Transportation headlines, Tuesday, August 13

Here is a look at some of the transportation headlines gathered by us and the Metro Library. The full list of headlines is posted on the Library’s Transportation Headlines online newspaper, which you can also access via email subscription (visit the newspaper site) or RSS feed.

Billions in federal transportation funds riding on California’s pension laws (Sacramento Bee) 

Best story yet on the conflict between the state of California and the U.S. Department of Labor that could cost Metro more than $2 billion in federal transportation funds. Excerpt:

In a copy of a recent letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and obtained by The Sacramento Bee, U.S. Labor Department Secretary Thomas E. Perez warned that California’s new pension law likely runs afoul of a federal mass transit grant rule that requires transportation agencies to preserve their employees’ collective representation rights.

The Labor Department must certify that a mass transit provider is following the rules as the final step in the federal grant process. If the department decertifies an agency, the federal money isn’t released until the agency is recertified.

A California pension law that took effect Jan. 1 is testing the federal rule. Over union objections, the law hikes state, local and regional government employees’ pension contributions and offers less generous retirement formulas for employees who join a public pension fund Jan. 1 and later.

[snip]

In February, Brown’s Labor Secretary Marty Morgenstern defended the new pension law, telling federal officials that the statute doesn’t diminish mass transit workers’ collective bargaining rights.

[snip]

The U.S. labor secretary plainly disagrees.

“We are concerned that (the pension law) diminishes both the substantive rights of transit employees under current collective bargaining agreements,” Perez wrote Aug. 1 to Brown, “and narrows the future scope of collective bargaining over pensions. … I write to urge California to act immediately to develop a solution to this issue.”

The letter says a formal federal decision on funding will start Friday with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which has $268 million at risk so far. Orange County’s transit agency, which is next in the federal grant queue, would lose grant money next.

In other words, this is dispute between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Obama Administration and several large California transit agencies are stuck in the middle.

How will it be solved? The Bee says that most remedies revolve around the Legislature passing a bill that would either permanently or temporarily exempt certain transit workers from the state pension reform while the state and Department of Labor resolved the issue.

Hyperloop update: Elon Musk will start developing itself (Forbes) 

Frustrated with the cost, speed and potential safety issues with California’s high-seed rail project, Elon Musk has proposed a hyperloop system that could whisk passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes. If, of course, it actually works. Musk on Monday told reporters that he may build a small version of the hyperloop to demonstrate its viability.

Forbest also has a story explaining the hyperloop technology — it’s basically a low-pressure tunnel in which battery-powered vehicles (think: Tesla)  travel on a cushion of air, thereby reducing friction. Forbes also has a story explaining the state bullet train project.

You can also read Musk’s blog entry on hyperloop — it’s an interesting and accessible read and includes this awesome, awesome sentence: “And, when you get right down to it, going through transonic buffet in a tube is just fundamentally a dodgy prospect.”

For those looking for an incredibly skeptical take on the hyperloop proposal, read James Sinclair’s blog post at Stop and Move. His take is that Musk’s big idea is something cobbled together to grab a headline in order to tank the state’s high-speed rail project. It’s hard to argue the headline part: coverage has been extensive!

The L.A. Times story, adorned with three bylines, was far less skeptical and Musk receives a lot of praise. It’s a fun read and informative but I also thought it — to borrow a journalism phrase — “raised questions” about its fairness toward the state bullet train project.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority doesn’t get to respond to criticism from Musk until the 17th paragraph of the story. The first skepticism offered by any kind of expert, a UC Berkeley professor of civil engineering, doesn’t come until the 18th paragraph. That’s seven paragraphs after a a physicist who has a television show on technology says that Musk must be taken seriously.

One paragraph that I thought could have been better:

By contrast, the California bullet train system envisions a much bigger annual ridership: about 20 million at minimum. The plan, however, has been sharply disputed by outside experts who doubt that large numbers of drivers or airline passengers will be attracted to the bullet train.

Yes, but the U.S. General Accounting Office earlier this year also found that the bullet train’s “ridership and revenue forecasts to be reasonable; however, additional updates are necessary to refine the ridership and revenue model for the 2014 business plan.” It’s perfectly fair to mention the critics. It’s also perfectly fair to mention that not every “expert” disputes the ridership numbers or methodology used to reach them.

Another interesting paragraph:

California hasn’t asked for his help, and Musk’s dream exists only on paper. But the state is in the middle of trying to build its own bullet train, a $68-billion project that has grown in cost and fallen behind schedule.

This is a paragraph that is factually accurate. But in its brevity it doesn’t really explain the whole story. The bullet train’s budget has gone from $33 billion to $98 billion and back down to $68 billion. It’s probably more accurate to say the budget has both seriously grown and seriously shrunk, letting readers decide how seriously they should take the state’s cost estimates. As for project delays, the CHSRA has said it would begin initial construction this year and that doesn’t appear likely to happen. But it remains unclear whether CHSRA can meet its 2029 date for service between San Francisco and Los Angeles; it might be better to specify exactly what has “fallen behind schedule.”

The bullet train proposal is a big, expensive project and it absolutely deserves intense scrutiny — and I think a lot of the Times’ coverage has been hard-hitting and fair. Seems to me the hyperloop proposal deserves the same kind of scrutiny and part of that is fairly describing what’s happening with the bullet train.

5 replies

  1. Sounds like a MUCH better idea than the proposed HSR. I don’t know anyone who actually believes that they’ll be able to get from LA to SF by train in less than three hours in their lifetimes, and my friends aren’t that old. Why don’t we give $10 billion to Musk for the Hyperloop and then spend the other $58 billion fully building out our intra-regional mass transit networks?

    • Hi Malcolm;

      I think the primary argument against giving Musk $10 billion at this time is that it’s a new technology that has never been tested and it remains unclear whether a hyperloop system running along the 5 freeway would serve a big portion of California taxpayers. As I’ve written often in the past, I think the main public policy question with HSR is whether to pursue the best version of high-speed rail at a very high cost or whether it might be better to pursue a train connection that improves enough on existing rail to lure new customers.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  2. We are a nation of innovators. We used to have the fastest train system and we built one that crossed the U.S. in five years, the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, and Henry Ford made the Ford Model T popular with mass production. We built the Apollo to place people onto the Moon and we built the Space Shuttle.

    If Elon Musk thinks he can get the tube technology to work, I say we should all support it. If you down right think about it, Japan’s Shinkansen, France’s TGV, and Germany’s ICE are all an evolution from old steam engine locomotives running on rail tracks, except they are run on electricity and are built aerodynamically like airplanes. Yes, bullet trains are a proven technology but they are all expensive to build, something that California can’t afford to do with our budget today. Nor do have the luxury of building everything for cheap using slave labor, bulldoze anything that gets in the way of progress, silence out dissenters and disregard environmental and safety concerns like how China builds their megaprojects.

    The only thing I would improve upon the Hyperloop is to “how to mass transport a lot of people at the same time who are all going to different places” which is what the bullet train does. A bullet train is able to hold over 500 people in one single train. That’s more seats than 180 passengers on a single Boeing 737 between LAX-SFO. But those 500 passengers are not just going between LA and SF. They could be going LA to Fresno. Or from Irvine to San Diego. Or from Sacramento to LA. The Hyperloop is more like “bring 2-4 people” and make everyone go in their own separate tube compartment just between LA and SF.

    Mass transit is just that – it’s supposed to bring aboard as many people as possible at one time to create a mass movement of people from point A to B, in which each individual point As to Bs are different from person to person.