U.S. senators push for $150 million in WMATA funding

Democratic senators from Maryland and Virginia are requesting that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) receive $150 million in federal dollars in fiscal-year 2017, as the troubled transit agency struggles to correct safety problems.

U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called on members of Congress to fully fund WMATA at authorized levels next year. In a March 18 letter — made public yesterday — to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Committee of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, the senators said that WMATA’s recent safety challenges demonstrated how much work remains to correct the agency’s problems.

“This is a vital transportation issue with direct implications on the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government and the entire Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, and is important to growing U.S. manufacturing and transit infrastructure development. WMATA’s compact jurisdictions are committed to providing 50 percent matching funding,” the senators wrote.

The $150 million would target projects in WMATA’s capital improvement program that aim to maintain the transit system in a state of good repair, including vehicles, facilities and infrastructure, the senators said.

An annual federal contribution for WMATA was included in a 10-year authorization for the transit agency as part of the rail-safety bill that Congress passed in 2008. The legislation authorized $1.5 billion to WMATA each year since 2009. Last year, the agency’s funding came “under threat” during discretionary budget considerations, according to a report in Roll Call.

In his FY2017 budget, President Barack Obama requested $150 million for WMATA.

WMATA has struggled to address safety problems, including some that prompted the full-day shutdown of its Metrorail system earlier this month. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the agency for a fatal smoke incident in January 2015 that resulted in a passenger’s death.


Sanders to Democratic Party: Whose Side Are We On?


aying that “our job is to revitalize American democracy,” U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Thursday challenged the Democratic Party establishment to decide if it will fight for working families or do the bidding of Wall Street, big oil, the pharmaceutical industry and other special interests.

“Are we on the side of working people or big-money interests? Do we stand with the elderly, the sick and the poor or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the insurance companies?” the Democratic Party presidential candidate asked 8,300 supporters at an outdoor rally at Island Park.

He said a key reason why 63 percent of voters did not go to the polls in the last election and nearly 80 percent of young and low-income people stayed home is that “the Democratic Party, up until now, has not been clear on which side they are on on the major issues facing this country.”

On issue after issue, Sanders challenged the Democratic Party to pick sides. “You can’t be for Wall Street and the working people of this country. You cannot be for the drug companies and senior citizens and veterans,” he said. “You cannot be on the side of workers and support those corporations that have thrown millions on the street.”

The failure of Democratic leadership to send a clear message on where the party stands is why Republicans have grabbed control Congress and Statehouses. “The problem in my view is not that the Republicans are winning elections. It’s that Democrats are losing elections,” he said.

Sanders also faulted Democrats for not pushing election reforms that would increase voter turnout and help Democrats win elections. For example, he said, Democrats should get behind legislation he introduced in the Senate to register everyone to vote when they turn 18 years old. “The Democratic Party has got to be very clear. We need automatic voter registration.” In 2015, Oregon became the first state in the nation to require state agencies to automatically register voters when they get a new driver’s license or identification card.

He also called on Democrats in states where access to the voting booth is restricted in primary contests to open the process and let millions of independents participate, “Republican governors want to make it harder to vote. Our job is to bring more people into the system. We need open primaries.”

Sanders also spelled out differences with Hillary Clinton. On trade policy, he opposed and she backed most of the job-killing trade deals. On climate change, he challenged Clinton to support a carbon tax to discourage burning the fossil fuels that are warming the planet. He pressed her to support a nationwide ban on fracking that imperils safety of drinking water and encourages fossil fuel. He asked Clinton to join him in supporting a Medicare-for-all health care system and to crack down on pharmaceutical companies that charge Americans the highest prices for prescription medicine anywhere in the world.

“Secretary Clinton may not believe the American people have the ability to take on the insurance companies and take on the drug companies. I disagree.”

Sanders also cited his big leads over Republican White House hopefuls Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Sanders beats Trump by twice as big a margin as Clinton. He also holds leads over Cruz and Kasich. She holds a narrow edge over the Texas senator and loses in many polls to the Ohio governor.

“I hope delegates to the Democratic National Convention take heed of this,” Sanders said at the rally.

Sanders, who launched his campaign one year ago as an underdog, has so far won 17 primaries and caucuses and amassed 1,350 delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention. He has set fundraising records with 7.3 million donations. And he is drawing the biggest crowds for any presidential candidate.

“I think Secretary Clinton and I agree that we must not have a Republican in the White House but I think the evidence is overwhelming that you are looking at the strongest Democratic candidate,” Sanders said. “And the reason for that is that our campaign is able to reach beyond the Democratic base and win the support of millions of independents.

“This is the campaign that is generating excitement and enthusiasm and a large voter turnout.”

Oregon is among 14 states, territories and the District of Columbia which have yet to vote in the contest between Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He thanked U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon for being the only member of the United States Senate “to have the guts” to back Sanders.

By Michael Briggs | Bernie 2016

The Endgame of 2016’s Anti-Establishment Politics


ill Bernie Sanders’s supporters rally behind Hillary Clinton if she gets the nomination? Likewise, if Donald Trump is denied the Republican nomination, will his supporters back whoever gets the Republican nod?

If 2008 is any guide, the answer is unambiguously yes to both. About 90 percent of people who backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries that year ended up supporting Barack Obama in the general election. About the same percent of Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney backers came around to supporting John McCain.

But 2008 may not be a good guide to the 2016 election, whose most conspicuous feature is furious antipathy to the political establishment.

Outsiders and mavericks are often attractive to an American electorate chronically suspicious of political insiders, but the anti-establishment sentiments unleashed this election year of a different magnitude. The Trump and Sanders candidacies are both dramatic repudiations of politics as usual.

If Hillary Clinton is perceived to have won the Democratic primary because of insider “superdelegates” and contests closed to independents, it may confirm for hardcore Bernie supporters the systemic political corruption Sanders has been railing against.

Similarly, if the Republican Party ends up nominating someone other than Trump who hasn’t attracted nearly the votes than he has, it may be viewed as proof of Trump’s argument that the Republican Party is corrupt.

Many Sanders supporters will gravitate to Hillary Clinton nonetheless out of repulsion toward the Republican candidate, especially if it’s Donald Trump. Likewise, if Trump loses his bid for the nomination, many of his supporters will vote Republican in any event, particularly if the Democratic nominee is Hillary Clinton.


But, unlike previous elections, a good number may simply decide to sit out the election because of their even greater repulsion toward politics as usual – and the conviction it’s rigged by the establishment for its own benefit.

That conviction wasn’t present in the 2008 election. It emerged later, starting in the 2008 financial crisis, when the government bailed out the biggest Wall Street banks while letting underwater homeowners drown.

Both the Tea Party movement and Occupy were angry responses – Tea Partiers apoplectic about government’s role, Occupiers furious with Wall Street – two sides of the same coin.

Then came the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in “Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission,” releasing a torrent of big money into American politics. By the 2012 election cycle, forty percent of all campaign contributions came from the richest 0.01 percent of American households.

That was followed by a lopsided economic recovery, most of whose gains have gone to the top. Median family income is still below 2008, adjusted for inflation. And although the official rate of unemployment has fallen dramatically, a smaller percentage of working-age people now have jobs than before the recession.

As a result of all this, many Americans have connected the dots in ways they didn’t in 2008.


They see “crony capitalism” (now a term of opprobrium on both left and the right) in special tax loopholes for the rich, government subsidies and loan guarantees for favored corporations, bankruptcy relief for the wealthy but not for distressed homeowners or student debdonald-Trump-BADeking to increase their bargaining power through unions, and trade deals protecting the intellectual property and assets of American corporations abroad but not the jobs or incomes of American workers.

Last fall, when on book tour in the nation’s heartland, I kept finding people trying to make up their minds in the upcoming election between Sanders and Trump.

They saw one or the other as their champion: Sanders the “political revolutionary” who’d reclaim power from the privileged few; Trump, the authoritarian strongman who’d wrest power back from an establishment that’s usurped it.

The people I encountered told me the moneyed interests couldn’t buy off Sanders because he wouldn’t take their money, and they couldn’t buy off Trump because he didn’t need their money.

Now, six months later, the political establishment has fought back, and Sanders’s prospects for taking the Democratic nomination are dimming. Trump may well win the Republican mantle but not without a brawl.

As I said, I expect most Sanders backers will still support Hillary Clinton if she’s the nominee. And even if Trump doesn’t get the Republican nod, most of his backers will go with whoever the Republican candidate turns out to be.

But anyone who assumes a wholesale transfer of loyalty from Sanders’s supporters to Clinton, or from Trump’s to another Republican standard-bearer, may be in for a surprise.

The anti-establishment fury in the election of 2016 may prove greater than supposed.

By Robert Reich

We Know How to Fix Traffic, We Just Don’t Want to

It’s shaping up to be Traffic Week here at L.A. Weekly, with a cover story on the MTA’s new $120 billion transit plan, plus coverage of a new study showing that, yes, L.A. has the nation’s worst traffic jams (but the 405 isn’t as bad as you think).

It’s tempting to think that traffic is one of those insoluble dilemmas of Los Angeles — just the price you pay to live in a thriving megalopolis that a lot of other people also want to live in. But the fact is that transit experts do have a pretty good idea of how to fix traffic.

There is a catch, however. The situation is sort of like that Citizen Kane quote about making a lot of money — it’s not so difficult, if that’s all you want to do. Similarly, it’s not that hard to solve traffic, if all you want to do is solve traffic.

The solution is congestion pricing. The MTA does this, on a pilot basis, on the 110 freeway south of downtown and on the 10 freeway in the San Gabriel Valley. It’s had a mixed record so far — a lot of people use it, but a lot of people don’t like it. But if you ask James Moore, the director of the Transportation Engineering Program at USC, it should be used everywhere.

“If I were king, I would price all the capacity,” Moore says.

The tolls on the 110 and 10 “Express Lanes” range from 25 cents to $1.40 per mile.  As traffic slows, the tolls go up. The goal is to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph. (Many more details can be found here.) The idea is that putting a price on use of the freeway internalizes the external costs of driving, and forces people to make more efficient use of the freeways.

“If you don’t use price to allocate resources, other mechanisms emerge, such as queueing,” Moore says.

A traffic jam is thus little different from a Soviet-era bread line.

So now, on those segments of the 110 and the 10, drivers finally have a choice. They can pay a toll and zip along in the fast lanes, or pay with their time to use the congested, non-toll lanes. The problem is that too many people are choosing to pay the toll.

About 500,000 people have obtained the transponders that allow them to drive in the toll lanes. In January, the MTA staff reported that the lanes are so crowded that speeds have dropped. When traffic gets too slow, all the toll-paying drivers are kicked out and lanes revert to carpool-only.  To address this issue, the MTA decided to boost the maximum toll in increments of 10 cents per mile.

During the debate, some of the board members voiced concerns about the whole concept. Supervisor Don Knabe complained that there is “no rhyme nor reason to the pricing,” and noted that people sometimes dart in and out of the lanes to avoid paying.

“None of this makes any real sense,” argued Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “I have never liked letting people pay to ride in these lanes.”

Kuehl said she could see the argument for allowing hybrid and electric vehicles in carpool lanes, because it lowers carbon emissions. But she did not see a case for letting solo drivers pay congestion tolls. She also noted the problem of allowing access for low-income drivers, which the MTA has addressed to a degree through a rebate program.

“Nothing is gained but money,” Kuehl said.

There is another gain — a faster commute for people willing to pay for it — but to see that, you’d need to be able to imagine yourself using the toll lanes. Kuehl’s argument is similar to one you sometimes hear from rail critics: if it doesn’t benefit non-users, then there is no benefit. In fact, the real benefit of either mode goes primarily to those who take advantage of it.

What non-users really want is free-flowing traffic, even in peak hours, in one of the greatest cities in the world, for free. But you can’t have all of those things. If you’re against congestion pricing, it just means you prefer to have bad traffic than to make the tradeoffs required to improve it.

That all said, the Express Lanes might work better if they were set up differently. For instance, when traffic in the toll lanes slows, all the electric cars and carpools could be kicked out, giving priority to the toll-payers. That would make traffic a breeze for the toll-payers. But the MTA has chosen to encourage carpooling and electric vehicles, at the cost of greater congestion.

In the world where James Moore is king, and all lanes are subject to congestion pricing, there would be a real concern about equity. Rich people would happily pay the tolls, while a lot of poor people would stay home. That’s one argument for building out a functional transit system, which would offer decent mobility for the low price of $1.75 per trip.

But in the world where toll lanes are an option alongside non-toll lanes, drivers have a choice of paying with their time or their money. By not offering that choice more broadly, the MTA is forcing everyone to pay with their time.