California Roundup: $8 Billion Rail Project Results In Fewer People Riding Public Transportation


* Candidate for governmor Jerry Brown unveils his own pension-reform plan. It's considerably more generous to government workers than challenger Meg Whitman's: Brown would raise the retirement age for new hires from 55 to 60 and maintain defined-benefit plans (while upping the employee contribution figure). Whitman would go to 65 for both current and future hires, and move all new hires to a 401(k)-style defined contribution plan. As it happens I just got off the phone with Boston College economist Alicia Munnell, who explains that while there is room to raise the amount employees have to contribute, the benefit the state agreed to pay at hiring (under defined benefit plans) is legally binding. So it's doubtful that Whitman could get away with raising the retirement age on existing workers, because an increase in retirement age is effectively a reduction in retirement benefits. (This whole problem would eventually go away if Whitman succeeded in moving to a defined contribution plan, which doesn't specify what your ultimate payout will be. But that would take a long time.)

* Dan Walters takes a look at Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court nominee Tani Cantil-Sakauye and notes one issue Cantil-Sakauye will inherit: new courtroom construction and the strange economics of judicial-branch budgeting. Speaking of which, the state lawyers union is trying to break Gov. Schwarzenegger's minimum-wage proposal.

* If you build it for $8 billion, they won't come. L.A. Times' Dan Weikel explains how the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority is actually carrying fewer people now than it did when it began its light rail building project 20 years ago. More than a million people a day ride buses in the county, a little more than 300,000 ride trains, and the figure for trains keeps falling. (I used to keep a close watch on these numbers, and it looks like the trend has been holding for almost ten years now: rail boardings decline a little almost every quarter, regardless of economic activity, gas price, or efforts to promote train ridership.) Transit gadfly Tom Rubin estimates the massive rail project has cost the MTA 1.5 billion potential passengers since 1986. Don't miss the comment section, where trainspotters are still saying the trains will be full once they have one that goes all the way to the ocean.

* Support your local sheriff: Cities bail out on counties as more towns look to eliminate their police departments and hire sheriff's deputies.

* Counties bail out on the state as Modoc asks Sacramento for $12.5 million to maintain public services. And of course, the state bails out on the country, only to find—d'oh!—stimulus funds have dried up like Owens Lake.