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11.21.07

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Nūz: Once again, Highway One divides the latest transportation tax effort.

Road Warriors

As members of the Transportation Funding Task Force (TFTF) left their seats at the end of the group's final meeting on Nov. 14, there was a whiff of success in the air. Cake was served and Martinelli's sparking cider bottles were popped to celebrate the TFTF's hard-won achievement: consensus, sort of, on a new transportation plan.May Nūz suggest some whiskey instead, to fortify all for the coming months? Trouble is a-brewing.

The group was reveling in the fact that it had mustered over two-thirds of its members to support a proposal to raise the county's sales tax by a half-cent over 30 years. The money would fund a total of $600 million worth of projects, including highway widening, establishing train service, improving bus service and repairing pothole-ridden streets. If the proposal makes it through the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC), it will be placed on next November's ballot. It would need the approval of two-thirds of voters to pass.

After 26 months of tense debate, the level of consensus reached during the TFTF's last meeting was in fact cause for celebration. But not everyone was in a celebrating mood. As soon as the vote had been tallied, the environmentalist contingent within the TFTF vowed to organize an opposition to the tax measure, and possibly even field its own proposal on the November ballot.

"It's a lot of work, but we can get our own initiative on the ballot," says Paul Elerick of the Campaign for Sensible Transportation. "I think we could do it. There are a lot of people who are willing to do that work."

The environmentalists don't like what they see as an unbalanced proposal that would allocate $300 million to widening Highway One, $35 million for train service, $130 million for bus service and $135 million for street repairs.

The opposition movement, which has essentially the same composition as the opposition movement created to fight the failed 2004 transportation tax Measure J, was also disturbed by the rejection of an amendment proposed by Virginia Johnson of Ecology Action during final negotiations. Johnson's amendment would have required the overall plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and individual projects to be at least carbon neutral.

Elerick suggested the amendment might in fact form the foundation of a competing measure. "The initiative might be focused around global warming, requiring that no project shall be undertaken that doesn't result in a lower amount of greenhouse gases," he said.

Johnson refused to comment on whether or not she would join in an opposition movement.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club and local bicycle advocacy group People Power have both indicated they will join a campaign to defeat the measure as it stands.

"We have a transportation system that's over-dependent on the automobile and foreign oil," says James Danaher, transportation committee chair for the Sierra Club. "This vote from the task force was a vote to expand that dependency. I think the majority ignored the desires and concerns of the people."

For People Power's Micah Posner, the decision to fight the TFTF's proposal was rather cut and dry.

"If you care about global warming, you shouldn't support a proposal sponsored by people who don't care about global warming," he says. "If you widen the road you induce traffic. Because it's a 30-year project, you slowly create the impetus for sprawl. If you put in a train, you also encourage development, but it's more of an infill, nodal style of development."

As the opposition movement begins to organize, it's clear that decreasing greenhouse gas emissions will be one of its main rallying cries. However, some supporters of the TFTF proposal believe the global warming issue is a "sound bite" hiding the environmentalists' true motivations.

"I don't think you can claim to be against this because of global warming. That's very transparent," says county Supervisor Ellen Pirie. "That's not the issue. This opposition has been going on for over 30 years. It used to be, a long, long time ago, it was an effort to control growth. That's how the opposition to widening Highway 1 started. I don't know why they're opposing it now [after the implementation of growth control measures in the late '70s]. I guess they've just always opposed it, so they're going to continue to oppose it." When asked what she thinks is motivating the environmentalists now, Pirie said, "I can't answer that question."

For Pirie and many others in the pro-widening camp, the environmentalists are asking for too much. Pirie cited the $35 million allocated to train service as an example of the compromise anti-train activists had made, and added that she would have liked to see more compromise on the part of the environmentalists.

"I'm not surprised the campaign will organize against it because they want everything their way," says Pirie, referring to Elerick's organization. "All the experts say an organized campaign against [a tax measure] can bring it down, and I believe it's true. Then none of us will have anything. No money for a train, no money for rail trail, no money for road repairs, and no money for buses."

Yes, whiskey. And make it a double.

Fa-la-la-la-loo

Ah, the holiday shopping season. Time to head downtown and spend the day shopping, eating and drinking—and holding it, unless you happen to be near Bookshop Santa Cruz, the only decent public restroom facility on the mall. It's tough to find a place to tinkle in this town. God help you should more serious business call.

It's an uncivilized state of affairs, in Nūz's view. But this time next year, public sanitation in Surf City could be much improved. After downtown merchants shot down the idea of a self-cleaning kiosk-style public restroom—nobody wanted what might have turned into a tiny little brothel or shooting gallery on the sidewalk in front of their business—city officials are taking a different approach and turning to the business owners themselves. Mark Dettle, director of public works for the city, explained to Nūz that the latest idea, modeled on a program in Santa Barbara and other cities, is to offer a stipend or a break on city fees to any business owner who opens up a loo to John Q. Public. Signs would point mallgoers to these facilities, which would presumably be more pleasant than the rank city-run public toilets in the Soquel and Locust street garages.

John Lischer, owner of Artisans gallery in downtown Santa Cruz and a member of several city committees on public restrooms, is a big advocate of community restrooms downtown. "You can see where it would curtail commerce," he says, not to have any facilities at all.

But Lischer is leery of asking individual business owners to take on the cost and hassle of providing what he thinks should be a public service. "I think the community has a responsibility to install public restrooms," he says. "They should be in the public domain, so everyone shares the cost." Lischer adds that public toilets take a beating. He points to Bookshop Santa Cruz, which he says "should be nominated for sainthood" for opening its restrooms to the public at great expense. (Nūz is inclined to agree.)

Vice-Mayor Ryan Coonerty, whose sister Sheila Coonerty now runs the family business, says between toilet paper, water, cleaning, visits by the plumber and vandalism, Bookshop Santa Cruz spends $40,000 to $50,000 a year keeping its restrooms open.

The city-run toilets also cost a pretty penny, says Dettle. People showering at the sink, stuffing things down the toilet, tearing out fixtures and worse all help boost the maintenance cost to $150,000 a year.

And still nobody wants to use them.

Will business owners want to sign up for this? Will people be shamed into good behavior if they have to traipse through somebody's shop to reach the can? Maybe. Nūz is pleased to learn that the city is not planning on relying solely on the stipend-for-privies plan, which is still in the exploratory phase. Coonerty says another part of the program is to start making sure establishments that serve food and drink—which are required to have restrooms—are making them available to their customers, if not the general public. And some sprucing up of the garage restrooms, possibly including video cameras outside to deter vandalism, is also on the list.

It's a subject that Coonerty, who officially becomes mayor this month, greets dutifully, if not joyously.

"For something that affects everybody, it's a tough problem to solve," he says, adding, "but I think we can make some progress on it."

Grease Is the Word

Who says there's no guilt-free eating? Ordering up a big basket of onion rings at Aldo's restaurant, or picking up a juicy piece of fried chicken glistening with grease from a UCSC dining hall tray, will help some in the community reduce their reliance on foreign oil. A growing fleet of vehicles in the county, from Budweiser delivery trucks to UCSC shuttles, are running on recycled deep-fryer oil coming from local restaurants. Restaurateurs and local environmentalists herald this recycling process as a great way to prevent overburdening of the sewer system while supporting an emerging enviro-friendly industry.

"It just makes sense with everything we're heading towards. We're trying to do the best environmental practices across the board," says UCSC Food Services manager Clint Jeffries, whose participation in this "fryer to fuel" conversion process won his department a "green certification" award from the Santa Cruz City Council on Nov. 13. "We really want to do our part, and this is one more thing we can do. We're producing this oil anyhow, so we might as well turn it into a sustainable fuel source."

Upon hearing of this development, Nūz wondered what the trip was like for used frying oil making the journey from the fries pan to the gas tank of a diesel-powered car.

Nūz caught up with Josephine Fleming, a contractor for Ecology Action working on expanding and improving "fryer to fuel" arrangements throughout the county. Fleming notes that while all grease should be kept out of the sewer system, it can't all realistically be made into biodiesel. Existing biofuel production technology can only handle oil coming from deep fryers, so UCSC Dining workers and those working at other participating restaurants are asked to put oil from these fryers into a different container than the one holding bacon grease, leftover oil from cooking pans and other excess fats and grease.

"That way we get better feed stock for biodiesel," says Fleming. "Research is occurring to develop technologies that could convert the other grease, known as 'brown grease,' to biofuels, but that isn't available now."

This unusable "brown grease" gets mixed in with animal feed, while the frying oil is picked up by Bill Ottone and the rest of the gang at Salinas Tallow for free.

Salinas Tallow also picks up frying oil from Shadowbrook, Miramar, Stagnaro's and many other restaurants in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo counties, all free of charge. Once they get all the used fryer oil collected, Ottone and Co. recook it until the water and leftover bits of fried matter ("chitterlings," we believe they're called) settle and can be extracted from the oil."We basically remove the impurities," says Ottone.After that, the cleaned-up oil is sent off to the Energy Alternative Solutions Inc. (EASI) production plant in Gonzalez, located not far south of Salinas. This is where Salinas Tallow finally gets paid for its services. Restaurants no longer have to pay for fryer oil pickup because Salinas Tallow makes so much money unloading the stuff on EASI.

Once in the hands of EASI workers, the oil is further refined through a process known as transeterification. Nūz understands this isn't the most user-friendly term, so we'll let EASI CEO Rich Gillis explain.

"We use a catalyst and an alcohol to extract certain molecules out of the vegetable oil," he says. "These molecules are mostly free fatty acids and glycerol [a water-soluble sugar alcohol]. What's left is good vegetable oil that's clean so it doesn't clog the lines and other parts of diesel engines."

Once the biofuel is ready for sale, it goes to the San Jose-based biofuel distributor Coast Oil, which sells a portion of it back to, you guessed it, UCSC. UCSC then uses it to help power its fleet of shuttles. This circular arrangement is known in biofuel industry lingo as a "community-based closed loop."

Mama Nūz always used to say, "You reap what you sow."

Give Early, Give Often

Retail stores aren't the only ones that make up ground at this time of year. The holidays are crucial for Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties as well. And a little can go a long way toward helping this organization meet its goal of 1.6 million pounds of food this year, as Nūz recently learned.

Christine Woodard, development director for the organization, stresses that all donations are welcome. Canned vegetables, canned stews and all forms of canned protein, including peanut butter, are critical to the success of the food bank, which provides groceries to 1,200-1,500 area families per month as well as 160 member agencies like the Salvation Army.

But cash! Now there's a way to stretch your philanthropic dollar. Because of the food bank's incredible buying power—think of semis full of apples, potatoes or rice—$1 of donated cash can buy $9 worth of food. That's a 900 percent return on warm fuzzies, by Nūz's calculation. The food bank could use the help. The holiday drive is always important—so far this year it has raised 450,000 pounds of food, or almost a third of the goal for the year—but donations are down slightly. Woodard attributes this to the fire in Southern California and the warm weather. "People start thinking about us with the first cold snap," she says.

Meanwhile, more people than ever are feeling the pinch of rising prices. "Gasoline costs put a whole new bracket of folks in need," she says, adding that big winter electric bills and even the rising cost of milk are hurting people. Recent regional layoffs are also intensifying the problem, she says.

"Today we have 50 people who were formerly employed with BirdsEye," she says. "A lot of them were employed for 20 years."

Donations may be dropped off at libraries, fire stations, Coast Commercial banks and Goodwill. Donate cash online at www.thefoodbank.org or by sending to 800 Ohlone Pkwy., Watsonville, 95076-7005.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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