Monday, October 27, 2008

Yes on Measure R!

It's a political season. What can I say?

I already posted about prop 8 a few days ago. Now I'd like to talk about another important proposal on the ballot for L.A. County. It may seem more logistical in nature than the civil rights being addressed in Prop 8, but I think it can potentially be just as important to Southern California's future.

Measure R is a 0.5% sales tax increase for L.A. County. It would increase our sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, and generate about $40 Billion over the next 30 years. Unlike other sources of public transit funding, this money would be forbidden to be used for anything other than public transit in L.A. County, and a committee of retired judges from throughout the county would provide oversight to make sure the funds were not being diverted by the county OR the state of California to other projects (which has been a problem with public transit funds in the past).
Click here for the short, impartial summary of what Measure R provides over at
Or here for Metro's information guide on Measure R.

Ridership of each of the metro rail lines and of bus services has increased by around 10% in the past year. That is a major increase, likely originally caused by the rise in gas prices over the past year. Those figures are based on comparing September 2007 ridership numbers to September 2008, after gas prices had already started to go down again; so it's possible that people have established some gas-saving habits that they are now wary of changing. This is encouraging news, at least to me. Driving our cars less will help to solve so many problems: environmental, economical, geopolitical, you name it!

Measure R would do too many things for me to talk about in this post, though the highlights include finally building a subway under the uber-congested Wilshire Boulevard to UCLA, where 70,000 people arrive and leave every day. There's also the extension of the Gold Line at both ends (one into East L.A., the other through the San Gabriel Valley), the extension of the Exposition light rail (which is currently being built from Downtown L.A. to Culver City) all the way to Santa Monica, the building of Green Line connection to LAX, and various highway, bridge, rail, bus, bike and traffic light improvement projects throughout the county.

Instead of just listing all the things that Measure R would do, however, I thought I'd address the three main arguments against it I've heard made by a variety of people and organizations.


Arguments against Measure R:
1.) "It unfairly puts the tax burden on the poor and lower class, while many of the benefits will go to the middle and upper classes! "

Measure R is a sales tax increase, which means that anyone in the county who purchases goods and services incurring sales tax will be contributing to this transportation fund. Now, let's think about those poor people in the lower classes: what are they spending their money on? At the most basic level of subsistence, they are paying for food, rent, and transportation. Well, there is no sales tax on food if it is purchased at grocery stores and markets, no sales tax on rent, and improving transportation access for all is exactly what Measure R is trying to do. Many of the poor and lower class take the bus because it is cheaper than driving, and Measure R includes a statute that will freeze the current fares for a few years longer than was originally planned (without R, the fares will go up in 2010), and keep the bus and rail fares for seniors, students, and the disabled from increasing before 2015.

Now let's think about the middle and upper classes; what are they buying? Meals out at restaurants (where sales tax IS incurred), electronics, flat-panel TV's, cellphones, maybe a new car, etc. They are contributing more to the transit fund because they are participating more in the sales economy, and that's because they can afford to spend more money on sales taxable items. A sales tax does not affect everyone equally across the board: it draws more money from those who can afford to pay more.

And, what's more, how does Measure R benefit only the middle and upper class? This is a claim I've seen made by a few organizations, chief among them the Bus Rider's Union (BRU), which is so pro bus that they oppose any contribution to public transit that is not a bus system. They are vehemently anti-rail, and anti-Measure R because: "The MTA funds rail projects (subways cost about $350 million a mile to build) that serve development interests and a more white, more affluent ridership not low-income, transit-dependent riders that are Latino, black or Asian-Pacific Islander, and more than 60% of them are women." --BRU and Strategy Center website

Ok, first of all, I posit that whatever members of the bus rider's union wrote that sentence have never set foot on the metro rail system. I've been on the blue line every week or so, riding between Downtown L.A. and Long Beach. If you're going to characterize the people on that train as "white and affluent", you're blind. I am usually one of only two or three "white" people in my train car, while the other 50 - 80 or so people are decidedly not.

It's true that trains are usually built along corridors that serve development interests, but that's usually because those corridors have already naturally grown to have high population density, and the rail would best serve the population by traveling in that particular area. This is the case for Wilshire Blvd, where the subway will be expanded.

Also, if you are in the upper class of L.A. ("white and affluent"), you have probably never set foot on a bus or rail line, and 65% of the funding appropriation in Measure R is for mass transit (buses and rail). Another 20% is highway expansions and improvements such as car pool lanes, and 15% goes to the individual cities to be used for light synchronizations and road maintenance. So only 35% of the funding in R is going to benefit the upper class who drive their cars on the freeways instead of using rail or bus. I wouldn't call that primarily benefiting the middle and upper class. Besides, buses need to travel on the roads and highways just like personal cars do, and so bus-riders would also benefit from that 35% as well.

2.)"We should have increased income tax, gasoline taxes or traffic congestion fees to fund the MTA, not a sales tax!"

Why not an income tax increase? Because income tax is a state revenue. One of the major plusses about Measure R is that it ensures that California doesn't raid these public transit funds to cover budget shortfalls due to mismanagement. The state has done this in the past, but Measure R money would be safe, as it can legally only be used for public transit in L.A. county. If we decided to raise money for L.A. public transit by raising the state income tax, there would be nothing that we could do to prevent the state from dipping into that L.A. transit money for use elsewhere in the state. And why should people in Eureka be paying extra income tax for public transit in L.A. county, anyway?

Why not a gas tax increase, vehicle registration fee increase, or congestion fee? Each of those things would be great if they could actually happen. I challenge someone to try and get a measure to increase those fees or taxes on the ballot. My prediction: it will not happen. Most of the people in this county drive, and everyone is looking for the cheapest gas price they can find. I highly doubt that people who are so worried about having cheaper gas are going to vote to increase their gas price. People tend to see sales tax as the most egalitarian of the types of tax: Everybody pays. To quote the L.A. Times editorial:

"We'd rather see these projects funded by motorists, via higher vehicle registration fees or gas taxes. That would properly place the burden of relieving our traffic and smog problems on those who cause them. Sales taxes, by contrast, hurt low-income people the most and do nothing to discourage driving. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only politically tenable course. Tax increases require a two-thirds vote for approval, and polls show that the sales tax is the only funding source that comes close to reaching that level of public acceptance."--L.A. Times

So, if we want this public transit funding, the sales tax is the most likely way to get it. If we reject Measure R, it's unlikely that the same plan with a different funding source will be approved. This is an opportunity we shouldn't miss. And, besides, this is a city that has up-to-now embraced the car and the freeway system. We can't simply quit our cars cold turkey! For many people there currently is no bus or rail service that offers convenient service to or from their area, and driving really is the only option. Those people should not be penalized with higher car expenses when the current transit system is unable to meet their needs.

3.) "It doesn't proportion the funding equally according to population! Region X has Y percent of the population of L.A. County, but only gets Z percent of the funding!" or "It doesn't do anything for the San Gabriel Valley!" or "It doesn't do anything for Long Beach!"

First of all, as a general philosophy: devoting money to public transportation corridors is a strategic endeavor. It involves evaluating the population density, concentration of residential areas, concentration of businesses providing jobs for those residents, and then finding the bus or rail route that will provide the highest ridership at the lowest cost. At any given time a sizable portion of the money needs to go into the highest priority transit corridor. The benefits then reach throughout the county, as the reason those corridors have such high population density is due to people from other parts of the county commuting in there to go to work. Even if a commuter from suburbia will never take public transit, the traffic on the freeway they're driving on will improve as other people do opt to use the bus or rail line.

Hence, the decision of where to distribute the rail lines and transit corridors has to be based on population density and need, not spread throughout the county equally. Still, I'll argue that most parts of the county, including the San Gabriel Valley, would be getting plenty if Measure R passes.

You can see for yourself what projects will be funded, according to region, here:

The San Gabriel Valley (SGV) leadership has decided to take a stand and demand some pork from the county. They have their hearts set on an extension of the Gold Line all the way to Ontario Airport. Since Measure R does not include enough funding appropriation to do this, they are taking stances against it. Never mind that the Wilshire subway project will serve an area with far greater population density, to which many SGV residents need to commute anyway. Never mind that the Gold Line currently has the lowest ridership numbers of any of the metro rail lines, and has consistently been below ridership projections since it was completed. Never mind that the SGV will lose the opportunity for lots of other project funding if Measure R fails. Never mind that Measure R ACTUALLY INCLUDES funding for the "Foothill Extension" of the Gold Line, which will extend it from Sierra Madre all the way to Montclair, AND funding for the completion and maintenance of the "East Side Extension of the Gold Line, which is on time to open next year. They want an even higher priority for the Gold Line. This is unreasonable, greedy, and parochial.

Let's look at what the SGV will lose if R does not pass (you can check these for yourself in the Measure R info section of MTA's website), and thanks to Ken Alpern who summarized these points in a comment on the Bottleneck Blog:

-- Improvements to the 10, 60, 210, 605, 710 and freeways

-- The Alameda Corridor East grade separations, which would gets lots of trucks off the 60 and 10 freeways while keep SGV residents from having to stop at rail crossings as often.

-- Foothill Gold Line extension toward Clairemont

-- Eastside Gold Line extension BEYOND the Atlantic station (which will open next year), to stations farther east.

-- The Downtown Light Rail Connector which will allow Gold-line trains to connect directly to the Blue Line

-- Improved Metrolink service for the SGV area

-- Local bus service funding for the individual cities

-- The Wilshire subway extension to UCLA, which will have SGV residents as its second-highest ridership constituency

Regarding that last point about the subway: 22% of the people expected to ride the Subway to the Sea are residents of the San Gabriel Valley. They are the next highest constituency of projected riders after west side residents, who will make up only 36% of the ridership. Those figures are based on a ridership study done by the MTA to determine which parts of the county will benefit from a Wilshire Subway. It's on page 25 of the linked presentation:

Public transit project funding should not be appropriated according to population size. It is population DENSITY that matters. East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) are a large percentage of L.A. County, it's true. But they are spread out over an enormous area compared to West L.A., downtown, and even the San Fernando Valley. We would have to build many more rail lines, branching out in many directions, in order to provide improved access for most of the SGV. The reason the MTA is targeting projects like the "Subway to the Sea" under Wilshire Blvd, or a Green line LAX connector, or the downtown light rail connector, is that those projects would help far more people than the Gold line extension to Ontario, and so they are of higher priority.

The L.A. Times, the L.A. Daily News and the South Bay Daily Breeze newspapers have all published editorials in support of Measure R, while the Long Beach Press Telegram and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune oppose it.

I was so annoyed at the Long Beach Press Telegram's editorial that I left a comment about it on their website. For one thing, their opposition to Measure R seems hypocritical: Two previous countywide half-cent sales tax increases passed in the 1980's and 1990's, respectively. The funds generated from them went to build the blue line from downtown to Long Beach and the red line from downtown to North Hollywood, respectively. That means that, back in the 1980's, West siders were apparently happy to vote for a countywide sales tax increase that gave Long Beach a great public transit rail line. . . and now the Press Telegram is urging its readers not to return the favor? Sure, Long Beach has it's rail line, thanks to the residents of the rest of the county; why should it bother helping out other parts of the county now?

4.) "Now is not the time for a tax increase!"

Yes, the economy is bad. But it turns out that big investment in public infrastructure projects during hard economic times is probably not such a bad idea. Paul Krugman, who just won the Nobel Prize in Economics, says that now is a good time to invest in infrastructure. He says "The usual argument against public works as economic stimulus is that they take too long: by the time you get around to repairing that bridge and upgrading that rail line, the slump is over and the stimulus isn’t needed. Well, that argument has no force now, since the chances that this slump will be over anytime soon are virtually nil. So let’s get those projects rolling." We have plenty of old roads and bridges in L.A. and throughout the country that need repair. A good dose of government spending ala the New Deal and Works Projects Administration might be just what the doctor ordered. The Golden Gate Bridge was financed by a bond measure during the great depression, and there it is still benefitting the Bay area some 80 years later. And a sales tax increase is better than a bond measure because we won't have to pay double the cost in interest.

A good public transit system is a sound investment that will improve the lives of people in this city for decades, even centuries to come. Keep in mind that the first train of the London "tube" subway system began operating in 1863, and now that city, which is arguably just as sprawled out area-wise as Los Angeles, has one of the best public transit systems on Earth.

Wrapping things up:

What bothers me most about the opposition to R is this "try again next election" mentality. How much do you want to bet that whatever other distribution of funds is proposed at the next election, there will be just as many communities crying out that it is unfair? Sure, there are details in this measure that I don't think are perfect. But it's a comprehensive public transit measure, chalk full of language and details. OF COURSE some people are going to have problems with someparts of it. Sure, we could reject it this time and hope they put together another plan next election, but it's likely that another group of people will dislike some details about THAT plan, so maybe they'll say "try again next election". And this goes on until suddenly 10 more years have gone by and we're still arguing over the details when we could have had a new rail line built by then.

This passing the buck on to the next election is one of the reasons why, 20 years after the subway to the sea was first conceived, construction has still not begun. Sure, we can keep passing on good public transit for this city because we don't like this or that detail in the bill, while L.A. County's population continues to grow (expected 30% rise by 2030), and our roads get more and more congested, and commute times get longer and longer, and less and less tourists will want to come here because there is no easy way to get around town.

Or we can take some responsibility for our future and make a commitment to better public transit, and a better county for our children and our grandchildren; and we don't have to wait until the "next election". We can do this now.

So, if you live in L.A. County, when you have your ballot in front of you ask yourself this: Do you want Los Angeles to have a great public transit system like other great cities do? (Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., London, Paris) Then why would you vote no on R? If it's because of some minor detail in the plan, ask yourself if that minor detail is important enough to delay these great projects even further into the future; to keep this city chained to it's car-based, smog-creating, oil-guzzling, time-wasting freeway infrastructure even longer. Let's quit wasting time and do the right thing.

Vote yes on Measure R!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rocket Launch

Uh, I guess I might have over-hyped the rocket launch last night. Sorry about that.

Reg and I went to the park with Lucy and watched the launch. Even though it was only an hour and a half after sunset, I guess it was still too late for the rocket to enter sunlight during its climb into orbit, so the exhaust trail was not lit up by sunlight, as it was in my photos from the launch a few years ago.

Still, the rocket's red/orange flame was clearly visible as it rose southward in the night sky. It was brighter than most other lights, save nearby planes, and you could see it blink momentarily as it dropped it's first stage.

Didn't really get a good picture, sort of just looks like a red dot rising in the sky. But it was still fun to watch!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Rocket Launch Tomorrow night!

Rocket launch tomorrow night out of Vandenberg! These tend to be lovely spectacles when they happen close to twilight, and this one should be visible for "at least 200 miles", weather permitting. IE: if you live somewhere in Southern CA, you will probably be able to see this if you have a clear view to the West. Actually, just based on the geometry of a typical Delta II rocket launch and a spherical Earth, the above map shows the range of visibility (the farther from the rocket you are, the lower over the horizon it appears).

Once the rocket climbs into sunlight, the exhaust plume and trail tend to be very visible! You can see pictures from a previous twilight launch a few years ago here:



If you're in Southern CA, just be outside looking Northwest (toward Vandenberg) at 7:28 pm on Friday (tomorrow) 10/24! The rocket should come from the Northwest and head pretty much due South.

Oh, and you can check for updates on this particular launch at the following website, which will have a launch video webcast starting 30 minutes prior to launch:

And this is a great website with lots of info on all-things-space for the Southern California community:

(P.S.: These launches do sometimes scrub at the last minute, so if you're not seeing anything within 10 minutes or so of being out there, you might want to check the above update website to see if it was canceled.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No on Proposition 8!

When I was in High School, I remember distinctly taking the position that, if I could do one thing right in my life, it would be to never in any way get involved in politics. sigh.

The coming election is an important one. In addition to the president, the entire U.S. House of Representatives is up for re-election, 1/3 of the U.S. Senate is as well, and there are a variety of state propositions and county and citywide measures that will appear on our ballots.

I've been reviewing the propositions that will be put before California voters. Some are matters of logistical progress: Prop 1A is the high-speed train bond measure I discussed in a previous entry, Prop 7 and Prop 10 have to do with solar and wind energy. Others are the usual suspects: Prop 4 is the latest of many attempt to force doctors to notify parents 48 before a female minor has an abortion, a proposition that has appeared in at least the last two state elections, was voted down, but seems likely to pass this time, based on polls taken a few months ago, due to the inclusion of parental waivers.

Such propositions have a flavor of business-as-usual to them. They are either interesting ideas that need to be analyzed to see whether they are the best way forward, or old standbys on which I had formed on opinion long ago.

But there is one proposition on the ballot this year that gets to the core of the freedom and equality on which U.S. citizens often pride themselves: Proposition 8. This is important.

My friend Molly already wrote a great blog on her reasons for opposing proposition 8. All are good points. My own reason for opposing it is simple: it takes the right to marry away from a group of people. That is wrong. Inherently wrong. Disgustingly wrong. I feel as if the "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws that civil-rights era leaders of the 1960's fought to overcome are being completely forgotten by everyone who has been convinced to support this ban on gay marriage.

Prop 8 seeks to add the following words to our state Constitution: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." It's quite simple: the ONLY thing this proposition does is take a right away from a group of people because of their sexual orientation. That's it. It takes a right available to the heterosexual population away from the homosexual population. No matter what argument anyone who has been convinced to vote yes on the proposition makes, that fact will remain. Insert the word "white" in front of the words man and woman in the proposed language, and any cosmetic differences between this and the divisive Jim Crow laws fades into transparency.

It's bad enough that there are enough homophobic people in this state that Prop 8 has made it onto the ballot, what's infinitely worse is that, at the current rate, the proposition actually has a chance of passing.

It's interesting that recent polls show prop 8 gaining ground since the earlier polls this summer all showed it was likely to be rejected. It seems the "Yes on 8" community has struck a nerve with their recent TV advertising campaign. They use a form of fear-mongering and misdirection that is really working on some people.

The yes-on-8 ads, funded largely by the Mormon Church and the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic organization), allege that, unless we ban gay marriage, students as young as Kindergarteners will be taught that men can marry men in public school. Apparently this actually happened in Massachussetts for a class of 2nd graders.

Here's why this argument is misleading:

-Prop 8 has absolutely nothing to do with education. I already wrote above the entirety of what prop 8 proposes: to take away the right of gay people to marry. It only ads those 14 words to the constitution. Nothing about education. At all.

-If students are learning about gay marriage in elementary school, it is due to ambiguities in the state health education standards. The statute to which the yes-on-8 ads are referring is California Education Code Section 51890-51891, which lists the expected topics of instruction for school districts that want a state-funded health curriculum. Among the topics is the following:

"For the purposes of this chapter, "comprehensive health
education programs" are defined as all educational programs offered
in kindergarten and grades 1 to 12, inclusive, in the public school
system, including in-class and out-of-class activities designed to
ensure that:
(1) Pupils will receive instruction to aid them in making
decisions in matters of personal, family, and community health, to
include the following subjects:
(A) The use of health care services and products.
. . .
(D) Family health and child development, including the legal and
financial aspects and responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.

What this basically means is that, if a school district wants state funding for its health-education curriculum, it must, at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade, discuss the legal and financial aspects of marriage. The Code says nothing about exactly which grade marriage is to be discussed in. The issue of what topics are to be taught at which grade level is addressed in the Standards for Health Education, which doesn't mention anything about teaching marriage until it gets to high school:

"High School
As a result of health instruction in high school, all students will demonstrate the ability to:
. . .
HS.1.G.3 Discuss the characteristics of healthy relationships, dating, committed relationships, and marriage.
. . .
HS.1.G.10 Recognize that there are individual differences in growth and development, body image, gender roles, and sexual orientation. "

So, according to this, marriage and sexual orientation are to be discussed in high-school "careers and family studies"-type classes.

Here's the rub: though the standards clearly say that students should learn about marriage and sexual orientation in High School, they seem to also leave open the option to discuss marriage in earlier grades. It seems to be the prerogative of the school district:

"Section 51933

51933. (a) School districts may provide comprehensive sexual health education, consisting of age-appropriate instruction, in any kindergarten to grade 12, inclusive, using instructors trained in the appropriate courses. (b) A school district that elects to offer comprehensive sexual health education pursuant to subdivision (a), whether taught by school district personnel or outside consultants, shall satisfy all of the following criteria:
. . .
(7) Instruction and materials shall teach respect for marriage and committed relationships.
(8) Commencing in grade 7, instruction and materials shall teach that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only certain way to prevent unintended pregnancy, teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, and provide information about the value of abstinence while also providing medically accurate information on other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
. . ."

"Age appropriate instruction" seems to be up for interpretation. I included number (8) to show that some of the curriculum standards DO state clearly at what grade the instruction is to begin (in the case of birth control, it clearly states that it can be taught starting in grade 7). This does not seem to be the case for marriage, and leaves some leeway about when it can be discussed.

-Now, what does all of this have to do with gay marriage? Well, obviously, if gay marriage remains legal in this state, then it should be discussed and addressed whenever the school decides it is time to instruct the children about marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage probably wouldn't want their kids learning about it at a young age in public school.

The reason the fear-mongering ads of the "yes-on-8" campaign are misleading, however, is this: the age at which certain topics are taught to public school students is a matter that can be addressed by revising state school standards and codes. One could petition to make these laws more clear about only addressing the topic of marriage in junior high or high school, for example. Putting a "Beginning in grade 7. . ." before the bit about marriage in the Standards above would do it. One could also pull their child out of the class. One could discuss the interpretation of the state codes with the school district. All of these are better options for clearing this up then just taking the right to marry away from an entire population of people.

But no, the yes-on-8 campaign wants you to believe that the best way to solve this ambiguity in our state health education code is to eliminate the right of gay people to marry entirely. It's not right to take a civil right away from a whole population just because some people don't want their kids hearing about it in school. This is not the right way to address the problem of what kids learn and when.

And then there's a more fundamental issue: Why did this argument convince some people, who would otherwise have been content to leave well enough alone and let homosexuals continue to marry, that they should now remove that right entirely? Before these recent ads started running, polls were showing that prop 8 was likely to fail. After the school-ads, polls show it likely to pass. So some people who previously were against prop 8 suddenly were for it. If you are ok with it being legal for gay people to marry, why would you want to keep it a secret from your children? Say your child asks you if two men can get married; what are you going to do, lie to them? You can teach your children anything you like in your home and your church, but if you expect the public school system to preach inequality, I have little sympathy for you.


Underneath all the fear-mongering and obfuscation of the "yes-on-8" campaign, the primary motivations for passing this ban are religious. Well, marriage in the sense that we are talking about is NOT a religious institution. It is a civil one. And there are real differences between marriage and domestic partnership.

In the end, this issue is much simpler than everyone is making it out to be. Heterosexual couples enjoy the right to marry. Homosexual couples now do as well. Prop 8 would take that right away from them. It would be the first time I know of that an entire demographic would be stripped of their civil rights in a constitutional amendment in this state.

History does not look back fondly on those who support taking rights away from people. Think of how we regard those who espoused the "separate but equal" doctrine in the '60's. We think of them as racists. Those who vote Yes on prop 8 this November 4 will join their prejudiced predecessors in attempting to ensure that certain people do not get the civil rights and equal treatment under the law that is supposed to be guaranteed to all men and women in this country and in this state. Shame on them. They should be smarter than this. Don't let fear mongering and religious dogma cloud your judgment. Vote no on prop 8!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Race across London

I've heard people compare Los Angeles to London in that both cities are sprawled out over a large area. While London has had a metro-rail system for over 150 years now, the rail system of Los Angeles can not compete, and probably won't for quite some time.

Anyhow, a friend told me about this show, Top Gear, which typically does car reviews. In this particular episode, 4 guys race across London using 4 different modes of transportation: car, bicycle, public transit (bus and rail), and a speed boat up the Thames river.

It's tremendous fun to watch, only about 23 minutes. Can you guess the order in which they cross the finish line?

Scroll down to find out who won.

Bicycle, then boat, then public transit, then car.