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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Keeley joins People Power; CSUMB board considers KUSP-KAZU merger; Santa Cruz buses convert to natural gas.

F. Keeley, Tree Hugger

County Treasurer and former Assemblyman Fred Keeley has launched himself back into the game of partisan politics. This time, instead of donning Democratic blue in Sacramento, he's donning environmentalist green in Santa Cruz County. That's right, everybody's favorite tax collector has emerged as a hardened greenie by coming out publicly against plans to widen Highway 1. The surprise announcement came at a Feb. 20 forum planned by the League of Women Voters to discuss the way forward on transit issues after the Regional Transportation Commission decided on Feb. 7 to abandon a proposed half-cent sales tax increase that would have gone on the November ballot.

Shortly after the announcement, Keeley kicked $30 to the alternative transportation advocacy group People Power and officially became a member. People Power was one of the groups that successfully opposed 2004's highway-widening Measure J and was threatening to oppose the November tax initiative, which would have granted $600 million to a mix of highway widening, street repairs and alternative transit projects.

Keeley likely would have shown his true colors earlier if it hadn't been for his official role as convener of the Transportation Funding Task Force, a group attempting to bridge the gap between highway-widening and alternative transit advocates. With that process complete, if unsuccessful, Keeley was free to show his true disdain for the automobile.

"With global warming on the horizon, spending $500 million on expanding a transportation system designed around the automobile simply doesn't make sense," he argued.

Keeley's declaration drew immediate criticism from outgoing County Supervisor Jan Beautz, who argued that cars are how most of the county's residents get around, and therefore car-related infrastructure should take precedence over experimental projects like passenger trains.

Keeley responded by comparing cars to ... oranges.

"If all you have is orange trees, it follows that everyone is going to eat oranges," he said. "But, if you plant some apples and some radishes, then people are going to eat some of those too. We don't need to get everyone out of their cars, we just need to create a modal split."

It's hard to gauge how Keeley's recruitment to the alternative transportation cause will affect the seemingly endless trench war between automobilistas and train and bicycle lovers, but one thing is certain: the anti-widening contingent now has a powerful weapon on its side.

Stay Tuned

Central Coast Public Media was a beautiful idea. Hatched last September after six months of formal collaboration between KUSP and KAZU, it would have put the two Monterey Bay public radio stations under one nonprofit umbrella and divvied up their duties. News and public affairs--including plenty of local reporting and talk shows--would have been the provenance of KAZU. Music and cultural programming would have been KUSP's bailiwick. Proponents envisioned public radio on par with KQED or Santa Monica's KCRW--only with news on one station and culture on another, and without any of the duplicate programming that now makes it impossible to distinguish between the two stations during drive time. It could still happen. But first the CSUMB Foundation board of directors, which governs KAZU, will have to overcome its apparent distaste for the idea--which it rejected in December--and accept one of two new offers by KUSP to either buy KAZU or manage it. And as board member and VP for University Advancement Jack Jewett has made clear, when the board meets this Thursday, Feb. 28, to discuss the KUSP offer, it will be considering other unnamed suitors as well.

"We're going to evaluate a number of proposals," said Jewett, adding, "retaining the university control of the license is very important to us for exactly the reasons some folks would like us to accept KUSP's proposal."

Those reasons boil down to "local control." The proposed merger has garnered an unusual amount of support from high places in the name of keeping KAZU's management in the area. Congressman Sam Farr voiced his support for local control of media in a Feb. 20 commentary in the Monterey County Herald. Assemblymember John Laird has also come out in favor of it.

For Jewett, local control of the license, if not operations, has been key all along. He says the board rejected the Central Coast Public Media scenario last fall precisely because it determined it would be unwise to relinquish the license. The university considers the station a valuable asset, even though KAZU has consistently run a deficit since the university purchased it in 2002. (Jewett notes the deficit is shrinking; between 2006 and 2007 it fell from $135,000 to $75,000.)

So last week KUSP countered with a proposal to buy KAZU outright or take over operations while allowing CSUMB to retain its cherished license. This round of offers, too, has met a cool reception; Jewett has told other media outlets that KUSP's purchase offer was too low.

Public Radio Capital managing director Marc Hand, a consultant hired by KUSP a year ago when talks began, says the offer of $1.5 million (half to be paid in cash, half in future underwriting and promotions) is in line with the industry standard. He adds that he's baffled by CSUMB's resistance to merging operations with KUSP.

"Typically the best possible partner is another public radio station in town," he said. "In this case it does seem like since September they've been pretty intent on anybody but KUSP."

Terry Green, general manager for KUSP, casts the proposal as a smart way to halt a creeping malaise: erosion of support for public radio locally and nationally. While both stations saw growth between 2003 and 2005--the years immediately after KAZU went to an all-public affairs format--that has leveled off, mirroring a national trend.

"It's true for public radio generally that we've seen our growth plateau," Green says. "That's what made us want to resolve this with some urgency, because even if our audience has plateaued and our community support has plateaued, I don't think our costs have plateaued."

Gas au Naturel

The experience of having bus exhaust blown in your face will never be exactly a kick in the pants. But as the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District accelerates efforts to convert its fleet of 100 buses to natural gas, air quality for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists caught behind county-run buses will at least be a bit less toxic.

Two-thirds of the fleet will be burning compressed natural gas (CNG) by the end of the year, according to Santa Cruz Metro general manager Les White. Conversions are happening at a pretty healthy clip, considering the agency legally has until 2015 to get its stanky diesel buses out of rotation. The 2015 mandate was handed down from the California Air Resources Board as part of the state's plan to reduce particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions coming from urban bus systems.

Not all is well in the noble fight to clean up the county's air, however. The sticky fingers of Sacramento lawmakers are threatening the bus agency's goal of converting the rest of its fleet by 2012.

As attentive readers will remember, last year's painfully long state budget negotiations resulted in over $1 billion being transferred (read: yanked) out of the Public Transportation Account and into the General Fund. This took some $3 million away from Santa Cruz's bus agency during this budget year.

While the one-year budget raid doesn't threaten this year's planned conversions, White and other public transportation chiefs across the state are worried it could set a dangerous precedent. With this in mind, White joined with the California Transit Association in a lawsuit against the state accusing legislators of illegally transferring the money.

Some good news was announced for the bus agency when Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jack Sapunor ruled on Jan.31 that the state must refund $409 million to state transit agencies. The rest of the booty, $779 million, was deemed properly transferred since it was going toward school bus and other mass transportation services covered by the General Fund. White estimates $2.2 million of that decision would have been sent Santa Cruz's way, in order to replace aging ParaCruz vans.

But the legislative maneuvering was far from over. On Feb. 14, state legislators knee-deep in early negotiations to fix the nearly $14 billion budget shortfall decided to reroute that $409 million refund from the Public Transportation Account to a special school bus section of the General Fund. In other words, they swiftly skirted the court decision. The California Transit Association plans to appeal the initial ruling, which would again call into question the entire $1.2 billion taken from the Public Transportation Account last year. No word yet on when that appeal will be heard.

In related news, the 64 CNG-burning buses scheduled to be up and running by year's end will also have a place to fuel up now that the METROBASE fueling station at Harvey West Park is finally completed. There was fear that the fueling station may have been unusable after some miscommunication between the architects and builders resulted in unspecified construction mistakes. Those mishaps cost around $300,000 and delayed the fueling station's opening, which finally took place this week. How this cost overrun will be repaid--whether by the building company, Arntz Builders, or by the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Board of Directors--is the subject of "pre-trial" negotiations that should be wrapped up by mid-March. If they aren't wrapped up by then, expect yet another lawsuit to be filed.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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