Part of the Bay Area News Group

Archive for the 'Transportation' Category

Legislative Counsel: MTA’s new HQ isn’t kosher

The California Legislative Counsel has determined that Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s purchase of a proposed office building in San Francisco, “was not authorized by law,” state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said today.

“This legal opinion by the respected Legislative Counsel is clear and unequivocal that MTC has overstepped its authority,” DeSaulnier, who chairs the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said in a news release. “I call on MTC to comply with the law and to stop any and all expenditures and actions related to this property. MTC’s illegal actions have placed hundreds of millions of public dollars at risk.”

Randy Rentschler, MTC’s director of legislation and public affairs, declined to respond this afternoon other than to say the agency is “reviewing this opinion. We need to understand it before we can comment.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Counsel’s office concluded in an opinion issued Friday that because the Bay Area Toll Authority and MTC would occupy less than half the new building’s space, with other public agencies eventually moving into other parts of it, the “purchase and operation of a regional governance co-location facility is not among the purposes that BATA or MTC, is authorized to engage in or promote,” and that such a purchase “would exceed the statutory authority of BATA and MTC, and would be an impermissible use of bridge toll revenues.”

The “purchase is substantially related to a purpose other than the administrative needs of the two agencies for office space,” the opinion said, finding it “could be argued that the contract between BAHA (the Bay Area Headquarters Authority, a joint-powers entity created by BATA and MTC for this purpose) and the seller of the building is void, if, … it is determined that acquisition of the building with toll bridge funds was not an authorized use of those funds…”

DeSaulnier has been an outspoken opponent of the purchase, and has authored a bill – SB 1545 – that would halt the move until the State Auditor has reviewed the project. His committee approved the bill in March, but that was the last action on it.

The Joint Legislative Audit Committee in August unanimously approved DeSaunlier’s request for the State Auditor to probe the proposed move of MTC’s headquarters; that audit is scheduled to be done by June. Yet BATA voted in October to spend $93 million to buy the new building, and BAHA voted in December to spend $1 million for architectural and engineering services plus $140,000 per year for property management services.

Posted on Monday, May 7th, 2012
Under: California State Senate, Mark DeSaulnier, Transportation | 1 Comment »

Boxer seeks political truce to pass vital bills

It’s time to put politics aside for a few weeks and pass some vital bills, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer told reporters on a conference call this morning.

Boxer, D-Calif., said partisan gridlock has brought Congress to record-low approval ratings and productivity.

“Things are really dismal but we have a window of time between now and the election,” she said, adding Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still seems pre-occupied mainly with ensuring that President Obama doesn’t win a second term. “We all are going to get out there and fight for our candidates… but not on the Senate floor. We need to come together and pass these important bills.”

Boxer identified four priorities. One, she said, is Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), the two-year surface transportation authorization bill that’s being heard in conference committee next Tuesday, May 8. This is the successor to SAFETEA-LU, the 2005 surface transportation funding bill, which expired more than two and a half years ago; that earlier bill’s latest extension is up at the end of June, so time is of the essence, Boxer said. She said the bill has no earmarks and is revenue-neutral, but would create or save about 3 million jobs nationwide, about a tenth of which are in California.

“This is the only jobs bill that we can pass this year, in my opinion,” she said.

Another priority is legislation to ensure that the interest rate on student loans doesn’t double to 6.8 percent on July 1. The Republican-controlled House has passed a bill to extend the lower rates for a year, paid for by eliminating funding for a preventative health care fund established under the Affordable Care Act; the Democrat-controlled Senate has proposed paying for it instead by eliminating tax loopholes for shareholders of certain small corporations.

A third priority is reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, an anti-domestic-violence measure that expires in September, Boxer said. The Senate passed its version – which would expand the law’s funding and protections for same-sex couples, immigrants and tribal communities – last week with bipartisan support, but House Republicans are working on their own version of the bill without those updates.

And Boxer said Congress must move to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would bar employers from retaliating against workers who share their salary information with co-workers – a means of uncovering salary discrimination. The House passed a version of this in 2009, but it was filibustered in the Senate, she said.

“It’s time to get things done right this second, there’s not a minute to waste,” she said.

Posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012
Under: Barbara Boxer, education, Transportation, U.S. Senate | 27 Comments »

Oakland woman announces bid for BART board

With BART Director Bob Franklin giving up that post to run for Oakland City Council this year, candidates are emerging to vie this November for the open seat he’ll leave on the transit agency’s board.

Environmental activist and local blogger Rebecca Saltzman, 30, of Oakland, announced her candidacy in a fundraising e-mail to friends and potential supporters Tuesday morning. She wrote that her years “of public transit and policy advocacy, coalition building, grassroots organizing, and management experience with local, state, and national issue-based organizations and campaigns has prepared me well for this job.”

Saltzman said that as government affairs manager for the California League of Conservation Voters, she coordinates Green California, a network of more than 80 environmental and social justice groups working to pass and protect environmentally friendly laws in the Legislature.

Earlier she worked for four years as chief of staff of Americans for Safe Access, an Oakland-based medical marijuana advocacy nonprofit. She graduated last year from Emerge California, a candidate training program for Democratic women.

She also is vice chairwoman of Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee; has been active in several local and state political campaigns; and is the longtime proprietor of the “Living in the O” local news blog. Until recently she was an avid tweeter as @OaklandBecks; now she’s @RebeccaForBART.

“As a BART Director, I will work hard every day to make BART fiscally and environmentally sustainable, to increase transit-oriented development around BART stations, and to coordinate more closely with other transit agencies – especially AC Transit,” she said in the e-mail. “I will also work to make a dream I’ve had since my college days at UC Berkeley come true – making BART run later on Friday and Saturday nights.”

BART’s District 3 includes all or parts of Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Lafayette, Moraga, Oakland, Orinda, Piedmont, San Leandro, and unincorporated areas of Alameda and Contra Costa counties; it includes the Bay Fair, San Leandro, Rockridge, Orinda, Downtown Berkeley, North Berkeley, El Cerrito Plaza and El Cerrito Del Norte stations.

Filings at the Secretary of State’s office show Nashua Kalil, 53, of Berkeley, a former BART planner, also intends to run for the seat, but apparently has not yet made the candidacy public.

Posted on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
Under: Transportation | 10 Comments »

Simitian: ‘Hands-free’ law is saving lives

State Sen. Joe Simitian is declaring victory now that a new study shows a steep dropoff in distracted-driving deaths since his hands-free phone law took effect for California drivers.

PUT THE PHONE DOWN, DIPSTICKThe analysis, conducted by UC-Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center and released by the state Office of Traffic Safety, examined state crash records two years before and two years after Simitian’s hands-free legislation took effect, and found that overall traffic deaths declined by 22 percent, while hand-held cell phone driver deaths went down 47 percent.

California High Patrol data from the first year of the hands-free law’s implementation had shown a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in California compared to the annual average over the previous three to five years, Simitian noted – the largest year-to-year drop in collisions in California’s history.

“That’s 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year,” Simitan, D-Palo Alto, said in a news release today. “It’s clear that most California drivers ‘get it.’ They understand just how dangerous distracted driving is, and most are doing their part to make the highway safer.”

“But we also know that there are still too many drivers texting and talking on hand-held cell phones. For drivers who still haven’t gotten the message, studies like this help underscore the fact that no phone call or text is worth the cost of a life.”

Simitian’s SB 1613 – signed into law in 2006 and taking effect in July 2008 – made it illegal for California drivers to talk on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device. He also authored SB 33 of 2007, which bars drivers under age 18 from texting, talking on a cell phone or using any “mobile service” technology while driving, even with a hands-free device; and SB 28 of 2008, which makes it illegal for California drivers to send, read, or write text messages while driving.

Now Simitian is carrying SB 1310, which would increase fines applied under his earlier bills. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill last year, but Simitian “hopes to find common ground with the governor this year” – and certainly hopes this new study will help.

Posted on Monday, March 5th, 2012
Under: California State Senate, Joe Simitian, Transportation, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Boxer goes ballistic on Spirit Airlines

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer is going toe-to-toe with a Florida-based airline that’s complaining about how airfare taxes and fees must be reported.

Boxer, D-Calif., released a letter she sent today to Spirit Airlines CEO Ben Baldanza expressing “concern with Spirit Airlines’ deliberate attempt to deceive the flying public about a new Department of Transportation (DOT) rule that will improve the transparency of airfares for consumers.”

At issue is a new rule that requires that all mandatory taxes and fees be disclosed to customers up front in the fares that airlines advertise to the public. That includes a segment fee of $3.80 per take-off and landing; a passenger facility charge of up to $18 roundtrip; and a Sept. 11 Security Fee of up to $10 roundtrip for travel within or from the U.S.; other fees may apply for international flights.

Here’s how Southwest Airlines explains it:

In the past, fares displayed in our advertising and on southwest.com and airtran.com included the Base Fare plus a 7.5% federal excise tax. The additional government-imposed taxes and fees were shown separately from the fare in advertising and added to the total fare at the time the reservation was priced.

With the new regulation, fares will include the Base Fare plus the 7.5% excise tax, plus all additional government-imposed taxes and fees that we collect and distribute to various government agencies.

The fare amount with all government-imposed taxes and fees included creates various dollar amounts that are difficult to use in advertising efforts; therefore we’ve decided to round up our fares to the nearest dollar for display purposes only. The rounded up fare amount will be more than what a Customer will actually pay when booking the ticket – the cost variant between the displayed fare versus the booked fare could be up to 99 cents.

At first glance, airline fares will “look” higher after the implementation of these provisions, but that is only because of the added taxes and fees that will now be included on the front end as opposed to the back end. We did not increase our air fares on Southwest or AirTran.

Put simply, travelers already are paying these taxes fees – the new rule just requires that they be disclosed sooner. Airlines can still advise their customers how much of that total cost is attributable to the government, and how much the base fare is.

But Spirit – which operates more than 175 daily flights to over 45 destinations throughout the U.S., Latin America and Caribbean, including Oakland International Airport – e-mailed customers this week and has even launched a separate website with the headline, “WARNING: New government regulations require us to hide taxes in your fares.”

“If the government can hide taxes in your airfares, then they can carry out their hidden agenda and quietly increase their taxes. (Yes, such talks are already underway),” Spirit’s website says. “And if they can do it to the airline industry, what’s next? As the transparency leader and most consumer-friendly airline, Spirit DOES NOT support this new USDOT mandate. We believe the better form of transparency is to break out costs so customers know exactly what they’re buying.”

Boxer, however, notes airline passenger advocacy groups like the Business Travel Coalition also are criticizing Spirit for misleading consumers about the new rule with “over-the-top fear tactics.”

And the Department of Transportation in November fined Spirit for violating federal aviation laws and Department rules prohibiting deceptive advertising in air travel. When it launched service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Spirit used billboards and hand-held posters to advertise fares of $9 each way without disclosing the additional taxes and fees. The airline also used Twitter to promote the $9 fares but required travelers to visit two separate web pages to determine the amount of the taxes and fees.

“I have been shocked by the failure of your airline to tell the truth in an email sent to your customers earlier this week as well as in warnings posted on Spirit.com that read, ‘New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares.’ Nothing could be further from the truth,” Boxer wrote in her letter today. “I urge you to immediately send a clarifying email to your customers and remove the misleading information from your website.”

Posted on Thursday, January 26th, 2012
Under: Barbara Boxer, Transportation, U.S. Senate | 6 Comments »

Pleasanton homebuilder reappointed to CTC

Pleasanton-based Signature Properties President Jim Ghielmetti, a Democrat, has been reappointed by the state Senate Rules Committee to the California Transportation Commission.

The commission oversees state spending on roads, transit, bridges and a host of projects.

Ghielmetti is a good choice. I’ve known him for many years and he is, above all things, a man who possesses an extraordinarily high level of common sense.

Posted on Thursday, January 19th, 2012
Under: Transportation | No Comments »

Bye-bye, Babbitt: DUI ends FAA chief’s career

Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt resigned today, two days after he was arrested and charged with drunk driving.

Babbitt, 65, of Reston, Va., posted this message to the FAA’s website today:

“Today I submitted my resignation to Secretary Ray LaHood and it has been accepted. Serving as FAA Administrator has been an absolute honor and the highlight of my professional career. But I am unwilling to let anything cast a shadow on the outstanding work done 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by my colleagues at the FAA. They run the finest and safest aviation system in the world and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work alongside them. I am confident in their ability to successfully carry out all of the critical safety initiatives underway and the improvements that the FAA has planned. I also want to thank Secretary LaHood for his leadership and dedication to the safety of the traveling public.”

Fairfax, Va., police said Babbitt was arrested at about 10:30 p.m. EST Saturday after an officer saw him driving on the wrong side of the road; he was cooperative, was charged, and was released on his own recognizance. Police announced the arrest Sunday under a departmental policy that “the arrest of any City or school system official or employee, any elected or appointed local, state or federal government official, or any local, state or federal law enforcement officer for any criminal charge or serious traffic charge (e.g., driving under the influence, reckless driving)” will be released.

Note to all political appointees: Your first phone call after arrest should be to your boss, because he/she won’t want to hear about it first from someone else. According to the Washington Post, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama and Transportation Department officials didn’t learn of the arrest until Monday afternoon, only about an hour before a statement was released saying Babbitt had been placed on leave at his own request.

Babbitt was in Oakland in September with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, calling for a permanent reauthorization of funding for the FAA.

Posted on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
Under: Transportation | 2 Comments »

Field Poll: Voters want to reconsider HSR

Californian voters by a margin of more than two-to-one want the Legislature to call another referendum election on whether the state should proceed with its high speed rail project, according to Field Poll results released today.

The California High Speed Rail Authority last month announced its projected costs would be more than double its previous, $43 billion estimate, and that the project will take twice its original 10-year timetable.

The poll found 64 percent want lawmakers to give voters another crack at the project, while 30 percent don’t. Independent voters are most likely to want a re-vote (77 percent) followed by Republicans (66 percent) and Democrats (57 percent).

Here’s how Field phrased the question:

“Nine billion dollars in state bonds were approved by California voters for the High Speed Rail project in the November 2008 election. At the time, the project’s estimated cost was $43 billion and its targeted completion date was 2020. More current estimates now put its cost at $98 billion and its completion date as 2033. Some think that the state legislature should resubmit the bond package to voters for another public vote next year. Regardless of how you feel about the project, do you favor or oppose the legislature putting the 9 billion dollar state bond package to another public vote in next year’s statewide elections?”

Progressive activist and high-speed rail supporter Robert Cruickshank blogged today that the phrasing wasn’t fair. “I would be shocked if the outcome was any better for the HSR project given the way the question was asked,” he wrote at his California High Speed Rail Blog.

“But what if the question were asked differently? We know that the cost questions are not the only issue associated with the project,” he continued. “Gas prices are rising, airfares are rising, flying is inconvenient, people prefer high speed trains to planes when given the choice, we need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce global warming, the cost of alternative transportation to carry the same amount of people is $170 billion, HSR brings tens of thousands of desperately needed jobs. How would voters respond if the question were framed in that way? The outcome could be very different.”

The Field Poll also found that if such a re-vote were held, the $9 billion bond package narrowly approved in November 2008 would now fail by a wide margin: 59 percent to 31 percent, with 10 percent undecided.

More than three quarters of the state’s voters say they’ve seen, read or heard about the project, so awareness is high.

The Field Poll surveyed 515 registered voters in California from Nov. 15 through 27, with a 4.4-percentage-point margin of error.

Posted on Tuesday, December 6th, 2011
Under: polls, Transportation | 5 Comments »

DeSaulnier seeks criminal probe of Caltrans

An East Bay lawmaker asked Attorney General Kamala Harris today to open an criminal investigation into accusations of falsified inspections of the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge now under construction.

State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, wants Harris to probe Caltrans’ Foundation Inspection Branch, which was the targeted in a committee hearing he chaired last week following a Sacramento Bee investigation that raised the allegations.

“The committee believes that failure to conduct reliable inspection tests on the foundations of bridges, freeway ramps, retaining walls, and other structures may erode the public’s confidence in Caltrans’ management of the state highway and bridge program,” DeSaulnier wrote in his letter to Harris. “State government cannot be a safe haven for employees who shirk their public safety duties and who steal state property for private purposes. To this end, I am requesting that your office investigate the allegations of professional and managerial improprieties in the Foundation Inspection Branch of Caltrans for any criminality.”

Specifically, DeSaulnier wants Harris to look into Caltrans employees’ alleged theft of state materials and use of state equipment as well as the use of employees on state time to transport the materials to a construction site on private property; alleged falsification of inspection data; Caltrans managers’ failure to fire anyone for these alleged offenses; Caltrans’ workers possible intimidation of the Foundation Inspection Branch’s manager; and the possibility that allegedly bogus inspection data was meant to benefit one or more contractors.

UPDATE @ 5:41 P.M.: Spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill says Harris’ office has received DeSaulnier’s letter and is reviewing the request.

Posted on Tuesday, November 29th, 2011
Under: Attorney General, California State Senate, Kamala Harris, Mark DeSaulnier, Transportation | 3 Comments »

State Senate to probe Bay Bridge claims

State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chairman Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, will hold a public hearing at the State Capitol next Tuesday to take testimony from Caltrans officials on the agency’s quality assurance practices for bridge construction inspection.

The hearing follows up on the Sacramento Bee’s investigative report on falsified inspections of the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, now under construction. The Bee reported that a Caltrans inspector falsified reports and, “did not follow a Caltrans requirement to check that his testing gauge was working correctly to ensure its accuracy before testing portions of the bridge’s tower foundation.”

“These are serious allegations, and the Committee will be asking Caltrans about its inspection policies and safeguards,” said DeSaulnier. “We need to know that inspections are reliable and that our bridges are safe.”

The Bee’s new report is especially worrisome in light of an ANG Newspapers investigative series and resultant FBI probe in 2005 based on more than a dozen bridge workers’ claims that a hurried schedule had led to defective and inadequate welds.

The committee’s hearing will convene at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22 in Room 112 at the State Capitol.

Posted on Thursday, November 17th, 2011
Under: California State Senate, Mark DeSaulnier, Transportation | 1 Comment »