My thoughts on June Primary elections

I have no special knowledge to impart about much of the June 6 primary election, with the exception of measure AA and Albany school district’s measures B and E, so here goes:

MEASURE AA: PLEASE VOTE AGAINST

This measure will impose a $12 parcel tax for 20 years on every parcel in the nine-county Bay Area. The revenue will be used to fund shoreline projects to protect and restore San Francisco Bay. It requires a two-thirds vote. Here are four reasons to vote against Measure AA:

1) My primary objection is that, given the way the potential uses for the tax are described, this ballot measure will extract far more revenue from Albany than will ever be returned to us in the form of shoreline enhancement grants. Most of the money will be used to restore wetlands in the South Bay (see item six here). Note: If you are skeptical of this information because it comes from a politically conservative site, here is an objection from the center, and here is one from the left (you have to scroll down).

At the Albany City Council meeting on June 6, starting at 6:00 p.m., the council will review the latest plans for the Albany Bulb restoration. The 143-page document describing the options will be available soon on the city website. I think this is an excellent plan, and I wish we had more funding to implement all of the suggestions. But we don’t. That’s why I’m opposed to shipping Albany’s money to the South Bay when we have a shoreline enhancement project right here that could use the money.

If you like the idea of restoring wetlands many miles away from Albany, I’d encourage you to donate to environment organizations to support that goal. But as your city council member, it’s my job to protect the interests of Albany and its residents, and I don’t think Measure AA is in our interest.

2) Measure AA is a Robin-Hood-in-reverse scheme. It takes from the poor and gives to the rich. In particular, it takes from the predominately lower-income, rural periphery of the Bay Area and transfers the income to the high-income, urban core of Silicon Valley. A map of the nine-county Bay Area helps show this:

Bay AreaI’m relatively aware of the remote corners of the Bay Area because I spend a good part of my weekends cycling through northern Sonoma County, eastern Alameda County and other spots far from the Bay. Just a few weeks ago I was driving back from a ride near Hopland, in Lake County. As I crossed the county line back into Sonoma county north of Cloverdale, I was still almost 60 miles from the closest part of the Bay.

Yet under Measure AA, the owners of land there would be assessed a $12 annual parcel tax. That’s the same amount as in the wealthy South Bay residents of Atherton, Palo Alto, Los Altos Hills and Menlo Park. It’s the same amount as major Silicon Valley corporations with low-lying properties near the Bay. These businesses will gain from Measure AA for a trivial portion of their annual profits.

You can compare the incomes of these wealthy South Bay cities to those of places like Cloverdale or Gilroy here. Many of the residents of the nine-county area live more than 30, 40 or even 50 miles from the Bay. Some of them live in coastal areas where sea-level rise will come not from the Bay, but from the Pacific Ocean.

It’s bad enough that here in Albany we have to rely on regressive parcel taxes to fund our local schools and other community services. But at least in our small city there is a reasonable degree of economic homogeneity, and a strong sense of shared community purpose for our schools and other services.

But that is not the case for the nine-county Bay Area region. If wealthy Silicon Valley communities and businesses want to enhance their shorelines and protect them from flooding, there are far more equitable options. One example is the assessment district, which can apportion the tax in a way that is consistent with the degree of benefit.

3) At at time when the mechanisms of a Bay Area regional government are still being contested, Measure AA is a preemptive strike that creates a precedent that regional government will be by and for Silicon Valley elites. I suspect that many people reading this have no idea that the government agency that put Measure AA on the ballot, something called the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority (SFBRA), even exists. The governing board of the organization was appointed, not elected. To be fair, some of the board members are elected officials. However, they are charged with representing citizens who were not able to vote for them (or vote them out of office).

For example, on the SFBRA board, a Napa County supervisor represent all of the four North Bay counties, although he is not an elected official for the citizens of Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties. Here in the East Bay, someone you may never had heard of, Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia, represents Alameda County as well. No one in Alameda County has ever voted for John Gioia. To my knowledge, Gioia has never made an attempt to contact the City of Albany to explain his role on the board of SFBRA as our representative.

The Measure AA ballot language states, “An independent citizen’s oversight committee will oversee funds to ensure they are spent properly.” However, the fine print reveals that this oversight committee has no authority, will be appointed by the SFBRA board, and is charged with publishing an annual report for the board’s website.

And while we are looking at the fine print, Section 5.A. of the measure’s full text states, “The Governing Board of the Authority shall be empowered to amend this Measure by a majority vote of its members to further the purposes of this Measure…” Hmmmm.

4) From my perspective as a university science editor, Measure AA appears to be pretty dubious. Although some news outlets have characterized Measure AA as a tool to fight climate change, the words “sea-level rise” or “climate change” never appear in the ballot language.

The rebuttal to argument against Measure AA refers to the Bay Institute and the Nature Conservancy as “preeminent scientific organizations.” No, no, no. The National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science are examples preeminent scientific organizations. The Bay Institute and the Nature Conservancy are advocacy organizations, and good ones, but they are not preeminent scientific organizations.

The argument in favor of Measure AA states, “Fish in the Bay are contaminated with harmful chemicals like PCBs, mercury and pesticides.” Uh, there’s a problem with that statement. Did they mean to write “mercury compounds?” Mercury is not a chemical, it’s an element. It is a member of the periodic table of elements (it’s one of only two elements that are liquids at room temperature). The fact that these Measure AA advocates have little command of basic scientific information raises a red flag for me.

For background on the scientific and engineering complexities of Bay restoration, please see this statement by UB Berkeley professor emeritus of environmental and civil engineering James Hunt.

When I head out to the Albany Shoreline, I can see straight out to the Golden Gate. If I scan to the right and left, I don’t see any obvious wetlands (maybe I need binoculars). The emphasis on restoring wetlands in Measure AA won’t help Albany. Nor will it protect much of our critical infrastructure, like the ports of Oakland and San Francisco, our two airports and other urban spaces near the Bay.

A better and more thoughtful approach would be to start with the high sea-level forecasts for the year 2100 and realistically assess what we can do between now and then to practice effective triage. Some land and structures we can save. Some will slip under the rising water of the Bay. By 2100, wetland restoration may be a very small part of the problem.

To summarize, I don’t think Measure AA is in the interest of Albany, it uses the wrong taxing mechanism, it hands taxing authority to an undemocratic regional authority, and I think it’s on shaky ground scientifically.

MEASURES B AND E: YES ON E, THINK HARD ABOUT B

Measures B and E are the two general obligation bonds that, if passed, will fund renovations to Albany schools. Measure E is the smaller of the two, and will basically be used to rebuilt the old McGregor school site, across Brighton Street from the current middle school. According to the ballot language, it will impose an annual bond repayment of an estimated $60 per $100K of accessed value for 20-30 years, and will require and 55 percent majority to pass.

Measure B will basically rebuild Ocean View and Marin elementary schools. It will impose an annual repayment twice the size of Measure E, $120 per $100K of assessed value. Because of its size, it requires a two-thirds approval rate by the voters.

I have been aware of the size of these bonds for several months, but I didn’t feel it was my place, as a former school board member but a current city council member, to initiate a discussion about them. The information about these bonds for Albany voters has come very late, and I’m not impressed that the voters are getting an accurate perspective on them.

So, at this late stage, you are going to get my perspective, take it or leave it. Other pro/con comments here and here. My main grievance about the discussion on these two bonds is that they have been presented by both sides as a package deal, and they are not. Voters can vote for either, none or both. To keep track of them in your mind, think “easy E, big bad B.”

I’m encouraging you to vote in favor of Measure E. It is a different animal than B. Measure E will take a site that is not currently useful and build new classrooms there. It solves an immediate overcrowding problem. It will only require 55 percent voter approval, and for an Albany house with a $600K assessed value (like mine) it will add $360 annually to property tax bills. I can live with that.

Measure B is a different beast. It will tear down two existing, functional schools and (after several months), will replace them with two new schools that will be built to current Division of State Architect  (DSA) earthquake and other safety standards.

Many parents don’t realize that around 2004, back when I was on the school board, Marin and Ocean View were refurbished and brought up to DSA standards. These schools no longer meet current DSA standards, not because they have become less safe, but because earthquake safety standards have gone up since then. Earthquake safety standards typically evolve over time as information from recent earthquakes gets added to building codes.

It’s similar to the decision a family makes about buying a new car. The old one still runs fine, it’s got a few years left in it and it still passes its smog tests. A newer car would be expensive, but it would be more modern and would have better safety features like more advanced air bags. You have to weigh the pluses and minuses and make a choice.

Keep in mind that for earthquake safety, the most important room is your child’s life is not their school room, but their bedroom. That’s because your child typically spends at least one-third of their life sleeping in their bedroom (not to mention play and study time).

By comparison, one year is comprised of 365 days x 24 hours, or 8,760 hours per year. As an example, if your child attends school six hours per day, five days per week and 40 weeks per year, that is 6x5x40 or 1200 hours, or less than 14 percent of their lives. That’s why earthquake safety training stresses that the odds are an earthquake will occur when you are in bed.

Our school staff and board members would counter that while that may be true, the school district can’t go around upgrading earthquake safety standards for every home occupied by every one of their students. But they can make safer the places where several hundred students will be gathered in case of a big earthquake — their classrooms.

How many of you remember the color of the walls of your school when you were in first grade? The reason I ask is that I think improvements for schools are often done “for the sake of the kids,” when I think it’s grown-ups that care about how infrastructure looks. Kids care more about intangible, human interactions. Good friends, good teachers, freedom from bullies, etc. Will Measures B and E address those? Maybe not so much.

From my office on the UC Berkeley campus, it’s an easy walk to the new stadium complex, which was rebuilt in part because it sits on the Hayward fault. The new stadium is a stunning, expensive white elephant. It’s a great place to watch a football game and wine-and-dine wealthy donors, but the debt service on the stadium and other earthquake-related rebuilding is killing the campus. I don’t want to see our town make the same mistake.

Let’s assume Measure E passes. My property tax bill goes up by $360 annually. If Measure B passes as well, my property tax bill goes up by $1,080. Gulp! That’s real money, especially since I am planning on retiring in another year. For young families who have just moved to Albany, the assessed value of their house is the sale price. Almost any three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in good condition in Albany is going for $1 million. In that case passing both measures B and E will add $1,800 to the already high property tax bill of a new Albany family. And it will add several hundred dollars to the property tax bill of seniors and low-income families, since no exemptions are allowed on general obligation bonds.

Marin and Oceanview schools have some life left in them. But sooner or later, probably within a decade, the schools should be replaced. One option is to pass Measure E, let the school district get to work building out the McGregor site, and have Albany parents monitor the success of that project. That should give parents a basis for a more informed decision in another year or two.

On the other hand, construction costs typically keep rising (unless there is another economic crisis), so not passing Measure B now could mean higher constructions costs later. So if you trust the school district, vote in favor of Measure B now. Either way, you are rolling dice. It depends on what sort of bets you are willing to make.

I wish I could say something more definitive, but there are no easy answers here.

RETURN TO HOME OR TOP OF POST

Some end of year 2015 items

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALBANY

Hey, happy new year people. For those of your who try to squeeze outdoor activities in either before or after work, or in the moonlight, I’m providing a link to my ugly sunrise/sunset, twilight and moonrise/moonset pdf calendar. I make one every year for my bike riding buddies. It starts the week on Mondays too. It’s for San Francisco, but it’s never more than a minute off for the whole Bay Area. Get it here.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the last several meetings, there are a few items I would like to mention. First of all, there is a state program, the California Residential Mitigation Program, which will be offering Albany homeowners up to $3,000 to help earthquake retrofit their houses in 2016. The process does require pre-qualification, and the funding is available by lottery. For more information, please go to earthquakebracebolt.com.

I saw a couple of items in the local paper that are worth mentioning–one on minimum wages, and the other on community choice aggregation. Both articles show that, as a small city, moving last often has advantages.

El Cerrito jumped ahead of Albany and joined a CCA (community choice aggregator), an alternative to PG&E for electricity. In particular, El Cerrito joined Marin Clean Energy (MCE). I’ve written in the past about why I think CCAs are not a good option and this recent Albany Journal article reinforces my concerns.

There is no good evidence that CCAs create facts on the ground (new renewable energy infrastructure) any faster or better than PG&E does under state mandates. What CCAs do is create a new layer of bureaucracy to bicker with utilities about cost shifting. Sorry, but I think Albany should pass.

El Cerrito has also been out in front on phasing in minimum wage increases. There apparently is now some backlash:

The minimum wage issue is wrapped up with a related issue, tipping in restaurants. Some folks argue that it’s time for tipping to go, and some big restaurants are getting on board. At least for restaurant workers, if higher minimum wages mean the reduction of tipping, then the changes may not be as big as they first appear.

Here is simple model: Assume the wage rate is $10/hr and labor is 40 percent of total cost (the pre-tax bill). You tip 20 percent. A group goes out for dinner, pays $100 for meal, and 40 percent, or $40, goes toward wages, and $60 to non-wage expenses. Tip goes to the workers, so total bill is $120, including tipping. Workers get half, wages plus tip, or $60.

Now assume under minimum wage laws that the wage rises to $15/hour, but the restaurant invokes a no tipping policy. Cost of wages has risen 50 percent (from $10/hr to $15/hr), so now the wage bill for the same meal is $60 instead of $40, and the cost of dinner bill, including the same $60 non-wage expenses, is $120 (without tipping). In both examples the costs to the customers are the same–the only difference is that the tip has been rolled into the wage.

Most restaurants already add a mandatory tip for large parties, and some restaurants, like Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, have been adding mandatory tips for years, something the workers didn’t like at first. The wait staff at fancy restaurants can earn big tips, while the staff at a local fast food place typically doesn’t. In addition, there are issues about how the tips are shared between the wait staff and the kitchen staff. A higher minimum wage rate would help bring some equity to the restaurant industry, but not without adjustments.

It’s important to keep in mind that even with a $15/hr minimum wage, with full-time employment (2,000 hours annually), one worker makes $30K annually, and a married couple who both work full time make $60K annually. In the Bay Area, housing costs can easily take half that income off the top. In addition to a higher minimum wage, we need more affordable housing.

SIDEWALK REPAIR

The city will start soon to repair the most dangerous sidewalks in Albany. The council allocated $150,000 as part of the Capital Improvement Plan, and the public works staff has identified 58 broken sidewalks to be repaired with the funding. More here.

State law makes sidewalk maintenance the responsibility of the homeowner. And for something like me, with no big trees near my sidewalk, this is not a problem. A good sidewalk can last 50-75 years or more, unless tree roots or water flow are tearing it up. If the trees are city-owned, then the city should be willing to share the responsibility for repairing the broken sidewalks. And in fact the city has had a program with limited funds to pay 50 percent of sidewalk repairs.

The problem is that fixing sidewalks 20-30 feet at time is very inefficient, especially if the homeowner has to pay about $200 for a permit. A better solution is to take advantage of economies of scale in pouring concrete and building forms by having crews repair whole sections at a time. That is our new plan, and that is how we’ll be spending the first $150,000.

Several people have contacted me via email to urge the council to back a parcel tax for sidewalk repairs, but I am not in favor. This sidewalk repair map helps explain why.

Under Proposition 13, local taxes that are earmarked for specific purposes generally require a two-thirds super-majority vote. A big portion of Albany residents, especially those living in the Pierce St. condos, any large apartment building, and most blocks west of San Pablo Ave., don’t see broken sidewalks as a neighborhood problem. If at least one-third of residents fall into that camp, then any dedicated sidewalk repair tax is likely to fail. That’s why I think the city’s current plan is a better way to go.

UPDATE ON MIXED-USE PROJECT

At the University Village project, the Sprouts supermarket should open before end of 2016. Seniors should be moving into the Belmont Village building in the fall of 2017.

A few months ago, the project cleared what may be the final procedural hurdle to come to the city council. Back in November, the council heard an appeal of some decisions about the small retail area at the site, along the south side of Monroe Ave. The Planning and Zoning Commission had already had two lengthy meetings on the topic. Those meeting were focused on technical details about signage and some parking issues in the area.

The appeal to the council was filed by Albany resident Ulan McKnight, who had run for city council in 2012 as an Occupy the Farm (OTF)-supported candidate. The meeting was attended by McKnight and a handful of relatively polite OTF supporters, among others. McKnight did not attend either of the two P&Z meetings, nor did he submit any comments during the P&Z process.

I’ll spare you my opinions of McKnight’s appeal. Instead, the reader can view his comments here.

The Ohlone leader Hank Herrera mentioned by McKnight did speak. Herrera stated in his comments that the city has failed in its legal obligation to consult with local tribes regarding development, especially in the general plan process. I suspect Herrera had been misinformed by OTF. City attorney Craig Labadie corrected the record by pointing out that the city had consulted with local tribes as required by state law, but the tribes had no substantive comments.

During the meeting, P&Z commissioner Doug Donaldson noted that the $512 fee for appealing complex P&Z decisions doesn’t begin to cover the costs of staff time in preparing the documents for the council. Donaldson recommended doubling the cost of appealing to $1,024 for those citizens who appeal without ever having participated in the original P&Z process, where their concerns can be be heard and incorporated in a far more cost-effective manner.

Finally, I’d like to dispose of one piece of OTF folk wisdom that I’ve heard many times, and that I heard again at this meeting. An OTF supporter who claimed to be a public health graduate student at UC Berkeley stated that Albany had a problem with asthma rates. It took me about five minutes to track down the county health statistics in the Alameda County Health Data Profile, 2014, (128-page pdf file). I have attached here three of the report’s pages that focus in asthma rates broken out by city.

It turns out that in Alameda county, Albany has one of the lowest rates of asthma, far lower than Oakland, which consistently has the highest rates. No surprises there, except perhaps to OTF. Maybe now we can put this shibboleth to rest.

RETURN TO HOME

Hot-button issues and our capital improvement plan

These are my notes on the October 19 city council meeting. We also had a meeting on Oct. 6, but I want to save that meeting for a later message, since it dealt with a specific topic, the Albany Bulb.

As for the Oct. 19 meeting, I want to mention two items–our Social and Economic Justice Commission (SEJC) and the city’s capital improvement plan.

SEJC has been a problem for years. I have been on the council since the fall of 2012, and since then, sunsetting SEJC has been on the agenda twice. Both times the commission has barely survived. SEJC was formed several years ago, and given a mandate that was far too broad to allow it become effective.

In recent months it was suffered from resignations, lack of quorums and cancelled meetings. The city does have effective commissions—Planning and Zoning, Parks and Rec., Traffic and Safety and others—that have a narrow focus, develop expertise, and provide real service to the council and the city. But SEJC hasn’t become one of them, at least not yet.

SEJC needs to become more like the commissions above, or it needs to be sunsetted. After mulling this over, and listening to the thoughts of some knowledgeable people in town, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a critical problem that could become the focus of a social services-oriented commission. That problem is our aging population, and how the city can best serve their needs. (That will include me in the next 20 years).

There are all sorts of issues related to aging—housing, health care, access to federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, and aging in place vs. assisted living, just to name a few. I don’t think the city is prepared for the huge demographic shift that is now starting as the baby boomers retire, but I’m hoping SEJC could evolve into a focused commission to help sort through the issues of our aging population. The hot-button issues that SEJC has taken on could be handled by ad hoc advisory bodies with specific missions and lifetimes.

There are three hot-button issues that SEJC had on its work plan to consider: minimum wage, rent control, and a Berkeley-style soda tax. Let me say first that Albany is not Berkeley, and if I wanted Albany to be like Berkeley, I’d just move. In particular, Berkeley is much bigger than Albany, has a much larger tax base, and can spread the cost of programs much more effectively than Albany can. I don’t think Albany should necessarily emulate Berkeley.

If we really wanted Albany to be more similar to Berkeley, the solution would be to merge with our bigger neighbor. Then we would get things like rent control, the soda tax and other Berkeley programs automatically. Oddly enough, I’ve never talked to anyone in Albany who wanted to merge with Berkeley. I guess I’ll have to ponder that one for a while. That being said, here goes:

 MINIMUM WAGE

I think our country needs to raise the federal minimum wage, but that’s not going to happen given the current state of Congress. I’m generally supportive of state and local efforts to raise minimum wages. I’m in agreement with the two economists, Alan Krueger of Princeton and David Card of UC Berkeley, who have found no adverse impacts from raising minimum wages in the U.S. In a New York Times op-ed, Kreuger argues in favor of at $12 minimum hourly wage nationally, with up to $15 hourly in high-wage/high-cost areas. I think Albany should be part of a regional or statewide effort to raise the minimum wage, but it’s better if big cities make the first move and smaller cities follow. And let’s not forgot another effective policy tool, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which also has benefits for low-income working families.

 RENT CONTROL

With the rising cost of housing in the Bay Area, including Albany, some residents are growing interested in a Berkeley-style rent control plan in Albany. When my son was at UC Berkeley and renting an apartment with friends south of campus, I visited Berkeley’s Rent Stabilization Board and was impressed by it.

However, after talking with various residents and city staffers, I don’t think rent control would fly in Albany. To create a rent control system here, the city would have to ask for a ton of money from the tax payers—enough to cover at least two new full time positions, all the associated costs, and enough extra to cover the costs of the lawsuits and other litigation that would follow (as they have in Berkeley). It would take years to get rent control funded, the lawsuits resolved and the programs up running. Rent control is not a short-term solution.

The real problem is not lack of rent control, but lack of housing, and that problem is one of our own making. Good article here. Years of anti-development policies in the Bay Area created the housing shortage. Albany is no exception.

Albany residents voted in favor of two thinly-veiled anti-growth measures, Measure D in 1978, which requires two off-street parking places per dwelling (except for existing dwellings which were grandfathered, cynically enough), and Measure C in 1990, which makes housing and other commercial development at the waterfront racetrack much more difficult. The city is considering a ballot measure to amend Measure D, and the city is working with interested citizens to develop affordable housing in Albany. I support both of those efforts.

SODA TAX

I’m not a big fan of Berkeley’s soda tax. First of all, reducing the amount of sugary soda kids drink, at least in Albany, is not a new idea. It’s been about 10 years, ever since the Albany school board got rid of sugary beverages in school vending machines. And in general, sales of soda have been declining, while sales of bottled water have been going up.

Here is some background on the soda tax. At first it appeared wholesalers were not passing along the tax, as I mentioned in council, but lately it appears that sugared soda prices are rising with respect to other beverages.

Drinking water instead of soda is the best way to go, but if you have to drink soda, diet sodas are better. I like UC Berkeley’s campaign to make drinking tap water cool. Sometimes a positive message is more effective than a negative one. Better to let people know what they could do, instead of telling them what they shouldn’t do.

Is Berkeley facing some sort of public health crisis? Probably not. It’s an interesting fact that the monthly amount taken in by the Berkeley soda tax, about $116,000, is roughly equivalent to Berkeley’s population, with is also about 116,000 people. So the tax amounts to about one dollar per month per person in Berkeley. Each ounce of sugary soda is taxed one cent, so during a month, the average Berkeley citizen consumes 100 oz. of sugary soda, our about two 12 oz. cans per week.

If we assume average caloric intake of 2,000 calories per day, or 14,000 calories per week, and if we assume a 12 oz. can of soda has 140 calories, than the average Berkeley citizen get two percent of their calories from sugary sodas.

Let’s say this is a gross underestimate, and it’s really 50 percent higher, or three cans per week. That’s three percent of calories. Of course, averages can be deceiving. Many people in Berkeley drink no soda, many drink far more soda than average.

Still, I’m not convinced that Berkeley has a big public health problem in soda, or that the soda tax will accomplish much. As an alternative, this is a common-sense approach from the head of the editorial board of the Berkeley Wellness newsletter from UC Berkeley’s Public Health Dept.

THE CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PLAN

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is a lot like my weekend chores list. I make a list, and if I am lucky, by Sunday night I’ve gotten halfway through it. Sigh. That’s been going on for about 20 years now.

As is typical in the public sector, there are at least twice as many meritorious projects as there is funding for them, so it’s important to prioritize and get as far down the list as possible. This CIP runs through June 30, 2020, so let’s hope for more funding down the road.

The staff report is six pages, worth scanning at least. I’m not going to improve on this summary by repeating it, so I suggest you take a look for yourself. The main report itself is 124 pages, and it takes a while to download. A better option is the spreadsheet time line.

Maintaining streets and sewers is not optional—these are our first priority. Among the other items, I give high priority to moving forward with Pierce St. Park and the new public works center, which have gotten bogged down in bureaucratic delays outside the city’s control. My other priorities are traffic controls on the streets just south of El Cerrito Plaza and sidewalk repairs.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the concerns raised at the meeting about how dark some the intersection are along Albany’s section of Solano, particularly the Curtis St. intersection, between Sunnyside Café and Fonda’s. That intersection is especially dark due to the fact that Curtis St. to the north slopes downward steeply, so porch and interior lighting on houses does little to illuminate the intersection.

There is a lack of street lights along that portion of Curtis St. as well. Finally, the relative brightness of the Safeway across Solano Ave. makes that intersection seen that much darker. The city is exploring cost-effective solutions that could be implemented quickly. As always, please exercise caution when driving, biking and walking at night along busy streets, especially dark ones.

RETURN TO HOME

Catching up after summer

My apologies for taking such a long break since my last post in April. My main task last summer was getting my 23-year old son back on his feet after he was hit by a car while commuting to work on his motorcycle.

He broke his left femur in the crash in May and is now walking with a slight limp and a long titanium rod running the length of his femur. He gets stronger every week and he is already (you guessed it) back on his motorcycle. Grrrrr. I wanted him to inherit my love of two-wheeled vehicles, but this is not what I had in mind.

The council had the month of August off, so nothing dramatic occurred on August—but then, hardly anything dramatic has ever occurred in August, except the start of WWI. It’s a slow news month. In July the appeal of the Occupy the Farm CEQA lawsuit was emphatically denied by the appeals court, and construction will start this fall on assisted living center and retail complex. That’s great news.

The other good news is that the remodeling of the Safeway on Solano has begun. The store will remain open during the project, much of which will be completed at night. The exterior footprint of the building will stay the same, with the addition of some fresh paint and parking lot repairs. We won’t be getting a fancy new Safeway like so many cities around us, due in part (only in part) to neighborhood criticisms during the planning. This is an example of how in Albany, when to comes to development, the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

There was incremental progress on several issues over the summer, but most of them have come before the council this fall in our first two meetings, or will be on the agenda soon, so I’ll discuss them in that context.

My last post in April concerned SB-277, the bill in Sacramento sponsored by state senator Richard Pan. It passed easily. This bill eliminates the personal and religious exemptions to vaccines for children attending schools in California. Another measure, SB-792, also passed. This legislation requires vaccinations for child care workers and volunteers. A good recent article on the topic is here.

In another recent piece of good news, the anti-vaccine referendum that was started after the passage of SB-277 has failed to gather enough signatures.

Our first meeting after the August break was on Sept. 8. It was interesting. It started well. The police chief reported he had produced a biennial report, available here.

The main item for me the night of Sept. 8 was the issue of whether or not to align the medical benefits of council members with those of the city employees. Many city councils give their members the right to participate in the medical plan for the staff, but a former Albany City Council had gone beyond that. Good Damin Esper coverage in the CC Times here.

The agenda is here (it includes video link, so it may load slowly)

A former city council had decided that their voter-approved reimbursement of $300/month was insufficient, and also decided, without consulting voters, to increase medical benefits above the level of the city employees, and to give themselves an in lieu payment of about $700/month if they chose not to be on the city’s plan (the in lieu benefit was not paid in cash, but was deposited into a 403-b retirement plan). In effect, those council members who took the in lieu benefit more than tripled their salary without voter approval.

Like many Albany residents, I thought that stunt was unethical, and I wrote about it previously on my blog here.

An excellent report by our then interim financial manager Paul Rankin revealed just how out of line Albany’s council benefits were with respect to a comparison group of nearby cities of similar size.

Of the 26 cities, 20 (77%) include provisions for city council members to receive health benefits. Of the 20 cities offering health, five (25%) cover all costs, fourteen (70%) covered a portion, and one (5%) provided zero dollars. Of the 20 cities that offered health benefits, only the City of Albany offered higher medical benefits to council members than to other employees.

Ten cities that provided health insurance to council members offered an in lieu benefit upon proof of coverage. The average in lieu benefit payment was $500 for the agencies that offered one. Albany was the only city that offered an in lieu benefit of more than $700.

Based on that report, in February 2014 the previous council decided to eliminate the in lieu benefit, a change that I advocated for and voted in favor of. For our Sept. 8 meeting less than a month ago, the city attorney provided a report that showed that the Albany City Council was on questionable legal ground by having a benefit level above that of its employees, and faced a risk of litigation.

Based on the city attorney’s opinion, the council voted to eliminate its overly generous benefits and to align its benefits to those of the city employees. This was a long-awaited victory, and I was glad it was finally over.

But during the process, council member Nick Pilch seemed to have his doubts, and was the only council member to vote against reducing the level of benefits. The discussion that night was videotaped. The item is introduced at 1:14:40, and councilmember Pilch’s comments begin at 1:23:20.

Pilch indicated that if the council doesn’t get medical benefits higher than those of the staff, he wanted to revisit the in lieu benefits issue, which was a legal (although in my opinion, underhanded) way of having the council pay itself more money.

To use an old-fashioned word, I was flabbergasted. I was disappointed again when Mayor Peter Maass stated that he felt not enough people were interested in running for the council and that perhaps council members should get paid more.

I found this logic a little strange, since when Maass and I ran for council in 2012, there were seven candidates for three open positions. It is true, however, that in 2014, only three people ran for three open seats on the council, and as a cost-savings measure, the council cancelled the election.

Secondly, the Maass/Pilch argument was out of touch with the reality of public service in Albany. I can appreciate why city staff members get in lieu benefits—they work very long hours and are often in attendance at meetings late into the evening. On the other hand, the city council is a part-time job at most. Given the hours we work, I don’t think we deserve in lieu benefits.

Albany school board members get paid only about $200 a month. I’m pretty sure that is what I got when I served on the school board in 2002-06. School board members can participate in the district’s medical plan, but there has never been an attempt by school board members to get either higher benefits than teachers or in lieu benefits.

Our Planning and Zoning Commissioners works as hard as council members, and have done a tremendous job on the city’s new general plan. What do they get for their efforts? Nothing. No cash payments, no medical benefits, nothing.

In my case, as someone who typically works more than 40 hours/wk, the constraint is not money, it’s time. It’s hard to find the time to hold a public office, especially if you still have kids at home (which I no longer do, except after motorcycle accidents). A salary of $300/month ($200 after taxes) doesn’t compensate for the lost time. Increasing council pay wouldn’t change that reality.

My feeling is that if council members deserve more money (and I don’t think they do) then they should find a way to take the issue to the voters, and structure the extra income so that current members of the council are not eligible for the raises.

RETURN TO HOME

An open letter to State Senator Loni Hancock on SB-277

Senator Hancock:

I have been closely following the debate over SB-277, the bill that would remove California’s personal exemption for the requirement to vaccinate children before they can attend school. This bill was sponsored by Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician from Sacramento, and Senator Ben Allen, a former school board president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. (Info available here.)

My interest in public health is longstanding. In the 1980s I worked as an analyst for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. I have been a university science editor and writer for many years. I served on my local school board in Albany, CA, from 2002-06. Currently I am serving on the Albany city council.

During the Senate Education hearing on SB-277, you were quoted in the San Jose Mercury News. I read the quote several times because I couldn’t believe that you would make such a statement. I even wrote to your office to request a confirmation, but I never heard from your staff.

However, I did get confirmation from an article in the Sacramento Bee, which quoted you making the same statement (here). According to the Bee:

Support for the bill from a wide range of educational groups was not enough to break the impasse. While the formidable California Teachers Association is holding off taking a position, other school organizations have lined up behind the premise that children must be able to attend school without fear of disease.

That argument failed to convince a majority of lawmakers on the Education Committee, including Democrats.“I’m looking for the compelling state interest here in doing something as draconian,” said Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, because “as I read this bill, there’s nothing you can do if you choose not to vaccinate your child except personally home-school them.”

Let me be clear: Your statement on SB-277 shows a degree of ignorance and cowardice that I find difficult to comprehend. You caved to the irrational thinking of the anti-vaccers. If you and your senate colleagues continue on this path, the result may be more dead children.

You do not see a “compelling state interest?” Please let me show you a historical example from your own district. The Sunset View cemetery is at the top of Fairmont Street in El Cerrito. There is a section of the cemetery, next to the Viewpoint Garden, devoted to the graves of children. I’ve could have provided many more photos, but below are eight images of “facts on the ground.”

compositeNote that most of these grave markers predate WWII and the widespread use of vaccines. There was a dramatic increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 20th century, but it was due not so much to people living longer, but from fewer people dying young. This dramatic improvement was also not due to doctors and the medical profession, but to public health–especially the triad of better nutrition, sanitation and vaccination. Some good historical footage is available here in this NY Times video.

As for your statement about “draconian” laws: personally, I find the laws of nature draconian. Here is a Mayo Clinic video showing an infant in a hospital intensive-care unit. The child has pertussis, or whooping cough. This disease killed 10 infants in California during the recent pertussis epidemic. The rise in cases is due to both falling vaccination rates at the waning of immunity, which requires a booster shot. The video is 2 minutes 23 seconds long. Please watch the whole thing. Here is another example.

You also made the following statement: “as I read this bill, there’s nothing you can do if you choose not to vaccinate your child except personally home-school them.” It’s not that simple. Let me explain:

All 50 states and Washington, DC, allow for medical exemptions. Only 20 states, including California, allow for personal exemptions. The majority of states, 30, and Washington, DC, do not allow personal exemptions. All states except Mississippi and West Virginia allow religious exemptions. (Source: here)

There are complications. Missouri’s personal exemption only applies to children before kindergarten age. California doesn’t have a well-developed religious exemption because the state’s personal exemption is so broad. However, Senator Pan, SB-277’s co-sponsor, told the L.A. Times in early February that he was willing to consider a religious exemption. Although the problem is often religious in nature, as this example from Texas shows.

What SB-277 strives to do is tighten up California’s lax vaccine exemption rules and make them more consistent with other states. There is nothing draconian about this. Furthermore, the changes brought by SB-277 are completely consistent with settled law. See this thoughtful Supreme Court decision, Prince v. Massachusetts, 1944. Justice Rutledge, writing for the majority, states:

The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.

Full quote is here:

But the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest, as against a claim of religious liberty. (Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145; Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333.) And neither rights of religion nor rights of parenthood are beyond limitation. Acting to guard the general interest in youth’s wellbeing, the state, as parens patriae, may restrict the parent’s control by requiring school attendance, [n9] regulating or prohibiting the child’s labor [n10] and in many other ways. [n11] Its authority is not nullified merely because the parent grounds his claim to control the child’s course of conduct on religion or conscience. Thus, he cannot claim freedom from compulsory vaccination for the child more than for himself on religious grounds. [n12] The right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death. (People v. Pierson, 176 N.Y. 201, 68 N.E. 243. [n13] ) The catalogue need not be lengthened. It is sufficient to show what indeed appellant hardly disputes, that the state has a wide range of power for limiting parental freedom and authority in things affecting the child’s welfare, and that this includes, to some extent, matters of conscience and religious conviction.

The recent measles epidemic in California has been declared over. Fortunately, no children died, unlike the horrific measles epidemic of 1991 in Philadelphia, which killed nine children, six them from fundamentalist churches which did not believe in vaccination.

There was a young doctor who was working in Philadelphia at the time, and never forgot the experience. His name is Richard Pan. He is the co-sponsor of SB-277.

Here are three editorials in favor of SB-277 from the San Jose Mercury News, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Your concerns about SB-277 don’t seem to be consistent with those of your district. By 2017, UC Berkeley, along with the other UC campuses, will require vaccinations for enrollment.

Based on my experience as a school board member, I can assure you that a student’s right to a public education does not trump the rights of other students to be safe. I attended many expulsion hearings when on the school board, mostly to rule on the fate of students who were fighting or bringing knives or other weapons to school.

Communicable diseases can be weapons, too, just like knives. If schools can exclude students carrying knives, they should be able to exclude unvaccinated students carrying potentially deadly diseases.

As the history of contact between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Europe has shown, European diseases were far more deadly than European guns and swords.

One of the most brutal diseases, one that killed millions of indigenous Americans, was smallpox. That disease has been eradicated thanks to vaccines. We are close to eliminating another ancient scourge, polio. But the vaccination campaign is being thwarted in two regions of the world, Northern Nigeria and in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, by the violent Islamic groups Boko Haram and the Taliban. These groups are anti-vaccine and have killed many public health workers, mostly women. I guess the anti-vaccine movement makes for strange bedfellows.

In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, Berkeley put a new twist in its official calendar, according to TIME magazine. Berkeley inaugurated “Indigenous Peoples Day,” to take the place of Columbus Day.

Said the Berkeley mayor at the time, “Columbus Day celebrations have been ‘Eurocentric and ignored the brutal realities of the colonization of indigenous peoples.'” The brutal reality included smallpox and many other diseases that we have either eliminated or controlled with vaccines. The name of Berkeley’s mayor in 1992? Loni Hancock.

Senator Pan’s SB-277 is a good bill. Pan certainly doesn’t deserve the death threats he has been getting. At an ugly, contentious education committee meeting, you caved to pressure from the anti-vaccers and attempted to throw him under the bus. To his credit, Pan picked himself up, dusted himself off, and asked to work with you to perfect the bill. I hope you accept his offer.

You would do well to follow the example of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who, with decency and common sense, told the Sacramento Bee that parents who are unwilling to vaccinate their kids should be prepared to forfeit public school and home-school their children.

“Quite frankly, if you want to live … as a productive member of society, there are obligations and requirements,” Gonzalez said. “I am comfortable with the home-school option.”

 

Michael Barnes
Albany City Council
Former member, Albany school board

RETURN TO HOME

Crude oil and coal by rail through Albany?

At the March 2 meeting, The council voted on Resolution no. 2015-10. I was the only council member to vote against. The resolution was a long and rambling list of concerns about rail transport of coal and crude oil. As a young man, I spent two summers working on the Alaska Railroad. It was obvious to me that the local environmental groups who wrote the resolution didn’t really understand much about railroads. I’m no expert, either, but at least I’m aware of that.

Just to establish my street cred, or maybe my rail cred, here are a few photos of my workplace and colleagues just inside the southern boundary of Denali Park in the summer of 1976.

IMG_4812

IMG_4814What I found bothersome about the vote was that there was no effort on the part of the council to verify the statements in the resolution. Just because you stick a “whereas” in front of a statement and vote yes, it doesn’t make the statement true. The council had some obligation to verify the truthfulness and reasonableness of statements that it approved. Yet it failed to do that.

All of this reminded me far too much of the old Berkeley city council that was justifiably ridiculed for having its own foreign policy, and for voting on national and international issues for which it had no jurisdiction and no expertise. Likewise, Albany neither has any jurisdiction over railroads, nor does the city have any expertise, and the resolution was not accompanied by any staff report.

This sort of sloppy activism has no place in a city council meeting. It reminded me of lunacy and years of delay in getting cell phone service in our town. (Note: There is a silver lining to this story. City staff did find an authoritative source of information on the issue of oil shipments and rail safety, but you’ll have to wait until the end of this post to find out what it is).

Here is the resolution:

RESOLUTION NO. 2015-10 A RESOLUTION OF THE ALBANY CITY COUNCIL OPPOSING TRANSPORTATION OF FOSSIL FUEL MATERIALS, INCLUDING CRUDE OIL, COAL, AND PETROLEUM COKE, ALONG CALIFORNIA WATERWAYS, THROUGH DENSELY POPULATED AREAS, THROUGH THE EAST BAY, AND THROUGH THE CITY OF ALBANY

I disagree with this resolution. It’s too vague and overreaching. If we want to put “fossil fuel materials” like gasoline in our cars, they’ve got to get to our local gas stations somehow. As a general rule, I’d rather see fossil fuel materials transported by rail than by road. The safety record for Bay Area railroads is quite good. Our road safety record–not so good.

A few of the statements in the resolution refer to the shipment of coal. I think coal is irrelevant, since it is unlikely that we will see large shipments of coal coming to the Port of Oakland, which is busy, land-constrained and designed for containerized cargo. Here are three statements in from the resolution and my thoughts about them:

WHEREAS, a Federal Surface Transportation Board proceeding regarding the Transportation of coal by rail found that coal dust can destabilize rail tracks and can contribute to train derailments

 WHEREAS, coal and petcoke are commonly transported via open-top rail cars and a large volume of those materials escape during transit, contaminating urban areas, farmland, and waterways across California with coal dust, petcoke and chunks of coal;

 WHEREAS, coal and petroleum coke contain toxic heavy metals – including mercury, arsenic, and lead – and exposure to these toxic heavy metals in high concentrations is linked to cancer and birth defects in humans and can be harmful to fish and wildlife

Coal is a very dirty source of energy, and produces about double the amount of carbon dioxide per unit of energy than natural gas. However, the problem with coal is burning it, not shipping it. Toxic metals can be injected into the atmosphere in particulate form, where they settle onto the ocean surface and are concentrated in the ocean food chain, contaminating top predators like tuna with high levels of mercury.

Concerns about coal transport are driven by shipments from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to China. China has coal reserves of its own, but it is currently cheaper to ship coal from ports on the western edge of North America than it is to develop coal mining and rail infrastructure to ship it from western China to industrial areas much further east. China also buys large quantities of coal from Australia.

Coal dust can be a problem, but the destabilization of the roadbed ballast occurs in loading at mines and unloading at ports, where coal dust is heaviest. Coal dust destabilization on open rail is much less of a concern, especially when coal shipments have been properly treated.

There are ways to mitigate coal dust in transport. The railroad companies don’t like coal dust any more than anyone else, since much of it falls on their tracks and other property. Burlington Northern Santa Fe has been working with the federal regulatory agencies to reduce coal dust. New regulations require shippers to mitigate dust by 85 percent.

Here is a law review article that, unlike the city council’s resolution, is well-referenced.

The reality is that plans do not call for major coal shipments to California ports, but to ports in the Pacific Northwest. Some information is here from an anti-coal shipping advocacy organization in Pacific Northwest.

The Port of Oakland, a major container port, seems uninterested in coal.

The link here is from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad which discusses the problems with coal dust and their efforts to mitigate it.

In summary, I think fears of long coals trains rolling through Albany, spewing coal dust, are unfounded.

CRUDE OIL AND ETHANOL

Now, as for the statements in the resolution about crude oil shipments, let’s get some facts in play:

One barrel of oil contains 42 gallons.

A typical fully loaded tanker car contains 700 barrels, but estimates vary between 600 and 800 barrels depending on the type of tanker.

A typical tanker car is a little more than 50 feet long.

A 100-car train is about one mile long.

A train consisting of cars of only one type is called a unit train. A train with mixed cars and mixed cargo is called a manifest train.

A one-mile train traveling at 15 mph requires 4 minutes to pass a given point, and one traveling at 20 mph requires three minutes, although automatic crossing gates can add a few minutes to these times.

Now back to the statements in the resolution. Here’s a good place to start:

WHEREAS, new technologies have resulted in the development of unprecedented amounts of both domestic and foreign oil, natural gas, and other petroleum products and derivatives, which will significantly increase the volume of petroleum products moving by rail

The price of crude has fallen from around $100/barrel to less than $50/barrel during the last several months. This mostly due to geopolitics and economics, see this and this.

Some of the oil coming in by rail to California is from the Bakken shale of North Dakota. At these prices, it is not clear how much of oil production from Bakken will continue to be profitable.

It’s unlikely we’ll continue to see skyrocketing levels of output, a least until prices begin to rise. Saudi Arabia can profitably pump oil at prices below $10/barrel, and the Saudis seem to be testing just how low prices have to fall before U.S. producers are shut out.

CHALLENGING MOUNTAIN PASSES

WHEREAS, hauling crude oil, coal and petcoke into California involves traversing some of the most challenging mountain passes in the nation, greatly increasing the probability of serious accidents.

Well, not in California anyway. For rail, there is only one “challenging mountain pass” in California, at Donner Summit alongside Highway 80 near Truckee. Most California railways run north/south, and crude oil shipments do not have to pass over Donner Summit.

As for the serious accidents reported in Canada and the U.S., none of them have occurred in “challenging mountain passes.”

JUST HOW MUCH CRUDE?

WHEREAS, the last few years have seen a dramatic rise in transport of crude by rail nationwide – the volume of crude by rail shipments in Northern California increased by 50 percent in 2013 alone – accompanied by a similar rise in accidents, nearly 100 in 2013

Good information on transportation of crude oil and ethanol is available from the state of California:

http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/petroleum/statistics/2014_crude_by_rail.html

http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/petroleum/statistics/2014_foreign_crude_sources.html

http://energyalmanac.ca.gov/transportation/ethanol.html

In 2014, six million barrels of crude oil flowed into California by rail. That an impressive number, but if you calculate it in terms of tanker cars per week (divide by 700 barrels per car and then by 52 weeks per year), the result is 165 tanker cars per week. Think of that as two 83-car trains per week, for the whole state of California.

This traffic is dwarfed by the amount of ethanol shipped to California by rail. The latest figures are for 2010, when the economy was in recession. Shipments of ethanol have very likely grown significantly since then. In 2010, California refineries used 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol, 88 percent of it shipped by rail. By volume, that is more than five times the amount of crude shipped by rail in 2014. Ethanol is used to replace MTBE, a fuel additive that was banned. Ethanol is now blended at about ten percent by volume into California gasoline, to help meet the federal renewable fuel standards (RFS).

Shipments of crude oil to California are refined into specially formulated, clean-burning gasoline to meet our state’s stringent air quality standards. Other heavier products are made as well (diesel, lubes, etc). The crude oil coming into the state is either shipped directly to refineries, or in shipped to depots where it is transferred to pipelines.

While there are refineries to the north of Albany in Richmond, Benicia and other points north and east, unit trains consisting only of up to 100 tanker cars do not need to travel through Albany to reach refineries. Trains do travel through Contra Costa County and through the Sacramento area. See this and this.

In short, rail shipments of crude oil into California are not overwhelming, typically do not pass through Albany, and they are dwarfed by rail shipments of ethanol. In addition, rail shipments are not likely to continue to rise significantly, as oil prices have fallen to below $50/barrel, and U.S. producers have higher production costs than Saudi Arabia.

MAINTAINING TRACK SAFETY

Regardless of what freight is being shipped along U.S. railways, maintaining track safety and avoiding derailments is absolutely critical. As a rule, American transportation infrastructure is in a dismal statement state of repair, due mostly to the irresponsibility of our federal government and its failure to allocate enough resources to maintain public roads and bridges. For a good introduction to the topic, this report by Comedy Central’s John Oliver is simultaneously frightening and humorous. (Correction, April 15, 2015: John Oliver’s new show is on HBO.)

Here are two recent Op-Ed pieces in the New York Times that speak to the same issue (here and here).

Here is a link to a website devoted to the notorious DOT-111 tankers cars that are prone to rupturing in accidents.

On this website, at a link entitled “Staggering Increase in Oil Spills via Rail,” there is a useful interactive map of rail spills. California seems to be remarkably safe. The worse spill in our state in recent history, according to this website, was 20 gallons.

Nationally, railroads have spent $5 billion in recent years upgrading the rail system. In Alameda County, the railroad safety record is very good. Here is an informal summary, and here is a detailed searchable federal database.

I encourage readers to search the online database themselves. I think the conclusion is obvious that in Alameda County, the leading cause of railroad deaths is trains hitting people who are trespassing on railroad property.

Several derailments of ethanol trains have occurred, causing at least one explosion and a death. The infamous Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec was caused by runaway train carrying Bakken crude, which in turn was caused by a combination of poor engine maintenance and human error.

OTHER ACCIDENTS

I do have some sympathy for the sentiments expressed below:

WHEREAS, trains delivering crude oil, coal and petcoke traveling through the Bay Area will follow routes adjacent to the San Francisco Bay Estuary and local creeks, and routes adjacent to the Sacramento River and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, posing a serious threat to these ecosystems, and to California’s agricultural irrigation and drinking water supplies

As I mentioned in the March 2 city council meeting, the most environmentally damaging rail accident in California history occurred in 1991, when a railroad tanker car carrying a potent agricultural fumigant derailed and spilled its contents into the Sacramento River, decimating aquatic life in the river for years. Since then the river has fully recovered.

The fundamental issue is rail safety, and not rail shipments of petroleum products. There are many sorts of chemicals and commodities shipped by rail, derailments are always dangerous, and all rail shipments should be safe.

Here’s a statement in the resolution that I find problematic:

 WHEREAS, the City of Albany is deeply concerned about the threat to life, safety and the environment of potential spills and fires from the transport of petroleum by rail  

Think about this way: Crude oil is shipped by rail to California refineries, where it is refined into highly flammable and explosive gasoline. This highly flammable and explosive material is loaded onto tanker trucks and shipped by freeways and other roads, some of them in our neighborhoods, to small repositories called gas stations where this flammable petroleum material is stored in large underground tanks. There has been at least one local terrible freeway accident involving a gasoline tanker truck.

Personal transportation vehicles are driven to these gas stations and this extremely flammable and explosive liquid is pumped into small tanks very near the passenger compartments that often hold children. These vehicles are driven in dangerous conditions on road and freeways, resulting in collisions and other accidents.

The resulting death toll is tremendous—more than 30,000 deaths annually in the U.S. alone, even after dramatic improvements in automobile safety equipment, including safety belts and air bags.

By comparison to these transportation risks, the risks from railway accidents are relatively low.

SILVER LINING

As I mentioned at the start of this note, there is a silver lining. By the time of the March 16 meeting, the staff had identified a reputable source of information, The League of California Cities. The league has thoughtfully researched this issue, and has published an article in their Western Cities magazine.

The league had also created a model letter to be submitted by California cities to federal agencies and legislators. The city staff did create a letter based on the league model, and the letter was included on the consent calendar of the March 16 meeting. It will be sent to our federal legislators and federal transportation officials.

I do have a few concerns about the letter and the magazine article. Both fail to take into account the recent drop in oil prices, and how they might affect rail shipments of crude into California. Cheaper middle-eastern oil typically enters our state on ships, not by rail. And the otherwise excellent article in the League’s Western Cities magazine fails to mention ethanol shipments at all.

For more on shipping flammable liquids, another reputable source of information is Chemical & Engineering News, published by the American Chemical Society. Two recent articles discuss rail shipments of both crude oil and ethanol, both are worth reading (here and here).

The League of California Cities article quotes uncritically a statement from the California Energy Commission:

“Oil imports to California by rail shot up 506 percent to 6.3 million barrels in 2013 (one barrel equals 42 gallons). That number will climb to 150 million barrels by 2016, according to the California Energy Commission.”

506 percent over in what time period? One year? Five years? (Since I was one year old, my age has risen by almost 6,000 percent. Shocking!) The article fails to note that in 2014, the amount of crude by rail actually declined slightly. And the article also fails to point out that “150 million barrels by 2016” would be an increase by a factor of 25 in just a year or two. Statements like that should be taken with a degree of skepticism. It’s difficult to image the necessary infrastructure being built out and made operational that quickly.

FINALLY, THE SUMMARY

To summarize, I dislike the type of shoddy, fear-mongering analysis that was put forward by local environmental groups that formed the basis of the council’s resolution on March 2. The danger is that this sort of “crying wolf” will lower the credibility of more thoughtful environmental advocates, especially those fighting climate change.

I think if we want to put gasoline in our cars, I’d rather see the crude oil come from domestic sources, since it creates jobs in the Unites States and reduces the amount of our dollars that the Saudis funnel to madrasas in the Middle East, where our dollars are used to teach radical fundamentalist ideas. That has been expensive for us, in terms of dollars and lost lives.

I’d rather see natural gas burned for energy than coal, even if the natural gas is the result of fracking. If the Bakken shale proves to be an economically viable source of crude and natural gas, I’d rather see those energy sources carried by pipelines rather than by rail. Pipelines are typically even safer and more energy-efficient than railroads.

In North Dakota, the Bakken shale was developed so quickly that there was no infrastructure put in place to capture natural gas, which instead was flared. This is an inexcusable waste, and the drop in oil prices may create an opportunity to build out badly needed natural gas infrastructure.

I urge Albany residents to keep your eyes open and observe our local freight trains. They are hard to hide, since the tracks run parallel to the freeway. How fast are the freight trains moving? Are they moving as fast as the cars on the freeway? You could have someone in your automobile count the number of railroad cars. Are all the cars of the same type (a unit train), or is the freight train made up of many different types of cars (a manifest train)?  I seriously doubt we’ll ever see a 100-car unit train hauling crude or ethanol through Albany, but it never hurts to stay vigilant.

RETURN TO HOME

Reviewing my first two years on the council

The city has been undergoing a strategic planning process over the past few months. More information is available here. However, instead of discussing where we are going, I’d like to review my first two years on the council. Let’s take a look the goals in my campaign literature to see how far we’ve come.

You can view a copy of my election flyer here.

Here is the list of my campaign goals, rearranged from those most successfully completed, to those that still need the most work:

Reestablishing a mutually productive and effective relationship between the city staff and the city council.

The new council has made good progress in this regard. We have an excellent city staff, better than we have a right to expect in such a small city, and I think council members are aware of how fortunate we are.

The most contentious issue has been the overly generous health care benefits that the previous council voted for itself, benefits that included in lieu payments (council members could be paid cash for not taking city-offered medical benefits) and benefits that were more generous than those given to city employees. See my earlier blog post on this here for more details.

The current council did get rid of in lieu payments, but we still need to tackle issue of excessively high medical benefits for council members. I’ve recommended that this item be placed on a council agenda soon.

 Filling the vacant police dispatcher position in the Albany police department.

 Done. In addition, with our recent successfully completed contract negotiations, Albany police officers now have salaries and benefits that are on par with other local police departments. Our police force lagged behind during the economically difficult years after the 2008 economic collapse.

 Updating emergency preparedness for climate change-related storms and flooding in addition to earthquakes and other disasters.

Ray Chan, our public works manager, along with his staff, has done a good job preparing the city for the recent intense rain storms my making sure storm drains were cleared. Climate change is bringing more intense storms (when they happen), so getting prepared for flooding will be a continuing problem.

Fire chief Lance Calkins is updating the city’s emergency preparedness plans. The invention and use of smoke alarms has reduced fire risks, so this allows for the fire department to spend more time planning on how to minimize risks, instead of responding after the fact.

Finally, we continuously train more citizens to be part of our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). Please check out how to get involved with CERT. For information, see this.

 Improving cell phone coverage by revising Albany’s out-of-date cell tower ordinance.

We now have two new AT&T cell sites operating, so coverage for AT&T customers is much improved. Revisions to the city’s out-of-date cell ordinance are making their way through the Planning and Zoning Commission, and new federal rules will make it easier to install cell sites and improve coverage and capacity in the future.

Providing resources to help resolve the problem of homelessness on the Albany Bulb and elsewhere in the city.

Where to start? The homeless encampment has been removed from the blub. About half of the former residents have been placed in housing through our contract with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP). There were several drug arrests during the process, and a frivolous but expensive lawsuit by self-important Berkeley “activists” that cost money that could have been better spent on more services for the homeless.

The total cost of fixing this problem again (we cleaned up the bulb in 1999, but allowed it to be repopulated) was over $1 million. BFHP is using a housing first model, more about that model here.

Completing the mixed-use (formerly Whole Foods) project, the Solano Safeway upgrade and the Pierce St. Park.

Phase one of Pierce St. Park is underway, and the ribbon cutting should happen early this fall. There has been some progress lately on the mixed-use project at University Village. See this and this (the comments are amusing).

We are awaiting the appeal of the trivial but time-consuming CEQA lawsuit filed by local attorney Dan Siegal, best known recently for his (very) failed bid to become Oakland’s mayor.

Several Safeway stores were remodeled in the last few years in Berkeley and other nearby towns, but here in Albany we missed the boat, and are stuck with the same store we’ve had for decades. This is a case where NIMBYism let the perfect become the enemy of the good, and Albany ended up with nothing.

I’m sure Safeway shares some of the blame, but the real problem is how a small group of Albany citizens can hijack a process that could have led to a new store, a store that would have benefited the majority of Albany residents. Safeway management occasionally mentions plans for remodeling the interior of the old store, but no firm plans have materialized yet.

Implementing the city’s climate action plan in a manner that is consistent with broader regional planning (see onebayarea.org).

Several pending items are relevant to reducing Albany’s carbon footprint. We are trying to implement our Complete Streets process as we get grant funding. However, I can’t really take credit for that, since the process began before I was elected.

If we want to create more walkable neighborhoods (and less driving), we need more density, and that means reforming Measure D, which was a earlier anti-growth measure disguised as a parking measure. We have been working on these reforms, and we should be ready to put them on the ballot in 2016. More realistic parking rules will make it easier to create more secondary “in-law” units, as we have envisioned during the general plan process.

What still needs work? We need to make changes to raise height limits along our San Pablo and Solano commercial corridors to make three-story buildings more feasible, and we need to fix Albany’s unsafe sidewalks. One idea I remain opposed to is Albany joining any of the proposed community choice aggregation plans, which make no sense to me, as I discussed here.

Working with the Albany school district to make sure our youth and sports programs are coordinated and as fully funded as possible.

Now that I am the vice mayor, I attend the joint UC/AUSD/City of Albany 2x2x2 meetings. My first meeting will be March 9, and my suggested agenda items are: School crowding and how that will affect housing development plans, updating vaccination information for our schools and learning more about the scheduling of Cougar Field in the evenings.

Incorporating the latest sea-level rise and flooding predictions into waterfront planning.

I’ll have much more to say on the waterfront in coming months. It’s too big an issue to cover right now.

RETURN TO HOME

Traffic calming south of El Cerrito Plaza

First of all, my apologies for taking so long to write. It been a very busy few months, compounded by a bike crash and a bad case of road rash, oral surgery and a few nasty viruses that have kept me busy or almost totally brain dead in the evenings.

I said months ago I’d mention something about water use, but since it’s technical I’ll save it for the end for those of you who still have the energy to keep reading by then.

CLOSING STREETS VS. TRAFFIC CALMING NEAR THE PLAZA

On the night of Tuesday Jan 20, the council took up what has been a controversial issue for years — closing off the streets between El Cerrito plaza and Albany to the south. I had watched, via KALB, the two Traffic and Safety Commission meetings in 2014 about the issue, which occurred on July 24 and October 23.

T&S did recommend closing the streets, a decision I found hard to follow at the time, and one that I came to disagree with as I studied the staff report for our Jan. 20 meeting. But before I get into the nitty gritty of the decision making, here is some background:

El Cerrito Plaza was constructed in 1958 (it has its own Wikipedia site). The streets south of the plaza in Albany (Kains, Cornell, Talbot, and Evelyn) have provided access to the plaza since its opening. Stannage St. does not go through. The border between the two cities runs east and west along Cerrito Creek at the southern edge of the plaza parking lot. This is where the streets could be closed, with barriers that would still allow emergency vehicles through.

Although some suburban style shopping malls began to be built soon after WWII, 1958 was still early for emerging suburban world of freeways and shopping malls. At El Cerrito Plaza, traffic planners allowed street access in a way that would not be done today. Similar examples are the on- and off-ramps to Treasure Island on the Bay Bridge, which was built in the 1930s. Freeways today would never be built with such short ramps.

In addition to the plaza access, there are two other important factors. First, the neighborhood just south of the plaza is zoned R3, the most dense zoning classification in Albany, and dense neighborhoods tend to have more traffic than less dense neighborhoods. Finally, Albany Middle School on Brighton is also just one long block south of the plaza (and a little east), and changes in traffic patterns could affect the safety of students walking to school.

At the meeting, I mentioned two points that were important to me. Various versions of projects on the plaza property have come and gone over the years. Back when I was on the school board, in about 2003, there was the idea of building a big parking garage, then later, various versions of condo complexes.

My first concern is that the City of Albany has been too passive and reactive — during the last 12 years we have based our decisions on what we think will happen on the plaza, and when those plans didn’t pan out, we dropped our plans too. The city needs to be more proactive, and the residents of the neighborhood deserve more consistency than they have gotten in the past from the council.

My second concern is that closing streets is far more legally difficult than many people realize. Closing streets is a process governed by state laws. Any effort to close these streets will have to survive an expensive and lengthy CEQA review. Toss in a lawsuit from either El Cerrito, the plaza management or one of the big retailers there (almost a certainty) and we are talking years before these streets can be closed. Given that San Pablo Ave. is a state highway, and that a street closure would affect traffic patterns there, Caltrans would also have something to say about our plans.

I am not suggesting we rule out closing these streets, but I am suggesting we go into that process with our eyes wide open and with a strong legal case. We are not there yet. In fact, given that our staff and professional consultants both have recommended traffic calming measures, we are in a pretty weak legal position. Even if we do decide to close the streets, we need to try traffic calming first so that we can argue to a judge that closing the streets is our only option and that we have exhausted all other remedies.

However, I am not yet persuaded that closing the streets is a good idea. For many Albany residents, access to the plaza is much more convenient via the streets in question than by driving around either to the San Pablo or Fairmont entrances. Traffic studies show that the traffic on these streets is comparable to the traffic on the 900 blocks of Curtis and Cerrito streets in Albany, two North/South streets between Marin and Solano avenues. However, smaller two-axle bakery and soda delivery trucks use the streets south of the plaza, and the council would like to see this stopped.

And as much as I favor walking and bicycling, a car is necessary if you are buying six bags of groceries, any many seniors are not able to carry heavy package long distances. For Albany seniors (and there will be lots more of us in coming years), easy access to the plaza in an automobile is important. Finally, closing these streets won’t make traffic go away — it will just divert it elsewhere.

As I said at the meeting, I am not persuaded (yet) that closing these streets is in the interest of Albany as a whole. The expenses for mitigating the changing traffic patterns, which could include new stop lights and widening parts of San Pablo, could run over a million dollars easily. Besides, there are very few cul de sacs in Albany. The vast majority of us live on streets with through traffic.

Fortunately, regardless of whether a plaza condo project is build or not, and regardless of whether we eventually move to close the streets, the solution is the same — implementing traffic calming measures now, possibly including speed humps, traffic circles, signage and striping. As the suggestion of P&Z chair Doug Donaldson, who spoke at the meeting, more than one council member was also in favor of planting trees, which have a traffic calming effect.

We don’t have to wait for a condo project to be built. Even if I knew no project would ever be built, I’m in favor of traffic calming. And if the project does get built, and if traffic gets out of control, then we are on more solid legal ground moving forward with street closure if we do traffic calming first.

But let’s be clear and not over-promise: Traffic calming will slow traffic, but it not expected to reduce volume very much. But from a safety perspective, it is slowing traffic that is imperative. Many of my safety concerns for AMS students can be addressed with traffic calming.

The five council members had nuanced positions, but they all supported unanimously the following three motions:

1. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to suggest language for the General Plan to allow street closures as appropriate;

2. Directed the Traffic & Safety Commission to quickly and aggressively pursue traffic calming in the area south of EC Plaza;

3. Directed staff to develop draft ordinances to address truck traffic and review with the Traffic & Safety Commission for recommendations to the City Council.

This is a good start, but I expect the citizens to hold us to our word. Needless to say, all council members have an incentive to get street calming done before the next election.

MORE ON WATER USAGE

The average U.S. household uses almost 100 gallons per day per person. There are about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot, so the average person uses about 100 cubic feet per week, or about 5000 cubic feet per year.

Assuming that you live in a house in Albany with a fairly standard 50×100 foot lot (5,000 sq. ft.) there is an easy way to visualize how much water one person uses: enough to cover your 50×100 lot with one foot of water. If there are four people in your household, than the amount of water you use in one year will cover your lot in four feet of water.

Let’s make a few comparisons just to put this in perspective. Olives are one of the most water-efficient crops in California. A typical olive orchard uses enough water to cover it one foot deep over the course of a year. So if you planted your whole 50×100 foot lot in olives, you would need about as much water every year and one person in your household. As we’ll see in a bit, some other plants require much more. (In California, agriculture uses about 80 percent of the state’s water).

The average amount of rain that falls in the Bay Area is two feet per year (although not during the recent drought). Think about that — if you could capture all the rain that falls on your 50×100 foot lot, that’s enough to meet the needs of two household members. Of course, it’s not that easy, but it gives you an idea of how much potential there is to use recycled rainwater, if only for watering plants.

Finally, a typical lawn needs about four feet of water in a year, about four times as much as olives. In an average Bay Area year about half the water comes from rain, but the other half must come from watering. My little patch of lawn and plants is about 20×25 feet, or 500 square feet. Putting two feet of water per year on my lawn would require 1,000 cubic feet of water, or about 20 percent of the water used by one person. Scaling up, a 50×50 foot lawn uses about as much water as one person. That’s quite a big lawn my Albany standards. Do we need to get rid of lawns in Albany? Not a bad idea, but at least we could start by making them smaller.

And it’s pretty easy to show that if my old sprinkler system puts out 10 gallons/min and must supply 1,000 cubic feet (7,500) gallons during the dry half of the year (call it 25 weeks), than my system needs to pump out 300 gallons per week during the dry season, and that requires running the system 30 minutes each week.

Because lawns require (and transpire) so much water, along with trees, they help keep your house cool through shade plus evaporative cooling. But the era of lawns is probably coming to an end for California as water supplies dry up. Part of the problem is known as the “Triple-R,” the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure that keeps reforming off the coast of California and diverting storms north (more here). The Triple-R is likely due to climate change, says this Stanford study.

For me, nature is providing a solution. The Bermuda grass from a neighbor’s lawn has taken over mine. Like it or not, it is a very hardy and drought-tolerant plant. Lack of watering won’t kill my Bermuda grass, because NOTHING kills Bermuda grass.

 

The anatomy of a bad decision-making process: The emperor’s new birds.

CITY COUNCIL ELECTION CANCELLED

A brief note: On Thursday, Aug. 21, the council held a special meeting to appoint three new members to the city council. They are Rochelle Nason, Peggy McQuaid, and Nick Pilch. Details here in Damin Esper’s first Albany Journal article on the topic.

This is what my former school-board colleague David Ferrell called an “Albanian election,” when the number of candidates is equal to the number of open seats. In this situation, there isn’t much point in holding an election, which would have cost about $20K.

A week after the first article, a second article by Esper appeared in the Albany Journal. In the article, Esper quoted the concerns expressed by the local Green Party. I find the position of the Green Party curious. All the Greens had to do to solve their concern is run a candidate in the election. But I guess complaining about lack of democracy is easier than doing the hard work of running a campaign.

I’d like to think that things are better over on the school district side, but the reality is that if only one candidate dropped out of that race, we’d have an Albanian election there, too.

As a council member, I find this discouraging. Given the mess at the federal and state level, local governments are taking on more and more responsibility to find creative solutions to their citizens’ problems. Although I think Jerry Brown deserves credit for his leadership as California’s governor, local governments are still working hard to take up the slack. I just wish we could get people to pay attention.

But there is possibly a silver lining. Since all three candidates made it on the city council without having to spend a dime for campaign activities, there are no campaign funders who will be owed favors. In a few years, all the candidates will have to run again based on their records and what they have accomplished for the citizens of Albany, and not based on what they have done for the usual special interest groups that fund campaigns.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW BIRDS

In my last post, now several weeks ago, I discussed the back-side issues of a proposed digital billboard facing the freeway in Albany. In this post I will discuss the front-side issues of billboard, the issues the city faces in regards to the people, birds, and animals that could see the front side of the billboard.

The digital billboard debate brings up many issues. I think it is important to discuss them because they reveal much about what we will be dealing with as we begin to turn the Albany Bulb over the park district. I wish I could say that I am optimistic, but I think recent events have shown that the bulb transition is likely to be very problematic.

As for the billboards, how people outside of Albany view billboards is an issue of low concern for me. Albany’s digital billboard policy was thoughtfully formulated, and respected the longstanding federal and state rules that the city must follow about the placement of freeway billboards.

The light from billboards also shines on wildlife, as do the lights from many other sources. This issue has been taken up by the various local environmental groups like Citizens for Eastshore State Parks (CESP), the local Sierra Club (SC) chapters, the Audubon Society, a spinoff organization known as SPRAWLDEF, and Citizens for Albany Shoreline. These groups are not really distinct entities, and members and leaders are shared between them in ways that are opaque to outsiders. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to them collectively as CESP/SC.

The billboard issue is the latest chapter in the long-running saga of Albany’s waterfront mismanagement. The Voices to Vision process cost the city about $650K, and was almost a complete waste of money. During that era the CESP/SC-dominated city council ignored the problem of the Albany Bulb, and allowed it to fester. That problem was not addressed until a new city council was elected almost two years ago that including me, and the new council spent about $500K cleaning up the bulb.

The digital billboard proposal has been the latest victim of Albany’s messy waterfront politics. The price tag this time, in terms of lost staff time and consultant fees, and the costs of redesigning the public works center, I estimate at $50K to $100K, plus the on-going loss of the revenue from the digital billboard. What ultimately made the city change course was the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from CESP/SC, a threat that blindsided the city. Let me explain.

During the bulb cleanup, the city reached out to CESP/SC, meet with them often and made sure that they were informed of the city’s plans and progress. In return, CESP/SC heaped praise on the city for cleaning up the bulb (you may have to scroll down). The city made a big effort to develop a mutually respectful relationship base on good will and common goals, and the city thought it had built such a relationship.

In retrospect, this was a big mistake (or perhaps it was a revealing experiment). CESP/SC, I have come to conclude, never did deal with the city in good faith, and the organizations lack the integrity and competence to be reliable partners for the city government or the citizens of Albany.

I will discuss this in the following two sections. First, a brief timeline will feature links to video of city council meetings. Then I will discuss some of the arguments CESP/SC have offered as a basis for a CEQA lawsuit against the city, and I will show that they are weak.

A BRIEF TIMELINE:

The digital billboard was originally proposed during the Fall 2012 campaign by the Sierra Club-endorsed candidate (and now council member) Peter Maass. I thought it was a good idea, so when the plans for a new public works center were being proposed, I discussed this idea with the then city manager, Beth Pollard, and I reminded her of Maass’s idea.

The proposed digital billboard was first discussed at length in the January 22, 2014, Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, now more than seven months ago. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch, an at-large member of the executive committee of the local Sierra Club, made many thoughtful comments in support of the digital billboard. I was impressed with his comments, which you can review at the link below. The discussion of the digital billboard starts at 1:22:20, i.e. one hour and 22 minutes and 20 seconds into the meeting, and Commissioner Pilch’s comments start at 1:31:50. (Sometimes the council videos can be slow to load, please be patient).

There was another reason that I didn’t anticipate any problems—a digital billboard similar to the one we were proposing has existed for years at the corner of Virginia St. and the I-80 frontage road, and CESP/SC had been a party to a “grand bargain” that used money from this billboard to support the new Tom Bates sports facility at the foot of Gilman Street, just south of Golden Gate Fields, on the Berkeley waterfront. In return, the designated use of the Albany Plateau, which was to be playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, was switched to burrowing owl habitat (although no burrowing owls have ever been sighted there.)

Given CESP/SC’s history of acceptance of digital billboards, and the open endorsement of them by Sierra Club-supported members of the Albany city council (Maass) and P&Z Commission (Pilch), and that the city manager was meeting regularly with CESP/SC to discuss the bulb, there was no reason to anticipate any problems.

As it turns out, the Sierra Club was raising the issue of digital billboards further south. In an item dated January 12, 2014, 10 days before the Albany P&Z discussion of our digital billboard proposal, an item appeared in the Yodeler, the publication of the local Sierra Club. The article was about digital billboards proposed for the approach to the Bay Bridge in Oakland. Nowhere were the smaller digital billboards further north mentioned.

By May 19, that had changed. By then the Yodeler was breathlessly reporting that “a plague of giant digital billboards threatens to blight the East Bay.” In this article, the Albany digital billboard was erroneously referred to as “an enormous wall-mounted LED billboard.” Actually, the digital billboard planned for the public works center would have been comprised of two screens mounted in a V pattern, much like the digital billboard near the I-80 freeway at the corner of the access road and Virginia St. in Berkeley.

Oddly enough, the Berkeley digital billboard at Virginia St. isn’t included in the list of East Bay billboard “plagues” cited in the Yodeler article of May 19. Perhaps that’s because the Sierra Club was party to the agreement that used revenue from the billboard for the Berkeley waterfront.

Unless the Serra Club had only heard about the Albany billboard the morning of May 19 and rushed to post this story the same day, the Sierra Club was aware of it before then. This is worth noting because May 19 was also the date of the Albany City Council meeting. At that meeting, Norman La Force of the Sierra Club (West County Costa group leader  and chair of the East Bay Public Lands Committee) and the Vice president of CESP, stated that although he was working on the billboard issue both in Oakland and Richmond, he wasn’t aware of our the Albany billboard until “recently.” By May 19, the public debate had been going on for four months.

It’s useful to watch Mr. La Force’s comments in full during the May 19 city council meeting, which run for about three minutes starting at 2:44:18. Although it is subtle, note the threat of a CEQA lawsuit, a threat Mr. La Force made much more explicit in an email later to the council. Unfortunately, although I thought most of his complaints were groundless (see next section), CEQA lawsuits are often filed not to win, but to cause delays.

In this case, the city needed to move forward with the new public works center because of the expense of the lease on our current center, which we do not own. So the city decided to avoid the delays of a CEQA lawsuit by eliminating the digital billboard, although the result was an inferior public works center, and one that will be more costly to build out in the long run.

The issue here is not the billboard per se, but the four-month delay in CESP/SC speaking out, even though the city had made a strong effort to work with these organizations. After four months the city had committed tens of thousands of dollars to consultants and architects, plans, etc., much of which has gone to waste because the CESP/SC leadership claimed not to be paying attention (a claim which I find hard to believe).

The billboard issue was on the agenda again at the council meeting of June 9. By then, the staff had recommended that the digital billboard proposal be removed from the public works center project after the CESP/SC threat of a CEQA lawsuit. P&Z commissioner Nick Pilch spoke on behalf of the Sierra Club, and it was obvious he had completely reversed his opinion. His comments, which I find embarrassing, can be found at 1:09:49. I think he got it right the first time, but you can’t serve two masters, and Mr. Pilch decided to place the his loyalty to the Sierra Club above his obligations to the City of Albany. I hope now that he is on the city council, Mr. Pilch will instead begin to serve the citizens of Albany.

THE AUDUBON SOCIETY LETTER

As justification for his objection to the digital billboard, CESP president Robert Cheasty gave the city council a copy of the following document written by the Golden Gate Audubon Society.

The document starts with this statement:

“The Golden Gate Audubon Society objects to, and, where appropriate, will oppose electronic billboards, large neon signs, and other unnecessary sources of environmentally damaging light pollution.”

The Audubon Society next states four points, the first being the following:

“Many birds navigate at night by the stars and can be confused by urban lights. Drawn off course by brightly-lit buildings, they may be harmed or killed due to collisions with windows or they may circle buildings and other light sources until exhausted.”

MY COMMENT: Along the Albany waterfront near the foot of Albany Hill, the freeway itself is the biggest source of light pollution. But the second largest source, and perhaps the most damaging due to their height, are the Gateview Towers and other condominium buildings. By comparison to these two sources, the light from a digital billboard would be trivial. (For more on buildings and bird strikes, see this SF Chronicle article, and this Wired article.)

The Audubon letter’s  second point:

“Studies show that light pollution can cause urban birds to initiate their breeding earlier than their counterparts in rural, less-lit areas. ‘Our findings show clearly that light pollution influences the timing of breeding behavior, with unknown consequences for bird populations.’ (Current Biology, 16 September 2010, Volume 20, Issue 19, pages 1735-1739.) Early breeding can result in the birth of young during unfavorable conditions, including inclement weather and inadequate food supplies.”

MY COMMENT: I took the time to look up the Current Biology article mentioned in the Audubon letter (article here, supplemental materials here) It’s an interesting study, but the Audubon letter’s second point mischaracterizes it.

The area of study was a European forest plot, not an urban one, and it compared how birds on the edge of the forest fared depending upon the presence or lack of street lighting at the forest edge. While there was an advance in breeding behavior, it was only of a few days, so it was unlikely to have the negative consequences described in the Audubon comment.

The Audubon letter’s third point:

“The Fatal Light Awareness Program, which researches bird-building collisions, explains some light-related hazards: Many species of birds, especially the small insect-eaters, migrate at night. Night-migrating birds use the age-old and constant patterns of light from the moon, the stars, and from the setting sun as navigational tools to follow their migration routes. Artificial city lights interfere with this instinctive behavior and draw night-migrating birds toward brightly-lit buildings in urban areas. … observations found that once [birds] fly through a lit environment they’ll return to that lit source and then hesitate to leave it . . . The danger of artificial light to migrating birds is intensified on foggy or rainy nights, when the weather further obscures the night sky, or when cloud cover is low and the birds naturally migrate at lower altitudes.” (More info available at: http://www.flap.org/lights.php)

MY COMMENT:  I followed the link to the FLAP website where I found the bird-friendly guidelines published by the city of Toronto (eight meg. pdf available here).

On page 24, you can find descriptions of good and bad lighting practices for advertisements. I’d like to point out that the two billboards at the corner of Solano and San Pablo, which the city planned to remove under the agreement with Clear Channel, are the worst sort of billboards according the the Toronto document, because they are lit from below and project light upwards. Digital billboards do not spill light either up or down, and the off-axis intensity of the light is fairly low. You can check this for yourself by examining the digital billboard at Virginia St. along the frontage road in Berkeley. From a light pollution perspective, digital billboards are better than similarly sized conventionally lit billboards. (For more, see this interesting article on light pollution.)

The Audubon letter’s fourth point:

“Golden Gate Audubon does not believe that electronic billboards comply with applicable laws and ordinances. Oakland’s Outdoor Lighting Standards section 1.1(C)(6) specifically prohibits them. Moreover, electronic billboards violate the spirit of the Highway Beautification Act and are rightly subject to a legal challenge on that basis.”

MY COMMENT:  The Highway Beautification Act took shape in 1965, about the time the Beatles released Help! and Rubber Soul. 1965 was when the first U.S. troops began arriving in Vietnam, and the bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder began. The suburbs were expanding thanks large gas-guzzling automobiles.

The goal of the act was to make driving more enjoyable and scenic. But from the beginning, the act allowed exceptions for local zoning ordinances that covered commercial and industrial areas. The Highway Beautification Act was not meant to apply to areas like Albany’s commercial mixed use zone alongside Interstate 580.

But more importantly, the beautification act is an anachronism, and using it to justify opposition to the Albany’s digital billboard is an act of nostalgia, not of environmental awareness. I don’t think the planet can take much more of this sort of nostalgia.

Personally, I’m all in favor of highway uglification if it gets people off freeways and helps reduce their carbon footprint. Wouldn’t  the resources of CESP/SC be better spent on encouraging the use of public transportation and other alternatives to driving on freeways?

A deeper problem with the Audubon letter is that it refers to locations (European forests, mid-continental cities like Toronto) that don’t have much in common with the California coast or the unique type of birds here. Many types of birds adapt very well to urban environments–seagulls, pigeons, crows and Canadian geese come to mind. But in addition to these, there are several others–raptors in NY City, the parrots of San Francisco, and even barn owls in my Albany neighborhood.

CESP/SC haven’t presented any evidence that the types of birds that inhabit the Albany waterfront are threatened by the degree of urban and freeway light pollution that is typical of this area, or of any major metropolitan area (if they were, they wouldn’t be here). After spending a few hours at the waterfront near the location of the proposed billboard, I’m beginning to wonder if any birds of any sort find the section of the waterfront near the condos appealing.

The problem is not only light from the freeway and condos, it is also freeway noise. Short of tearing down the freeway, or building a huge sound wall which would have environmental issues of its own, I don’t see any solution to the freeway noise and light problem. I’ll discuss this more in the next section.

A VIEW OF THE ALBANY WATERFRONT

Some critics of the digital billboard claimed it would ruin the enjoyment of the Bay Trail. To find out, I rode my bicycle to the spot on the Bay Trail opposite the site of our proposed public works center. I visited this spot twice on my bike, both times in the afternoon, both times carrying a camera and binoculars.

The Bay Trail is a pleasant experience starting from the Tom Bates playing fields at the foot of Gilman Street and riding south toward Emeryville. It is also a pleasant experience riding north from Costco toward Point Richmond. In both cases, the bike path is far removed from the freeway and is quiet and peaceful.

The section of the Bay Trail between Buchanan St. and Costco is another story. It is located on a narrow corridor next to the freeway, where it is very noisy, windy and where the smell of the mud flats is nasty. I’ve taken several photos from the spot opposite the planned public works center below:

trail_IMG_7796

Bay Trail looking north from point opposite the proposed Albany public works center.

While riding or standing, you are right at ear level with the passing vehicles. It is very noisy. In addition, the Bay Area’s strong prevailing winds are out of the WNW, and this spot is unprotected from them.

Note that the public works center will be located just to the right of the Albany Steel building in the image below.

truck_IMG_7788

Bay Trail, looking east to site of proposed Albany public works center.

Just south of the public works center you can see the imposing bulk of the Gateview Towers. At night, the light pollution from the towers is second only to that of the freeway itself.

condos_IMG_7794

Looking southeast to the Gateview Towers, a major source of waterfront light pollution.

The final photo in this sequence shows the view to the south. Note how the freeway is elevated where it passes over Buchanan Street. That spot is considerably less noisy because the noise is projected overhead. In this photo, the prevailing wind, which is usually very strong (less so in early morning and in Autumn), blows from right to left across the photo. This explains why birds tend to shelter in the lee of the bulb, about 1/2 mile south, where there is less freeway noise and more shelter from the wind.

marsh_IMG_7786

Looking south toward Buchanan Street and Golden Gate Fields. Birds tend to shelter there because the elevated freeway is quieter, and the bulb provides shelter from the wind.

At the spot where the above photos were taken, I never saw more than two or three birds. Further south I saw some seagulls. But 1/2 mile south, at the foot of Buchanan Street, I saw many more birds, including two white egrets.

Since my bicycle trips, I have made an effort to drive by this spot perhaps a dozen times in the last several weeks, and I have never seen any birds here, even early on weekend mornings when both the traffic noise and the prevailing winds are light. The major impression is not how full of bird life this spot is, but rather how devoid of bird life it is. I think both the strong winds are the loud freeway noise are the culprits. (Note: on the morning of Sept. 1, I drove by this spot in the early morning, and I did see several birds in the general area, although none near the freeway. Far more birds were located further south in the lee of the bulb and plateau.)

COMPARING BILLBOARDS

The follow three images are Google street view shots from three different locations of the Sierra Club-approved Berkeley digital billboard. It looks large or small, depending upon how close you are. But during the day, as you can see from the images, it is not any brighter than the other freeway signs. The proposed Albany billboard would probably have been smaller, but it is hard to say, since we never got very far along in the discussion before the threat of a CEQA lawsuit from  CESP/SC ended the discussion.

I visited this digital billboard twice at night, and it is considerably less bright than many other freeway signs and the brightly lit commercial area on lower Solano Ave., where the city was attempting two remove two existing conventional billboards.

BB1

BB2BB3The image below is a screen shot from Google Earth of the sites of the two billboards in question. In this photo, east is at the top, and the prevailing winds blow from the bottom of the image to the top, west to east. On the left edge of the photo is the Costco parking lot. In the middle is the Albany bulb, neck and plateau, and the racetrack at Golden Gate Fields. On the right is Caesar Chavez Park.

billboard2

A Google Earth screen shot of the Albany waterfront showing the Albany Bulb, Caesar Chavez Park and the locations of the proposed Albany billboard and the existing Berkeley billboard.

The apex of the two red lines on the left of the image is the location of the proposed Albany billboard. Note how the WNW prevailing winds are not blocked at this location, while further south the bulk of the bulb, neck and plateau block the wind, creating a sheltered area for birds at the foot of Buchanan Street.

Also note that the location of the proposed Albany digital billboard is 880 yards, or 1/2 mile, from this sheltered spot. It is also across a major interstate freeway. These distances are comparable to the existing Berkeley billboard and the east-facing section of the paved path in Caesar Chavez Park, where the average distance to the billboard is about 1,000 yards.

bulb_arrows

View from Albany plateau to Gateview Towers, about 1/2 mile away. Note locations of Albany Steel building and proposed public works center. The proposed digital billboard would have been taller but about the same length as the Albany Steel sign, barely visible in this photo.

The image above was taken from the Albany plateau, facing east to the Gateview Towers. The distance is about 1/2 mile.

Notice the small bush with the two vertical branches on the left in the image above. In the distance, just to the left of the two vertical branches, is the Albany Steel building, with its large rectangular sign on top. Just to the right of the two vertical branches is the gap where the Albany public works center will be built. Even assuming a digital billboard there would be twice the height and the same length as the Albany Steel sign, it is dwarfed by the bulk of the Gateview Towers and other condos.

CONCLUSIONS

The leadership of CESP/SC has presented many less-than-persuasive arguments about how the proposed digital billboard would have harmed birds along the Albany shoreline.The reality is that existing birds along Albany’s shoreline would be just fine with a digital billboard, just as they are with the existing light pollution from the freeway and the condominiums, and just as the birds in Berkeley seem to do fine in the presence of the digital billboard within several hundred yards of the Berkeley waterfront. The extra light from a digital billboard would be unnoticed compared to the existing sources of light pollution.

When a burrowing owl was spotted where the Tom Bates sports fields are now located, an accommodation was agreed upon to address the loss of that hypothetical habitat. Under this agreement, the Albany plateau area, slated to become playing fields under the Eastshore State Park General Plan, instead became a protected, fenced-off area with pre-constructed burrows.

The trouble is that the owls never appeared (the comments following the story are worth viewing). And we know now that breeding pairs of burrowing owls will most likely never appear, since new GPS-based tracking technology has shown that the Bay Area outside the migration area of male burrowing owls. If any owls did appear on the plateau, they would be females. Other environmental organizations in the Bay Area have made note of this.

Now the CESP/SC leadership is proclaiming a hazard to birds from a proposed digital billboard. I think there arguments are unpersuasive (although even terrible arguments are a sufficient basis for a CEQA lawsuit).  Given the level of light pollution along the freeway, including the condominiums at the foot of Albany Hill, the light from Albany’s proposed digital billboard would be trivial. This is easily verified by merely observing the environment as you pass by on the freeway.

The track record of CESP/SC in predicting the benefits to birds of eliminating playing fields and digital billboards is not very strong. This makes me question the competence of these organizations.

But even more important, I question their ethics, and their ability to work with the city in good faith. Let me give you an example from the last few months. Albany’s city manager made a good-faith effort to reach out to CESP/SC. At one meeting, the CESP leadership actually insisted that the CESP members in attendance applaud the city’s work in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb.

Meanwhile, without notifying the city, at least one CESP board member, Brian Parker, begin helping organize opposition to the digital billboard among condo residents. I heard this from more than one acquaintance who lives in the condos.

Of course, if they had such deep concerns about the billboard, the CESP leadership and Mr. Parker in particular could have initiated a friendly discussion with the city about their environmental concerns. But CESP/SC didn’t take this step. The evidence leads me to conclude that CESP/SC deliberately blindsided the city, and were not dealing with the city in good faith. These facts make me question the ethics of CESP/SC.

As we move forward with plans to turn the bulb over to the park district, I think it would be naive to assume that CESP/SC will suddenly become more conscientious and reliable. Instead, I think the City of Albany, and Albany’s citizens, should expect more of the legal threats, blindsiding and half truths from CESP/SC. I wish I could come to some other conclusion, but there is nothing in the events of the last several months that makes me optimistic.

 

 

 

 

The anatomy of a bad decision-making process: Part One

There are many items I could discuss in this blog post, but I will save them for later, since I what to discuss is going to take some time.

I am concerned by the recent decision on the digital billboard by the city council. The process was so messy that the public never got a chance to learn what the issues are. I think that ultimately the council (including me) failed to fulfill its obligation to provide information and have a well-informed discussion about the options. So in the next several paragraphs, I want to have the conversation that I wish was held at the council meeting.

The billboard per se is not a huge issue, although $150K annually sure would be nice. But it is worth exploring because it shows how good local-government decision making can go astray, and I don’t want to see that happen again in Albany. In particular, I am directing this post to residents of the three Pierce St. condos, but I hope other Albany residents find it useful. This issues are nitty-gritty, but hey, that’s what local government is about.

In Part One of this discussion, I will restrict myself to what I call  the backside issues–how the digital billboard might or might not block views, or whether condo dwellers can see any light from the billboard. The backside issues affect Albany, so they are the responsibility of the city council. The frontside issues–how such a billboard might affect freeway drivers or wildlife–I’ll leave for Part Two. Here goes:

The City of Albany needs a new public works center for storing the vehicles, equipment and supplies that the maintenance staff uses for repairing pavement, sewers, trimming vegetation, etc. Office space is necessary, too. Currently the city is leasing a building along Cleveland Ave., but we have outgrown the building and the lease is getting expensive.

The city was able to purchase the site of the old Western Forge and Flange building just a few sites north of our current facility. The new location is 540 Cleveland Ave. The site is between the two freeways at the foot of Albany Hill, in front of the middle condos at 545 Pierce St. (images below). The old building there has been torn down and the lot has been prepared.

To help fund the project, the city planned to install a digital billboard which would bring in $150,000 in rental income annually. In my discussion with the city staff, I was aware there was more than one option being discussed. The options involved removing (or not) the utility poles and wires alongside the freeway, which would allow the billboard to be lower. The digital billboard company, Clear Channel, had agreed to pay all costs for the billboard, but the city would have to absorb the costs of undergrounding the utilities, an amount of roughly $100-200K.

At the city council meeting on May 19 I sat next to Mayor Peggy Thomsen (it was the last time I saw her, although I talked to her on the phone about the billboard several times before she died). I remember seeing the paper version of the agenda including the very ugly option 3 for the digital billboard. I had missed it because I have gone “paperless,” and I am still getting used to the iPad version of the agenda. I hadn’t noticed that particular attachment at the end of a long list of documents because you needed to use a little scroll bar to find it. Yup, I screwed up.  However, you can see it here:

Although that option was ugly, I was more concerned about wasn’t there—the other option that showed what the digital billboard would have looked like if we had undergrounded the utilities behind the new public works center. For some reason drawings of that option were not included. I’d like to think that, had I noticed this omission earlier, I would have asked that the other drawing be included.

At the end of the May 19 meeting, I stated publicly that I really couldn’t get a sense for what that billboard looked like in context of the surrounding space, so I decided to find out. Contrary to what many condo residents may think, I have, along with other council members, spent many hours in the neighborhood of the condos, visiting friends there, visiting the site of Pierce Street Park, driving along the street to think about the best location for the crosswalk, and measuring distances to the three condos in Google Earth. Let me show you what I discovered during my field research.

Image One below is a screen shot I grabbed from Google Maps. Based on the specifications in the billboard drawings linked above, the red area shows the region that would be in the shade of the digital billboard. Note the outline of the condos in in the Google Maps image.

Digital_billboard_cropped

Image One: Shadow of digital billboard. Red indicates region from where face of sign would not be visible.

No one in the middle condos would be able to see the front of the sign. However, residents of the far northern and far southern condos would be able to see the front of the sign from their buildings. This is a show-stopper for me, as it was for Mayor Thomsen when I showed her this image. Some additional screening could have solved this problem, but it doesn’t matter, because there is even a bigger problem.

Please take a long look at Image Two below. I will refer to it several times. This shot was taken from the parking garage in the middle condo complex (545 Pierce St.). The camera is looking west across the vacant lot where Western Forge and Flange used to be. This vacant lot will be the location of the new City of Albany public works center.

Condo_7743_small_cropped

Image Two: View looking west from garage of 545 Pierce St., the middle condo complex.

 In particular note the tree you can see at the far end of the vacant lot, and if you can see them, notice the utility poles on the near side of I-580 that frame the tree. You cannot see the I-80 freeway in this photo because it is blocked by the wall of greenery just behind the row of diagonally parked cars on Pierce St. in the middle of the photo.

 Image Three below is taken at the same location, but from the I-580 freeway. This is a screen shot from a Google Maps street view photo.

Northbound looking east_cropped

Image Three: View from northbound lane of I-580, showing backside of former Western Forge and Flange building, now a vacant lot where City of Albany public works center will be constructed.

 Notice the same tree. The graffiti-covered building in Image Three is no longer there. That’s the backside of the old Western Forge and Flange building that has been torn down to make room for the public works center. Also notice the same utility poles that you can see in Image Two. The option shown in the May 19 city council agenda mounts the digital billboard over the top of the back of the new maintenance center to clear these utility poles. In order to mount the sign lower, behind the new public works building, the utilities would have to be undergrounded.

Now please look again at Image Two. If you look at the height of the utility wires, you can tell that a sign mounted at that height or above would block the view not of the water, but of the landforms in the background–the Albany Bulb and Angel Island. For me, this is another show-stopper. I can’t imagine that any member of the city council would have approved this plan, had we gotten far enough along in the process to see how high the sign would have been. In fact, I doubt if the sign would have survived the design review process in the Planning and Zoning Commission.

 All along, there was was a better option, but one that we never saw–so let’s explore it now. If you return once again to the parking lot view of Image Two above, you can see a large freeway sign in the image. It’s hard to make out if you don’t already know it is there, but Image Four below makes it clear.

Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

Image Four: Albany Steel building. Large sign is about 8 x 54 feet.

On the back of the Albany Steel building just north of the site of the new public works center is a big freeway sign. It is unlit, it is not digital, and by my estimates, it is about 8 feet high and 54 feet wide. By comparison, the length of one panel of the digital billboard is 48 feet, and is probably the standard height of 14 feet. In other words, one panel of the digital billboard would be taller but not as long as the Albany Steel sign. As part of the digital billboard, there would be two panels arranged in a triangle facing the freeway, as in the illustration in the May 19 city council link shows.

If we underground the utilities and put a digital billboard behind the new public works center, how would it affect the views? To see that, please look at Image Five below:

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

Image Five: View from garage with Albany Steel building cloned into public works space.

This is the same photo in Image Two above, but I have cloned in a copy of the Albany Steel building where the public works center will be (the city’s building will be much more attractive).

This is a useful comparison because, based on city records, the height of the Albany Steel sign is 42 feet above grade. The height of the public works center is about 40 feet, and if the utilities are undergrounded, the height of the top of the digital billboard behind the public works center would be three feet above the roof line. In addition, it appears in Google Earth that the elevation of the grade level in the public works lot is about one foot lower than the Albany Steel lot. That means a digital billboard tucked behind the public works center should be at the same height as the cloned building sign in Image Five above.

It is important to keep in mind that the height limit in the CMX (commercial mixed-use) zone is 45 feet. So, for example, if the City of Albany hadn’t bought this property, a private company could have bought it and built a building up to 45 feet above grade level. With undergrounded utilities, a digital billboard would be below the CMX height limit.

I would like to see a better analysis of this option with accurate drawings, but based on what I know now, as a council member, I would be willing to accept a digital billboard if three additional conditions are met: 1) No one living in the condos could see the front side of the billboard, 2) The sign is below the height limit in the CMX zone, and 3) The P&Z design review process has been completed before the proposal reaches the city council. I would be happy to see these conditions added to the digital billboard ordinance–and if they were, I’d vote to keep the ordinance.

The diagram below summarizes the options:

billboardsWhat has been consistently left of out this story is that the digital billboard plan was always intended to be swap. Two conventional billboards would be removed from on top of the Montero’s building at San Pablo and Solano, and two digital billboards would be added facing the freeway in front of the condos.

To make the revenue comparison equal on both sides, replacing the $150K of billboard revenue would require a permanent parcel tax of about $20 annually, according to an estimate from P&Z Commissioner Doug Donaldson at the June 25 P&Z meeting. That’s assuming the voters would go for it. Many might prefer the billboard option.

So here are the two options side-by-side. I think the billboard option is better for Albany, and I think it’s better for the condos, too, since there is a good argument to be made that billboard revenue should stay local. I personally would be overjoyed to see the extra revenue stay in the neighborhood by using it to help build Pierce St. Park. We’ve had trouble finding money during the last several months. You might disagree, but at least now we have more information and can make better comparisons.