Stimulus to deliver $2 million to Merced County for Castle Airport
Airport will use money to improve runway...SCOTT JASON
More than $2 million in economic stimulus money will be landing in Merced County to revamp Castle Airport.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced $42 million for California's airports with $2.25 million to rejuvenate Castle Airport's 3.6 million-square-foot runway.
Castle Commerce Center director Mark Hendrickson said the work will help transform the airport from a former Air Force Base to a commercial hub.
"This is another step in our evolution," he said.
The county ultimately hopes to host a commercial passenger airline service. It wants Castle, which was an Air Force base until 1995, to thrive as an economic hub for Merced County.
The Federal Aviation Administration received $1.1 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The money is meant to fund safety, security and other issues at airports.
For Castle, the money will pay to have workers scrape off burnt rubber from landings, reseal the concrete and repaint markings.
The county will award the bid before June 16 and expects the work to last several weeks.
Hendrickson said the county approved spending $394,000 on design studies so that more projects can be eligible for funding.
It's looking to land about $5.5 million in stimulus funding for Castle as more money becomes available.
Additional federal money will funnel to area street and road repairs.
Meltdown 101: Job losses highest in 50 years...CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABER, AP Economics Writer
WASHINGTON -- Here's another sign of how bad the recession is: It has eliminated more jobs as a proportion of the work force than any downturn since 1958, according to economists.
The Labor Department said Friday that employers cut 663,000 jobs last month, bringing the total net losses in the current recession to 5.1 million. The unemployment rate rose to 8.5 percent in March, the department said, the highest in more than 25 years.
Total net payrolls have dropped by 3.7 percent since the downturn began in December 2007. That's more than the 3.1 percent loss of jobs in the steep 1981-82 recession, according to economists at Deutsche Bank. It's far more than the 1.2 percent lost in the 2001 downturn and 1.1 percent in 1990-91, and it also tops the 1.6 percent of jobs lost in the 1973-75 recession.
You have to go back even earlier to find a worse figure, according to Deutsche Bank: In 1957-58, job losses totaled 4 percent. The current recession will likely beat that total if job losses continue to mount, as economists expect.
There are many other nuggets of data buried in the fine print of Friday's employment report. Here are a few of the more interesting details, by the numbers.
THE STATE OF UNEMPLOYMENT
13.2 million: People unemployed in March 2009 - the most ever in records that date to 1948
12.8 million: Population of Illinois, President Obama's home state
A CITY'S WORTH OF JOB LOSSES
663,000: Net loss of jobs in March 2009
637,000: Population of Baltimore
COLLEGE STILL COUNTS
4.3 percent: Unemployment rate for college graduates
9 percent: Unemployment rate for people who graduated from high school but did not attend college
13.3 percent: Unemployment rate for those with no high school diploma
9 million: Number of part-time workers who would have preferred full-time work last month - the most in records dating to 1955
2.1 million: People without jobs who wanted to work, were available and had looked in the last 12 months, but had not looked in the last month.
15.6 percent: Unemployment rate including involuntary part-time workers and those who hadn't looked in 12 months - the highest in records dating to 1994
DOWNTURNS, THEN AND NOW
8.5 percent: Unemployment rate in March 2009
10.8 percent: Unemployment rate in December 1982, one month after deep recession ended
October 1983: Last time the unemployment rate was higher than the current level
59.9 percent: Portion of the total population that had jobs in February
July 1985: Last time the portion was this low
MARCH UNEMPLOYMENT RATE BY GROUP
8.8 percent: Adult men
7 percent: Adult women
10.8 percent: Female heads of households
6.4 percent: Asians
7.9 percent: Whites
11.4 percent: Hispanics
13.3 percent: Blacks
21.7 percent: Teenagers
RECESSION AS JOB KILLER
5.1 million: Net job losses since recession began in December 2007
651,000: Jobs lost in February 2009
741,000: Jobs lost in January 2009
681,000: Jobs lost in December 2008
122,000: Jobs lost in March 2008
60,000: Number of households interviewed in the monthly Census Bureau survey from which the unemployment rate is extrapolated
40 percent: Portion of companies in the survey of businesses, from which payroll and job loss numbers are extrapolated, with fewer than 20 employees
As West warms, some fear for tiny mountain dweller...MIKE STARK, Associated Press Writer
SALT LAKE CITY -- The American pika - a short-legged, hamster-sized fur ball that huddles in high mountain slopes - isn't built for long-distance travel.
So as the West's climate warms, the tiny pika has little choice but to scurry a little farther upslope to beat the heat.
Problem is, in some places, they've run out of room to run, according to scientists. Without cool rocky refuges, the finicky pika can't survive.
Soon, if conservationists have their way, the pika could be the first species in the lower 48 states to get federal endangered species protections primarily because of the effects of climate change.
"It's feeling an exaggerated brunt of global warming," said Greg Loarie, an Earthjustice attorney involved with lawsuits to get the pika protections. "Unlike others, it can't move north. It's stuck."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to decide by May 1 whether to take an in-depth look at the pika - a diminutive relative of the rabbit that inhabits 10 Western states - and whether it may need to be on the endangered species list.
The polar bear is already listed because of threats of global warming. The pika could be next. And more petitions naming climate change as a cause of species decline are likely in the coming years, said Dan Ashe, science adviser to the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's like the 'check engine' light that comes on in your car. It tells you something's going on here," Ashe said.
For pikas in the Great Basin, which includes parts of Nevada and Utah, the news is already grim.
Donald Grayson, a University of Washington archaeologist, studied 57 archaeological sites dating back 40,000 years. Where pikas once typically lived at about 5,700 feet above sea level, they are now averaging higher than 8,000 feet, according to Grayson's research published in 2005.
"In the Great Basin, pikas now are at such high elevations, there's not any place for them to go any higher," he said. "I actually think that pikas in the Great Basin are probably doomed."
The pika also lives in parts of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming.
A U.S. Geological Survey study in 2003 found six of 25 previously known pika populations in the Great Basin had disappeared. Researchers have returned to the 25 sites since then but their results have not yet been published.
"Climate seems to be the single strongest driver but it's interacting" with other factors such as grazing, habitat loss, roads and human disturbance, said Erik Beever, a USGS ecologist in Anchorage, Alaska, who has studied pikas for about 15 years, including the 2003 study in the Great Basin.
Part of the problem is that the pika's peculiar traits are suited for alpine conditions: dense fur, slow reproduction and a thermal regulation system that doesn't do well when temperatures get above about 78 degrees.
"There's not a lot of wiggle room with these guys," Beever said.
That could spell trouble for the pika, especially in parts of the West where climate change is expected to produce some of the most significant temperature changes in the country.
But pikas aren't running into trouble everywhere.
Connie Millar, an alpine ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, spends much of her research time in the Sierra Nevada mountains. On her travels, she notes signs of pikas: sightings, distinctive squeaks, telltale heaps of grasses the animals gather and save for winter munching.
Over the last two years, she found only 2 percent of 279 pika sites were abandoned, and in some places pikas were showing up at lower-than-expected elevations. In parts of the western Great Basin she checked, about 17 percent of expected pikas sites showed no signs of the animals.
Climate change, interacting with complex ecosystems, isn't likely to have uniform effects, especially on a widespread species such as the pika.
"What it's doing in one place, it might not be doing elsewhere," Millar said.
Teams fanned out across Utah last summer looking for pikas at 113 spots where they might be living. Of those, about 75 percent had signs, state officials said.
Although pikas are well-known to hikers along high, rocky slopes in several flagship national parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier and Yosemite, population studies have been sporadic across their range.
Still, information in hand was enough for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, to sue the federal government to protect the pika under the Endangered Species Act. A similar suit was also filed against the state of California.
The federal lawsuit resulted in a settlement in February requiring a decision from the Fish and Wildlife Service by May 1. A hearing on the lawsuit in California - where state wildlife officials have disputed the assertion that pikas are threatened - is scheduled for later this month.
"What the loss of the pika shows us is that global warming is impacting wildlife here in our own backyard," said Shaye Wolf, a San Francisco-based biologist for the environmental group. "It provides an early indicator of what's to come if we don't reduce our greenhouse gas pollution."
But listing the pika or any other species because of threats from global warming raises a new set of questions for wildlife managers.
The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species in 2008, the first to be protected because of the threats of global warming. Officials quickly completed regulations, though, to ensure the listing couldn't be used to block projects that contribute to global warming. That decision is now being challenged in court.
Ashe said it's unclear exactly what steps could be taken to protect the pika from climate change. Recovery plans could address other specific threats such as grazing or roads - or target certain pika subspecies - but climate change has international causes and implications.
For wildlife managers, it's a new and shifting territory. But that doesn't mean efforts shouldn't be made, said Loarie, the Earthjustice attorney.
"The pika is the tip of the iceberg," he said. "Scientists are saying if global warming continues on this track, there are more extinctions coming. I don't think that most people are willing to accept that."
Drought-weary Australia a guide to California's future?...Matt Weiser
Think California's drought looks bad? Look to Australia for a reality check.
The land of kangaroos and koalas is suffering its worst drought in history. It began in 2001, and it's been bad enough to win a spooky name: the Millennium Drought.
Australian leaders have responded aggressively to what they view as a permanent state caused by climate change.
At the recent World Water Forum in Istanbul, Australian efforts were held up as a model for regions pondering a warmer, thirstier future. That resonates in California these days.
At the forum, The Bee interviewed Greg Claydon, director of strategic water initiatives for the state of Queensland, Australia. That state will spend $9 billion on three wastewater recycling plants, a desalination plant, two new dams and 120 miles of pipe to link them in a flexible new supply network.
Similar solutions – desalination, wastewater recycling, dams and major diversions of river water – also are on the table here, as California struggles through water-supply threats in a third year of drought.
Australia's work has been sweeping, from severe water rationing and new plumbing standards to rainwater catchment and ocean desalination.
That's just the hardware.
Australia also assessed the true yield of all its watersheds and is buying back water to protect the environment.
It rewrote water laws to give agriculture a legal entitlement to water akin to a property right (as in California, farmers are Australia's biggest water consumers). This seems counterintuitive, but was necessary to ensure a supply for everyone. It also created a cap-and-trade water market to prevent waste, similar to efforts to control greenhouse gases.
Rather than use water for low-value crops like cotton, some Australian farmers now earn a living selling water to cities or other farms that grow high-value crops, like grapes.
How would these changes fit in California's water culture?
"They would be very radical," said Eric Garner, an attorney in Riverside and chair of the International Bar Association's water law committee. "Quantifying all (water) rights in California would be a very radical shift, and allowing them to be traded – to be bought and sold freely – would be a very significant change."
Queensland's Claydon explained how they're doing it in Australia:
These measures sound pretty drastic. Is this a survival plan?
I think there's probably an expectation we'll come out of this drought sooner or later. But in some parts of the country, all previous records have been broken. The climate change forecast for these areas is less rainfall, less runoff, higher temperatures, which means higher water demand and more severe droughts. We're getting ready for these sorts of droughts before they even come.
How have people reacted to the reform of water rights?
Farmers were certainly looking to get their water access better specified. Farmers do want secure, tradeable water entitlements. These tradeable entitlements provide for a perpetual share of the resource. They're not subject to review every three years.
Have there been disputes over the size of entitlements?
We went through a resource planning process, first to determine the needs of the environment, then any excess available for people. It wasn't controversial. What was contestable was the science. We got our expert advice, and some of the water users got their expert advice. In those cases where we did have contested science, we set up what you might call a "super sciences" panel to review that.
What have you asked the public to do?
We started something called Campaign 140, to encourage residents to reduce water use to 140 liters per person, per day (about 36 gallons). They've more than met that goal. Many people have reduced their consumption as low as 120 liters per day. Before the drought, the average person used 300 liters per day. (The average Sacramentan uses about 1,000 liters daily.)
How did you get this message to the public?
We handed out egg timers to encourage four-minute showers, and ran advertisements where people give tips on how they do it. We offer subsidies for rainwater catchments ($1,000 for a 3,000-liter or bigger tank), and for pool covers (now mandatory). In the last three years, we've installed more than a quarter-million rainwater catchments on existing properties. In new developments, it's now mandatory. We also made water-saving toilets, faucets and other plumbing mandatory. There was a directive to power stations to go off the mains for their water usage. They all had to go onto recycled water.
Were there complaints?
People were concerned about their gardens. The nursery industry was concerned because of the impact it might have on sales. So we provided subsidies to consumers to buy drought-tolerant plants.
What about water rates?
The residential cost is now $1.20 (Australian) per kiloliter (about 10 times more than metered customers pay in the Sacramento area). It will increase as the additional infrastructure comes online. In 10 years' time, the price will double or more. The cheap water sources have been developed and now we're into more expensive ones. Those cheaper sources aren't reliable in a highly variable climate scenario. That's the reality.
Are people upset about these changes?
There hasn't been a big political outcry – yet. No one likes paying more. But people don't like severe (water) restrictions either. If you want a more reliable supply, you've got to pay for it. By early 2007, our water supplies declined to only 17 percent of storage. People began to recognize there's a real risk we'd even run out of water totally. For a number of reasons, there's been an embedded behavior change.
Condors shot...Alex Breitler's Blog
It's a bit out of our area, but I felt compelled to pass on this disturbing news from DFG today:
Second California Condor Shot
Biologists on Central Coast Discover Three Pellets Lodged in Critically Endangered Bird
BIG SUR, Calif. -- Three weeks after finding an adult male condor with 15 shotgun pellets lodged in its body, biologists at the Ventana Wildlife Society found three lead pellets in a juvenile female. The second bird, condor #375, was trapped by biologists on March 26 in Big Sur. The timing of the shooting is currently unknown. After conducting a routine blood test, Ventana Wildlife Society biologists learned that the second bird is suffering from lead poisoning. An investigation is under way and the public is asked to contact law enforcement agencies listed below with any information on these shootings.
X-rays of the ailing condor revealed three shotgun pellets embedded in its body -- two in a wing and one in a thigh. Condor #375 was treated for lead poisoning and then immediately transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo for long-term treatment.
"We were alarmed when one condor was found shot, but now with two birds in such a short time, we are deeply concerned," said Kelly Sorenson, director of Ventana Wildlife Society.
The wildlife agencies overseeing state and federal endangered species laws take any incident like this very seriously and will pursue justice for any criminal acts.
Defenders of Wildlife is offering a $1,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction of those responsible for the condor shootings.
"You can’t place a dollar sign on how valuable each condor living in the wild is for the survival of the species," said Pamela Flick, the California program coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife. "But we hope that this contribution will help to catch those responsible for shooting this rare and vulnerable bird and show that harming endangered condors is illegal."
Stiff state and federal penalties may be imposed for violations of the Endangered Species Act.
"Typically, hunters have a strong conservation ethic and do not randomly or intentionally harm protected species," said California Department of Fish and Game Wildlife Branch Chief Eric Loft." Any information about these shootings will help us prosecute for this egregious crime and will further protect this rare California species."
Although both wounded condors are still alive, it remains unclear whether either would be able to return to the wild. The first bird found shot, condor #286, is still in critical condition with an incapacitated digestive tract due to lead poisoning. The condor remains alive only because veterinarians have been able to nourish him with a feeding tube.
While the prognosis for condor #375 is better, one shotgun pellet has impacted a bone in the left wing and it is unclear whether there will be long-term impairment of her ability to fly. In both birds, the lead exposure is more likely from a different incident involving the ingestion of lead fragments.
Biologists have been working for decades to reestablish California condor populations in the wild. From a population low of just 22 condors in 1982, there are now 320 of these critically endangered birds in the world.
S.J. real estate boom won't be Bay Area-driven
Price differential is narrowing as homes lose value...Bruce Spence
If you're a homeowner hoping for an equity-swelling Boom II, fed by Bay Area residents swarming back over the Altamont Pass again to start snapping up cheaper Valley home prices, forget about it - at least anytime soon.
Home sellers and builders report that few Bay Area buyers are out shopping for homes in San Joaquin County, even with prices having been cut by almost 44 percent year-to-year to a median of $155,000 in February.
Existing homes in Contra Costa County are moving at a median sales price of not much more than $200,000, for example, after prices shrank by 52.2 percent year to year in the foreclosure-hammered residential downturn.
"I don't see Bay Area buyers coming back yet, because the prices there are so affordable and the interest rates are so good," said Jerry Abbott, president and co-owner of Grupe Real Estate in Stockton.
And then there are gas prices that last year pushed beyond $4 per gallon. That's gone but not forgotten.
"That was a bad scare," Abbott said. "It pushed a lot of people back."
Then there's just the poor economy, which is causing many people to watch their spending, especially the big spending.
Ben Balsbaugh, residential sales manager for PMZ Real Estate in Stockton, said his office hasn't seen an influx of Bay Area buyers.
"It would be my sense that the Bay Area resident is more concerned about keeping their job then they are acquiring property here in the Valley," he said. "With there not being a lot of jobs out there, I think they are staying hunkered down for the most part."
The Central Valley housing boom sent prices skyrocketing from 2000 well into 2006. When the boom started, Bay Area prices had skyrocketed in a market where 600-square-foot cottages were being listed for $800,000 and selling under multiple bids for many thousands of dollars more.
This was happening when the median sales house for Stockton was just breaking over $100,000.
The Central Valley residential market took off with prices for both existing and new homes zooming upward by between 25 percent and 40 percent annually. Finally, prices got so high that even creative financing couldn't cover purchase prices, and the market started tanking.
Art Godi of Art Godi Realtors in Stockton, said that the typical price disparity between homes in the Valley and the Bay Area has greatly shrunk, because in the current housing market downturn, home prices in virtually every region of the state are getting pounded by ever-sinking foreclosure prices.
Even though there are some tremendous buys out there, he said, what also makes a difference is that buyers no longer have access in this tough credit market to automatic easy financing - the running joke in the old days being that if someone could fog a mirror, he could get a mortgage loan.
Plus, because Bay Area prices have been slammed hard as well, the price discrepancies won't keep many home buyers driving over the Altamont, he said.
"If now you can go to Contra Costa County and afford to get a house there, why drive that greater distance to the Valley just to save $50,000, where before you could save $200,000?" Godi said.
David Stark, a spokesman for the Bay East Association of Realtors in Pleasanton, said sales have jumped in Alameda County for two reasons: reduced prices and lower mortgage interest costs that have combined to make homes more affordable.
Fewer people have to look inland for less expensive homes, he said.
"Things have shifted now," he said. "Traffic congestion, dealing with gas prices, dealing with quality of life from long commutes, the Valley life might not be as attractive as it was."
Steve Reiser, owner of a Walnut Creek real estate brokerage, said improved affordability from price declines in that area of between 20 percent and 25 percent is keeping people from having to look inland for cheaper houses.
"They don't have to, and that's the reason they were going to the periphery."
Four years ago, Abbott compared home sales prices in Stockton and Pleasanton - the difference ran about $450,000 - and divided that by the distance between the two cities: about 45 miles.
That meant that a homeowner willing to commute to Stockton instead of just to Pleasanton would save about $10,000 per mile, he said.
These days, the savings are about half that, he figures, and that's not enough to send buyers this way.
Even back in 2000, Stockton-area brokers reported that eight out of 10 home buyers were from the Bay Area.
Godi said one out of 10 these days probably is overly high - one out of 30 is more like it.
The traffic of Bay Area buyers remains as slim for home builders.
"It's all relative," said Joe Anfuso, president and chief executive officer of Stockton-based Florsheim Homes. "For them, the prices there are the lowest they've seen for a long time, so they're going to look there first to see whether they can afford that shorter commute."
And he said he's not seeing a lot of traffic from the Bay Area.
Those interviewed agreed that the migration will be back some day, but for now, the crush of foreclosures has warped the market, driving prices down hard for everyone.
When a "normal" market returns, Bay Area prices will regain its typically much higher, pricier ground, and Central Valley prices will look much more attractive again, they said.
"It will come back but not anytime soon," Abbott said.
San Francisco Chronicle
Bill to freeze top state workers' pay advances...Jim Doyle
A legislator's bill to freeze the pay of state employees making more than $150,000 a year has cleared its first hurdle - the Assembly Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security Committee.
If signed into law, the bill by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge (Los Angeles County), would impose a two-year salary cap on about 785 state employees - mainly executives and managers - and produce hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential savings, according to a legislative analysis.
It was approved unanimously on Wednesday by the committee and goes next to the Appropriations Committee.
Portantino said he was inspired to take action after reading news reports of big pay hikes in the University of California and the California State University systems, especially in light of a multibillion-dollar state budget deficit,
"It seems like almost every month I've been reading about exorbitant pay raises for top officials at UC and CSU, at the time of a statewide budget crisis, we truly have to have a statewide response to share the burden," Portantino said.
"I feel that those state workers who earn more than $150,000 a year should forgo their pay raises for the next 24 months," Portantino said. "It makes fiscal sense and it shows that we understand the struggle of common Californians."
The proposed law would not apply to Portantino, who earns about $116,000 a year, but could affect some legislative aides.
His bill would cap the total compensation for the highest paid state workers in the legislative, executive and judicial branches, including gubernatorial staff, employees of state agencies, and employees of the California State University system.
It would not apply to rank-and-file workers who are subject to a labor agreement.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would have the right under the legislation to grant exemptions to the pay freeze for state employees "necessary for protecting the safety and security of the people of California."
Portantino's bill urges the University of California's Board of Regents to adopt this policy, too. The state Constitution gives the regents sole authority over salaries and benefits of executives and managers, among others.
UC and CSU officials oppose the legislation, arguing that they have already imposed cost-saving measures.
The UC Board of Regents adopted a plan in January to freeze the salaries of 285 top administrators through 2009-10. Many professors and other staff members exempted from that freeze, however, earn more than $150,000 a year.
UC President Mark Yudof said the Portantino bill would interfere with the university's mission by requiring it to break its salary commitment to those faculty members promised merit increases and its abilities to attract top administrators, including those who run the university's five major hospitals.
CSU's Board of Trustees has imposed a pay freeze on about 133 top officials, including Chancellor Charles Reed and his 23 campus presidents, through June 2010.
"We have serious concerns about (the bill) and our ability to govern ourselves and attract and retain faculty, staff and executives," said Claudia Keith, a spokeswoman for the CSU chancellor.
Inside Bay Area
Caltrain and High-Speed Rail Authority sign agreement...Mike Rosenberg, Palo Alto Daily News
In forming what they called a "monumental" alliance, Caltrain officials Thursday signed an agreement with the California High Speed Rail Authority that outlines how the two agencies will one day share the Caltrain corridor on the Peninsula.
The agreement joins Caltrain and the rail authority as official partners and for the first time formally gives the Peninsula a local voice in the massive state transportation project.
Caltrain owns the railroad that the state's high-speed bullet trains will share.
The joint venture also paves the way for Caltrain to use bullet train technology to electrify its own trains, an upgrade seen as the only way for the agency to expand local service. It also should allow for Caltrain to install safety improvements and for cities to receive long-awaited grade separations, where the tracks pass either under or over streets.
"High-speed rail could enhance our community or it could destroy it," said Caltrain board member Jim Hartnett, a Redwood City councilman. "If we're not a partner in this, it could destroy it."
The Caltrain board unanimously approved the deal Thursday after the rail authority did so in March.
Under terms of the five-page agreement, the two agencies will jointly hire a program director to manage all high-speed rail and Caltrain projects on the corridor and work directly under the heads of the two agencies.
One last-minute change to the deal was the elimination of acontroversial passage that indicated the bullet train would operate on a four-track alignment, assuming there typically would be two tracks for Caltrain and a pair for high-speed rail.
Some cities such as Palo Alto have opposed the four-track alignment, saying the two new tracks would force the seizure of some private property through eminent domain. The new wording, which high-speed rail officials have approved, indicates the train will run on a "multiple track" system and that both vertical and horizontal alignments will be considered. The wording change pleased Palo Alto officials, who requested the language be less specific.
The agreement also prohibits any disruption to Caltrain service during bullet train construction and requires that concerns of cities along the corridor be considered. Specifically, the deal maintains that Caltrain will be able to operate no fewer than eight trains per hour in each direction regardless of bullet train construction or operation.
Further, the agencies agreed to "aggressively" plan for such long-term Caltrain goals as electrification, a new signal control system designed to improve safety, grade separations and new rolling stock acquisition.
The electrification of train cars, in particular, is viewed by Caltrain officials as essential to expanding service. The agency intends to use technology similar to that of its high-speed rail partner. Electric trains accelerate and stop quickly, don't use diesel fuel and are considered environmentally cleaner than regular trains.
The grade separations envisioned are track platforms raised over traffic, similar to those in San Carlos and Belmont. They are intended to improve safety by restricting track access and to boost traffic flow by eliminating crossing arms. They had been too costly for many cities such as San Mateo to afford on their own.
State rail authority regional manager Dominic Spaethling applauded the agreement, saying it will make the planning process for the San Francisco-to-San Jose portion of the rail line much easier.
"Clearly this is Caltrain's railroad," said Spaethling, adding that the state hopes by September to have a list of alternative ways the rail line could be configured along the Caltrain corridor.
While few argued the agreement itself is flawed, residents and council members from Palo Alto and Menlo Park continued to express frustration over what they say is a lack of representation in the negotiation process. Hoping to force the issue, the cities recently created a Peninsula Consortium of Rail Cities in hopes of officially negotiating with the state.
Another condor shot
Researchers find pellets lodged in juvenile female's body...The Monterey County Herald, Herald Staff Report
Three weeks after finding an adult male condor with 15 shotgun pellets lodged in its body, biologists at the Ventana Wildlife Society found three lead pellets in a juvenile female.
Condor 375 was trapped by biologists March 26 in Big Sur, said Kelly Sorenson, director of the Ventana Wildlife Society. It is not known when the bird was shot.
Ventana Wildlife Society biologists conducting a routine blood test learned condor 375 is suffering from lead poisoning. X-rays of the condor revealed shotgun pellets in its body — two in its wing and one in its thigh. The bird was treated for lead poisoning and immediately transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo for long-term treatment.
"We were alarmed when one condor was found shot," Sorenson said. "But now with two birds in such a short time, we are deeply concerned."
Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization dedicated to protecting wild animals, is offering a $1,000 reward for information that leads to conviction of those responsible for the shootings.
Although the wounded condors are alive, it is unclear whether either will be able to return to the wild, Sorenson said.
The first bird found shot, condor 286, is in critical condition from lead poisoning and is kept alive with a feeding tube. Condor 375 has an injured left wing, and it is unclear whether the bird can fly again.
The lead poisoning in both birds is believed to be from eating carrion containing lead fragments, Sorenson said, not from being shot.
See www.ventanaws.org to follow the progress of condor 286 and 375, find out how to donate to their recovery and learn about other wildlife rescue efforts.
Los Angeles Times
Mortgage aid often failed to curb defaults
Lenders favored short-term relief over true loan modifications for troubled borrowers, a regulators’ report says...E. Scott Reckard
A snapshot of the reeling mortgage industry, released Friday by federal bank regulators, illustrates the challenges the Obama administration faces with its $95-billion plan to help lower mortgage payments for struggling borrowers.
In the last three months of 2008, most troubled borrowers were being offered not true modifications but breathers on payments followed by a resumption of the original mortgage terms, or even higher payments.
Moreover, many of the mortgages that were modified were falling back into default, according to the report, which also found that serious delinquencies continued to spiral to record levels in the fourth quarter.
In an especially ominous sign, the number of delinquent "prime" loans -- the ones to the most creditworthy borrowers -- more than doubled in the course of the year.
When loan contracts were actually changed, just 37% of the loan modifications reduced monthly payments by more than 10%, the report said, provoking criticism from fair-lending activists and Sheila Bair, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Bair, a leading proponent of lowering loan payments to combat foreclosures and the damage they inflict on the economy, said many banks and loan servicers continued to provide only temporary relief to borrowers.
The report "unfortunately demonstrates a continued reliance by many servicers and lenders on repayment plans and modifications that do not reduce the borrower's monthly payment," Bair said in a statement.
Produced by the Treasury Department's bank regulators, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision, the report analyzed mortgages serviced by 13 large financial institutions, representing about two-thirds of all the outstanding home loans in the country.
The companies included such first-round recipients of the government's bank bailout funds as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, which collectively have received $145 billion in government money.
The report said efforts were initiated to help 301,648 borrowers in the fourth quarter, up 44.5% from the first quarter of 2008. Of those homeowners, just 58,315, or fewer than 1 in 5, had their payments lowered by any amount, compared with 25,249 in the first quarter.
The regulators said the data showed that banks and thrifts in the final days of the Bush administration appeared to have been moving toward the type of loan modifications advocated by Bair and President Obama.
Such restructurings lower interest rates, extend the terms of the loans and make other changes to cut payments to what is considered an affordable percentage of borrowers' incomes.
The Center for Responsible Lending, a North Carolina-based advocacy group, said the report showed that the law should be changed to allow bankruptcy judges to modify home loans.
"Foreclosures are still exceeding modifications by a wide margin," said Kathleen Day, a spokeswoman for the group.
Judges currently are powerless to change loan terms to help keep borrowers in their homes.
The Treasury agencies said that 41% of loans modified in the first quarter and 46% of loans modified in the second quarter were 60 or more days past due after eight months. The trend appeared to continue for loans modified in the third quarter, they said.
The reasons for the repeat defaults are unclear but could include the worsening economy, the agencies said.
Lowering monthly payments also lowered the risk of repeat defaults, the regulators said.
When modifications cut monthly payments more than 10%, just under a quarter of the loans became seriously delinquent six months later. By contrast, more than half the loans for which payments remained unchanged were seriously delinquent after six months.
"In the current stressful environment, modification strategies that result in unchanged or increased mortgage payments run the risk of unacceptably high re-default rates," said Comptroller of the Currency John C. Dugan, warning that such strategies "should only be used on a case-by-case basis."
Overall for 2008, 42% of modified loans reduced monthly payments, 27% left payments unchanged, and 32% increased payments. In the fourth quarter, however, the proportion that reduced payments topped 50% of all modifications.
Servicers cited several reasons that changes to loans might not lower payments. For example, a servicer could help a troubled borrower by freezing the interest rate on an adjustable-rate loan rather than letting it rise. And payments could go up if a lender allowed a borrower to skip some payments, then added the missed principal and interest back onto the loan balance.
Among all the home loans included in the study, 7% were classified as nonperforming at the end of September. By the end of the year, the figure exceeded 10%.
New York Times
663,000 Jobs Lost in March; Total Tops 5 Million...PETER S. GOODMAN and JACK HEALY
With 663,000 more jobs disappearing from the American economy last month, swelling the total number of jobs surrendered to the recession beyond five million, the government’s response to the downturn is being put to a strenuous test.
When drafting plans in January to spend roughly $800 billion to stimulate the deteriorating economy, the Obama administration operated on the assumption that the unemployment rate would reach 8.9 percent by the end of the year — without the extra federal spending. Three months into the year, the unemployment rate has already soared to 8.5 percent, from 7.6 percent, the highest level in more than a quarter-century.
Between January and March, more than two million jobs were lost, according to the Labor Department’s employment report, released Friday.
The severity and breadth of the job losses in March — which afflicted nearly every industry outside of health care — prompted economists to conclude that an agonizing plunge in employment prospects was still unfolding.
“It’s really just about as bad as can be imagined,” said Dean Baker, a director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “There’s just no way we’re anywhere near a bottom. We’ll be really lucky if we stop losing jobs by the end of the year.”
The pace of retrenchment has prompted talk that another wave of government stimulus spending may be needed to accompany the $787 billion already in the pipeline.
“We’re clearly looking at a worse downturn than they had been anticipating when they planned the stimulus,” said Mr. Baker, whose organization tends toward liberal policy prescriptions. “We’re going to need some more.”
But others — not least, decision-makers inside the Obama administration — deemed such talk premature. The dreadful jobs report landed among tentative signs of improvement in a few areas of the economy, with recent snippets of data lifting stock markets and sowing cautious hopes that the beginnings of a recovery might be taking shape.
After a miserable holiday season, retail sales appear to have stabilized. Auto sales, while extremely weak, improved slightly in February. Houses have been selling in markedly greater numbers in important markets like California and Florida, albeit at substantially reduced prices. Consumer spending appears to have leveled off after plummeting over the last three months of 2008.
“The downturn is still very intense, but it’s no longer intensifying,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com.
The surge of government spending is just beginning to work its way through federal and state bureaucracies and is expected to support jobs in construction and related industries later this year.
“We’re attacking this in a very aggressive way,” the labor secretary, Hilda L. Solis, said Friday in an interview, arguing that it was too early to consider another round of stimulus spending. “We will revisit that once we expend all the money that we have accrued.”
For now, the same factors that have assailed the economy for more than a year remain in force, with tattered banks reluctant to lend, and even healthy households and businesses averse to borrowing and investing in the face of grave uncertainty.
The very perception that millions more will lose jobs and housing prices will fall have turned such outlooks into reality: As businesses scramble to cut costs and confront gloomy sales prospects, many are shrinking their work forces, removing more paychecks from the economy.
“There’s a lot of survival job-cutting going on throughout American business,” said Stuart G. Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Group in Pittsburgh. “There won’t be any job growth at all this year. The economy is far, far from being out of the woods.”
Still, Mr. Hoffman is inclined to wait a few months and hope for improvement before calling for a new wave of stimulus spending.
“You don’t just double the dose if the patient doesn’t immediately improve,” he said.
The Treasury recently outlined plans for an expanded bank rescue aimed at lowering borrowing costs for businesses and households. The Federal Reserve has begun buying $300 billion worth of long-term Treasury bonds in an effort to drive down the interest rates on mortgages, auto loans and other forms of finance.
The panic that has ruled financial markets since last fall has abated considerably in recent weeks. The average interest rate on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage dropped to a record low of 4.61 percent last week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, from more than 6 percent a year ago. Banks are charging each other less to borrow money. Investors are tiptoeing back into the market for corporate bonds.
“Credit markets have improved across the board,” said Michael Darda, chief economist at the research and trading firm MKM Partners. “We’re not going to see it in the economy for a while, and we’re not going to see it in the labor market for an even longer time, but in the financial market, indicators are starting to move in the right direction.”
Manufacturing remains exceedingly weak around the world, a response to plummeting demand for goods. Still, an index tracked by JPMorgan Chase that gauges global production has climbed for three consecutive months.
In London, leaders of the world’s major economies left a summit meeting this week with promises to try to bolster global trade.
But economic recovery will require incomes to improve, giving Americans the spending power to consume, thus creating jobs that generate more wages — an upward spiral. For now, that dynamic is working in reverse: during the first three months of the year, wages and salaries shrank at a 4 percent annual rate, which is on pace to eliminate some $265 billion from the economy, according David A. Rosenberg, an economist at Merrill Lynch.
“This prevalent view that the recession is about to bottom out has somehow bypassed the most important part of the economy, which is jobs and income,” Mr. Rosenberg wrote in a note to clients.
Friday’s report catalogued the myriad ways in which American working people remained under assault. The number of unemployed people rose to 13.2 million in March. Those unemployed for longer than six months reached 3.2 million.
As the unemployment rate edged up to 8.5 percent, from 8.1 percent the previous month, the manufacturing sector again led the way down, shedding 161,000 jobs in March. Employment in construction declined by 126,000, and has fallen by 1.3 million since it peaked in January 2007. Professional and business services employment fell by 133,000.
In New Jersey, Henry Perez, 34, and his family are living in the basement of his sister’s house in Rochelle Park and struggling to find work. They are refugees of sorts from the real estate collapse in Las Vegas, where Mr. Perez once lived, investing heavily in housing.
He has more recently worked in online commerce and as a marketer at an office furniture company. But after being laid off at the end of last year, he has found nothing, even as he has sharply dropped his expectations, applying for jobs at restaurant chains.
“We’re just sitting here all day long looking for jobs on the computer, frustrated and scared as hell,” Mr. Perez said. “I’m looking for anything.”
The report reinforced the reality that the pains of the downturn were hardly confined to the jobless. Those working part time because they cannot find full-time work, or because their hours have been cut, climbed by 423,000 in March, reaching 9 million.
In the Atlanta suburbs, Meg Fisher, 46, has been looking for work since she lost her job as a legal secretary in February. Her husband’s hours at his pharmacy job were scaled back. Their previous annual income of about $79,000 has been sliced to $20,000.
Ms. Fisher is applying for food stamps, while seeking freelance work as a tailor.
“It’s not going to replace my salary,” she said. “It’s not even going to come close, but it’s better than sitting around.”