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California is world-leader in traffic; Caltrans engineers get raises

High Speed Rail Is ‘On Track’ to Incur Billions in Overruns

Editor’s Note: This article by Jon Coupal provides an update on what has to be one of the biggest con jobs ever perpetrated on California’s voters – “High Speed Rail” that will never make a profit, will never move significant numbers of people, will not even be “high speed” in many sections of track, cannot integrate with other rail assets (different track gauge), and is going to cost at least $50 billion more than they said it would. So why are we still doing this project? One significant reason is the political support it gets from organized labor. Rather than fight for projects that would actually improve the lives of millions of Californians, such as better roads, refurbished bridges, upgraded ports, new power stations, and sorely needed water infrastructure, California’s labor movement backs high speed rail. And the reason they do that is because they don’t want to fight the powerful environmentalist lobby. This is a failure of vision and it is a failure of courage. And it is difficult to overstate how much this fails the ordinary working families that organized labor purports to support above all else. Read on.

High-speed rail continues to be an expensive, sick joke for California. Under the current plan, it is no longer “high-speed” and projected costs, which seem to change almost daily, appear to be doubling.

In the latest news, the nascent California high-speed rail system is running $50 million over budget for a two mile stretch in Fresno.

Let that sink in for a moment.

$50 million, over budget, for just a two mile stretch.

Let’s see, HSR has a $50,000,000 cost over run on 2 miles of a 32 mile job. Does that mean we can expect total cost overrun of $25 million per mile times 32 miles or $800,000,000?

Better yet, let’s extrapolate that to the entire project. You know, the one sold to voters. According to High Speed Rail Authority itself, over 800 miles of track are needed. So, at $25 million of cost overruns per mile, that works out to $20,000,000,000. That’s $20 billion in cost overruns!

In just 3 years, from the original passage of Proposition 1A authorizing about $10 billion in High Speed Rail bonds, the estimated cost for high-speed rail had gone from $40 billion to $98 billion, the amount that independent expert analysis had predicted prior to the bond’s being approved.

Responding to public outrage, the High-Speed Rail Authority came up with a plan costing “only” $68 billion. The new “blended” system would combine high and low speed rail, doubling the travel times as well as ticket prices.

Fearing a voter revolt, the High-Speed Rail Authority rushed to break ground, hoping that once they dug a hole, the pet project of Gov. Brown and the majority of Sacramento lawmakers, who receive backing from construction contractors and labor unions that expect to be the primary beneficiaries of billions of dollars of public spending, would be safe from outside interference.

By beginning a first segment between Merced and Fresno, the rail authority engaged in the classic Willie Brown strategy. The former Assembly Speaker, in a moment of candor, once told the San Francisco Chronicle, “In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Constant cost overruns and a lack of accountability plague California’s infrastructure projects. Perhaps, as a public service, it should be required that Brown’s words be reprinted in every ballot summary for every construction bond placed before the voters.

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.

TAXPORTATION: Profligate Waste Negates Justification for Transportation Tax Hike

Part One:  California’s Highways – A Legacy of Mismanagement and Over-regulation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two:  Redirecting Existing Revenue Provides Plenty of Money for Highway Improvements

Last week’s column presented the case for strong opposition to any new transportation taxes in California. But on Thursday, the Executive Director of Transportation California, Will Kempton, published a response in Fox and Hounds, a California political blog run by Joel Fox, which repeated the need for higher taxes.

Will Kempton is a respected transportation expert who agrees with the central premise of my original column. That is, that California’s transportation crisis can no longer be ignored. California has a transportation and road repair maintenance backlog that some estimate will total $58 billion over the next ten years. It is also true that, thanks to alternative vehicles and more fuel efficient cars (and never mind the infamous “gas tax swap”) that fuel tax revenues have become more volatile year-over-year.

So, now that we’ve agreed on the need, how do we deal with it? Mr. Kempton argues that we have no choice but to raise taxes. Not only do we disagree, but it is abundantly clear that practically all of this backlog can be funded using existing General Fund resources. Consider:

  • Nearly $1 billion a year of truck weight fees are being diverted from road repair to paying off transportation bond debt. Total: $10 billion over ten years.
  • Nearly $9 billion in bonds for high speed rail can be diverted for road construction. (And if voter approval is deemed necessary, that measure passes in a heartbeat).
  • Currently, California spends only 20 percent of its $10 billion General Fund transportation budget on road maintenance. Especially with General Fund revenue at record levels, a boost to 50 percent does not seem excessive: Total: $30 billion over ten years.
  • Currently, $500 million in $3 billion worth of cap-and-trade funding goes to road maintenance. Doubling that amount adds $5 billion over ten years.

The grand total of these reforms is $54 billion over ten years. Granted, not all of these things can be done overnight and the first two items will likely require statewide voter approval. But the Legislature still has plenty of time to qualify a constitutional amendment for the November ballot. And obviously, placing a greater General Fund emphasis on transportation projects will require that we figure out how to prioritize our resources better in the face of a record $122 billion budget.

Let’s be honest. It is really the word “prioritize” that is at issue here. Some of these reforms will be easier to implement than others, but unless we engage them head on, which hasn’t happened in the Legislature, how can we ever hope to solve this problem? Taxpayers should refuse to accept the incessant call for higher taxes when relatively simple reforms that could add tens of billions of dollars of funding to our roads, without raising taxes, are ignored. How can we discuss a punitive and regressive gas tax increase when common-sense legislation by State Senator John Moorlach to privatize a small portion of CalTrans projects, or to  establish a pilot project to have county transportation agencies assume projects from CalTrans, are quickly rejected in their first policy committee?

We agree with Kempton that the status quo is no longer acceptable. But there are a myriad of fiscal and policy changes that are viable and should be discussed and implemented. And until legislative Democrats, the transportation community, labor and environmentalists are willing to even come to the table, why should the burden be on California motorists to pay higher taxes?

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.

Investing in Infrastructure to Lower the Cost of Living

California’s civil infrastructure was once the envy of the nation. During the 1950’s and 1960’s the state wisely invested in transportation, water and power infrastructure, delivering capacity well in excess of the needs of the state’s population at the time. Even today, the scale of California’s network of aqueducts and pumping stations to transfer water from north to south, east to west, is one of the largest in the world, and California’s vast network of interstate freeways has few rivals.

Moreover, Californians in that era had planned to continue to expand these infrastructure assets to accommodate a growing population, but that all came to a halt in the 1970’s. During the 1970’s not only were the plans for additional water storage and distribution assets abandoned, but state-owned right-of-ways and land acquisitions both for water and transportation were sold to private interests. California now has a population of 40 million people living in a state with civil infrastructure designed to accommodate 20 million people.

The new political alternative to infrastructure development is conservation. By zoning ultra-high density infill in urban areas, transit villages, light rail, by mandating energy efficiency and subsidizing decentralized renewable energy sources such as rooftop photovoltaics, by mandating water conservation and subsidizing retrofits such as low-flow faucets and toilets, California’s political leadership hopes to avoid massive new investments in civil infrastructure.

There is a problem with this thinking, however. The deliberate imposition of scarcity on Californians has artificially elevated the cost-of-living, harming the state’s most economically vulnerable citizens. Restrictions on land development, elevated prices for water and electricity, and monstrous commutes on congested freeways take an inordinate toll on those who can least afford it. And that’s not all – it isn’t clear that these restrictions are having any significant impact.

The threat posed to farmland and open space by land development, for example, does not necessarily withstand rational analysis. According to the American Farmland Trust, of California’s 163,000 square miles, there are 25,000 square miles of grazing land and 42,000 square miles of agricultural land; of that, 14,000 square miles are prime agricultural land (ref. “California Agricultural Land: The Basic Facts). This means that if 10 million new residents, four per household, moved into new homes situated on half-acre lots, it would only consume 1,953 square miles. If these homes were built on the best prime agricultural land California’s got, it would only use up 14% of it. If they were scattered among all of California’s farmland and grazing land – which is far more likely – it would only use up 3% of it.

Another area where restrictions on urban consumption clearly don’t make a significant impact regards water use. According to statistics compiled primarily by the California Dept. of Water Resources, in a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much (ref. SEI-US.org “Western Water,” page 17). Most of that precipitation either evaporates, percolates, or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use (ref. “California Water Today,” Table 2.2). Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers (ref. “California Urban Water Use by Sector,” 2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables; Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”).

Put another way, 65 million acre feet of water is diverted each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25% reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – 1.4% of our total statewide water diversions.

Consumption of electricity is an area where considerable progress has been made towards conservation over the past few decades. But this progress, while impressive, puts an economic burden on low income families, small businesses, and energy-intensive large businesses. And the ambitious goals set forth in the Scoping Plan issued pursuant to the 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act cannot be achieved without imposing even greater economic burdens on Californians.

There is an alternative. A tremendous political will currently exists in California to spend approximately $150 billion on two mega-projects of dubious value – about $100 billion for high speed rail, and about $50 billion for tunnels to allow more efficient transfer of water under the Sacramento delta. A coalition of environmentalists, construction unions, and business interests all favor completion of these two projects. And notwithstanding the possibility that “hyper-loop” technology may render HSR obsolete before it’s even built, there is an alternative use for all this money. What if it was used to fund massive new investment in California’s infrastructure in the areas of energy, water, and transportation?

Here’s what $150 billion could buy:

(1) Reservoirs to harvest storm runoff and to store power. 

When reservoirs are built in tandem, with an upper and lower portion, they not only can store runoff, but they can be used to store intermittent renewable energy by pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir when there is a surplus of renewable energy, and releasing it through generating turbines when renewable sources are offline. San Luis Reservoir in Merced County is an example of this. At a drop of 100 feet, it only takes 10,124 acre feet to generate a gigawatt hour of power. At a drop of 500 feet, it only takes 2,025 acre feet to generate a gigawatt hour of power. [Storage reservoir volume (CuFt) = 44.1 x 1,000,000 x MWH output / Lift Height (Ft)]

PPT-SanDiego-20151012-IN-Reservoir

(2) Aquifer development to harvest storm runoff.

The rocky, porous foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s western slopes are ideal places to divert runoff to recharge California’s stressed Central Valley aquifers. This is a relatively inexpensive solution to water storage that ought to be a priority for infrastructure investment.

(3)  Sewage treatment plant upgrades to recharge aquifers with potable water.

This solution is only in widespread use in Orange County – currently only about 5% of California’s urban sewage is totally reused. If 100% implemented it would replace about 50% of California’s urban water consumption, at least 3.0 million acre feet per year.

PPT-SanDiego-20151012-IN-SewageSewage Treatment Plant in Fountain Valley in Orange County

(4) Desalination plants.

These facilities can be co-located with existing coastal electricity generating plants which are already collecting the seawater – one of these is already proposed in Huntington Beach, where the desalinated water could be directly injected into the local aquifers, providing efficient storage and preventing salt water intrusion.

PPT-SanDiego-20151012-IN-DesalinationCalifornia’s only significant operating desalination plant, in Carlsbad in San Diego County

(5) An Oil Pipeline.

Currently we rely on antiquated tank cars to transport Bakken crude through dense urban areas on their way to coastal refineries.

(6) Conventional Railroad Upgrades.

Upgrades to our existing freight rail network so our ports can efficiently move imported goods inland, making them able to better compete with gulf ports once the Panama Canal is widened in 2017.

These are some of the worthy projects that may lay the foundation for a prosperous 21st century in the Golden State by creating jobs and lowering the cost of living. Proponents of high speed rail – all of them, from construction unions to practical environmentalists – are invited to offer balance to the discussion of California’s future by surveying these alternative civil infrastructure projects that actually create abundance. While this challenges the conventional political wisdom, it is nonetheless consistent with the spirit of innovation that has made California great and continues to define its culture. Perhaps designing policies to create abundance instead of scarcity is an idea whose time has come.

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Ed Ring is the President of the California Policy Center.

Raising Gas Taxes While Unions Support Billions for Bullet Train

Editor’s Note:  It is difficult to find a better example of how California’s labor movement fails ordinary workers than their support for high speed rail. Because that project, using foreign sourced materials and yielding virtually no benefits – economic, environmental, or societal – that justify the cost, is at the expense of projects that are sorely needed. Money is fungible and finite. As Jon Coupal writes, California’s union controlled legislature is now considering raising gasoline taxes. But instead of raising gasoline taxes, the money we’re spending on high speed rail could instead be used to repair and upgrade California’s roads, all of them, everywhere, with tens of billions left over for other compelling projects, such as sewage treatment and reuse facilities, or desalination plants. These projects would create far more jobs and yield far greater benefits to ordinary Californians. Isn’t that what unions want? Union support for high-speed rail is an epic betrayal of the ideals they are uniquely positioned to advocate. It is shameful.

Sacramento is about to launch a new attack in its ongoing war on drivers.

California’s 48.6 cent gas tax already ranks second out of 50 states –- the feds take another 18.4 cents — and when the hidden carbon tax, part of the cap-and-trade program, is factored in, our state leads the pack by a wide margin. But this is not nearly enough, according to the political class.

Sen. Jim Beall is building a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature to hike gas taxes along with vehicle license fees and registration.

The San Jose lawmaker’s Senate Bill 16 slams taxpayers in three ways.  First, it would raise at least $3 billion annually by increasing the gas tax by another 10 cents a gallon.  Second, it would hike the vehicle license fee, which is based on value, by more than 50 percent over 5 years.  Third, it would increase the cost to register a vehicle by over 80 percent.

Although the backers of the SB 16 tax increase say it is vital to make up the claimed $59 billion backlog in roadway maintenance, some of the funds are slated to go to repaying transportation bonds that, when passed, were to be paid from the general fund.  This means that not all of the new revenue will go to the stated intent of fixing roads and highways.

Whatever the actual dollar amount of the backlog in roadway maintenance, this shortfall is the result of previous diversions of gas tax and truck weight revenue to budget items that have no direct impact on road improvement, and Beall’s bill would allow this practice to continue.

It should not go unnoticed that the $59 billion estimated backlog approaches the $68 billion that the governor and Legislature want to spend on the bullet train.  Quentin Kopp, former chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has become a strong critic, characterizing it as “low-speed rail” due to the changes that have been made to the original plan that voters were promised to convince them to provide seed money for the project in 2008.   He adds that to be financially viable, high-speed trains need to run from 10 to 20 trains per hour, but due to the current plan, called a “blended system,” slower trains and bullet trains must share the same track, reducing the number of fast trains to about four per hour.    And even supporters of the project as currently envisioned concede that the Los Angeles to San Francisco trip that voters were told would take about two-hours and forty minutes for a $50 fare, will likely take closer to 5 hours at nearly double the cost to the rider.

So, while Sacramento politicians and special interest insiders, including unions and construction companies, continue to push for billions of dollars of new spending on a high-speed rail system that is not expected to be completed before 2029, they expect drivers, fed up with bumping along on crumbling roads and highways, to pay more.

Gas prices in California are already tops in the nation.  If taxes are increased again, every motorist should be given a railroad engineer’s cap compliments of Sacramento lawmakers and the governor because the extra they pay will free up money, which could have been used for roads, to be spent on their pet train.

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.

Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90% of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100B+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. [1] Most of that water either evaporates, percolates, or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. [2] Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers. [3]

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25% reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4% of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25% reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

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 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. [4] That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. [5] Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF 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. [6]

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 MAF. [7] Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100% of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion. [8]

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100% of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100% of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90% of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)
http://sei-us.org/Publications_PDF/SEI-WesternWater-CWSD-0211.pdf

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”
http://www.water.ca.gov/urbanwatermanagement/2010_Urban_Water_Management_Plan_Data.cfm

(4) Cost of modern reverse osmosis desalination plant:
Technology Review
Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel.
http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534996/megascale-desalination/

(5) Energy required to desalinate seawater using reverse osmosis technology:
Encyclopedia of Desalination and Water Resources
“Energy Requirements of Desalination Process”
Table 1. Energy requirements of four industrial desalination processes.
http://www.desware.net/desa4.aspx

(6) part one – Tehachapi lift of 1,926 feet:
Wikipedia, California Aqueduct
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Aqueduct

(6) part two – energy required to lift water:
University of California, Energy Required to Lift Water
Table 1. The Amount of Energy in Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) Required to Lift One Acre-foot of Water (325,851 gallons) One Foot of Elevation
http://cetulare.ucanr.edu/files/82040.pdf

(7) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005, ref. “South Coast”
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(8) The cost to construct a modern natural gas power plant:
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Capital Costs for Electricity Plants
Download Table 1, “Updated Estimates of Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs” (ref. Natural Gas – the most modern and expensive version)
http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/

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Do Newer Technologies Threaten High Speed Rail?

So many lies were told to convince voters to approve the High Speed Rail project six years ago, that most Californians have soured on it. They are appalled that the estimated cost to build, the time to build, the time between destinations and the price of a ticket have all nearly doubled since voters approved a $10 billion bond to kick start the project.

Add to this that the private investment that backers promised would limit taxpayers’ liability is nowhere to be seen and it is little wonder that even the former Chairman of the High Speed Rail Authority, respected independent Quentin Kopp, has excoriated the project as it has morphed into something wholly unrecognizable from what the voters approved.

It is somewhat ironic that Governor Brown, who fancies himself as a futurist (as Governor in the 1970s he thought California should have its own satellite) wants to commit Californians to spending billions of dollars on what is increasingly apparent to be an aging technology. Today’s futurists and tech savvy interests are suggesting that investing in High Speed Rail might be tantamount to buying stock in a chain of blacksmith shops in 1910 just as the automobile began replacing the horse as the dominant form of personal transportation.

The first successful powered railroad trip is said to have taken place in the United Kingdom in 1804. More than two centuries later, the train remains the best way to move large quantities of heavy goods. But for moving people, is the huge amount of capital investment in equipment and track that impedes the crossing of vehicles and pedestrians, destroys neighborhoods and farmland, and degrades wildlife habitat, really essential?

Elon Musk, who heads successful high-tech companies Tesla Motors and SpaceX, believes there is a better way to move people. Musk favors the Hyperloop, or something similar, that would whisk travelers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in as little as 35 minutes. Compare this with a drive time of six hours, a bullet train time of about four hours, and an hour by air.

The Hyperloop is a hovering capsule inside a low-pressurized tube, supported by pylons, which can reach speeds of up to 760 mph. According to Hyperloop CEO Dirk Ahlborn, within about 10 years and with about $16 billion, Hyperloop could become a reality. He believes it would it would be easy to put together, the challenge is to come up with a good business model.

As with High Speed Rail, there are many unanswered questions and hurdles with Hyperloop. However, it does appear to be cheaper, faster and able to be completed more quickly than the bullet train and would be less environmentally intrusive.

Moreover, for taxpayers, it doesn’t appear that public dollars are being spent on the design of this project. Unlike High Speed Rail, the Bay Bridge and the Twin Tunnels projects, keeping this project in the private sector – at least in the concept and design stage – is resulting in some fairly notable progress in a short period of time.

In addition to the Hyperloop concept, rapid advances have been made with driverless cars. Fuel efficient personal vehicles directed by computers show great promise and the technology is no longer theoretical. Google has already built a prototype. And best of all, they can operate on an existing infrastructure project which we call roads.

High Speed Rail’s cost dwarfs all other public infrastructure projects by many factors.  Before we commit more money to this project – whose funding is very much in doubt – shouldn’t we be sure there isn’t a better and cheaper alternative?

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.

The Unholy Trinity of Public Sector Unions, Environmentalists, and Wall Street

Taken at surface value, there ought to be minimal identity of interests between these three special interests. But if you follow the money and power instead of the rhetoric and stereotypes, you will find this unhealthy alliance is alive and thriving. For example, unions use “greenmail,” the threat of a lawsuit on environmentalist grounds, to block developments until the businesses involved concede to union demands. Once they back down, the environmental problem magically disappears.

California’s much vaunted high-speed rail and delta tunnel proposals are also examples of the unhealthy rapprochement between unions (public and private) and environmentalists. Because the construction unions, God bless ’em, want thousands of good new construction jobs, and the only big projects that are environmentally correct are these monstrosities. The unions have a choice – fight the environmentalists in order to lobby for public works that actually yield economic benefits to society, or enjoy their considerable support for a couple of misguided mega-projects.

Beyond obvious examples, how unions, environmentalists, and America’s overbuilt financial sector collude – often unwittingly, does not lend itself to emotionally resonant, simple narrative. It can’t be expressed in a few declarative sentences. But because this web of collusion is stunting the economic growth of America and systematically destroying its middle class, it is a story that must be told. Here are some points that all exemplify the chain of cause and effect, linking the interests of public sector unions, environmentalists, and Wall Street.

  • Public sector unions demand, and get, over-market compensation and benefit packages. This causes budget deficits which, in turn (1) enables environmentalists to more easily fight and defeat infrastructure investments, and (2) creates hundreds of billions in business for Wall Street bond underwriters who finance budget deficits.
  • Politicians controlled by public sector unions declare new infrastructure – freeways, utility upgrades, improved water infrastructure, upgraded grid, investment in airports and seaports, etc., to be environmentally unsound. The real reason, however, is they want the tax revenue to go to increasing pay and benefits for public employees.
  • Wall Street investment firms work with pension funds to convince public sector unions that it is financially feasible and reasonable to enhance pension benefits – or not reduce them, as is more recently the case. As hundreds of billions each year of taxpayers money pours into these funds, investment firms make huge profits. If they don’t earn enough, they raise taxes.
  • Environmentalists come up with a “market-based” way to curb dangerous greenhouse gasses, an “emissions auction” plan, which in turn (1) enables Wall Street trading firms to collect a fee on literally every BTU of fossil fuel consumed in America, and (2) empowers public sector agencies to redefine their jobs (mass transit workers, firefighters, code inspectors, teachers – even police since crime increases during hot weather) as coping with, educating about, or mitigating the effects of global warming, allowing these government agencies to collect the proceeds of the emissions auctions.
  • Without an endlessly appreciating asset bubble, every public employee pension fund in the United States would go broke. To pump up this asset bubble, environmentalist restrictions artificially accelerate price appreciation for land, housing, gasoline, electricity, and other basic needs. And of course, financial institutions reap spectacular profits during periods of rapid asset appreciation.

It is reasonable at this point to wonder – what about business? What is their role in this? That is simple – big business benefits, by being able to afford to comply with excessive regulations and by being able to afford a unionized workforce. In general, smaller companies, innovators, emerging competitors, are crushed by the power of unions and environmentalists, just like the middle class.

There are consequences of an unexamined, unchallenged yet powerful de-facto alliance between public sector unions, environmentalists, and the financial sector that ought to animate anyone claiming to care about America’s working middle class – whether they adhere to the ideology of the Occupy movement, or the Tea Party movement. Because the consequences are a higher cost of living with minimal economic growth and new opportunities. The consequences are an increasingly monopolized, anti-competitive private sector, a perennially swollen financial sector, and an increasingly authoritarian, self-interested government. Public sector unions and Wall Street use the environmental movement for cover. This factor should temper any assessment of environmentally inspired policies.

Unions in the private sector, were they to adhere to their ideals and even their most cherished pragmatic goals, would use their considerable influence to rein in the unchecked power of environmentalists. Only then will their desire for more and better jobs, building tangible assets that are actually beneficial to society, be best realized. Public sector unions, on the other hand, whose entire reason for existence is inherently in conflict with society at large, should be illegal.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

 

RELATED POSTS

Public Pension Solvency Requires Asset Bubbles, April 29, 2014

Construction Unions Should Fight for Infrastructure that Helps the Economy, April 1, 2014

Forming a Bipartisan Consensus for Public Sector Union Reform, January 28, 2014

Avoiding the Oversimplifications of ‘Right Wing’ vs. ‘Left Wing’, December 16, 2013

How Unions and Bankers Work Together to Protect Unsustainable Pensions, November 26, 2013

Bipartisan Solutions for California, October 27, 2013

The Prosperity Agenda, April 2, 2013

The Ideology of Public Sector Unions vs. Private Sector Unions, February 20, 2012

America’s Atlas Generation – The Forgotten 33%, January 9, 2012

Why Government Unions are Collection Agents for Wall Street, August 12, 2011

The Differences Between Public and Private Sector Unions, May 13, 2011

 

Unions Await Fantastic Return on High-Speed Rail Political Investments

It’s a heady time to be a top construction union official in California, as the California High-Speed Rail Authority presumably now holds proposals from as many as five design-build consortiums to build the first segment of the $68 billion project.

If this project moves forward, it will become part of the pantheon of huge American infrastructure projects that unions cite when they brag about the lasting accomplishments of union labor. And unions can also claim an essential role in the politics behind its advancement.

Even before Californians had a chance to vote directly on funding for High-Speed Rail, union-affiliated labor-management cooperation committees made massive campaign contributions to stop statewide ballot initiatives in the mid-2000s that would have given property owners stronger rights against the government’s power of eminent domain, as a result complicating the High-Speed Rail Authority’s land acquisition plans.

For example, the State Building & Construction Trades Council Labor Management Cooperation Trust contributed $1 million in 2006 to the campaign to defeat Proposition 90, a statewide ballot measure to strengthen property rights. And in the spring of 2008, the California Construction Industry Labor-Management Cooperative Trust contributed $250,000 to this No on 98/Yes on 99 campaign committee to oppose another statewide ballot measure to protect property rights.

These two union-affiliated committees are authorized under the obscure Labor-Management Cooperation Act of 1978, a federal law signed by President Jimmy Carter and implemented by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. There are no federal or state regulations specifically addressed toward these trusts, and these trusts do not have any reporting requirements to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards. Unions use these trust funds routinely now to fund campaigns for and against state and local ballot measures in California. 

When Proposition 1A was on the November 2008 ballot asking California voters to authorize borrowing $10 billion for the high-speed rail project by selling bonds, unions provided a substantial portion of the campaign funding. Leading the charge was the California Alliance for Jobs, another labor-management cooperation committee authorized under the Labor-Management Cooperation Act of 1978.

As shown in the Operating Engineers Local 3 Northern California Master Agreement (page 42) and the Northern California District Council of Laborers Master Agreement (pages 14, 26), construction companies belonging to various business trade associations must pay an amount to the California Alliance for Jobs trust based on the number of hours worked by each employee represented by the union. These amounts are incorporated into the state-mandated construction wage rates (so-called “prevailing wages”) as part of the “Other” category of payments. This ambiguous category of employer payments was implemented as California Labor Code Section 1773.1(a)(7-9) when Governor Gray Davis signed Senate Bill 868 in 2003.

Through contributions, a $100,000 loan, and in-kind/non-monetary gifts, the California Alliance for Jobs was able to assist the campaign to pass Proposition 1A with $616,500, comprising 23% of the total amount raised by Californians for High Speed Trains – Yes on Proposition 1A – A Coalition of Taxpayer, Business, Environmental and Labor Groups and People from Across California Tired of Being Stuck In Traffic.

The national headquarters and the Northern California and Southern California locals of the Operating Engineers union combined for another $575,000, the Laborers union chipped in $100,000, and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California gave $75,000. 

Top Ten Contributors to the Main Campaign Committee to Pass Proposition 1A (Includes Loans and Non-Monetary/In-Kind Contributions)

1

California Alliance For Jobs Rebuild California Committee

Union-Affiliated Labor-Management Cooperation Committee

$616,500

2

International Union of Operating Engineers Construction Union

$250,000

3

Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 (Union & PAC) Construction Union

$250,000

4

Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG) Public Employee Union

$183,493

5

California State Council of Laborers Construction Union

$100,000

6

Parsons Brinckerhoff Americas Inc. Construction Design & Engineering

$76,500

7

AECOM Tech Corporation Construction Design & Engineering

$75,000

8

International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 12 Construction Union

$75,000

9

Members Voice of the State Building Trades Construction Union

$75,000

10

HNTB Corporation Construction Design & Engineering

$63,000

Union involvement in pushing the high-speed rail wasn’t over with the 2008 election. In 2010 and 2011, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority was stumbling under a confused business plan and skyrocketing cost estimates, the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and regional building trade unions submitted commentaries to newspapers defending the planned rail program. And as appointees to the Board of Directors of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, the head of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California and a representative of the Operating Engineers union kept the votes coming to move the project forward.

Now the unions get the rewards. Section 7.11.3 of the Request for Proposal for Design-Build Services for the first segment of the California High-Speed Rail project stated that “Proposers are advised that, subject to FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] approval, the Authority intends to develop a Community Benefits Agreement consistent with the Community Benefits Policy adopted by the CHSRA [California High-Speed Rail Authority] Board at its December 6, 2012 meeting with which the Contractor will be required to comply.”

And Section 10.1 of the Request for Proposal states that “The Authority [that is, the California High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Jeff Morales] will not make a recommendation for award of the Contract [to the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors] unless the successful selected Proposer has submitted the following…A letter of assent executed by the Proposer agreeing to be bound by the Community Benefits Agreement.”

This “Community Benefit Agreement” is commonly known as a “Project Labor Agreement.” In fact, a “draft” Project Labor Agreement is included as Addendum 8 in the High Speed Rail Authority’s bid documents for the Request for Proposal. (See my comprehensive analysis of the union “Community Benefits Agreement” for the California High-Speed Rail and the subsequent rebuttal from the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO national headquarters.)

For construction unions, California’s High-Speed Rail project will yield a fantastic long-term return for their political investment. It remains to be seen if taxpayers see any worthwhile returns on their “investment” in paying for it.

Kevin Dayton is the President and CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at www.laborissuessolutions.com.

Finding Common Ground With Private Sector Unions

The California Labor Federation has a membership of more than 1,200 unions, representing over two million workers. And the first of seven key issues they list on their legislative agenda for 2012 is supporting high speed rail. As they put it, “Building high speed rail will grow our economy and create long-term jobs. An estimated 450,000 jobs in operations, maintenance, ticketing, and services will be needed to keep HSR up and running.”

It is difficult to imagine economic thinking more well intentioned yet fundamentally flawed. What private sector unions want, ideally, is to work cooperatively with government and industry to help create well paying jobs. But high speed rail will incur far more economic costs than economic benefits. Massive construction projects, using public/private financing mechanisms, have to benefit the economy. Otherwise they are examples of private gain – high paying jobs for workers who happen to belong to unions involved in the construction and maintenance of the project – in exchange for socialized loss – higher taxes that lower the disposable income of everyone else.

Policy activists who are critical of unions must understand that there are two crucial debates they are engaged in with unions. The first one is an economic argument – convincing union leadership that encouraging free market competition will lower the cost of living for everyone, and that when this happens all workers benefit. This is a tough sell, despite being entirely accurate. But the second debate, which regards what projects unions should be putting at the top of their legislative agenda, is much easier, because all projects create jobs.

During the great depression, massive infrastructure projects were completed that delivered millions of jobs, but they also delivered amenities to society at large that yielded long-term economic dividends. Hydroelectric dams increased the availability of water for irrigation and the supply of electricity. Rural electrification delivered cheap and clean power to homes and businesses across the country. New roads and bridges resulted in cheaper and faster movement of people and goods. From new school buildings to new civic stadiums, the public/private projects of the 1930’s helped make affordable education and entertainment more accessible to millions. These infrastructure investments put millions of people to work, but they also fundamentally transformed America’s economy, enabling everyone less expensive access to water, power, transportation, education and entertainment.

There is no possibility whatsoever that high-speed rail can compete in California with existing air travel services. It will lose money forever.

The legislative agenda of unions in California should indeed prioritize public/private partnerships to create high-paying jobs, but they should promote projects that will lower the cost of living in California. This is the win-win formula that results in accelerated economic growth and a higher standard of living for all workers, in addition to delivering construction jobs today. Here are examples of such projects – and none of these would cost anywhere near the $100 billion that is the new minimum estimate for high-speed rail:

(1) Build desalination plants off the Southern California coast:
Desalination technology has advanced to the point where it is now possible to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater using less than 2.0 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Put another way, the energy necessary to desalinate seawater is now less than the energy currently required to pump an equivalent unit of seawater over the mountains from the California aqueduct into the Los Angeles basin. Because the California current is one of the biggest ocean currents in the world, the brine that would be discharged as several gigatons of fresh water were recovered each year from seawater would have an insignificant environmental impact. The brine could be discharged through pipes that would run atop the seabed with the outfall 10+ miles offshore where the California current would disperse it immediately. Desalination is a key element towards delivering cheap water again in California, and like nuclear power, claims that desalination is prohibitively expensive are based more on the cost to overcome regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, not the actual construction costs, and certainly not the operating costs.

(2) Develop new surface storage and aquifer storage for storm runoff:
California’s system of reservoirs provide ample fresh water to agriculture, industry and residential/commercial users in years with normal rainfall, but inevitably there are cycles of drought when the existing water storage infrastructure is inadequate. It is probably possible to add another 5 million acre feet of storage without resorting to high dams by identifying areas within the Central Valley where runoff can be collected in great bulk and kept there until spring irrigation draw-downs begin, or systematically transferred to underground aquifers. The capacity of underground aquifers to store water in California is still poorly understood, but California’s water commission estimates there could be 10 million acre feet or more of underground water storage capacity in California. There is plenty of runoff, even in drought years, that isn’t being harvested. To allow California’s agricultural industry access to cheap, abundant water (agriculture consumes well over 80% of the fresh water diverted in California), better storage of storm runoff is essential.

(3) Widen and upgrade interstate freeways:
Along with interstate freeway upgrades, widen and upgrade all major freeways, highways and boulevards in California. Widen and retrofit bridges and tunnels. California needs smart lanes on upgraded roads, not the “bullet train.” As energy becomes abundant and cheap – and technology guarantees this will occur – the most convenient personal transportation appliance ever conceived, the automobile, will become even more indispensable. Cars of the future will be not only clean operating and fuel efficient, but will go faster than ever and be capable of operating on autopilot. To participate in this revolution in transportation, Californians need to upgrade their roads, not attempt to discourage people from using them by neglecting their maintenance, upgrades, and expansion.

(4) Upgrade existing rail corridors:
It is not necessary to develop bullet trains for passenger transportation in a state that will never have more than 50 million people living along an 800 mile corridor. But fast intercity rail, using existing track that is upgraded to tolerate speeds of 120 MPH is a viable proposition, particularly if these upgraded rail lines are also still utilized for faster freight transportation, which will always be more efficient via rail. Diverting public funds into bullet trains is folly, when immediate returns would accrue to investments in better roads and better existing rail.

(5) Streamline permitting process to allow more oil and gas drilling, and more mines and quarries:
California has abundant energy and mineral resources, but nothing can be developed without years of permit applications and legal battles. As a result, basic raw materials have to be imported at far greater cost than necessary. Making development of mineral resources in California more expensive than virtually anywhere else on earth robs Californians of jobs, and constitutes a drain on every facet of California’s economy that relies on these resources.

(6) Build nuclear power plants:
The latest generation of nuclear power technologies are safer than ever, and there is an abundant supply of nuclear fuel within North America. Adding a few nuclear power stations in California would have a dramatic impact on the price of electricity. Claims that nuclear power is more expensive than alternative energy are based more on the cost to overcome regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, not the actual construction costs, and certainly not the fuel costs. Nuclear power development is a key element towards delivering cheap energy again in California.

(7) Build an LNG terminal off the California coast:
Along with new North American sources of natural gas from shale, there is abundant natural gas around the world, and a global market exists for liquified natural gas that is transported by tanker. A few years ago an LNG terminal was proposed to be built fourteen miles off the coast in Ventura County, but was nixed by California’s legislature. By receiving LNG tankers several miles offshore, and piping in the less hazardous gaseous fuel, this terminal would not pose any threat, however remote, to onshore communities, and would allow California to further diversify their sources of this abundant and clean fossil fuel.

By pushing for high-speed rail which will never come close to ever operating at a profit, the current agenda of California’s union leadership is to create more jobs that are essentially parasitic. They will impose new costs to society to benefit a relatively small number of workers, but make everyone else poorer. It doesn’t have to be this way.

California’s union leadership should recognize that by successfully pushing for infrastructure projects that pay for themselves, they can not only create new jobs, but foster long-term economic growth. This, in turn, will enable perpetual job creation. But if they do this, they would have to take on the powerful environmentalist lobby, for whom high-speed rail is virtually the only project they seem to favor.

Union leadership should also recognize that as long as they are unwilling to take on the environmentalists, and push for projects that lower the costs for water, power, transportation – the basic necessities for all consumers – they are doing the bidding of the corporate special interests. These quasi-monopolies benefit from environmentalism run amok, because it means they avoid competition as long as new projects remain on the drawing board. It means they can charge exorbitant prices for commodities that ought to get cheaper every year.

For private sector unions – who value jobs in construction – to remain relevant and forge new partnerships, they will have to divorce themselves from the environmentalist lobby, which has become extreme, and from the public sector union agenda, which prefers to allocate resources to inflated pay and pensions for government workers over investing taxpayer’s money in public/private infrastructure projects.