceeding, and you have to show up to defend it.," Chief Justice John Roberts said.

"Suppose that the government, together with auto manufacturer 'A,' made standards, but then auto manufacturers 'B' and 'C' had to follow them," Justice Anthony Kennedy said. "That seems wrong. Why is this different?"

The more liberal justices appeared to side with the government. Justice Stephen Breyer said it's not unusual for private entities with expertise to be granted power to set standards for their industries, such as those that oversee the Internet. Several of his colleagues virtually equated Amtrak with the government.

"It's entirely funded by Congress. All the members of the board are appointed by the president, with the advice and consent of the Senate, save one," Justice Elena Kagan said. "Other than this label, what suggests that this is not the government?"

Hastily-Debated Collins Measure Could Put More Tired Truckers on the Road


By Tanya Snyder, December 9, 2014

 Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number. Screenshot from ##http://6abc.com/traffic/police-truck-driver-fell-asleep-prior-to-crash-on-i-95-in-del/144318/##6ABC##

 Truck crashes killed almost 4,000 people in 2012. Sen. Susan Collins wants to suspend a safety rule aimed at reducing that number.

It just wouldn’t be Congress if we weren’t trying to debate substantive policy changes, with drastic implications for public safety, with a government shutdown deadline fast approaching.

As Congress tries to wrap up the hideously-named “cromnibus” (continuing resolution (CR) + omnibus) spending bill for the rest of FY 2015 by Thursday, one provision is attracting a heated debate over road safety.

An amendment introduced over the summer by Maine Senator Susan Collins would repeal elements of a 2011 U.S. DOT rule requiring truck drivers to get adequate rest. The two basic pillars of that hours-of-service rule are: 1) drivers have to take a 30-minute rest break within the first eight hours of their shift, and, more contentiously, 2) drivers have to take a 34-hour “restart” period once every seven days. That 34-hour rest period must include two consecutive overnights between 1:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. According to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “The net effect of these changes was to reduce the average maximum week a driver could work from 82 hours to 70 hours.”

The Collins amendment would maintain the 34-hour rest mandate but would remove the requirement that it include two overnights, and it would allow drivers to take more than one restart in a seven-day period, thereby starting a new 70-hour workweek.

Truck crashes caused 3,921 deaths in 2012 [PDF]. Bloomberg News reports that the fatal-crash rate increased each year from 2009 through 2012, reversing a five-year trend.

Sec. Foxx noted in his blog post that most truckers “behave responsibly and drive well within reasonable limits,” but that the rules guard against those “who are tempted to push the limits.”

“Additionally, new research available on the subject demonstrated that long work hours, without sufficient recovery time, lead to reduced sleep and chronic fatigue,” Foxx wrote. “That fatigue leads drivers to have slower reaction times and a reduced ability to assess situations quickly.” He added that drivers often can’t accurately assess their own fatigue.

Sen. Susan Collins wants to ease some requirements aimed at ensuring that truckers are well-rested.
Sen. Susan Collins wants to ease some requirements aimed at ensuring that truckers are well-rested.

Foxx condemned the Collins amendment, saying, “The best science tells us that’s unsafe and will put lives at risk.”

Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, says the hours-of-service rule would save an estimated 19 lives and prevent approximately 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries each year.

Opponents of the restart rule are generally concerned with industry efficiency and profits. Trucking industry groups are lined up against it, though Joan Claybrook, former president of Public Citizen and current chair of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), cautions that truckers and the trucking industry might be seeing things differently.

“Sen. Collins wants to roll back current work protections and instead allow trucking industry executives to force truck drivers to work more than 80 hours a week,” she said Monday at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol. “This is inhumane and a formula for tired truckers wiping out innocent families in preventable truck crashes. This means big bucks to the trucking companies who are exempt from federal requirements to pay overtime to their drivers.”

The Tax That Dare Not Be Hiked

Gas prices are plunging, and the Highway Trust Fund is broke. After more than 20 years, why won't Congress just raise the fuel tax?


By Russell Berman, December 7, 2014

 A man changes the price of gas this week in Medford, Massachusetts.

In theory, advocates of an infusion of spending to fix the nation's crumbling roads and bridges have found the perfect political moment.

Fuel prices are plunging to their lowest level in years. The Highway Trust Fund is broke, and Congress faces a spring deadline to replenish it. The obvious answer—the only answer, according to many in Washington—is to raise the 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which hasn't gone up in more than 20 years. Since prices at the pump have dropped more than a dollar per gallon in some areas, drivers would barely notice the extra nickel they'd be forced initially to pay as a result of the tax hike. That wasn't true until recently: For years, the pocketbook punch of the Great Recession combined with gas prices that peaked above $4 made an increase both politically and economically untenable.

Yet even with prices at a four-year low, the odds of Congress touching the gas tax are as long as ever. "I think it’s too toxic and continues to be too toxic," said Steve LaTourette, the former Republican congressman best known for his close friendship with his fellow Ohioan, Speaker John Boehner. "I see no political will to get this done."

Taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel have financed the Highway Trust Fund since its inception under President Eisenhower in 1956. Congress periodically raised the levies for decades with bipartisan support, but it has not done so since 1993, when an increase was included as part of President Clinton's economic plan, which passed both the House and Senate by just a single vote. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have supported increases in the gas tax. In 2008, the trust fund became insolvent and has since been plugged by transfers from the Treasury.

Advocates on and off Capitol Hill are mounting a new push to lift the gas tax as Republicans prepare to assume full control of Congress in January. Funding for the Highway Trust Fund will run out May 31. On 60 Minutes last month, officials including former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell used the specter of a major bridge or highway collapse to warn of the need for new investments. LaHood, a Republican who was once rebuked by the Obama White House for suggesting a switch to a mileage-based tax, is now going public on the gas tax, in his typically colorful style. "The best argument for doing it is is that America is one big pothole," he told me in a phone interview, "and America’s infrastructure is in the worst shape that we’ve seen in decades."

At the Capitol, Representatives Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, and Tom Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, summoned a different image to make their case: Ronald Reagan. Standing next to a cardboard cutout of the conservative icon, the congressmen pointed to the gas-tax hike Reagan signed in 1982 as an example of a time when Republicans and Democrats joined to support infrastructure. They propose increasing the tax by 15 cents over three years and then indexing it to inflation. so that Congress would not have to keep returning to the issue every few years. "That would solve the funding problem," Petri said by phone after the event.

Tom Petri (left) and Earl Blumenauer, joined by Ronald Reagan (Office of Earl Blumenauer)
Petri took a more optimistic view than LaTourette of the politics of raising the gas tax, arguing that the sustained drop in fuel prices would change the minds of his more conservative colleagues, particularly if they reach $2 a gallon in more and more areas. "I don’t think there’s any question that it’s going to change the dynamics and make it much more palatable," he said. But he warned of a lag between the politics and the market. "It sometimes takes a little while for institutions to adjust to changes in the real world. So it may not happen instantly."

While Petri gives the gas-tax proposal a bipartisan imprimatur, his support shouldn't be mistaken for a major act of political courage. After 36 years in the House, Petri is retiring from Congress in a few weeks, forcing Blumenauer to start anew in January. While he backed the tax increase under Reagan in 1982, he said he only recently endorsed Blumenauer's legislation. Both lawmakers have also blamed the Obama administration for opposing any increase in the tax, a move they said discouraged lawmakers in both parties from publicly embracing it. "Republicans have tended to shy away from sticking their head up too far, because the feeling was, you do it and then the president cuts you off at the knees," Petri said.

In a separate interview, Blumenauer said the administration had recently "dialed back" its opposition, with senior officials telling lawmakers that if Congress could somehow pass a gas tax hike, he would sign it. Yet just a few hours after his and Petri's press conference, Obama himself seemed to put their plan back on ice. At a business roundtable at the White House, FedEx CEO Frederick Smith asked Obama why Congress couldn't just raise the gas tax and solve the infrastructure problem. "In fairness to members of Congress, votes on the gas tax are really tough," the president replied, after first chuckling that if it he were in charge on Capitol Hill, "I probably already would have done it."

He said he'd work with Republican leaders on a short-term plan to refill the trust fund but for the long term, Congress probably needed to turn away from the gas tax and find another "dedicated revenue source for funding the infrastructure that we need that is not so politically frightening to members of Congress that it’s reliable." A report earlier this year from the left-leaning Center for American Progress suggested shifting from a tax on fuel to a fee tied to mileage, but it's not clear that idea would garner any more political support than the gas tax.

"The gas tax hasn’t been increased for 20 years. There’s a reason for that," Obama said. Told of the president's remarks, Blumenauer—a man known for biking around Washington in a bow tie—practically jumped through the phone in frustration. "That is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy!" he snapped. He and other advocates argue that the political impossibility of raising the gas tax has long been overstated. The issue already has an impressive array of outside backers, including labor unions and environmentalists as well as erstwhile GOP backers like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Blumenauer also pointed to public support for fuel-tax increases at the state level, including in places like Wyoming and New Hampshire that have historically been hostile to higher taxes. "It's just not true that it's too politically difficult," he said.

The most politically promising alternative to raising the gas tax would use revenue from repatriated corporate profits to fund infrastructure projects. Multinational companies are estimated to be keeping $2 trillion in overseas accounts to avoid the high corporate tax rate in the U.S., and repatriation would offer them a tax break in exchange for bringing the money home and investing it domestically in infrastructure bonds. Obama has suggested linking a broader corporate tax overhaul with new infrastructure spending, and the repatriation idea was included in a proposal from the chief House Republican tax-writer, Dave Camp, last year. But unlike a tax rate indexed to inflation, that plan would only cover the Highway Trust Fund for a few years. A permanent change to the gas tax, LaTourette said, is "the only way you’re going to sustain [the fund] into the future."

As for the Republicans who will be taking power in January, at least one in the Senate, Bob Corker of Tennessee, supports increasing the fuel tax. In the House, however, the new chairman of the Ways and Means Committee—which has jurisdiction over taxes—is Paul Ryan, the venerated conservative policymaker and 2012 GOP vice-presidential nominee. Ryan wants tax reform but has never advocated for a hike in the gas tax, and a spokesman wouldn't comment on his position. Asked whether he had any hope that Ryan would come around, Petri harkened back once again to 1982: "Well, he's expressed admiration for Ronald Reagan in the past."

To supporters of the gas tax and the nation's longterm commitment to infrastructure, the dim hopes for change, even in the face of low fuel prices, are baffling but not surprising. It's just one more frustrating example of a political culture paralyzed by fear of the voters' wrath, whether imagined or real. LaTourette said he had dinner recently with several former colleagues who are still in Congress and asked them whether an increase in the tax stood any new chance. "They said no," he recalled. "There just aren't the votes."

Officials present route options for high-speed rail

Tunnel suggestion for bullet train draws mixed feedback at open-house meeting.


By Chad Garland, December 9, 2014

It could be the largest infrastructure project in the United States — the first high-speed rail system in the country — and it's expected to come to Burbank.

But high-speed officials are grappling with options to either build the tracks around the Angeles National Forest or under it.
On Monday, officials from the California High-Speed Rail Authority were at the Buena Vista Branch Library to pitch multiple conceptual alternatives for the bullet-train section running from the Palmdale Transportation Center to a proposed station near the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

“It’s a game-changer,” said Burbank City Manager Mark Scott, looking over one of the video animations of a proposed route, noting that it has the potential to make the airport the best transportation hub in the state.

That route, a 45-mile line proposed years ago, would follow along the curving path of the Antelope Valley (14) Freeway. It was refined based on public feedback received earlier this year, officials said, moving the path farther from the Lake Palmdale Dam, for example, and adjusting where it crosses the freeway in Acton.

An alternative through what is called the “east corridor” was developed after feedback called for a more direct route, officials said. It would cut a 35-mile path from Palmdale to Burbank by tunneling under the national forest, with three possible approaches to Burbank.

Two of those approaches call for tunnels under Shadow Hills, but attorney Bill Eick, a board member of Shadow Hills Property Owners Assn., said his organization will do whatever it can to oppose those routes.

“It’s a late-to-the-party proposal — not well thought out — that is going to cause enormous damage,” Eick said after submitting feedback at an open-house meeting on Monday.

He said he is afraid that the tunneling would disturb the landscape and water table throughout the national forest and on private property in the area. He also questioned the feasibility of the tunnels.

But Richard Carney, project manager for the Palmdale-to-Burbank section, said going underground through the national forest is feasible and would prevent a lot of disruption to the natural resources on the surface.

He said it may also require the proposed Burbank station to be underground, but it’s one of several options for the public to consider.

“We need to put these things out there for people to give us feedback,” Carney said.

Michelle Boehm, Southern California regional director for the authority, said the point of the community meetings is to establish “a back-and-forth process” that she said is important “in order to build the best possible project.”

“As you would imagine, those [communities] that are in the direct conceptual routes are concerned,” Boehm said, but she added that the process is meant to show the authority’s “flexibility ... and willingness to listen and be creative as we move forward.”

Boehm said it’s important to create a transparent process leading up to the development of the project’s environmental impact report, expected to be in draft form toward the end of 2015. Throughout the process, the public will be able to comment on the plans.

A final report on the project’s environmental impacts is anticipated in 2017, with construction slated to begin in 2018. The bullet train could be operational by 2022 from Burbank to Merced. Then service from Burbank to San Francisco in under three hours is expected to be available by 2029.

For more information about the Palmdale-to-Burbank section and links to video animations of the proposed routes, go to www.hsr.ca.gov. Then search for “Palmdale to Burbank.” 

New graphic: Metro’s $14-billion capital program


By Steve Hymon, December 10, 2014



With numerous major transit and highway projects under construction — including five rail projects — Metro created the above graphics. I think these are very useful for those interested in project costs and where the funding for the projects is coming from.

The two obvious takeaways: Metro’s capital program is immense by national standards, even if you’re only looking at the major projects. And Metro is using its local and state funding to help attract federal funding to get projects built. If you’re a taxpayer — and everyone reading this is — that’s a big deal to have your dollars stretched further.

One other point worth mentioning is that Metro works with other agencies to get projects done. On the highway side, Caltrans is a frequent partner. But Metro also gets funding from local cities and, likewise, helps fund projects in cities through a variety of programs.

Going forward, the obvious policy question is how much federal funding will there be in the future? Generally speaking, the needle hasn’t moved much on the total amount of federal funding in recent decades, one reason you see a lot of media stories writing about the need to update America’s infrastructure. It’s going to be a big policy question in Washington D.C. and the answer will impact Los Angeles County and many other metro areas around the U.S.