Category Archives: California

How subsidizing water can go wrong

Easy: if the going market price ever goes up.

With water becoming increasingly precious in California, a rising number of farmers figure they can make more money by selling their water than by actually growing something.

Because farmers get their water at subsidized rates, some of them see financial opportunity this year in selling their allotments to Los Angeles and other desperately thirsty cities across Southern California, as well as to other farms.

“It just makes dollars and sense right now,” said Bruce Rolen, a third-generation farmer who grows rice, wheat and other crops in Northern California’s lush Sacramento Valley.

Instead of sowing in April, Rolen plans to let 100 of his 250 acres of white rice lie fallow and sell his irrigation water on the open market, where it could fetch up to three times the normal price.

Argh. So much for helping agriculture and keeping food prices low.

A revolutionary idea for congestion pricing


How about letting the municipalities through which toll roads run have the money?

We propose a new way to create political support for congestion pricing on urban freeways: distribute the toll revenue to cities with the tolled freeways. With the revenue as a prize, local elected officials can become the political champions of congestion pricing. For these officials, the political benefits of the toll revenue can be far greater than the political costs of supporting congestion pricing. If congestion tolls were charged on all the freeways in Los Angeles County, for example, and the revenue were returned to the 66 cities traversed by those freeways, we estimate (using a model first developed by Elizabeth Deakin and Greig Harvey) that each city would receive almost $500 per capita per year.

That this idea is in any way controversial speaks to the bizarre way we handle the construction and financing of roads in both the United States and Canada.

Some roads are administered by cities, some by regional governments (where they exist, they often build and maintain arterials), some by states or provinces (major divided highways), and some even by federal governments (continent-spanning routes). Where there are no effective junior governments, way out in the hinterland, it can make sense for higher levels to step in, but it’s absurd that Los Angeles County doesn’t control its own freeways, or that Highway 401 through Toronto and Autoroute 40 through Montreal aren’t controlled by those mature cities’ governments.

This often creates an accountability gap, where city politicians who actually have to answer for traffic problems often can’t do much about them without largesse from higher-up governments that have little practical interest in dumping vast piles of money down to help municipal councils out. And when they do it, cities often treat the cash as found money, spending it fast and freely because they don’t have to account for it themselves.

If city councils set road tolls and also got to spend them, it’d be good news for traffic control, good news for transportation planning generally, and good news for keeping governments accountable to voters.

Think BEFORE you speak, Senator


 “One reason why we have the fires in California is global warming,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday, stressing the need to pass the Democrats’ comprehensive energy package.

Moments later, when asked by a reporter if he really believed global warming caused the fires, he appeared to back away from his comments, saying there are many factors that contributed to the disaster.

Complexity is difficult to express for people accustomed to speaking in soundbites (which they do in part thanks to pressure from people like me), but it’s essential, when we’re talking about environmental problems, so we don’t say stupid things.

Warm weather — yes. Dry conditions — yes. High winds — yes. All things that contributed directly to the wildfires (dangerous construction, too), and all things likely to be among the consequences of global warming over time. But just like Hurricane Katrina, the wildfires can’t be connected in a direct line to a phenomenon whose effects we’re just seeing. There’s an impenetrable cloud of other factors in between, and there always will be; definitive statements like Reid’s are easily dismissed by people who are determined to spend their time scoring debating points against the environmental movement rather than helping keep it honest and constructive.

You see it in hyperbolic claims that global warming could mean the end of life as we know it, or that other pollution will “destroy the earth.” It’s not true. What’s at risk is our quality of life and our prosperity and comfort, which ought to be bad enough — but to catch the attention of the indifferent and the skeptical, too often we overreach.

Sticky habits

Photo credit: Flickr/JenniferWoodardMaderazo

I’m not surprised that relatively few people took the San Francisco government up on its offer of free transit rides on smoggy days. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, local governments have paid for up to four days of free service in the summer months, and they kick in when air-quality predictions are particularly dismal.

The BART people are spinning an increase of 6,700 riders compared to a normal day as a big success. It’s about a two-per-cent increase in ridership.

As a result, the additional commuters who chose to ditch their vehicles and ride BART instead, prevented more than 294,800 pounds of pollutants from spilling into the air. According to the Institute of Local Self Reliance, the average commuter spews 44 pounds of pollutants into the Bay Area’s air each day.

They’re probably right. Changing how you get to work is a big deal. Aside from figuring out a different route when you’re not at your best, it means changing what time you get up in the morning, what order you do things in — if you take up biking, maybe you’ll shower at work instead of at home — and paying attention to things like bus schedules and maybe weather reports when you ordinarily wouldn’t. Chances are, it means planning for a different routine the night before.

If that’s how many people modify their commuting habits on a few hours’ notice, I bet the number would be sharply higher if they did it for a week and told people a month in advance. Could be a good marketing technique.

Equal bureaucracy for all

At first glance, a plan in San Mateo County, Calif., to speed up approvals for buildings meeting certain green standards seemed like a good idea. It’s a small way of rewarding conscientious builders with sustainable projects without shipping them public money. From the Palo Alto Daily News:

Under the proposal, a builder who chooses to employ environmentally friendly construction in San Mateo County’s unincorporated areas would have his application for a new building or major addition processed by the county’s planning department twice as fast.

It takes about six to seven weeks to complete an application for a residential or commercial building permit. A builder who goes green would have his permit processed in three weeks.

“What we’re looking to do here is to provide incentives so more individuals will build green,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church, who has asked the planning department to look at developing the program. “The public sector already has taken the lead in developing green buildings, so now is the time to provide incentives to encourage the private sector to do the same.”

But then again, why should the promise of a government bureaucracy heaving itself into action at more than it usual torpid pace be used as a reward for anything? If they can process permits in three weeks, shouldn’t they do so for everyone? What if the project isn’t particularly green, but it’s for a school or a church or a seniors’ centre or something?

An urban-planning process might favour greeniness in granting approvals, but that quality shouldn’t factor into the effectiveness of the process itself. And besides, it’s just begging for people to game the system by submitting environmentally friendly plans at permit-granting time and then — oops! — not living up to them in the actual construction.

(Via Planetizen.)

Hasta la vista, CO2

Vancouver skylineBritish Columbia’s greenhouse-gas emissions dropped so much in a newly released batch of stats that even the provincial government is surprised, according to the Vancouver Sun.

The new figures from Environment Canada, covering 2004-05, say that in that year emissions fell 1.6 megatonnes, to 65.7 megatonnes from 67.3 megatonnes — and it happened during a period of significant economic growth: emissions fell nearly 2.4 per cent as the economy grew 3.7 per cent.

Some of the reasons for the reduction included a decreased use of personal vehicles, which saw emissions drop 5.2 per cent, or half a million tonnes.

Boating also saw a major decrease of 7.4 per cent, or 200,000 tonnes and manufacturing decreased by 11.7 per cent, or 750,000 tonnes.

“We’ve actually seen people driving less,” said [Environment Minister Barry] Penner. “Higher gasoline prices likely encouraged people to reduce unnecessary trips in their personal automobiles and/or move to more efficient vehicles,” he said.

“And we’re hearing anecdotal evidence that boaters are just not burning as much fuel on the water.”

Penner attributed the decrease in greenhouse gases from manufacturing primarily because of changes in efficiency, such as reductions in power consumption by Alcan at its giant aluminum smelter in Kitimat. He also said there was a decrease of 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases coming from landfills thanks to new technologies to burn off methane gas.

The announcement happens to come on the same day that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, probably the highest-profile green pol in the United States, hit B.C. during his whirlwind tour of Canada. Stroke of luck, eh?

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell seems to have rebranded himself and his government along Schwarzenegger’s lines, making a dramatic cut in B.C.’s greenhouse-gas emissions, to 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 a top priority. (The Sun kind of botches this point, but never mind.) The province still has about 22 megatonnes to go, but at least it’s headed in the right direction.

Campbell and the Governator signed a nice but meaningless (“This Memorandum of Understanding is not intended to be legally binding or to impose legal obligations on either British Columbia or California and will have no legal effect”) agreement to emphasize each other’s green credentials today.

The emissions drop just reported, however, actually happened before Campbell went green. It just happened on its own, as a result of individuals and industrial companies making decisions to burn less fuel to do what they needed to do.

Incidentally, this is a convenient illustration of the arithmetical sleight-of-hand that intensity-based greenhouse-gas emissions caps can do. By my math B.C.’s “real” emissions drop is 2.4 per cent, but when you factor in the economic growth, it’s a drop in emissions intensity of nearly 6 per cent. Amazing how a bit of growth can exaggerate even a small change in reality.

A sticker wicket for California

A silver Prius from the rearDave at Rattling the Kettle, via the magic of WordPress’s tag-surfer feature, points out a story from USA Today last month about how the state of California has essentially handed the owners of certain hybrid cars several thousand dollars by giving the vehicles access to the state’s carpool lanes even if the driver is the only occupant.

The catch is that California has given out 85,000 access stickers and stopped, because that’s all that legislation allows, and now the stickered cars are tradeable. Hybrids with stickers are worth more than hybrids without.

Now that no new permits are available for hybrids, asking prices average $4,000 more for used Priuses with stickers than without, the survey by car-price tracker Kelley shows.

“It appears people buying Prius vehicles had a different angle” than just saving fuel or polluting less, says Eric Ibara, Kelley’s market valuation director. Kelley sampled prices of 30 2004-06 Priuses offered at used car websites. That’s sufficient to confirm the price difference, Ibara says. He says not enough used Civic hybrids were for sale to include them.

Technically, the Kelley Blue Book survey just found that asking prices for the stickered Priuses (“Prii”?) were $4,000 higher than for the non-stickered, but it certainly makes intuitive sense that drivers would be willing to pay more for cars that are allowed to travel in less-clogged lanes.

Now California is in an interesting bind, in which it’s forced to confront the question of what exactly its highways’ carpool lanes are for. If the primary value of carpooling is supposed to be that it leads to less pollution per commuter, the state needs to start issuing more stickers to environmentally friendlier cars, and stat. Not only that, but the benefit shouldn’t just attach to the drivers of hybrids, but to any car that gets great mileage and meets stringent emissions standards, whether it’s a hybrid or a Smart Car or powered by a battery plugged into solar panels at the owner’s house. The program ought to be interested in results, not the technology used to achieve them.

But if the carpool lanes are supposed to be about reducing traffic and dampening demand for more lanes on busy roads, well, this whole thing is a big step in the wrong direction, encouraging more single-occupancy vehicles, more congestion, more nightmares for California’s traffic engineers.

Don’t expect state legislators to have an easy time with that one.

Photo credit: Flickr/Beige Alert.