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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, 28 November 2005
Worldwide community and organics
Topic: environment
[Note: Liz Henderson, who surely deserves to be called a “journeywoman” farmer-activist, traveled to Chile early this month on a special mission: sharing information on two symbiotic movements, community supported agriculture (cf. our own Genesee Valley Organic CSA) and what the Global South calls “agro-ecological” farming. The text below is Liz’s summary of a talk she gave in Santiago. For more information, go to gvocsa.org; or contact Peacework Farm directly, 2218 Welcher Rd., Newark, NY 14513, 315.331.9029. - Jack]

“Integrating the Community in Organic Agriculture”
Presentation for the Feria Latinoamericana de Agricultura Organica, Santiago, Chile, 11/03/05
by Elizabeth Henderson

Community Supported Agriculture is a connection between a farmer or group of farmers and the people who eat the food that the farmers produce. The essence of the relationship is mutual commitment: the consumers agree to share the bounty and the risks of organic food production. In the United States, over 1000 farms are involved in community supported agriculture, and Teikei, a similar system, is widespread in Japan.

My farm, Peacework Organic Farm, in central New York State, has been doing community supported agriculture for 17 years. Over 300 households are members of the farm, and all of them participate actively either in administering the project or in helping with farm work. Members have also contributed most of the money to purchase the farmland used by Peacework for the Rochester-based Genesee Land Trust, which will lease the land back to the Peacework farmers for a very long term.

Through their involvement with the farm, community supported agriculture members provide their own organic guarantee by seeing for themselves how their food is produced and knowing the farmers. The fair agreement that governs community supported agriculture demonstrates the Basic Principles of Organic Agriculture of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, in particular the Principle of Fairness.

Based on efforts of this kind, the organic movement worldwide can help create a global policy for economic development which favors small scale agriculture; local food sovereignty; and the right of people to grow their own food, save their own seeds and derive the financial benefits that flow from local germplasm. Chilean organic farmers will find their own way of integrating consumers in their farms and making the principles of organic agriculture become a living reality.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 12:29 EST
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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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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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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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