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Susie Cagle's Posts

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A new savior for California state parks?

It's been a rough few years for California's state parks. Since 2008, the state has threatened nearly all the parks with closure, only to save many of them at the last minute thanks in large part to private donations. One such donor, ex-Marine General Anthony Jackson, is now taking over the department after the scandalous resignation of the former head, who had helped to hide $54 million in park funds while the system was in dire straits.

CA state parks: Full of pretty and problems.
danorth1
California state parks: Full of pretty and problems.

Appointed in November, Jackson is now tasked with restoring faith in the department. So far, so good: Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, told the Los Angeles Times: "It's kind of shocking how much I like him." She said Jackson "may be exactly the right man at the right time" for the job. Not that the job will be a super-fun one.

Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?
California Dept. of Parks
Can Anthony Jackson save California's parks?

Restoring the sheen to the state's park system won't be easy.

The discovery of about $54 million that parks officials had hidden will not solve the funding problems. More than $1 billion in maintenance work has been put off over the years. The accounting scandal, including fresh irregularities unearthed last month by Brown's Department of Finance and the state controller, may even make things harder.

"It's going to be difficult to get people in the state of California to rally around parks," said Dan Jacobson, legislative director at Environment California, an advocacy group. "The image of the money found in someone's couch is going to keep popping up."

Jackson comes across as a seriously no-nonsense character, which may not be surprising for a retired Marine general. He doesn't have any background in politics, but he told Bay Nature that's a great thing when it comes to this job.

Read more: Politics

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Avis buys Zipcar, delighting investors and unnerving customers

In 2011, Zipcar, the world's largest car-sharing company, was valued at $1.2 billion, but it sold today to Avis for just shy of $500 million. If Zipcar's shareholders approve the sale, it will likely become final in a few months.

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"By combining with Zipcar, we will significantly increase our growth potential, both in the United States and internationally, and will position our company to better serve a greater variety of consumer and commercial transportation needs," Avis Chair and CEO Ronald Nelson said in a statement.

Given the clear downward trend in American car owning and driving, it was only a matter of time until a big corporation got in the sharing game, and the easiest way to do that is always to eat one of the little guys and absorb its start-up life force. According to Nelson, the deal will mean more cars for Zipcar, especially on weekends when most of Avis' fleet is sitting in parking lots. While Avis' rivals Hertz and Enterprise started offering hourly rentals, Avis never did, so the acquisition presents a real expansion of services for the old-timey rental dealership.

It's certainly got investors feeling good -- Zipcar's shares jumped more than 48 percent this morning on news of the deal.

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Peer-to-peer sharing went big in 2012 — and so did opposition

This year, ride-sharing services Lyft and Sidecar amassed millions in new funding. Uber, which lets passengers hail idle town cars with their smartphones, expanded to new cities from San Francisco to New York. And Airbnb, which makes it easy for people to rent out their homes or rooms for short periods, expects to be filling more rooms per night than Hilton by the end of the year.

And yet, in a number of cities across the country, these businesses are illegal. New things are scary. And new things that grow really fast are the scariest.

2012 saw increased acceptance and growth in sharing and peer-to-peer businesses, presenting new options for consumers and new problems for established businesses and government regulators. As these new businesses grew, so did their collective disruptive force.

As Tim Wu wrote at The New York Times, "Change isn’t always pretty, but a healthy city is one where old systems — even the hallowed taxi medallion — stand to be challenged by the winds of creative destruction."

New tech makes these businesses possible, but their sustained success doesn't hinge on advances in smartphone design or social networking. We're choosing peer-to-peer because we want to do business differently. We actually kind of want to pretend like we're not doing business at all.

Lyft and Sidecar enable individuals with their own cars to find and drive customers, keeping the majority of the fare with a small chunk going to the company.

The detachable pink mustache alerts ride-seekers that this ride is a Lyft.
Lyft
The detachable pink mustache lets ride-seekers know this is a Lyft.

"The big difference between the Lyft experience and the cab experience is supposedly friendliness. That's why they bill themselves as 'your friend with a car,'" Lyft driver Kate Dollarhyde told me. "A lot of my customers tell me they prefer Lyft because they feel more safe than they do in cabs, and also because they feel they can talk to and make friends with drivers."

In an increasingly inhospitable, unfriendly world, peer-to-peer business sells you on, well, your peers. Lyft, which launched in San Francisco this summer with plans to expand into Seattle and Los Angeles in 2013, is selling community. But it's also selling savings. Dollarhyde says Lyft trains drivers to inform customers that the rides cost about $4 less than a cab.

Even with those lower fares, Lyft can be a real source of income for drivers: “I make more money driving for Lyft per hour than I have doing anything else,” said Dollarhyde.

Airbnb can also be a significant moneymaker for participants. "Ultimately, we want to empower people and we have thousands of people around the world that are making an incredible, meaningful amount of revenue," Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky told CBS. "We've helped thousands of people stay in their homes."

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It’s high-speed rail vs. farmers in California

drawing of California's planned high-speed train
California High Speed Rail Authority

A planned high-speed rail line in California is looking forward to a bumpy 2013 (and 2014, and 2015 ...). It may be attorneys rather than travelers who really win from the largest public works project in the state's history, at least in the immediate future. The Fresno Bee reports that many farmers and other property owners along the intended route in the Central Valley have vowed to fight the project, potentially forcing the state to exercise eminent domain to seize needed properties.

Up and down the Valley, the rail authority anticipates spending tens of millions of dollars to buy the land it needs in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The agency hopes to begin construction next year on a stretch of about 30 miles from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- the first portion of what is ultimately planned as a 520-mile system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But some vocal property owners, including farmers, are loathe to part with their property and have vowed to force the state to use its power of eminent domain -- a potentially costly and time-consuming ordeal.

The line will eventually connect L.A. to San Francisco, but the first portion to be built will go through the through the Central Valley bread basket, pitting awesome California Cuties against awesome California regional transit. The total cost of the project is currently projected at $68 billion, but that likely doesn't include enough money to settle cases with all property owners, especially farmers whose livelihoods are directly tied to their property.

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New Hawaii senator says climate change is urgent

Brian Schatz
Governor Neil Abercrombie
Brian Schatz, the newest member of the U.S. Senate.

The new senator from Hawaii may come from a laid-back state, but he's not very chill when it comes to climate change. Brian Schatz (D), the former lieutenant governor, said this week that climate change will top his legislative agenda as he joins the Senate as a replacement for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D).

“For me, personally, I believe global climate change is real and it is the most urgent challenge of our generation,” Schatz said.

And then this beautiful rainbow burst forth across the islands.

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dbdigital

I don't have to tell you how unusual it is to hear this kind of straight talk from a U.S. senator. But Schatz is young, and he also comes from a series of small islands that for obvious reasons may have more immediate concerns about rising sea levels than, say, Nebraska. From The Hill:

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Holiday shopping is down, mall blight is up

It seems a lot of Americans shifted the gift this holiday season. Early reports from retailers indicate this may well be the least shop-happy winter since the apocalyptic recession Christmas of 2008. And climate change sure isn't helping.

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Sean_Marshall

Reuters reports:

Shares of retailers dropped sharply on Wednesday, helping drag broader indexes lower, as investors realized they were likely to be disappointed when companies start to report results in a few weeks' time.

"The broad brush was Christmas wasn't all that merry for retailers, and you have to ask what those margins look like if the top line didn't meet their expectations," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group.

Growth was always expected to slow this season, though an improving employment picture and rising home values had helped mitigate the worst fears. But then Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in late October, mild weather blunted sales of winter clothing and rising concern about the "fiscal cliff" became more of a reality, dragging down already-pessimistic forecasts.

(T-minus how long until someone rebrands swimsuits as a great climate collapse fashion choice?)

Stores stand to scoop up nearly a third of their annual sales over the holiday season, so this drop could be significant -- but could it be enough to push us closer to a more lasting shifting of the gifts?

Read more: Living

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The $400 million plan to unsink a giant cruise ship

Nearly a year after it crashed into a very picturesque rock on the coast of Giglio Island in the Mediterranean, the Costa Concordia cruise ship is still lying on its side in the middle of a marine wildlife preserve. The island's mayor called the ship "an ecological timebomb," but while it's not (currently!) leaking oil into the sea, the Concordia is basically a massive amount of pollution still waiting to happen.

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Roberto Vongher

There are only two things to do: Chop it up, sink it, and say sorry, or spend $400 million towing the failed monstrosity away from nature.

The latter it is!

Business Insider calls the plan, "the riskiest, most complicated, and most expensive salvage plan ever undertaken," and no one is entirely sure it will actually work.

The process consists of stabilizing the ship with massive cables (almost complete); drilling an underwater platform into the sea floor; attaching massive floaties to each side of the ship, tipping it upright, and (hopefully!) towing it away from the protected coastline still mostly intact.

Workers had to take a four-day rock climbing course before beginning the work, which will take months.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Meat company sues USDA to speed up horse meat sales

A lot of people are pretty upset about the fact that we are still without a new farm bill. But no one is upset in quite the same way as this New Mexico man who is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of the United States, and other people who are standing in the way of him slaughtering and selling horses.

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A provision passed last year might've effectively made horse slaughter legal for the first time in five years, but it turns out the feds are not exactly chomping at the bit to get back to inspecting those slaughterhouses. There's no telling whether a new farm bill would restore a ban on the practice by defunding the USDA inspections. (The House has recommended that, but the Senate hasn't.)

Rick de los Santos and his Valley Meat Company want to force the USDA to allow the country's first horse meat operation since 2007. But it's hard out there for a guy who wants to profit off of horse meat. The Los Angeles Times reports:

After waiting a year for permits, De los Santos, 52, says he's using the courts to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse since 2007.

"I've submitted all the paperwork and have been told all along 'Oh, it won't be long now,'" said De los Santos, who owns Valley Meat Co. "I followed all their guidelines. I put more than $100,000 in upgrades and additions on my facilities to handle equine slaughter. And then the government comes back and tells me, 'We can't give you the permits. This horse issue has turned into a political game.'

"So what else do you do? I figured it was time to go to court."

Another idea for something to do: not open a horse slaughterhouse?

Read more: Food

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What the fiscal cliff would mean for our cities and food

Over the last several weeks of fiscal-cliff frenzy, we've heard a lot about taxes, taxes, taxes. It's apocalypse now-ish! With only 10 days left before we go careening off that cliff, President Obama and congressional leaders are trying (so they say!) to stop the crazy train that they set rolling in the first place.

Atlantic Cities warns of the horrors awaiting us in the ravine below: big cuts for transportation and urban infrastructure, from housing to roads. The Section 8 low-income housing program and Community Services Block Grants could be slashed, as well as assistance for the homeless, which would mean hard times for the poor plus local layoffs.

The thing that makes all of this so troubling is that direct federal funds make up only a fraction of a city's budget. Much more money comes from state governments. Maryland, for example, stands to lose $100 million if the government goes over the fiscal cliff.

And without clarity on just how the federal government will try to plug up its debt, states are struggling to create a road map for their own infrastructure efforts.

Even if the fiscal cliff doesn't come to pass, all this uncertainty will likely have a long-term impact. "Cities and metros are getting the picture that the federal government is not a reliable partner," says Bruce Katz, vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

Today the National League of Cities released a statement saying, "Local elected officials have been at turns appalled, stunned, and dismayed, at what is passing for 'serious debate and negotiation'" around the fiscal cliff.

Meanwhile, leaders from states that stand to benefit from a new Farm Bill are urging Congress to summarily lump it into the last-minute budget agreement. That would affect food stamps, big ag subsidies, and a lot more. The Atlantic details some of the less-discussed risks of a last-minute Farm Bill:

Read more: Cities, Food

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Lead-bullet ad targets NRA, misses the point

Gun violence is America's lurking health crisis. But not exactly the way the Center for Biological Diversity means in its full-page New York Times ad today.

12-12-21NRAhostageClick to embiggen.

Read more: Cities, Politics