Why yes, I am running for re-election

I am running for re-election. Being on the council isn’t exactly fun, but it is important work, and I think I have something to contribute, so here goes:

For my older endorsements and my ballot statement, go here. For background about me, how to donate and get a yard sign, go here. For my latest endorsements, go here.

The League of Women Voter’s website is an amazing resource for general information about the Nov. elections, including information about me and many other candidates. The direct link to me is here, and the main link to the website is here. The league’s candidate forum for both Albany’s city council and school board is here.

Here are my voting recommendations for the city’s six ballot measures:

MEASURE N1 Modifying parking requirements. Vote YES.

MEASURE O1 Sugar-Sweetened Beverage General Tax. Vote NO.

MEASURE P1 Sidewalk Repair Special Parcel Tax. Vote YES.

MEASURE Q1 Various modernizing charter amendments. Vote YES.

MEASURE R1 Dissolve the city’s Civil Service Board. Vote YES

MEASURE S1 Remove term limits for the AUSD School Board. Vote NO.

I explain my objections to Measure S1 in my previous post here. I also am opposed to the soda tax (Measure O1), which I think is not a good fit for Albany. I have written about soda tax previously here. It’s right after the minimum wage and rent control discussion, so you have to scroll down.

The Solano Avenue Association circulated (without endorsing) a pro-soda tax poster (here) that I thought was so filled with errors that I asked, and was allowed to write, a rebuttal (without endorsement) here. I haven’t seen any No on O1 literature, but I’m sure it has its share of errors, too.

Now on the positive side of things, I strongly urge voters to support measures N1 and P1. These are both well-crafted measures designed specifically to deal with problems in Albany.


Measure N1 repeals Albany’s unrealistic parking standards that were put in place way back in 1978 by that year’s Measure D. Measure D was basically a poison-pill strategy that required developers of multi-family housing to build two off-street parking places for every housing unit built. Developers were reluctant (and still are) to swallow the poison pill of creating buildings with too many parking spaces and too few living units.

In an era of climate change and housing shortages, it is critical to build more places for people to live, not places for cars to park, especially along existing public transit corridors. Hence the effort to pass Measure N1, which will allow the Planning and Zoning Commission and the City Council to develop more reasonable parking standards. The Yes on Measure N1 Committee’s website is here.

I cannot give you a better argument in favor of N1 than that of long-time Albany resident and architect Howard McNenny, who was a strong supporter of Measure D back in 1978. Over the years, he has changed his mind. When I asked him why in an email, here is what Howard had to say:

Regarding Measure D, I do recall being a proponent (that was a long time ago, by the way).  As best I can recall, the argument had a lot to do with what was going on at the time:  Developers would buy property zoned as single-family, then somehow manage to get them re-zoned for multi-unit (spot zoning, it was called).  Then, they would develop the parcel such that the entire frontage would be open parking stalls — one space per unit.  Units would be arranged behind, and on a second level.   The result was not very attractive, to say the least.  Adding insult to injury, any additional spaces due to extra cars per unit, or guest parking, would be in front of neighboring property, depriving them of their own on-street parking.   Something needed to be done, and Measure D was the result.

At this point, I do not support the strict application of the Measure D rules for parking, which effectively increases the price of housing.  We now have very effective zoning, and the kind of thing that was going on in the 70’s and 80’s is not happening now.  Development along transit corridors should not be held to the same standards.  Same for senior housing.  I know we already have exceptions for development where “adequate” on-street parking exists, though these cases are probably rare in Albany.  Other neighboring cities have more relaxed standards, where the number of parking spaces is tied to the number of bedrooms.  We could consider something similar.

Many thanks to Howard for his extensive quote. And please remember to vote YES on Measure N1.


At first I was very skeptical of a parcel tax to repair sideways. Very few cities anywhere in the United States have taken this approach and we lacked the city policies to clarify some of the underlying legal issues.

However, due to coming together of the city staff, the council and members of the Albany Strollers and Rollers advocacy group, we collected the necessary information about costs (thanks to city staff), made sure we had reasonable policies on the books (thanks to council member Rochelle Nason for taking the lead) and worked out a fee structure that is reasonable and fair (thanks to Strollers and Rollers).

The result is Measure P1, a 10-year parcel tax that will help speed up sidewalk repairs in Albany. The city could probably repair the sidewalks without this measure, but it would take much longer.

The annual cost will run $15 for condo owners and $39 for typical single-family house, depending on lot size. The tax sunsets after a decade and includes a low-income exemption. Details of this measure and the other ballot measures can be found here.

If you would like to know what happens when a city neglects its sidewalks for too long, consider the case of Los Angeles, which may be facing a bill for as much as $1.5 billion to repair its sidewalks (here and here).

We need a two-thirds super-majority to pass this measure, and I know some Albany voters are already feeling taxed enough after seeing their new property tax bills, but there is no point in building new schools or developing walkable commercial districts if we can’t get there on foot due to dangerous sidewalks. 

Unlike Measure O1, the soda tax, which came to us from Berkeley and which I believe is a poor fit for Albany, our sidewalk tax is a well-crafted policy designed by Albany voters to fit the specific needs of our town. I encourage you to vote YES on Measure P1.


Finally, I am endorsing Albany’s current mayor, Pete Maass, and two candidates for school board, Jon Destin and Clementina Duron. Since Pete needs no introduction, please let me discuss my picks for school board.

Jon has one child at Marin Elementary, while Clementina has two grand children there. Both candidates are competent, thoughtful and independent. I think that’s exactly what our school board needs now. You can read about them and the other school board candidates on the LVW Voter’s Edge website here. More on Jon’s take on the issues here and here, and Clementina’s here.


Election Season is Here

Election season is upon us. City council members, including me, had been busy writing ballot arguments for some of our six ballot measures. The final deadline for those arguments was Friday, August 19. Since then candidates have shifted the focus to their own campaigns.

The basic information about city initiatives, council and school board candidates is posted on the city website, so there is no reason to repeat that information here. The basic numbers are five candidates for three spots on the council, and four candidates for two spots on the school board. Here are the links for the ballot measures and arguments, and the candidate statements.

The November ballot will be huge, with federal, state and local candidates to choose from, and 17 state, three county/regional and six City of Albany initiatives. Please study the ballot materials before the election, and please don’t suffer from terminal ballot fatigue before you get to our local initiatives.

Of the six Albany ballot measures, two are housekeeping items, two are new taxes, and two are important measures that do not have immediate financial implications. I suggest you vote in favor of the two housekeeping measures, which eliminate our redundant civil service board and modernize some language in the city charter.

Of the two tax proposals, I support the parcel tax for sidewalk repair, but I do not support the soda tax. On the final two measures, I support modifying parking requirements, but I do not support eliminating term limits for school board members:

MEASURE N1 Modifying parking requirements. Vote YES.

MEASURE O1 Sugar-Sweetened Beverage General Tax. Vote NO.

MEASURE P1 Sidewalk Repair Special Parcel Tax. Vote YES.

MEASURE Q1 Various modernizing charter amendments. Vote YES.

MEASURE R1 Dissolve the city’s Civil Service Board. Vote YES

MEASURE S1 Remove term limits for the AUSD School Board. Vote NO.

As you’ll note from the ballot argument signatures, keeping term limits (NO on S1) is favored by many former school board and city council members, including two former AUSD board members, two former mayors, and two people who have served on both the council and school board (Allan Maris and myself).

As readers of this blog know, I have been disappointed with the lack of thoughtfulness of the current ASUD board in regards to the financial consequences of measures B and E. This lack is probably the best evidence I could muster in favor of term limits. So I find it ironic that this board is trying to eliminate them.

This post will focus on new information I’ve discovered on the bond measures campaign, and why it reveals that ending school board term limits are a bad idea. Please keep in mind as you read this that I am referred to the school board as a whole. I have always had good relations and warm regards for board members as individuals, but sometimes the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Measures B and E are like the Middle East. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they get worse. Many Albany residents first realized there was a problem when this story broke in the local newspaper.

With the campaign is over, the Yes on B and E committee was required to file final State of California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) forms. These are the final accounting of campaign revenues and expenses. I requested a copy of the documents from the city clerk, since it is public record.

Setting aside the $100 used to open the bank account by the campaign treasurer, campaign revenues were $47,200 — all of from outside architects, law firms and other contractors. Not a single dollar was raised inside Albany. By comparison, a typical city council election four years ago cost between $4,000 and $5,000, with most of the money coming from Albany residents.  The YES on Measures B and E campaign spent 10 times that much. (For the record, here are my FPPC forms from my 2002 school board race.)

 I’ve included a list below of the B and E donors. You can find the addresses from the FPPC forms:


Total Funding for Measure B&E
4/26/2016 WLC Architects 5,000
4/26/2016 Dervi Castellanos Architects 5,000
5/5/2016 Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost 3,000
5/12/2016 Marina Mechanical 5,000
5/20/2016 Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo 2,000
5/20/2016 Hibser Yamauchi Architects 5,000
5/20/2016 Ojo Technology 500
5/26/2016 Apodaca Mechanical & Consulting 1,000
6/2/2016 Gould Evans 5,000
6/2/2016 Urban Futures 5,000
6/3/2016 SVA Architects 1,500
6/6/2016 Ninyo and Moore 100
6/6/2016 Jeff Luchetti Contruction 1,500
6/9/2016 Acies Engineering 1,000
6/13/2016 Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe 2,500
6/21/2016 Dutra Cerro Graden 1,500
6/21/2016 Clark/Sullivan Construction 1,500
6/21/2016 Geosphere Consultants 100
6/30/2016 Derivi Castellanos Architects 1,000


The largest contribution, $6,000, came in two pieces from Derivi Castellanos Architects, which notes on its web page that one principal, Steve Castellanos, “served as State Architect, leading the Division of State Architect (DSA) from 2000-2005, where he developed many key relationships that continue to benefit our clients.”

 Kim Trutane was the leader of the Yes on Measure B & E campaign. She is a school board candidate and self-described homeowner/school volunteer and Marin PTA president. How did she have the clout to extract donations from these major players in school construction? Here’s where it gets interesting.

First, when it was considering its rebuilding projects, AUSD hired a consulting firm that specializes passing bond initiatives and parcel taxes for schools. Its name is TBWB. According to their website, “TBWB helps you package and pass a ballot measure to meet your needs.” TBWB is a for-profit firm, as are the big contractors who donated to the measures B and E campaign.

Once the school board decided to go for Measures B and E, a campaign committee was formed, which is technically a separate legal entity. The Yes on B and E campaign also hired TBWB. With the firm’s help, the campaign solicited $47,200 from big contractors. Of that money, $45,506 was paid back to TBWB. A quick review of the TBWB website reveals that one of the partners lives in Albany. I think it’s fair to say this partner is a friend of the school board.

The Measure B and E campaign was bought and paid for by the big contractors, with the help of TBWB. That would explain why the bond measures were so large, since the bigger the bonds, the more business there will be for the big contractors. Although the school board and the campaign are technically separate, every member of current board tacitly approved of this by endorsing Trutane’s candidacy for the school board.

To get a school construction bond passed in Albany, you don’t have act this way. I was active in passing the 2008 Measure E swimming pool bond. The campaign spent a little less than $2,000. The campaign literature was home spun and printed in Albany. The legwork was done by the AHS swim team and their parents (disclosure: My son was the co-captain of the swim team at the time). We needed a supermajority (two-thirds of the vote), and we got 72 percent.

So it appears that that the school district, the school board, The B and E campaign, TBWB and the big contractors have all been having a private soirée — one that Albany voters weren’t invited to. That’s too bad, because the voters will be picking up the tab, which will be, according to the state ballot pamphlet, $185.5 million.

Perhaps the current school board members (and the candidate they have endorsed) can tell the voters of Albany just what the heck has been going on here. Once again, I am disappointed. This behavior violates every commonly understood notion of conflict-of-interest. And the sad thing is that it’s not just Albany.

What Albany has experienced is a new school bond campaign model. This model features campaign consultants and big contractors (all for-profit firms) working together to find willing school boards to maximize the size of bond campaigns. It has become a big business in California. It has even spawned its own anti-tax protest movement in conservative Southern California (here and here).

Many of these same forces are at play in the statewide Proposition 51, an $9 billion school bond proposal. It is opposed by the governor, and by editorials in the San Jose Mercury News and the San Diego Tribune. It is supported by the San Francisco Chronicle and the League of Women Voters.

But why is this a problem, you ask. Doesn’t our school district really need our support? Can’t they use the money? There are two issues. First, the excessive funding for these projects has an opportunity cost. More money for capital projects means less money for something else.

The real issue is how the participation of self-serving, profit-driven consultants and contractors distorts the allocation of resources both within school districts, and between school districts and other public projects that also benefit our children — like parks and athletic programs.

It’s important to keep in mind that the school district doesn’t have a monopoly on caring for and educating children. This is especially true in the summer, when programs for children can cost several thousand dollars. A lower tax bill for families with children would allow them to spend more money on summer enrichment programs and other out-of-school activities for their kids.

Second, I doubt if our little school district has the expertise to handle either the cash flow or the project-management problems what will result from these bond measures. There are some bad actors out there in the construction world. Shoddy work, frivolous change orders and padded bills can be hard to detect.

Some big school projects have become very big disasters. School districts can get in over their heads quickly. A good example is the Los Angeles Community College District, which was the subject of an investigative report by the LA times.

The expose starts with this statement, “Classrooms were overcrowded. Athletic facilities were decrepit. Seismic protections were outdated. Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to remake the nine campuses for the 21st century. They promised rigorous oversight of costs and quality. But a Times investigation found that tens of millions have gone to waste.”

Some of that sounds familiar right here in Albany. Let’s hope ten years from now all of it doesn’t sound familiar.

In asking the voters to support Measure S1 and end term limits for the school board, some school board members have cited their expertise and the need for continuity. I’m unimpressed. When I look at measures B and E, I detect tunnel vision, a sense of entitlement and a failure to take conflicts-of-interest seriously.

I have no doubt that all of our school board members are well-intentioned. But, speaking from my own experience on the school board from 2002-06, I suspect some of our school board members are tired and need a break. I can think of no better reasons to vote NO on measure S1 to keep school board term limits in place. 


Financial costs of Measures B&E for Albany homeowners

First of all, I want to apologize. During the run up to the recent election, I did not pay enough attention to the details of the Albany Unified School District (AUSD) measures B and E. As I stated previously on this blog, as a former school board member, and a current city council member, I didn’t think it was my place to initiate a conversation. That was my mistake.

In the last week, I have been pouring over the information and building my own spreadsheet models, something I learned to do many years ago when I was a state economic analyst. I have come to the conclusion, with some frustration, that the voters were not given clear information about how much measures B and E will cost them.

For example, take the number that was tossed around before the election–B and E together would cost no more than $180/$100K of assessed value. It turns out that figure is misleading. It’s better to think of the $180 figure is a floor, not a ceiling.

So have a seat, take a deep breath, and let me start by giving you a few numbers. According to school district estimates, over the next 30 years, our town will be responsible for paying off $223 million of school district debt, an average of $7.4 million per year for 30 years. A large part of this total, $148 million, is due to Measure B alone.

To be fair, the voter guide did mention this figure in the the analysis of Measure B. However, the implications for individual Albany homeowners were not made clear either in the vote guide or in the information that I have found on the school district’s website. In what follows, I do the best I can to provide that information.

For every $100,000 of assessed value in 2017, during the next 30 years, Albany property owners will pay from $7,500 to $9,000 on AUSD debt, or about $250 to $300 annually. In Albany, the median assessed property value for 2017 is about $400,000. For that median property, AUSD-related property taxes will be $1,000 to $1,200 annually for 30 years.

In this spreadsheet model, you can plug in your 2017 assessed value and the view the graph of how your AUSD property taxes evolve over time. The detailed explanation of how I created this model, with its upper- and lower-bound estimates, is on the “narrative” tab. Click on the “data and graph” tab to see the information there.

For example, if you are a new homeowner in Albany who just paid $1 million for a little house, your assessed value is the sale price. You will be paying AUSD-related property taxes of $2,500 to $3,000 annually for 30 years. During the next three decades, you will pay a total of $75,000 to $90,000 to retire AUSD debt.

AUSD_taxThe graph above (click to enlarge) is from the model. It assumes $100,000 of assessed value in 2017. The red line is the upper bound estimate of annual property tax payments for AUSD’s combined total debt service (CTDS) for the three existing bonds and Measures B and E. The green line is the lower bound. The purple and blue lines show what AUSD’s debt would look without measures B and E. The three older bonds are paid off in 2030, and Measure E is paid off in 2038. Measure B is paid off in 2047.

Note that the AUSD property tax will double from about $150 to more than $300 per $100K of assessed value (in 2017) by 2021. It will remain that high until 2027. It will gradually decline after that, but even the lower-bound scenario it never dips below $180.

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think this is what many Albany voters were expecting when they voted in favor of measures B and E. The supporters of the measures B and E had very little incentive to set the record straight.

As a city council member, I don’t have much incentive to set the record straight, either. Albany voters would be more inclined to support city tax measures in the fall elections if they didn’t know what’s coming.

But as an Albany homeowner with a $600K assessed value, and one who is planning on retiring in a year, I know I am feeling resentful. Not so much about the big dent that measures B and E and will put in my early retirement years, but because there has been so little information provided about their financial consequences.


A quick election returns analysis


Measure AA lost (failed to achieve a 2/3 supermajority)  in Solano, Sonoma, Napa and Contra Costa counties, i.e. it lost in all the relatively rural, low-income northern counties (Marin is exception), and it lost in one NE county. It did achieve simple majorities in all counties. It won because the counties where it achieved a 2/3 supermajority (Marin, Alameda, SF, Santa Clara, San Mateo) tend to be more populous than the northern counties. Figures here.

Measure AA is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It was designed to suck money out of the North Bay (against the will of voters there) and the rural southern parts of Santa Clara County, and ship it to Silicon Valley. It worked pretty much as it was designed to. Regional government is a fine idea if county voters get to vote for it, but that never happened for the establishment of the SF Bay Restoration Authority, the little-known agency which put this measure on the ballot.

Half the proceeds with be distributed back to the nine counties weighted by their population, while the other half will be allocated by the governing board, which means the vast majority of the funding will go to the South Bay. Four of the seven members are from counties where AA won (three from the South Bay), one is the director of the East Bay Regional Park District, and only two are from counties where AA lost.

A $12 parcel tax doesn’t seem like much, but it sets a very bad precedent, and that was the point. There is a real need for a functional, representative regional government for the Bay Area. But we are not careful we’ll end up with a government that resembles our nation’s capital–dysfunctional, driven by lobbyists and pandering the wealthy and powerful.


Here in Albany, Measures B and E both passed, although it seems they got by with a little help from their friends. This is just one step away from pay-to-play, and while it’s not illegal, it is certainly distasteful.

The three AUSD items I personally worked on–the Nov. 2004 bond, the Nov. 2005 parcel tax, and the Feb. 2008 pool bond–all won with yes vote counts between 4,000 and 6,000 (see table below). These efforts were more in the Albany tradition of organizing friends and neighbors to drop simple leaflets on porches, not on spending lots of money to mail glossy brochures.

I found the information in the table below on the Alameda Country voter registrar website. The voter turn-out for Measures B and E was very low, at about 40 percent of Albany’s 10,492 registered voters. Measure B got 3,014 yes votes, Measure E 2,916 yes votes. Thus each measure won with yes votes from slightly less than 30 percent of registered Albany voters.

While it’s very unusual in Albany’s voting history for any measure to pass with only about 3,000 votes, it also happened with AUSD parcel tax measures I and J in Nov.  2009. Voter turnout was similar in Nov. 2009 to this month’s election. Turnouts are typically lower when there is neither a presidential nor a congressional election at stake.

In 2009, the financial implications of Measures I and J were relatively small–Measure I was an annual $149, 5-year parcel tax that was renewed by Measure LL in 2014. Measure J consolidated existing parcel taxes and adjusted them all for inflation. There were exemptions for seniors and low income residents. In contrast, Measures B and E together will cost most Albany homeowners between $500 and $1,500 annually, except for those who bought their houses decades ago. No exemptions.

We don’t know much about the attitudes of the  approximately 60 percent of Albany voters who didn’t vote at all this month. Were they aware of and happy with either outcome, or will they be shocked when they see their property tax bill? I guess we’ll find out.

Note: As of Friday afternoon, June 10, the county Registrar of Voters (ROV) has updated the counts for measures B and E, finding roughly 10 percent more votes, but leaving the percentages virtually unchanged. Measure B vote tallies are now 3,365 yes and 1,540 no. Measure E vote tallies are now 3,266 yes and 1,227 no.

Tuesday morning, June 14,  I called the Alameda County Registrar of Voters. I was told that all vote-by-mail ballots had been counted, and that they were working on provisionals, but that those probably don’t affect Albany much. Vote-by-mail ballots have dramatically increased, which is why they have taken so long to count. New totals:
Measure B vote tallies are now 4,375 yes and 2,018 no. Measure E vote tallies are now 4,274 yes and 1,577 no. Updated count of registered voters (RV) is 10,984

For Measure E, 53.3 percent of RV voted, 38.9 percent of RV voted yes.
For Measure B, 58.2 percent of RV voted, 39.8 percent of RV voted yes.

AUSD bond and parcel tax measures
measure date threshold yes no % yes purpose
A Nov-04 55% 5,879 1,428 80.5% bldg bond
A Nov-05 2/3 4,140 1,901 68.5% parcel tax
E Feb-08 55% 4,667 1,600 74.5% pool bond
I Nov-09 2/3 2,975 923 76.3% parcel tax
J Nov-09 2/3 3,011 882 77.3% parcel tax
LL Nov-14 2/3 4,875 924 84.1% parcel tax
B Jun-16 2/3 3,014 1,378 68.6% bldg bond
E Jun-16 55% 2,916 1,112 72.4% bldg bond
Notes on recent measures:
I New 5-year, $149 parcel tax, inflation adjustment, senior/low-inc exemptions
J combined existing parcel taxes, $555, no sunset, inflation adjustment, senior/low-inc exemptions
LL continuation of measure I for 6 years, $278, inflation adjustment, adds SSI, SSDI exemptions
B rebuilds two K-6 schools, GO bonds, no exemptions, $120/$100K assessed value
E rebuilds site for middle school, GO bonds, no exemptions, $60/$100K assessed value
Source: acgov.org, 2016 vote counts are preliminary


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:


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 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.


Some end of year 2015 items


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


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 (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.


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.


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


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_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:


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.


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.


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.”


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:




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.