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Saturday, 6 August 2005
Hot days in Toledo
Topic: travel
I’m not entirely back from my late-July trip to the Midwest. It’s not an earthbound equivalent of jet lag, or the effects of the heat wave. It’s a generalized sinking feeling, the realization that things are bad all over, and not getting better.

The Buffalo News will explain for me. An 8/4/05 report, one of many lately on the decline of local public institutions, led with news about the Niagara Falls Library’s LaSalle branch. Earlier this summer city voters nixed a by-the-back-door measure that would have provided crucial funding. So the branch, which has so far survived because of a guarantee written into the city’s 1927 merger agreement with the Village of LaSalle, may soon close. This is a dual footnote to larger troubles: Even the main library in Niagara Falls has watched the angel of death pass by, and down in Buffalo/Erie County, two dozen library branches of a once-stellar system are on the budgetary chopping block.

The LaSalle Branch, housed in a historic village hall on Buffalo Avenue, sits on the route that took me home from school, first from the now defunct Cayuga Drive Elementary, later from the recently demolished LaSalle High. The library was a rest stop for me in more ways than one. After crossing the tracks (long since torn up and replaced with an expressway) where I probed ditches for frogs and snakes and heaved pieces of gravel at the passing freight trains, I could hit the books --- and I mean real ones, not the worn-out texts we got as hand-me-downs in school. At the library, despite the 1950s regime of censorship, there actually were books strong enough to hit back. How impoverished LaSalle will be if the branch shuts down.

Nostalgia is the gift that keeps on taking. Or so it seemed when I passed through Toledo, Ohio, on my trip. The bus let me off in downtown, and it wasn’t only because of the arrival time (Sunday evening) that the place was deserted. Toledo could pass for Rochester or Buffalo or Detroit in this respect. The physical center of the community is as barren as the psychological centeredness of the community is absent.

Oh, yes, there’s a fancy new development along the beautiful (no sarcasm intended) Maumee River, which cuts Toledo in two. The development sports a string of upscale restaurants and watering holes; mostly there are parking lots and other buffers from the surrounding neighborhoods. I was tempted by a pizza and pasta place, whose name I forget --- some local operation that, to judge by the generous servings of neon and fake brick, aspired to Olive Garden status. Then I checked my wallet and moved on.

Good thing, too, because instead of filling up on overpriced carbs, I stood at the smooth new railing by the river and took a long draught of the area’s commercial past. This was one of the Great Lakes’ busiest ports; still is, in fact, but the traffic is light all over these lakes. Toledo was once chock full of steel mills and other industries, too, and had the workforce to match. Now the money has gone west, barely, to the suburb of Sylvania, not so much a forest as a country club.

One feature of downtown Toledo tells the story. You know how every city’s Martin Luther King Boulevard or Avenue or whatever indicates the exact center of local poverty. (With a little luck and sweat, it can also be the focal point of a King-style poor people’s mobilization, even in Bush-league America.) Well, in Toledo they’ve got a Martin Luther King memorial bridge, which joins the East Side and West Side across the wide Maumee.

Thus the symbolism gains depth. The bridge and its name form a bond as well as a passage. But that probably means little to the people on both sides of the river, largely African-Americans and Latinos caught in a very modern form of bondage. Though it is a reminder that in the modern world, it’s always “they,” not “we” who are “all in this together.”

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 09:33 EDT
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Monday, 25 July 2005
News from Michi-Ohio
To those who've visited this blog before: Take note that I've corrected a few figures in the fast-ferry posts below. To everyone: I'm now on vacation in southernmost Michigan, just having crossed over from Toledo, Ohio. I took my folding Dahon on the bus to Toledo and plan to pedal west to the south shore of Lake Michigan, then on to Chicago to see family and the big city.

Toledo is a classic Rust Belt city, Great Lakes-style. (Maybe we should call them the Rust Lakes, so universal is the region's urban decline, and so widespread is the water pollution.) I first found myself in a downtown wasteland, one mitigated with significant 19th-century architecture. Then I hit the East and West sides; they could have been East Buffalo or Rochester's "Crescent." Then I went into the appropriately leafy city of Sylvania, apparently the area's Brighton or Pittsford, well-scrubbed, trendy, and flush with Beamers and cappuccino emporia.

The contrast is nothing new to me or you or anyone who has seen apartheid. But some political thoughts about all this are percolating in my overheated brain as I ride through the heat wave. I'll post something as soon as I can chill. Maybe a nice tall Guinness will do the trick later in some Midwest oasis.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:45 EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 26 July 2005 15:54 EDT
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Saturday, 23 July 2005
Ferry redux
Topic: environment
When I wrote about the fast ferry and the environment (see below), I was unaware of Cory Ireland’s July 10 D&C piece on the same subject. The piece is well worth accessing at www.democratandchronicle.com. Ireland covers the air-pollution issue in depth. He also touches on the ferry’s fuel consumption, and he looks at the advent of cleaner marine diesel fuel and what that might mean. Officials gave Ireland a fuel mileage figure (3,500 gallons for the 100-mile lake crossing, i.e. 35 gallons per mile) a tiny bit better than the figure I used. The conclusion remains the same: the ferry is a world-class gas-hog.

Looking backward: Nearly four years ago, I drafted an article for City Newspaper on the ferry’s enviro-impacts. That was when public debate could have determined what type of ship would be ordered – or if a ship would sail at all. The editor spiked the story, with prejudice. To be fair, CityNews had run a decent piece that concentrated on wave-action and related concerns. But I felt the paper needed to look at the fuel and air-quality issues more closely. Well, that’s all water over the dam, I guess. But I recall that when I drafted my article, the paper was cozy with Rochester businessman Tom Riley, who simultaneously was a CityNews executive board member and a partner in the private, and soon-to-flop, CATS ferry company. Such triangulation may not stink as bad as diesel fuel, but it doesn’t smell like a rose, either. CityNews has papered over this appearance of a conflict of interest with the standard journalistic disclosures. But inquiring minds might want to ask the editors what it all meant, and if it's still meaningful.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:31 EDT
Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005 13:31 EDT
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Wednesday, 13 July 2005
New math on the fast ferry
Topic: environment
Even though the ship long since left the dock, rah-rah coverage of the fast ferry still runs at full steam. Rochester’s booster-class cabins are full, and City Hall’s fiscal salvage operation --- not quite like raising the Titanic, but a real challenge --- rivals the terror war in terms of grabbing headlines.

But no local news outlet, with the exception of Frank Regan’s excellent rochesterenvironment.com, has peered into the abyss. I mean the ferry’s environmental impact. That’s where some strong light is needed. Plus a calculator.

I recently worked up some back-of the-envelope figures on one crucial angle: fuel economy. According to data released by the operator, the ferry gets 42.3 gallons per nautical mile (1.15 statute miles). So the one-way, 87-nautical-mile trip from here to Toronto consumes around 3,680 gallons of marine diesel fuel.

That’s a lot of fuel in absolute terms. But the real issue is how this level of consumption compares to what Toronto-bound travelers using other travel modes might use. Do the math: If 220 cars (the ferry’s carrying capacity, minus a relatively few trucks and buses) getting an average of 20 mpg made the 180-mile one-way road trip to Toronto on their own power, they’d consume 1,980 gallons total. Roughly half of what the ferry uses.

Well, nobody ever claimed plowing a boat the size of an urban neighborhood through unwilling waters would win the efficiency prize. But it’s reasonable to expect that transportation policy will favor environmentally sound projects. And if we ever do a state-of-the-art regional transportation plan, such projects will be the only ones on the map.

Other relevant comparisons: The ferry, running at capacity (a vain hope; the boat’s regularly been about half empty), comes in at about 20 passenger-miles per gallon of fuel. According to a range of official sources here and in the UK, intercity passenger trains get from around 50 pmpg to more than 100 pmpg. Buses and (alas) cars are much more fuel-efficient than ferries. Other environmental angles need to be looked at, of course: land-use, noise, tire wear, etc. Safety data should be factored in, too. But let’s face it, the fast ferry, largely because of the energy needed to move its immense payload, has created another rolling environmental deficit.

I haven’t yet looked in depth at the pollution issue. But here again, the ferry comes up short. Not only does it use much more fuel than competing modes; it uses dirtier fuel (i.e. marine diesel), and it’s very light on anti-pollution technology.

Does the travel time saved make it all worthwhile? Not remotely. A high-speed rail service, or even a moderately fast one, could cut the trip to well below the ferry’s two-and-a-quarter hour optimum. Conversely, if the distance saved were substantial enough --- as with the ferry between Bar Harbor, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, whose saltwater route cuts 75 percent off a 600-mile road trip --- the calculus could be different.

But in the Lake Ontario lowlands, there’s no way around it: Rail rules. Or it should.

Hypocrisy alert: I just may take the ferry trip for fun. Enviro-writers do what they gotta do. I’ll report on the experience. And please post your own thoughts on this issue. Hey, it’s the only fast ferry we’ve got. Let’s keep its dark side in the public eye to balance the PR.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 07:46 EDT
Updated: Monday, 25 July 2005 13:29 EDT
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Sunday, 10 July 2005
An open letter to WXXI
Topic: media criticism
At a recent demonstration downtown, one placard said it all: “It’s not SOME of the Public Broadcasting.”

Funding issues and political meddling aside, public broadcasting’s biggest problem these days is its uneven coverage. Viewers and listeners don’t get the full spectrum of our communities, philosophies, age and ethnic groups, and so forth.

That’s why more outlets, including our own WXXI, should heed veteran journalist Bill Moyers’ recent advice to pick up Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez. DN! covers the ground that the business press and for-profit broadcasters fear to tread.

Though Goodman and Gonzales take pains to include every relevant viewpoint, their special contribution is letting the underrepresented have a say: progressive organizations, people of color, labor, feminists, antiwar activists, and other true reformers. Many public broadcasting stations run the show precisely because it speaks to all of us.

How about it, WXXI? Take your news-and-views programming to the next (higher) level.

- J.B. Spula

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:23 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 13 July 2005 11:50 EDT
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