OF “TRAFFIC CALMING”

calm streets

^ what Boston officials now call “courtesy streets” or :calm streets” — streets that disinvite being used, sort of like chairs in a museum with “don’t sit in this chair” signs around.

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No later than college years one learns how to behave in social settings and how to speak. There are things one does not say. To say them invites all kinds of unpleasantness; and pleasing is the premise of a social setting. Dissimulations that we adopt in society are no cause for alarm, so long as we never forget that they are, often, not what is silently said inside our heads but instead, a highly cosmetic “photoshop” of our actual thoughts. We who are invited back all do this.

We know most of the ordinaries : “How are you ?” “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” “Can I get you anything ?” “You look beautiful !” “So glad to see you again !” In each there’s likely at least a thimble of truth, maybe an entire bottle of it, but I’m guessing that when you say these pleasantries you really don’t expect an answer. “How am I ? Today I feel sick.” “Can I get you anything ? “Thank you so much. (Actually I would love you to buy me a drink.) “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” (I really wish I were in Philadelphia.) “You look beautiful !” (Did a blind person apply your make up ?) Oh how one wants to say these ! But of course one does not.

The quasi vocabulary of as-if politeness serves us all, and almost all of us take advantage and understand the difference. Not so, when quasi language is used for public policy statements. I don’t know about you, but I quease when I hear a politician refer to a big spending bill as “investment.” When an investor invests, she is investing her own money in hopes of a profit. That is not what happens when taxpayer dollars are spent on a public policy initiative. I find the political meaning of “investment” not polite at all. It’s a borderline lie, at best an evasion. That I feel so does not mean I do not support the spending proposal. Often I encourage it. But in no case do I like being told that it’s “investment” because that is not true. Polite is fine in a social setting; matters of public policy require the truth. Have I overreached here ? Probably I have. Probably public policy requires its own version  of polite. Still, even the polite should not intentionally deceive, right ? Maybe.

And so we come to the term “traffic calming.” Until recently i had not seen this phrase in print nor heard it said. Now I see it plenty. What does it mean to “calm” traffic ? Is traffic an angry beast that rants and raves in need of calm ? As in that meme “Keep calm… and go shopping.” Or what have you. Keep calm. So here we are.

“Traffic calming” is city planners’ term for decreasing the volume of vehicle traffic — of care and trucks in particular. I can’t say that today’s traffic density doesn’t frustrate me. Boston’s main roads are clogged with overmuch traffic in the morning and again the evening. From 6.30 AM to 9 AM one cannot move on most of the major incoming arteries. From 3 pm to about 7.30 pm one can’t move on the outbounds. As these roads were built in the 1980s-1990s to handle traffic burdens figured in the 1960s and 1970s, it isn’t very surprising that 2018 traffic makes them almost unusable. Boston in the late 1960s and the 1970s was a city from which people were moving away, out to the suburbs and the by-pass roads where the malls were built and the picket fence houses were everyone’s ideal. Toady, just the opposite holds. Everybody wants to shop, trade, entertain, and live in the city. Thus the traffic. Neighborhoods of streets once quiet find themselves flooded with cars and trucks, noise and frustration. The remedy ? “Traffic calming.”

Boston City officials have decreed a “neighborhood slow streets” program. You can read all about it here: https://www.boston.gov/departments/transportation/neighborhood-slow-streets

The artwork in it has a kind of Norman Rockwell, squeaky clean, rural peace valley look to it. Haha and haha. Does anyone takes this sort of leafy eye perfume seriously ?

I’m not a fan of taking a four lane main street and decreasing it to two lanes, setting the other two aside for bicycles and feet. What planners call “traffic calming”: I call “traffic abolition.” Neighborhoods belong not only to those who live in them, but also to those who shop in them, visit people in theme, entertain in them, run businesses in them, hotel in them, tourist in them. Restricting traffic flow — and thereby shoving half of it onto the city’s other, already overcrowded roads — may make some residents rest easier, but it impedes commerce and adds to people’s commute times. Boston already has several “traffic calming” systems in place. The city’s public garages inflict a very costly use price; parking meters cost a ton and don’t allow for more than two hours stay. If you get towed, you’ll spend at least $ 200 plus the ticket’s $ 53 to $ 100 fine. All of these obstacles push thousands onto the MBTA, which also suffers from carrying 1960s-1970s traffic in year 2018. Planners definitely “calm” traffic in one place; but the more they “calm” traffic HERE, the more that it doubles down over THERE. So why don’t we, instead of “traffic calming,” cal,l it “pushing traffic from one place onto another place ?” Or, “my traffic calm is YOUR traffic tsunami” ?

Not very polite, if you ask me.

What it is, is policy bullshit.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

IN MEMORIAM : GEORGE H. W. BUSH

george-hw-bush-13

“This aggression will not stand.”

Of all the sentences that George H. W. Bush spoke, as President or otherwise, those five words can still be felt. I suspect they will be felt for a century to come. Maybe longer.

Saddam Hussein, then tyrant of Iraq, had sent his army into Kuwait, a small, neighboring nation, conquering the entire country. The world was angry; war was threatened.

President bush did not threaten. He simply stated : “this aggression will not stand .”

Over a six month period thereafter, a vast armed force, involving several nations, maybe 500,000 troops and their arsenal, all of it sought for and persuaded for by the President, gathered at the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Hussein was given a choice: withdraw, or be pushed out. Hussein defied the ultimatum and was pushed out and much more.

The world then knew that when the President of our nation said “this will not stand,” he meant exactly what he said.

The entire event was a huge confidence builder for a nation that had, since the disaster of Viet Nam, profoundly doubted itself. Doubted our resolve. Questioned our strength. Dared not test our ability to be the world’s “arsenal of democracy.” Yet here we did what we said we were going to do, and we as well as the rest of the world saw it happen as we made it happen, and we were right to do it and to led a large coalition of nations to do it alongside us.

Kuwait remains free, and so do Iraq’s Kurds; and if the full result was incomplete — because President H. W. Bush felt that to go the whole distance might overreach — it was good enough for its purposes.

Bush ’41 was not re-elected. He lacked political smarts; was unable to sell his big tax compromise after having promised his voters that compromise was off the table. A master of diplomacy, and no slouch at legislating civil rights — his Americans on Disability Act changed the entire world for millions of disabled Americans, and still does change their world — Bush ’41 was no master of the street. Foresight was not in his craft. He had scant grasp of the AIDS crisis — his son would master that — and was content to run a nasty 1988 election campaign directed in part by the very street-smart Lee Atwater. At home among world leaders and movers, he seemed awesomely unaware of what his fellow Americans were like, so that what he did achieve — there was plenty: include among his works the Clean Air Act — came about more because of his idealism and sense of duty than from any personal witness. Nonetheless, he accomplished; and we live with the benefits of what he –and his Congresses — accomplished, however they accomplished it.

He was a son of America’s traditional merchant aristocracy — short-handedly called “WASPS” — “white Anglo Saxon Protestants,” which was what the motivating majority of the class were, though by no means all : WASP leaders included many who were Catholic, or Jewish, or even Black: think Senator Ed Brooke, Brooke’s mentor Melnea Cass, Ambassador Ralph Bunche, Tuskeegee Institute’s Booker T. Washington, the union leader Bayard Rustin, author Langston Hughes ( himself the son in law of an Abolitionist leader, John Langston), and, above all, Frederick Douglass. The Bush family were WASP to the core : Andover Academy, Yale, law and banking, diplomacy, the world stage; and the social register. And public service : in Bush ’41’s case, Navy Pilot in World War II, Congress, the CIA, Ambassador to the UN, the Vice residency and the Presidency. The sense of duty; of serving because, so much being given to one as a member of an entrusted, leadership group, one had to merit that trust. All of that was Bush ’41, and he never looked back or doubted himself.

If, as his son Bush ’43 said today, “the best father a son or daughter ever had,” that too was the way it had to be for a man who just did it, because it was how one did. Being best came naturally to him; he didn’t have to think how to be best or worry about what-if’s. He was perhaps the luckiest of men as well; in Barbara Pierce he found a lifelong soul mate who was what he was — and as witty as beautiful, a woman who did not suffer fools at all and said so. But of course Bush ’41 was no fool,. not ever, except perhaps “a fool in love,” as the 1950s song had it, and that was a foolishness that he never had second thoughts about.

The nation is now saying a long good-bye that expresses the unconscious, long, heart-beatingly confident love that most of us have always had for a leader whom we may not always have agreed with, or understood, or applauded, but who would never by us be denied. Who among us could deny a man who did a parachute jump at age 90 ? Who with his prep school accent so incongruously loved baseball, country music, and barbecue ? Who summered in everyone’s ideal summer corner, Kennebunkport ? (Lobstah ! Chowdah ! An ocean cold enough to chew !)

Bush ’41 was an un-self-conscious child-man who hated broccoli and said so. Doubtless they won’t dare serve him broccoli in heaven; but they will allow him parachute jumps — upwards this time.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

COSTS & REFORMS — THE UPCOMING LEGISLATIVE SESSION

 

DeLeo

^ Speaker DeLeo and Governor Baker do not look happy, as well they might, given the budget obstacles that loom in 2019

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The 2019 legislative session here in Massachusetts looks much less easy than was the 2018 version. This year, the legislature enacted all manner of detail reforms, on all kinds of topics from criminal justice to minimum wage, and from gun regulation to workforce housing and transportation funding. Much of the 2018 work was agreed to unanimously, or almost. I doubt anything like these successes will be done in 2019 without major effort.

First of all, the budget number itself is sure to cramp reform’s style. A recent article in Commonwealth Magazine, by Robert L. Reynolds and Christopher Anderson    — Reynolds is a major fundraiser for Governor Baker — asserts that the state’s financial stability ranks near the bottom of the 50. We face major unfunded state worker pension liabilities and a shortfall in retiree benefits; the “rainy day fund,” it is claimed, has nowhere near the billions of reserve dollars it needs if the state falls into recession; and, so the article cries, health care cost increases show no signs of leveling off. What will the legislature do about these ? Hard to say, given that “no new taxes” is Speaker DeLeo’s litmus test. Governor Baker’s, too.

With respect to health care costs, note that the transfer of opioid addiction responses from criminal justice to health care treatment has certainly raised them. I doubt that the costs of incarceration exceed, or equal, the cost of hospitalization and treatment that we now provide to addicts in recovery — provisions that will increase as the state completes addiction’s  transfer from criminal to health issue. Nor can we turn back. Treatment is the only useful response to addiction. We all recognize that. But the effect upon health care costs will NOT be to decrease this budget item.

Even without accounting for addiction treatment, health care costs in Massachusetts are rising much faster than state revenues. Universal health care, as “Medicare for All,” may be a goal of Federal legislators, but in Massachusetts it’s what we do — and have done since 2006. The state’s population is growing, too, quite rapidly; thus too our health care “universe.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration has cut back the contribution that Federal dollars had been making to Massachusetts’ health care funds. Little wonder that Governor baker, back in 2016, told me that health care cost increases worried him mightily on a long term basis.

They will increase, and the 2019 legislature will really have no choice but to account the increases. In 2018 it and Governor baker were able to allocate to businesses about $ 800 million of health care employee contributions as part of the “Grand Bargain” that included many employee pay and benefit increases (and one large give-back). Will Massachusetts businesses be equally ready to take on additional employee (and retiree) health care costs ? Maybe, if there’s yet another give-back. We’ll see.

Second, several measures of reform that could not get done in 2018 remain, even more urgently than during last year. Education funding probably comes first. The legislature failed to complete its chapter 70 funding formula reform — the bill died before a joint committee could finalize the bill — and Governor Baker has committed to prioritizing education money. As Carrie Healy reported last August, Baker said “there’s more work to do there.” Baker said if he is re-elected, he will file a budget next January that puts more money into the schools that were the subject of concern during the debate.

Baker’s commitment includes chapter 70 reform, and for good reason. The current formula does not prioritize school districts most in need. Boston schools always fall far short of what they assert is needed. That the Boston Schools budget tolerates millions of dollars of inefficiency and special interests is no excuse for the State not contributing properly. Will chapter 70 reform overcome the “equal protection” hurdle that now bars the allocation from favoring one sort of school district over another ? We’ll see.

There will be plenty of outcry for substantial new housing funding. Carrie Healy’s article mentions zoning reform, a huge issue in every community, given the passions that in every community, including Boston,  govern what sorts of housing can be built where. It’s one thing to allocate construction money and land acquisition funds; it’s quite another to win local approval of developments within present zoning law. In Boston, zoning variances are the rule these days, partly because Boston’s exceptional zoning regulations (Boston’s zoning follows a different path than the State’s chapter 90) make construction and renovation very difficult without a variance, and partly because almost every Boston proposal upsets extremely delicate balances of various land-use interests. That said, the State should and probably will increase its housing budget: because if the money is there, those involved will find a way to spend it; and the need for housing is there, given that metro Boston is likely to gain 500,000 new residents, if not more, by 2030.

Thirdly, what about if there’s a recession ? Right now, state revenue well exceeds expectations and thus supports a bullish budget. In recession, those revenues recede too. This is where the “rainy day fund” serves. Today it has something north of $ 1,600,000,000 dollars. Reynolds’s article says it should total closer to three billion. Windfall revenue receipts in FY 2018 added $ 2909,00,000 to the fund: The deposit will push the state’s rainy day fund balance above $1.6 billion, which Baker administration officials said represents an increase of about $500 million since the governor took office in 2015.

If Evan Horowitz’s October article in the Boston Globe is to be credited, the rainy day fund actually totals $ 1,800,000,000. Horowitz says that’ still not enough. If the 2109 budget comes in at about $ 42.5 billion, $ 1.8 billion represents barely two weeks funding. He recommends a fund large enough to fund six weeks of budget — some $ 5.4 billion. We’re nowhere near that. Reynolds and Anderson concur with Horowitz’s $ 5.4 billion figure. How do we get there ? Especially how do we get there in a budget session that demands more money than ever for health care expenses, education funding, and transportation’s “state of good repair” needs ?

There will be one new source of state revenue : marijuana sales in state-licensed marijuana stores. The 2019 prediction is $ 60,000,000 of revenue. sales boomed in this first week. Let’s say that actual marijuana revenue doubles that $ 60 million. It’s still way short of the $ 3.6 billion rainy day fund gap that Reynolds, Anderson, and Horowitz say is needed.

Next month Baker will deliver his “state of the state” speech. It will feature his budget objectives. Soon thereafter DeLeo will appoint a budget chief — his 20-18 chief, Jeffrey Sanchez, was defeated in a primary. T>he new budget chief will have to get accustomed to the task. We might not see the House’s proposed 2019 budget until June. Baker’s, we’ll see before that. They’ll then have only till the end of July to agree on numbers and pass the budget. I remain hopeful that it will address the challenges I have outlined. Hopeful, but not by any means certain. There will be no new taxes — that, all parties agree on. Thus the money just isn’t likely to be there.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE MAYOR OR THE ACTIVISTS : WHO ACTUALLY GOVERNS BOSTON ?

Michelle Wu

^ City Councillor Michelle Wu : can she set Boston onto a course  not that of Mayor Walsh, and of which he may well disapprove ?

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We’re at the point right now, in Boston, of upending the City’s strong-Mayor system. The City Council, given scant power under the City charter, is moving to block the Mayor’s directives on many fronts. It may well succeed, because a large segment of actives support the Council’s agenda

Political mistakes on Mayor Walsh’s part have abetted this movement : it hardly boosted his clout that four of the five candidates he openly backed in September’s Democratic primary — Congressman  Capuano, State Representative Jeff Sanchez, 3rd Congress District hopeful Daniel Koh, District Attorney candidate Greg Henning — were defeated, and that his one “win, ” Dan Cullinane’s re-election as State Representative, was a fairly narrow one. These defeats add to an already weak record : defeats in State Representative and City Council races , the 2014 Governor contest, and the defeat of Warren Tolman by now Attorney General Maura Healey. Walsh is said to have an excellent relationship with Governor Baker; if so, Walsh staying neutral in Baker’s re-election campaign was probably a plus for both men.

The old Tammany Hall saw has it that in politics, “you don’t back no losers.” By this standard, Walsh looks politically bled. This is not a great position for him to be in at a time when city governance, generally, is trending away from City hall and out to the activists in the streets. On almost every issue, from schools administration to diversity in hiring, and from police issues to Air BnB regulation, traffic control, and real estate development, agendas forged by activists have already won the day in many instances and now challenge almost every major decision the Mayor is supposedly empowered to make. Consider the matter of Widett Circle and its environs: the Mayor wants to sell the major Widett parcel to developers for a soccer stadium — but the City Council, led by Michelle Wu, taking its cue from neighborhood activists who want “affordable” housing (whatever that means), insist that the parcel be set aside for housing purposes.

For me, this matter cuts both ways. I certainly side with the many activists who want the City’s housing to not price itself out of reach of most Bostonians, and who want development, where it is acceptable at all, conform to neighborhood characteristics rather than upend them. Yet is the City better off having its decisions made by the activism of a moment, than by a Mayor elected to make decisions for the longer term ?  I doubt it. Consider the analogous situation that rules today’s stock market: companies seek short -term advantage, at the expense of longer term investment goals, in order to satisfy shareholder activists who want instant quarterly results. I doubt that anyone but a speculator thinks that short-term fixations have made corporate governance better for anyone — employees, management, actual investors. So, why even have a strong Mayor with a four-year term if we the voters aren’t ready to give him discretion to decide major questions on his watch ?

The four-year term is not carved in stone. Boston mayors once upon a time served for one year; the Council, too. What might Boston government be like if that were the set up today ? It’s not hard to answer this question. If a Boston Mayor had to face the voters every year, he or she would surely avoid making controversial moves whose benefits might not be visible that quickly.

We see some of this already even with a four-year term. Walsh in his 2013 campaign set forth a city-wide school building reconstruction plan that would consolidate 126 under-utilized, budget-wasting, old school buildings into 90 much more efficiently used, newly constructed schools. Opposition to the plan from several activist groups led Walsh to backpedal this plan until now, five years after — five years of millions of dollars wasted on staffs not needed and utility costs not warranted; and even now the plan has aroused opposition forcing Walsh to forgo re-configuring the under-performing McCormack School.

Somehow Walsh must find a movement which will regain him his full four year power. I do not know what that will be. He has staked all on being the “building boom Mayor,” and as the acknowledged leader of the City’s powerful construction unions — and the Construction industrialists who hire them — being the “building boom Mayor” matched the City’s major fact : economic expansion, population growth, need for much more housing and commercial building. Yet the boom has become so big, and its consequences so expensive,. that almost the entire City is rebelling. If not development overreach, then traffic jams. If not these, then the price of everything.

Some Bostonians like the new use density; they want more of it, not less, and applaud micro-apartments, or backyard hives, rather than decry them. Perhaps these voters approve Walsh’s bottom line as Mr. Construction: but far more voters dislike what is happening, and that unrest has now become a serious threat to Walsh’s agenda, to his power and even to his re-election in 2021. The City Council — Councillor Wu, but not her only — is moving its own agenda for the Air BnB riddle, for development impacts, housing affordability, climate and sea rise resilience, utility lines and power stations, vehicle use, and land sales. If Walsh can’t quickly find a competing agenda that can mobilize a significant part of the City’s activists, he may well lose the political initiative to a Council whose members know how to use social media to solidify an energized and noisy following — one much more nimble than Walsh’s sometimes old-fashioned insiders.

I am uncomfortable with government by unelected activists. Much of what activists want contravenes the City’s long-term interests, in transportation, economic growth, taxation, and free trade. What are my options ? Perhaps this :

Walsh still has the unions. Can he make effective electoral use of their cadres ? So far, he has failed the test. If his failure continues, and his re-election begins to look dodgy, we may well see City charter change on the 2021 ballot, beginning with an elected school committee — this, a move certainly worthy given the recent history of grievous administrative mishandlings by the City department that accounts for one-third of the total money spent every year by Boston’s government.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere