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Monday, 14 November 2005
You can't get there from here
Topic: environment
All of a sudden, the PR on the fast ferry has gone into slow-pitch mode. This might have something to do with newly-released September ridership figures, which hit local businesspeople – especially those invested in northernmost Charlotte – like a faceful of cold water. Just under 26,000 were taken for a ride that month.

That comes to about 300 per trip, down from 400 in August but up in comparison to July, says the Democrat and Chronicle. Remember that the ship’s capacity is 774 passengers, not to mention the vehicular payload.

So the policy question is moving quickly from how much public subsidy will be required to a more serious one: will the ferry service survive?

I hope sanity will prevail. That won’t necessarily mean pulling the plug on the ferry; it makes sense to use the direct water route to Toronto. But what’s needed is a much smaller boat, one that carries only people and human-powered vehicles. Such a boat would consume far less diesel fuel, produce far less air pollution, leave a gentler wake, and actually get drivers off the road. This less-is-more service could also serve other Lake Ontario ports – maybe stops in Orleans County or Niagara, etc. True, this would still be a ferry in search of subsidies. But it would justify public investment by delivering a few social benefits.

Still, all routes considered, rail is the way to go. (See my earlier enviro/transport blog posts.)

A word about bus service. Now, I know that even political lefties prefer to tackle this subject only in the abstract; it’s taken for granted that buses are for “marginal” populations. But until the day of light rail dawns here again, the RTS system practically defines public transportation in Rochester.

Well, defining is one thing, but getting decent subsidies is quite another. Never mind the $230 million Renaissance Square, the Big Mac of bus terminals. The bus system is chronically underfunded, and its negatives – above all, insufficient service on major and minor routes and lack of amenities at stops – are ever with us.

Once in a while I take the RTS back and forth to Newark, Wayne County. It’s convenient – especially with the bike racks that are mounted on all RTS buses – and the vehicles are pleasant and well-maintained. It’s great to watch the countryside through the seasons, and as rail-and-bus commuters everywhere know, the trip is a time for reading or meditation or napping, not a two-fisted, steering-wheel-gripping slalom through rush hour. The price is right, too: only a bit more than three bucks for a 30-mile trip.

But just a couple months ago, RTS cut its Route 92 service to Newark in half. There are now only two round-trips daily, one early morning and one early evening – and none on weekends. I’m sure RTS officials would rather have kept the old schedule, but I know the underlying (and unspoken) societal excuse for keeping the service to a minimum: “In an era of finite resources, we must make hard choices,” and similar bullshit.

There’s some pseudo-philosophy at work, too. Just as it’s axiomatic that only poor people ride the bus, so it is expected that poor people will adjust their lives and schedules to the bus company’s needs, not vice versa.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 23:09 EST
Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005 12:17 EST
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Sunday, 6 November 2005
Last-minute electioneering
Topic: urban issues
I remember with pleasure how famed environmentalist Barry Commoner dealt with reporters when he ran for president in 1980. As the Citizens Party’s first presidential nominee, and on general principle, he had little patience for electoral bullshit. (That word had figured audibly in a CitP radio ad, bringing much needed attention to the cause.)

Commoner loved to tell how one reporter asked him the question of questions: “Are you a serious candidate, or are you just running on the issues?” You can imagine what must have gone through Commoner’s mind: Did this guy really say what I think he said? Is this as a teachable moment? Should I give the pipsqueak a lesson he won’t forget?

Now segue to November 2005 - and local journalists who ask their own silly questions and give even sillier answers.

I’m thinking especially of City Newspaper’s recent endorsements. Let me make it clear: I know from experience that these are not consensus choices of the CityNews editorial staff. So don’t blame honest writers like Tim Macaluso and Krestia DeGeorge. And don’t be fooled by the editorial “we.” Nobody but the boss, Mary Anna Towler, is responsible. Politically, at least when it comes to elections, City is a one-horse town.

For the general election, the “alternative” paper’s mayoral pick is Bob Duffy. Same as Gannett’s. Granted, Duffy is worlds better than his most amply funded opponent, Republican John Parrinello, who’s lately distinguished himself by being less of a tough-on-policing demagogue than he was at the start of the campaign.

But once again City, I mean Towler, has passed over the man who’s clearly the best candidate: Tim Mains.

You may remember City/Towler’s endorsement for the September Democratic primary. It amounted to this: Mains is the best candidate. So we choose Wade Norwood.

Now City is telling you: You probably remember we told you Mains is the best candidate. But we're supporting Duffy.

The common thread here is obvious. The leaders in this community, and that includes obsequious editors and publishers, generally go with what the big parties and business pooh-bahs want. They go with the designated candidate in the primary, then with the designated candidate in the general election. What could be simpler?

Or more wrong.

If journalism is going to mean anything, it will have to look for the best – the most progressive, the most honest, the most imaginative – and go with that. It’s the issues that count, not the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure or success, and certainly not any genuflection to entrenched interests and pre-ordained outcomes.

It's about movement-building.

Now the voting booth beckons, and all of City’s and Gannett’s posturing will not prevail against it. What’s a good voter to do? I like Bob Duffy personally, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him as mayor. I think Chris Maj is interesting, but he’s too unfocused to be a serious candidate. (Maybe next time.) And Parrinello, plain and simple, is a bullshitter.

The choice is clear. I’m pulling the Working Families lever for Tim Mains on November 8. And I hope a decent percentage of you will, too. He’s got the experience, the intelligence, the imagination, and the specifics. All he needs is a pile of votes.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 19:11 EST
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Saturday, 22 October 2005
The public squared
Topic: urban issues
If I were a Democrat, I might already have made peace with (sold out to?) Renaissance Square.

The temptations are many, you have to admit. The $230 million plan means downtown investment, something every urban center in the region needs desperately. In the case of RenSquare, most of the funding will come from the feds, so we’re talking free money, right? The logic of capitalism (here I return to e.e. cummings’ quip that in retail, there’s no moral distinction between “lonjewray or shrouds”) trumps every other concern. It’s not really “build it and they will come,” as they say in the movies. If you build it and walk away with a wad of profits, who cares if they come? Or if they rot? Just wait to see how they rebuild New Orleans on the backs of the drowned.

Okay, RenSquare does have a thin silver lining: the project will bring some jobs to a neglected corner or two. I’m not so sure about permanent jobs and businesses, though. Talk a walk through the old Sibley’s any weekday. The MCC Damon campus on the fourth and fifth floors is crowded and vibrant. A good deal of office space is occupied, and the farmers market and other temporary events on the ground floor make the place come alive, at least a few hours at a time. But the food court on the second floor – surely the most direct model for the businesses our leaders hope will come to the RenSquare concourse eventually – doesn’t look well. The pizza joint and an Asian fast-food restaurant, among others, are gone; only a cookie counter is still in operation.

Go over the bridge or cross Main at street level to Midtown Plaza, and things aren’t much livelier. I do like the espresso place on the terrace, and the Bruegger’s bagel takeout is okay. But there’s not much dough, real or symbolic, changing hands here, for one simple reason. Too many people who come through Midtown, and who’ll come through RenSquare, barely have enough disposable income for a leisurely cuppa joe. Forget the power lunch.

Looking over the RenSquare plan - which has wowed the downtown development corps, with Heidi Zimmer-Meyer at their vanguard - I can’t help think how common, how trite the whole thing is. Its got some bells and whistles, but generally it looks like a dozen other cheapo complexes in comparable urban areas. I think immediately of “Rainbow Center” in my hometown, Niagara Falls, a retail and “wintergarden” destination that’s turned into anything but a pot of gold. Chronically starved of operating funds – not least because the rentals don’t materialize – such a glittering temple soon grows dusty and drab. Even the attached parking garage, no jewel to begin with, becomes a howling wilderness.

I’m annoyed that the architect failed to integrate the old buildings into the RenSquare facade. He’s condemned part of Rochester’s history to that contemporary dustbin, the demolition landfill. And by moving the buses off-street and focusing on a concourse and interior park, he’s making sure that the sidewalks at Main and Clinton, and not just those on the northwest corner, will be vacant. But I suppose that’s the idea: keep the inconvenient populations out of public view, with the fiction that you’re providing better service.

The RenSquare elevated park/walkway idea is getting undeserved kudos. I wonder about fumes rising from the bus area below. But even if the mini-park air is breathable, how much foot traffic will go there? For an answer, look at Genesee Crossroads. That riverside reclamation project was another attempt to bring pedestrians to new ground above a vehicular space (the buried municipal parking garage off Andrews St.). Now, experts agree, the whole thing needs to be removed.

Want to know how to spend a quarter billion on transportation? As a bicyclist and pedestrian, I have some thoughts. Go way beyond the recent recommendations from the Urban Land Institute (i.e. tear down Midtown Plaza and re-create a user-friendly mixed-use neighborhood there) in creating a walkable central business district. Slow the traffic down by any means necessary, starting with thorough restoration of two-way streets. Charge people for auto-use in downtown, not just through parking fees but through a congestion tax like the one in Ken Livingstone’s London. And when the drivers flee to the malls and office parks, tax them there, too.

Fix the sidewalks, for Pete’s sake. And shovel them, along with the bus stops, in winter. Soon we’ll be seeing Rochester’s annual answer to the Iditarod: pedestrians struggling through the mush and slush or over the ice, or forced out into the traffic lanes. Why isn’t there more emphasis on basics like snow removal? And on the jobs that such down-to-earth service would generate?

Here’s another suggestion, certainly not original with me. Put more buses on the road, and make them non-polluting. Create more bus routes, both radial and crosstown. And while you’re at it, planners, build us a light-rail system. An entry-level system would cost less than RenSquare.

A pleasant train ride can also lead to meditations on the logic of public service – providing something people actually need, something that builds a community without bulldozing its heart.

The kind of thing a “small ‘d’ democrat” can love.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:21 EDT
Updated: Monday, 24 October 2005 05:34 EDT
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Thursday, 29 September 2005
Call for solidarity
Topic: antiwar
A public servant in the best sense, Harry Murray stepped up to the plate a few years back when County Executive Jack Doyle, along with lickspittles and superiors, imposed "finger imaging" identity technology on welfare recipients. Specifically, Harry and a colleague from the Rochester Catholic Worker did a form of moral performance art, dabbing their own fingerprints on the walls of the Westfall Road welfare office. I was there as a journalist, and I objectively took down information for a City Newspaper report, though I wanted to shout Hallelujah and take up my own ink pad.

Now Harry and Sister Grace Miller, another local hero (I don't use the term lightly), face prosecution for bearing witness against George Bush's war and for freedom of expression. Below are selections from Harry's court filings, in his own voice; they give some context to his most recent challenge to violence and illegitimate power. They also argue for the whole community to stand with him and Sr. Grace:

"On May 24, 2005, I attempted to enlarge the Zone of Free Speech in America by a couple of feet. President George Bush’s motorcade had just arrived at Greece Athena High School. Sister Grace Miller and I walked across Long Pond Road from the area to which protestors had been directed to the side of the road closest to the high school (about a football field distance from where the motorcade stopped). I held a sign which stated “The Occupation of Iraq is a Sin” and was trying to walk across the exit road from the high school, which had been blocked off by police barricades, to the sidewalk. I was stopped by an officer and told to go back across the street. I replied that I felt that all of America should be a free speech zone and I felt called to be here. I knelt down, displaying my sign. After further discussion, my arms were seized by two officers and I was dragged toward Long Pond Road. After being dragged several feet, my sign was taken away and I was dropped on the pavement by the police. I heard someone say “You want to lie down, lie down.” I was then handcuffed and made aware that I was under arrest. I got to my feet and walked with an officer to a police car. I would estimate that I was outside the zone of free speech for perhaps five minutes...

"No one was prevented from leaving the high school by our presence since the exit was already blocked off by police. We had no intention of blocking the exit – since the police already had it barricaded, that would have been pointless – and, in fact, no traffic was impeded by our presence...

"I have a history of arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience dating back to the early 1980’s, including arrests at the Pentagon, Griffiss Air Force Base, Seneca Army Depot, the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, and the Monroe County Department of Social Services as well as an apprehension at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia. I have served a fifteen day sentence in Albany County Jail for protesting aid to the Contras in Nicaragua in the mid-1980’s and ninety days in the Salvation Army Community Correction Center in Rochester for protesting the preparation for the First Gulf War. In terms of character, I try to live a nonviolent lifestyle according to the principles of Jesus, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day. I wish I could say I was successful in that attempt – I often fail; however, that is the ideal for which I strive...

"A dismissal of the charges would enhance the welfare of the community because it would send a signal to the Bush Administration and to the American people that the courts are concerned about the erosion of free speech by policies of this administration. Freedom of speech is not just an individual right – it is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic society and, hence, necessary for the welfare of the community." ?

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 17:56 EDT
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Tuesday, 27 September 2005
Walk, don't run (out of gas)
Topic: environment
Gas prices may have focused the collective mind - for a heartbeat, in historical terms - but the transportation picture is as blurred as ever. If ever a nation seemed intent on driving itself crazy, it’s the US.

And Rochester is doing its patriotic part.

I thought of this the other morning as I coasted down the S. Clinton Ave. sidewalk at the edge of downtown, on my way to teach at MCC Damon.

Yes, I feel the need to use this one short stretch of sidewalk, between the I-490 overpass and the intersection of Woodbury Blvd. Normally I won’t bike on any sidewalk; doing so is technically illegal in the downtown business district, and only kids should use the walks elsewhere. But Clinton Ave. is murder during rush hour. Drivers exiting I-490 West hit the gas as they try to make the light at Woodbury, and again at Court, Main, and intersections to the north.

So, like so many others of its kind in the twilight of the Machine Age, Clinton is no longer a thoroughfare open to the full range of traffic (walkers, bikers, horses, skaters, etc.). It serves a specialized group: fuel-injected commuters and truckers trying to beat the time clock. You're well advised to keep out of their path.

The praiseworthy Rochesterians who are fighting the construction of “Renaissance Square” have shown how the terminal will exacerbate bus traffic on Clinton south and north of Main Street. But few people have commented on how bad the avenue is already.

Here experience is a demanding teacher.

The first thing that hits a biker while navigating Clinton through midtown - from Woodbury north to the Amtrak station - is the lack of a decent shoulder. As you keep tabs on overtaking traffic, you pay close attention to your right pedal, which could easily jam on the curb and send you who knows where. You have manage with a slim margin of safety.

Then just before Court St., in the shadow of the Universalist Church, you find yourself - assuming you’ve virtuously kept to the right - in a classic squeeze play. The traffic engineers have facilitated traffic flow by creating a right-turn-only lane onto Court. If you want to go straight, you have to occupy the turning lane to keep traffic from crossing your path. So if you simply exercise your vehicular right to proceed north on Clinton, you get a line of impatient, hard-charging behemoths all but up your wazoo. Fun.

But the fun’s just starting. When you pass Broad Street, you have to contend with curbside bump-outs that limit your maneuvering room significantly. This makes the 45-mph traffic at your left elbow more, well, noticeable. When you arrive safely at the East Main stoplight, you pause and consider kissing the earth. Only the ground here is asphalt contorted by the combination of heat and heavy vehicles - and topped off with a appetizing coat of petro-slime. It’s enough to make you long for the good old days of literal horseshit in the streets.

Renaissance Square will suck down a quarter billion dollars that could have boosted the bus system and provided decently for bicyclists and pedestrians. Amtrak, routinely starved by the feds, won’t get the benefit of an intermodal makeover in downtown. The fast ferry schedule will diminish to the vanishing point.

Even with the best intentions, we'll need decades to nurture a sustainable transportation system. And politically speaking, we're not close to giving our best.

How about stepping back a little? Instead of RenSquare, we need Square One: a comprehensive regional transportation plan that puts people and human-powered vehicles first.

For now, though, I'd settle for implementation of an old proposal: change all of downtown's one-way race courses back to two-way, human-scale urban streets.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:35 EDT
Updated: Thursday, 29 September 2005 16:52 EDT
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