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Thursday, 12 January 2006
Rochester's past ferry
Topic: environment
The trip was short and expensive, and the passengers – a whole community taken for a ride – are feeling the pinch.

However you cut it, the fast ferry that was originally sold as an “economic engine” will leach tens of millions of dollars more from the public purse - and some ancillary private businesses - before this transportation fiasco is over.

How could anyone have failed to see this was the final destination?

Even before fuel prices spiked, the ferry was simply too expensive to run. Every round-trip to Toronto burned up more than 7,000 gallons of marine diesel – roughly $10,500 worth a couple years ago, and $14,000 today. Let’s assume each passenger paid $100 for the round-trip: this means the ferry needed the proceeds from 140 passengers just to pay the fuel bill. But as winter began, the ferry was reportedly carrying fewer than 100 – sometimes as few as 40 - passengers per trip. So if the ferry was financially viable, it was only during the warmer months. And you can’t maintain an operation like this year-round on the strength (if that’s the word) of its fair-weather performance.

Local commentators are now lamenting the loss to Rochester’s image. Seems we needed a flagship project to boost our self-confidence. But I think that line of thinking is as off-track as the ferry project was.

Never mind images – we’re talking transportation here, the most down-to-earth of basic services. What the region needs is not confidence building, but real-world engagement with projects that will simultaneously improve mobility and preserve the environment.

The starting point is a comprehensive transportation plan that deals with everything from sidewalks and pedestrian routes to streetcars and inter-city rail. And such planning starts with service within the community: i.e. developing the most efficient, most environmentally-friendly ways to get people where they need to be for work, leisure, and culture.

Is it too much to ask that we get on with this - instead of succumbing to the next razzle-dazzle fantasy that drops anchor here?

Sidebar: A couple of weeks ago, WXXI talk-show host Bob Smith took yet another call about Rochester’s need to develop light rail. And once again, Smith bleated in response (I’m paraphrasing): Fine, but where are we going to find the several hundred million dollars? Well, Bob, we’ll divert some of the money that now goes for unnecessary roadways, ill-fated boats, decorator bridges, and (worst “transportation” scheme of all) expeditionary military forces. Radio personalities can help by acknowledging the possibilities, not drowning them with the flip equivalent of “We can’t afford it.”

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:52 EST
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Monday, 9 January 2006
River City West
Topic: urban issues
For East Coasters, there’s nothing quite like Portland, Oregon - the myth and the reality.

The city has become justly famous for its land-use policies, above all the imposition of an “Urban Growth Boundary” to stem sprawl and maintain a lively downtown core. The UGB, which neatly divides rural from urban-suburban space, is not static, as sometimes assumed. It’s periodically adjusted to meet targets for overall population and economic growth. Most of the adjustments, though, are minor.

A quick look at a Portland regional map tells the story: The city’s obvious natural boundaries (the Willamette and Columbia rivers, plus some precipitous forested hills) are supplemented by wide greenspaces that have kept a growing population from gobbling up too much land.

A quick walk or bike around a Portland neighborhood tells the same story from another angle. Homes and lots seem a little smaller than those in other cities. Parts of town, particularly the Northwest and the central business district, have a more “urban” feel than you find in most cities this size (population 530,000 in 2000).

Many Portland neighborhoods foster a wonderfully retro pedestrian culture that’s vanished from most American cities of any size. But - in perfect harmony with its many converted light-industrial spaces - Downtown Portland shows mature capitalism's dark side: at night, long queues form outside a cluster of shelters and soup kitchens not far from the glitz, and the homeless put down their bedrolls under a bridge where, during more civilized hours, shoppers swarm a crafts market.

These walker-friendly parts of town are expensive, though – and increasingly subject to yuppification. So Portland’s alternative cultures seem to be doing better on the east side of the Willamette River. The Southeast area is home to a couple of consumer co-ops (another is in the NW, a holdout among the boutiques), an anarchist collective bookstore, a worker-owned bike shop, and so forth. The housing is more modest here, too. But it’s all relative: According the National Association of Realtors, the median price of an existing home in the greater Portland area in 2004 was $206,500. In the Rochester area, the figure is exactly $100,000 less, and city homes in Rochester are much cheaper yet.

These facts and figures can be found in report after report. But how does Portland measure up to a real-world test?

When Liz Henderson and I visited Portland recently, we got out on our bikes (loaners, actually) and saw the city from best possible driver’s seat. Portland is very bike-friendly, with plenty of bike lanes, dedicated multi-use trails, locking facilities, and more. The city has a real bike culture. Two-wheeled transportation commands respect there.

Portland is truly intermodal, as well. You can hop on the streetcar, ease your bike up onto a designated hook near the door, and cruise in pleasure. Every municipal bus has a two-bike carrying rack affixed to the front bumper (same as in Rochester). I saw some interesting amenities, too, like some “bike shells” at a train station that allow you to lock your steed under a plastic or fiberglass cover, out of the elements and a bit more beyond the reach of thieves.

I think Portland’s policies on bicycling, walkways, and intermodality are equally as important as the UGB in preserving a high livability score. And policy-wise, things in Portland seem well-coordinated and open to public input. But all is not perfect. UGB or no UGB, bike lanes or no bike lanes, Portland carries a terrible burden of motor traffic. The freeways are clogged at rush-hour, just as in any North American city. Some urban arterials, even in the heart of downtown, are four-lane, one-way, relatively high-speed affairs with little or no marginal space for alternative vehicles.

The Portland weather can deter cyclists. The rainy season runs for eight months of the year, October through May. There are around 150 days with some rainfall, few of them in the warmer, drier months. So you find most Portland bikes, at least those used for transportation rather than occasional fun rides, have fenders mounted. Still, I was surprised at the low number of cyclists on the streets during our visit – hardly more than I see on Rochester streets in all but the heaviest winter conditions. Daytime temperatures in Portland last month were in the 40s and 50s, and the rain was medium to light. And when you consider the wealth of biking amenities, you’ve got to wonder why so many Portlanders are keeping their bikes in the basement.

Yet you can’t avoid this conclusion: Portland is far ahead of Rochester on all aspects of transportation. How come we never hear Rochester pols talking about decent locking facilities, lanes, intermodality, and so forth? And how come a major race for control of City Hall just happened here without any candidate uttering the word “bicycle”? It didn’t reach my ears, at least. If you heard the B word, let me know. In a related matter, pass along your thoughts on the double F word: that’s Rochesterese for fast ferry.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 09:15 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006 09:55 EST
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Wednesday, 4 January 2006
Reality check bounces
Topic: media criticism
What a way to end a nice vacation – listening to host Bob Smith and his guests talk around the issues rather than deal with them.

For the January 3 WXXI blatherfest, Bob spoked with new Monroe County Legislature minority leader Carla Palumbo. The second hour went to Jay Gallagher, Gannett News Service’s man in Albany and latest manifestation of the WXXI-Gannett experiment in “civic journalism” (read: public broadcasting sells out to the corporate press).

One exchange with Palumbo set me off. The discussion had moved to Medicaid and access to health care, and Palumbo made her best Democratic effort at explicating a general principle of reform. To paraphrase: she thinks what we need is simply to get people into well-paying jobs with benefits. In other words, leave the system alone, and keep health insurance subject to the magic of the marketplace.

You’d think that at this stage, any politician worth her salt would say something like this: health care is a human right, and as such it should be guaranteed to everyone – and the guarantee must be implemented by the only practical and affordable means, a single-payer national or state insurance program.

But no, we get nothing better than a pseudo-liberal version of “get a job.” Thanks for nothing, Carla.

As for the Gallagher hour, nothing much stands out in my mind. Maybe my senses were dulled by the discussion’s unexpressed but hard-as-rebar theoretical foundation – the commonplace idea that by uncovering corruption and inefficiencies in state government (Gallagher’s journalistic bread and butter) and advancing petty political reforms (say, six rather than three men in a room?) we will turn the New York economy around.

Okay, there’s plenty in Albany worth criticizing. And certainly state leaders should make some bold moves - proportional representation, a massive public-housing initiative, support for worker and consumer cooperatives, and other planks of the social-democratic platform. But our state government has been corrupt from Day One. I mean, isn’t New York the wellspring of Tammany Hall and its small-town imitators? And hasn’t the Mob been around for a while? Going further back: wasn’t the state pieced together from what were essentially land-grabs and frauds? Yet through all the vileness, New York prospered and grew pretty consistently from – to pick some convenient mileposts - the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 to the postwar boom that started going bust-ward in the mid-1970s.

They don’t call it the Empire State for nothing, with all the term implies about New York as an outstanding example of how moral flexibility breeds worldly success.

So what theoretical framework would I like to hear? For one thing, I’d like to hear some corporations indicted in the media. It’s clear that corporate abandonment, more than any other factor, precipitated New York’s fall from the top. So how come the Smiths and Gallaghers don’t go after Bethlehem Steel, GM, Ford, various auto-industry suppliers, Union Carbide, Dupont, Kodak, a whole raft of smaller metals and chemical companies, shipping firms and railroads? Are the media personalities afraid of what the CEOs and flunkies will say?

Here’s number two on my media wish-list: I’d like to hear a full, candid discussion of how racism New York-style has devastated our urban areas – and thus made a healthy economy practically impossible. (By the way, I don’t see anything healthy in the production of rich people, of whom New York seems to be increasing its share.) Is it impolite to suggest that the forces of apartheid in Rochester-Monroe County have been more than marginal or incidental to the area’s economic decline?

All I’m asking for is a real dialogue on real issues. But again I have to pinch myself. Reality is exactly what the pols and pundits want to avoid.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:52 EST
Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006 08:34 EST
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Tuesday, 27 December 2005
For Tookie Williams
Topic: poetry
For Tookie Williams
dead at the hands of
the People of the State
of California

Portland, OR.
Leave it to the western sky
to steal a scrap from the absolute,
then make good with a display
of soaked evergreens and moss.
No use. For me, these bladed ridgelines
won’t cut cleanly again
until the warmer months.

Days ago to the south,
a governor performed offstage,
and for this a good man,
not pure, but good enough, finally
so unexceptional, was strapped
down and subjected,
as an unbiased source
put it, to a “medical procedure.”
I thought of Socrates’ “beverage,”
and how sacrifice
comes to the table brewed
so strong it must be
taken at once, and in full.
But one man's sentence
is another's crime.

Historical cycles turn
toward collisions, and turn away.
The apparatus of information harvests
more and more dead weight
till the hungry drag it
to barren ground where
it rusts more with every sunset.
Too soon only questions
skitter around the wreck.

Imagine how it was
when the words gave out,
and the governor’s men
boxed the decent man
and finally discharged him.
That’s when I started
hearing metal against metal
and footsteps growing louder,
and when I found myself
newly afraid of echoes.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:54 EST
Updated: Sunday, 8 January 2006 10:32 EST
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Tuesday, 20 December 2005
Have you hugged your library lately?
Topic: urban issues
Sometimes there’s actual deviltry in the details.

Take a sidebar to a recent Democrat and Chronicle story on the fast ferry. The story proper sampled public opinion about a pending $11.5 million bond-issue bailout for the ship. But I think the ancillary material really said more about our public-sector woes.

“The city subsidizes several operations,” read the sidebar. Besides the ferry, the operations named were the Blue Cross Arena (a $373,000 annual subsidy), the Riverside Convention Center (almost $770,000), and the public library system ($4.82 million).

But hold on. Do public funds for the library system constitute a “subsidy”? Yes, it’s Monroe County that has primary responsibility for the system, and so any contribution by the city – or other entities or individuals – could fall loosely into the category. But if that’s so, then city funding of street maintenance is also a subsidy. Or funding of police and fire protection, or whatever. The truth is, on almost any municipal budget line, you’ll find a mix of sources, right on up to Washington.

Yet we don’t talk about subsidies to the cops or firefighters. The money that goes to them is (rightly) considered an expenditure for vital services. The tax money flows to get the job done. In fact, as regards the police, the argument in recent years has been how to spend more and more.

Libraries are every bit as vital as these other services. And as such, they require public spending that is not optional. Without this spending – let’s call it rational investment - democracy can’t survive. How can you have a community without free sources of information and unimpeded access for everyone? How can you talk about education (and the “blah, blah, blah” never stops in Rochester, with much hand-wringing but little effective action) without thoroughly supporting its infrastructure?

America is finding out the hard way what it means to live without fully functioning libraries. Surveying the national scene, the American Library Association concludes: “Reduction in library funding has resulted in severe cuts to operating budgets, library closures, limited hours, reduced materials budgets, hiring freezes or elimination of personnel, and reduced library programming.”

There are many regions under pressure now. But the ALA zeroes in on a neighbor of ours. The Buffalo and Erie County library system, says an ALA backgrounder, “has approved closing 16 libraries, [which] will leave 36 branches open, though library officials noted those locations will operate with reductions in hours, staffing and services.” And this is happening, says the ALA, “at a time when public library activity in Erie County has reached an all-time high, with an annual circulation surpassing 9 million items.”

Here you see Rochester-Monroe County’s future. As our regional economy follows Buffalo-Niagara down the skids, and as working people take more hits from a Congress and White House inimical to every collective endeavor besides war, our libraries will accelerate their decline.

But don’t despair. The malls will keep growing (subsidized through tax breaks, etc.), the gated communities will spread further out into the greenspace (subsidies again), and the wealthy (with tax cuts in their Gucci wallets) will buy more books at Borders.

It’s enough to make you gag at the thought of cappuccino. Luckily, there’s plenty of good reading on the subject. Check out Monthly Review, for example, a fine socialist journal you can read for free at the Rochester Central Library, 115 South Avenue. See you in the stacks.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:59 EST
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