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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 »

Four Cabinet members in Bay Area this week

Wow, it’s Cabinet week in the Bay Area.

I just covered U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (accompanied by Federal Aviation Administration chief Randy Babbitt) talking about FAA, surface transportation and job creation bills out at the Oakland International Airport control tower construction site.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson will be in the Bay Area for two days this week meeting with local businesses and organizations to highlight job creation and green technology. On Wednesday afternoon, she’ll be touring Recycle Central, Recology’s recycling station at San Francisco’s Pier 96.

On Friday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will join Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Mike Honda, D-San Jose, to break ground at the new Defenders Lodge, a facility for veterans seeking treatment at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System that will have 53 beds in a two-story, 28,000-square-foot building.

And also Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be keynoting Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation’s Women and the Economy Summit at the Westin St. Francis hotel on San Francisco’s Union Square, speaking about how “Some Leaders Are Born Women.” I’ll be covering that one.

UPDATE @ 11:30 A.M. WEDNESDAY: AND… U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar will be speaking at 9 a.m. next Monday, Sept. 19 at the Commonwealth Club of California, on the second floor of 595 Market St. in San Francisco; tickets cost $20 but are free for club members or $7 for students with valid ID, and are available online. Salazar “will share his views on fresh water, fishing and farming, along with other resource concerns in California and the American West,” the club says. “With projected changes in the Sierra snowpack and precipitation patterns, as well as an ever-increasing population, California’s water system remains in crisis, and the state’s ability to hydrate its citizens and its economy faces an uncertain future. Salazar will discuss how the federal government plans to help California secure future water supplies by aiding ambitious projects, including the restorations of the California Bay Delta and the San Joaquin River, while maintaining a balance between human needs and healthy ecosystems.”

UPDATE @ 1 P.M. WEDNESDAY: After his Monday morning address at the Commonwealth Club, Salazar will join Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor at the Contra Costa Water District’s fish screen project dedication ceremony at the Rock Slough project site, about four miles southeast of Oakley. Completed through a partnership between Reclamation and the Contra Costa Water District, the project – funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – advances the Interim Federal Action Plan for the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by helping to keep Delta fish from entering the Contra Costa Canal through the Rock Slough intake.

Posted on Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
Under: Anna Eshoo, Environment, Mike Honda, Obama presidency, Transportation, U.S. House, veterans | No Comments »

LaHood, in Oakland, says FAA needs long-term bill

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood anticipates the Senate will pass and the President will sign a Federal Aviation Administration extension bill – which the House passed today – by week’s end, avoiding another worker furlough and construction freeze.

But this is the 22nd such extension in the past five years, LaHood said at a news conference next to the new control tower being built at Oakland International Airport. “These short-term extensions are not good for the best aviation system in the world.”

LaHood said this extension, which runs through January, should be enough time for Congress and the President to finish negotiating a long-term reauthorization, despite a few “big differences” remaining. One of those differences, he acknowledged while standing amid several dozen union members, is Republican insistence on a provision changing union election rules to make it harder for transportation workers to organize.

“There are always different issues with bills like this,” LaHood said today, adding he sees a growing feeling in Congress that a long-term reauthorization is necessary. “I’m optimistic that this can be resolved.”

Congress must move toward a long-term surface transportation bill as well, he said, and must take up President Obama’s American Jobs Act proposal in order to “put America back to work building America’s infrastructure.”

“There are no Republican or Democratic bridges, there are no Republican or Democratic roads,” he said. “We need to get back to that.”

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt also was at the Oakland news conference and recalled having attended the groundbreaking for the new control tower, one of many projects across the nation that were shut down for nearly two weeks this summer as Republicans refused to pass a clean FAA funding extension.

“It’s wonderful to see how much has been done,” Babbitt said. “We need to make certain that this job gets finished.”

The two-week shutdown led to the furloughs of thousands of FAA workers, the temporary layoffs of 70,000 construction workers and millions of dollars wasted nationwide, he said; in Oakland, workers on the tower were idled while scaffolding costing $6,000 a day remained unused. “We’re the model of the world, and this is not the way to do our business.”

Asked about high-speed rail, LaHood reiterated his support for such projects.

“I see a lot of support for high-speed rail in California,” he said, adding the state could be a model for the rest of the nation. “We are not going to be dissuaded by a little background noise of criticism. Whenever you do big things, a few people are going to be against it.”

And asked about Congress’ many stalemates on transportation and other issues, LaHood – who served 14 years as an Illinois congressman – said politics has eclipsed policy this year but he believes constituents’ frustrations voiced in recent weeks will spur lawmakers to cooperation and action. “I don’t think ‘no’ is enough anymore.”

Also at today’s news conference were Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Port of Oakland Executive Director Omar Benjamin.

“I don’t know about you but I’m pretty tired of this backdrop,” Quan quipped, noting today’s was the third FAA-funding news conference at the site in recent months. Hopefully, she said, “the third time is the charm.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 13th, 2011
Under: Transportation, U.S. House, U.S. Senate | 2 Comments »

Brown vetoes bill to beef up hands-free law

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a Bay Area lawmaker’s bill to beef up the law against handling cell phones while driving.

SB 28 by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, would’ve increased fines for motorists who use cell phones without a hands-free device or who text while driving; subsequent violations would’ve been made punishable by addition of a “point” on motorists’ driving records.

Simitian issued a news release calling Brown’s veto “a lost opportunity to save more lives,” and said he would “review the Governor’s veto message to see if there is any room for compromise in the coming year.”

“I’m disappointed,” he said, “but the Governor gets the last word. I understand and accept that. My job now is to figure out where do we go from here.”

The Assembly had approved SB 28 on a 51-21 vote; the state Senate had approved it 23-13. The governor’s office has not yet made a veto message available.

Simitian said California Highway Patrol data from the first year of the hands-free law’s implementation shows a 20 percent reduction in fatalities and collisions in California compared to the annual average over the previous three to five years. That translates into at least 700 fewer fatalities and 75,000 to 100,000 fewer collisions each year. The CHP data also show an immediate drop of 40-50 percent in the number of distracted driving accidents attributed to cell phones after the law went into effect.

And research by the AAA Automobile Club of Southern California and the State’s Office of Traffic Safety suggests a 60 to 70 percent compliance rate with California’s hands-free driving law, Simitian said, implying a more significant deterrent could improve compliance and enhance public safety.

Simitian authored SB 1613 of 2006, which made it illegal for California drivers to talk on a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving, effective July 2008; SB 33 of 2007, which prohibited drivers under the age of 18 from texting, talking on a cell phone or using any “mobile service” technology while driving, even with a hands-free device , also effective July 2008; and SB 28 of 2008, which made it illegal for all drivers in California to send, read, or write text messages while driving, effective January 2009.

UPDATE @ 9:42 A.M.: Even as I posted this, the governor’s veto message arrived. “I certainly support discouraging cell phone use while driving a car, but not ratcheting up the penalties as described by this bill,” the governor wrote. “For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent.”

Posted on Wednesday, September 7th, 2011
Under: California State Senate, Jerry Brown, Joe Simitian, Public safety, Transportation | 1 Comment »