Category Archives: Local Government

Getting From Here to There…and Back

The age of driverless cars and trucks is rapidly approaching. Literally millions of Americans make their livings driving vehicles–trucks, Ubers, taxis, school buses…the list is long, and the consequences of those massive job losses will be severe and unprecedented.

I have no policy prescriptions to offer that might mitigate that job loss disaster. But I do have a response to those transit skeptics who oppose improving city public transportation systems because they claim self-driving cars will make those systems unnecessary.They don’t seem to understand that whether or not someone actually has to drive their car is utterly irrelevant.

What is relevant is that good, reliable public transportation–whether driven by a human or a computer–makes automobile ownership less necessary, and automobiles take a huge chunk out of most household budgets.

A recent article in Resilience, written by an American now living in Ireland, makes an effective case for public transportation.

The healthiest cities in the world have one thing in common; a network of trains, trolleys, trams, subways, buses, and other ways of getting around that don’t depend on everyone having a personal vehicle. Such services save everyone money, use less energy, generate less exhaust to pollute the air and less rubbish to pollute the water and soil. They tip the balance of power on roads, making them light with cars and bustling with humans — walkers, bicyclists and sidewalk vendors. Cities with healthy bus and rail systems feel like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than rows of buildings built alongside highways.

We think of Ireland as having progressed in recent decades, but a hundred years ago trains covered much more of Ireland, with perhaps twice as many lines as there are now. A map of Dublin in the 1920s, likewise, would show a spaghetti-explosion of streetcar lines winding through the narrow streets, pulled by horses at first, and later powered by overhead lines. The recent construction of light rail systems like the Luas were promoted as a next great step forward in transportation, but like most Great Steps Forward, it was merely restoring a tiny piece of what we once had.

The USA used to be the same; for more than a hundred years cities there were networked with a web of streetcars that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, as well as buses that filled in the gaps.  Streetcars and buses seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the Autobahn; compare them to a car in the city and they were often faster.

The author notes, with regret, that many cities have begun to regard public transportation as expendable, since it doesn’t make headlines or make money for elites. The people most dependent upon public transit don’t hire lobbyists or make “meaningful” political contributions, and in an era where “tax” is a dirty word and municipalities are starving for income, that lack of political clout makes it easy to defund transit.  When that happens, it not only inconveniences middle-income people who depend upon transit, it also isolates and strands thousands of poor, elderly and vulnerable people.

And it privileges automobiles in ways that we now recognize are both costly and unhealthy.

I know that from experience, for I grew up in the USA, a nation that once had trolleys and streetcars in every major city and most minor ones. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. My grandmother and grandfather met on the St Louis trolley, the one Judy Garland sang an ode to in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and said most people never needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined a pittance, long after the damage was done. Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

Since most train lines were ripped up in the USA, Ireland and most other Western countries, many people must rely on buses. My native USA’s buses are less readily available than most other countries. In many cities I’ve been in, bus lines habitually run late or not at all, and can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty, or require people to wait in unsafe neighbourhoods.

Taking public transportation to the job is an amenity that bolsters our sense of being part of a public, unlike commuting (usually alone and at substantial cost) in one’s own car. The author’s final point is worth emphasizing:

Critics of public transportation accuse such systems of not making money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

 

Get Thee to the Statehouse–TODAY

Despite all of the hard work done by the coalition working on Indiana redistricting reform–despite the recommendation of the Interim Study Committee and the support of Rep. Jerry Torr,  it has been an open question whether H.B. 1014  would even be scheduled for a hearing. But just yesterday–presumably in response to consistent pressure from hundreds of Hoosiers– the Bill was scheduled for a hearing. TODAY.

I’m told there will be a rally starting at 2:30 on the east steps of the Statehouse, and many people are going to the hearing from there. Indianapolis area readers: if you can go to either the rally or the hearing, please, please do.

In case you’ve forgotten why putting an end to gerrymandering is so critically important, if you have missed my multiple, repetitive screeds on the subject, I direct your attention to this article from yesterday’s Washington Post, which identified gerrymandering as the single biggest obstacle to restoring American democracy.

There is an enormous paradox at the heart of American democracy. Congress is deeply and stubbornly unpopular. On average, between 10 and 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress – on a par with public support for traffic jams and cockroaches. And yet, in the 2016 election, only eight incumbents – eight out of a body of 435 representatives – were defeated at the polls.

If there is one silver bullet that could fix American democracy, it’s getting rid of gerrymandering – the now commonplace practice of drawing electoral districts in a distorted way for partisan gain. It’s also one of a dwindling number of issues that principled citizens – Democrat and Republican – should be able to agree on. Indeed, polls confirm that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all stripes oppose gerrymandering.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Congressional elections aren’t real elections in the vast majority of districts. As the Post article notes, a typical race in a gerrymandered district ends with either the Democrat or Republican (whichever party has been “awarded” that particular district) winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. (That’s a North Korea-style election…)

Competitiveness is so last Century….

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were decided by a margin of 5 percent or less. Just 33 seats in total were decided by a margin of 10 percent or less. In other words, more than 9 out of 10 House races were landslides where the campaign was a foregone conclusion before ballots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly competitive Congressional races in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a system of government that, at its core, is defined by political competition….

These uncompetitive districts have a seriously corrosive effect on the integrity of democracy. If you’re elected to represent a district that is 80 percent Republican or 80 percent Democratic, there is absolutely no incentive to compromise. Ever. In fact, there is a strong disincentive to collaboration, because working across the aisle almost certainly means the risk of a primary challenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the overwhelming majority of Congressional representatives, there is no real risk to losing a general election – but there is a very real threat of losing a fiercely contested primary election. Over time, this causes sane people to pursue insane pandering and extreme positions.

The article concludes with a point I have made repeatedly: low turnout is not explained by voter apathy or even disinterest; it is explained by powerlessness–by voters coming to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that their vote no longer counts, that legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around.

Why bother showing up when the result has been preordained?

If at all possible, attend today’s hearing!

With a Little Help From Their Friends…

I know it’s hard to take our eyes off the mounting disasters in D.C., but let’s take a moment to talk about Indiana. Specifically, let’s talk about Senate Bill 309, sponsored by Senator Brandt Hershman. (It’s always wise to look carefully–and skeptically– at anything Hershman sponsors.)

Senate Bill 309 is about “distributed energy generation.” (If your eyes already glazed over, that was the intent.) What it is really about is the protection of electric monopolies at the expense of consumers.

Let’s say you have rooftop solar, and you currently have “net metering.” Net metering is a term that refers to a billing arrangement between you and the electric utility; when your rooftop panels are generating more energy than you are using, the excess goes back into the grid, and the utility credits you for that excess at the same rate that you pay them when you aren’t generating enough to cover your needs and you buy the rest of what you need from them.

Even if it is an even swap, you still pay the utility an amount sufficient to cover its overhead costs–billing, meter reading, etc. Fair enough.

Most studies of this growing practice have concluded that net metering benefits the grid and other customers, as well as the environment. As Citizens Action Coalition explains,

The multiple benefits of net metering include: avoided costs of purchasing energy and building new power plants, avoided capital investments, increased grid resiliency and security, reduced carbon emissions, and reduced toxic air emissions.

But what are those benefits when weighed against diminished profits for electric monopolies? In Senator Hershman’s calculus, not much.

If Senate Bill 309 passes, you will no longer be able to use the electricity from your rooftop solar panels and sell any excess back to the utility. Instead, you would be forced to sell all the electricity you generate to the utility at a much lower price than the utility charges you, and then buy back what you need at their substantially higher “retail” price. (The utilities will have to pay you at something called the “avoided cost” rate–which is somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5 cents per kilowatt hour.–You’ll have to buy it back at retail rates between 11 and 16 cents per kilowatt hour.)

Nice work if you can get it!

If SB 309 passes, it will price rooftop solar and small-scale wind generation out of the market.

During just the last five years, over a million Americans have installed solar, and the costs of both solar and wind generated energy have dropped dramatically. That’s good for the environment, and good for consumers’ pocketbooks, but it has cut into the profit margins of the big electrical utilities.

Fortunately for them, those big monopolies have good friends like Senator Hershman in the Indiana General Assembly.

Consumers, unfortunately, do not.

Update: for information about who to call, go here.

ALEC’s Little Brother

Most readers of this blog know about ALEC–the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is an arm of corporate America, and writes “model” legislation for lazy legislators (most of them beholden to those corporations for sizable campaign contributions) to introduce as their own. Once ALEC began to receive a good deal of public scrutiny, it began to bleed members, but it is by no means incapacitated.

Now, ALEC has a municipal-level sibling. 

American City County Exchange (ACCE) was spawned by ALEC in 2014 to spread ALEC’s ideas about “limited government, free markets, and federalism” down to the most local levels of government.

The linked report, from the Mayor of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, describes what he learned about the organization from a meeting he attended:

ALEC leaders intend to hire a membership/fundraising director and researcher in 2017 and make ACCE a profit center by 2018. This, presenters said, will require ACCE to solidify relationships with traditional allies, such as the bail-bond and telecommunications industries. ACCE must also find new allies, including those who would privatize historically municipal services, often by adding technology that is easily replicated but new to municipal clients.

For example, we heard presentations from “smart cities” vendors selling information and communications technology at the meeting, in a sales pitch format called a “workshop” by ALEC.

The priorities of ACCE, as one might expect, mirror those of ALEC: privatization of government functions, evisceration of public unions…the group is evidently working hard to expand both its membership and the number of corporate sponsors, but it is already cranking out cookie-cutter “model” ordinances intended to move local governments toward their goals.

Sometimes, just keeping track of the corporatists and crony capitalists is exhausting.

 

Whatever Happened to Integrity?

I concluded yesterday’s post by saying “We have spoiled toddlers running state and federal offices, but at least adults run the cities.” Evidently, some of those adults are less  praiseworthy than I suggested.

Indianapolis recently held a referendum on transportation. It wasn’t easy convincing the General Assembly that residents of the city should be allowed to decide for ourselves whether to impose a modest tax increase dedicated to the expansion of the city’s painfully inadequate bus service. It took a couple of years, but we finally did.

The vote was advisory, meaning that it will inform members of the City-County Council, whose votes will be dispositive. I think it is fair to say that voters expect the Councilors’ votes to reflect the clear results of the popular will.

The referendum won handily. But some Councilors– in districts where constituents voted decisively for the transit expansion– are vacillating. According to several people who have talked to them, the reluctant Council members are ambitious politicians who plan to run for higher office; they have been telling transit proponents that they don’t want a future opponent to be able to accuse them of raising taxes.

Think about that for a minute. This isn’t about legitimate disagreement about the merits of the proposal; this is about personal political calculation– a conflict of interest between the public good and personal advantage.

These City-County Counselors were elected to serve the constituents in their districts. Those constituents have signaled their belief that improved transit is sufficiently important to them to justify the (relatively minor) tax increase required. Rather than considering the wishes of those constituents, rather than considering the needs of the disabled and elderly people who depend upon transit, or the needs of workers to get to their places of employment without changing buses and enduring lengthy commutes (when they can get there at all–see yesterday’s post), these Councilors are viewing their votes only from the perspective of their personal self-interest.

Why, they might have to defend voting for the public good in a future political campaign!

I can understand why someone representing a district that voted against the referendum would decide to ignore the interests and expressed preferences of the overall community, but when elected officials disregard the wishes and needs of both the overall community and their own constituents in order to protect themselves from potential criticism in a potential future campaign, I find that contemptible.

I think it was Maya Angelou who said “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.”

And remember them.

Because if those who are threatening to vote no simply to protect themselves from criticism in a future campaign actually follow through with that threat, and if and when they do run for higher office, those of us with a different understanding of “representation” and “integrity” need to make a very public issue of their self-serving behavior.