California Gas Prices Soar Again

Jul 14th, 2015 | Posted by

Another summer, another reminder of why California desperately needs more passenger rail:

Eye-popping gasoline prices in Los Angeles are driving Dean Smith into a second job.

The 54-year-old L.A. city clerk shook his fist Monday at a 76 gasoline station pump where gas reached $4.65 a gallon. He said he now works on the side as an Uber driver to help pay his bills.

“I’m mad as hell,” Smith said at the station on 6th Street in downtown L.A. “What can you do? It’s crazy, man. It is crazy.”

Gasoline prices have reached as high as $5 a gallon in the region, and experts predict the daily double-digit increases that began last week could continue a few more days before retreating.

Prices have risen 50 cents a gallon from a week ago in the Los Angeles-Long Beach region amid a shortage of refined petroleum, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.

The Tesoro Corp. plant in Carson, for instance, just reduced its refining capacity to perform maintenance. That followed Tesoro’s move in February to idle its Northern California refinery in Martinez after a nationwide union walkout. Then Exxon Mobil Corp. scaled back operations at its Torrance facility after an explosion in February damaged an air pollution monitoring unit.

This is like the summer of 2008, when gas prices in California flirted with $5 per gallon. Yet this spike is more surprising given that global oil prices have generally been flat since last year’s price collapse. It would certainly seem like the gas suppliers are manipulating the market and the price, given the number of refineries that are offline.

The only lasting solution is to build more mass transit, from new Metro Rail lines to high speed rail. Gas prices are only going to keep spiking like this, on an overall upward trendline. If California doesn’t accelerate the process of building more rail, these gas prices will only continue to bite harder.

Eminent Domain Process Gears Up

Jul 13th, 2015 | Posted by

The California High Speed Rail Authority is accelerating its land acquisition process, and that includes using eminent domain where necessary:

More than a dozen pieces of land in the Valley have been targeted by the state for possible eminent domain for the first stretches of California’s high-speed train project.

The state Public Works Board, meeting Monday in Sacramento, adopted 13 resolutions declaring a public need for properties adding up to more than 72 acres in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties. The board authorized the use of eminent domain, or condemnation, if necessary to get the land needed for the railroad right of way. The parcels range in size from about 2,200 square feet — about five-hundredths of an acre — to more than 21 acres….

The urgency for the rail authority to get the land it needs for construction is illustrated by the quickened pace at which the state adopted its eminent domain resolutions this year. Nearly 190 of the resolutions encompassing more than 653 acres have been approved since January. Most of the property has been in Kings County, where resistance to the rail authority runs high and loud. There, more than 260 acres of property have been targeted by 52 resolutions, all since March, compared to about 250 acres under 176 resolutions for Fresno County property over the past 20 months.

Overall, the Authority has about a quarter of the parcels it needs between Madera and the southern end of Kings County, and hopefully much more progress will be made in the second half of 2015. Eminent domain is the last resort, but if that’s what it takes to get construction to accelerate, so be it.

We’re just 26 months away from the September 30, 2017 deadline to spend the 2009 stimulus money, of which nearly $4 billion came to California for the high speed rail project. Construction is now in full swing in the Fresno area, but there’s more money to spend, and less and less time in which to spend it. Getting the land acquisition settled helps ensure that the project meets its federal deadlines.

The True Detective Plot Twist I Actually Like

Jul 11th, 2015 | Posted by

Last summer HBO’s True Detective was all the rage, with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey turning in excellent performances investigating a murder in Louisiana. HBO quickly ordered a second season, which premiered a few weeks ago.

True Detective Season 2 is about many things, but at the heart of it is, in fact, the California High Speed Rail project. The HSR project is the MacGuffin of the story, serving the same role for this show that water did for the 1974 film Chinatown: the thing that kicks off a whole lot of greed, graft, and gruesome murder.

The show itself seems to be a pale shadow of the first season. The dialogue is overwrought and not something you’d likely hear from real people. The plot is intriguing, based not just on HSR but more centrally on a thinly veiled version of the Los Angeles County cities of Vernon and Bell, but it hasn’t really come together yet. The three main detectives are moderately interesting, if caricatures. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to spend half of the show following Vince Vaughan as a gangster, but those scenes drag.

But you’re not here for critical analysis of a television show. You’re here for high speed rail talk. So is the LA Weekly. Their take on the show’s HSR plot is that it’s “ridiculous”.

First, here’s Vince Vaughn’s character’s explanation of how HSR fits into his scheme:

And here’s the LA Weekly’s take:

There’s actually a lot that’s right here. California voters passed Proposition 1A in 2008, which directed the government to start borrowing money in order to build an 800-mile-long high-speed railroad, or bullet train, connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. No one really knows how much it will cost, but the best guess is in fact $68 billion for Phase 1. So far, so good.

The land Semyon is talking about – “undeveloped valley adjacent to the rail and the coastal highway” – doesn’t sound like anything that actually exists. The current high-speed rail route slices through the middle of California, kind of near the I-5 and far from the coastal highway, the 101. But let’s forgive that, since this is a fictional universe.

The central question is, can you make money from commercial development along the high-speed rail route? According to USC public policy professor Lisa Schweitzer, the answer is a resounding yes.

So what’s the ridiculous part?

So what about the development being “in line for hundreds of millions in federal grants”? And the feds guaranteeing cost overages (murmur, murmur, murmur)?

Total nonsense.

I will admit that when I saw that scene and that line I scoffed, then felt a bit wistful. I would love for the feds to guarantee they’ll pay cost overruns. Can we do that when Democrats take back Congress? Please?

The bigger issue here is whether or not the show’s scheme actually makes that much sense. If you bought up a bunch of property near the HSR route, would you actually make that much money off of it? Enough to set in motion a bunch of gangland murders?

I think the answer is a qualified no. If you’re buying land near, say, Los Banos, you’re wasting your money. The state will use its eminent domain power to take it and will not be interested in paying a dime more than the low appraisal.

What if your plan is to buy land near the stations? There’s actually a realistic chance of profit there, unlike your Los Banos farmland. But it’s not likely to be huge profits, and they won’t arrive anytime soon. Buying a cheap piece of land in downtown Fresno near the station and building transit-oriented development can make you some money…but probably not for ten years. And the profits on that kind of development are not going to be the type that attract the interest of corrupt city managers or casino gangsters.

Back in 2008 there was an attempt by HSR opponents to claim that somehow the project would lead to corruption as people gamed the land buying process. So far that hasn’t materialized at all. The slow pace of land acquisition, the uncertainty around funding, and the basic fact that these parcels aren’t exactly the type to make you a ton of money through speculation, all mitigate against corruption.

Maybe that’s another reason why this season of True Detective has fallen flat – HSR just isn’t seen as something rife with corruption. I mentioned the film Chinatown earlier. Even though that came out over 50 years after LA’s water wars, the public still understood that the era of William Mulholland had the air of corruption, lawbreaking, and general shadiness. Today, viewers in Southern California, at least, might have some knowledge of the scandals in Vernon and Bell – but they don’t see HSR as particularly scandalous, and I doubt anyone outside the state does either.

Finally, there’s this note at the end of the LA Weekly article:

By the by, we reached out to the California High-Speed Rail Authority for comment. Turns out none of them are watching the show.

Smart move. You’re not missing anything.

Friday Open Thread

Jul 10th, 2015 | Posted by

Been busy of late, and I see the comment section has been as well. No new news to report out of the transportation special session in Sacramento, though I am not expecting a whole lot to get done. Which, given GOP demands, is for the best.