photo courtesy of Boston Globe

In this morning’s Boston Globe there’s a feature report on the Green Line extension through Somerville to Medford. The new service runs for only 4.7 miles, yet the cost will run to almost $ 2 billion and the work will take two more years to complete (the target date for commencing service is 2021). AS the Globe reports, the new tracks involve bridge rebuilding, right of way widening, noise barriers, new stations, and in the meantime, much detouring of traffic on Somerville’s Broadway and Washington Streets:

I doubt this enormous dislocation and rebuilding could ever have been accomplished without solid support from Somerville’;s Mayor and City officials. How else to suffer the inconveniences for several years ? And all of that for a mere 4.7 miles of new track.

Keep that in mind when advocates berate the Baker administration — as many do, every day — about MBTA improvements. Reforming Boston’s public transportation isn’t easy or quick. It could be done 100 years ago, or even 60, before neighborhood activists learned to assemble, or zoning laws took hold. Then, eminent domain moves could easily acquire a right of way. Today, not gonna happen. Extending the Blue Line, as many activists propose — disclosure : i support doing it — sounds good, but it involves Revere and Lynn, and maybe Swampscott and Salem, and it means buying up a right of way — or widening existing rights — and building stations. Blue Line extension was first seriously proposed at least 25 years ago. It still hasn’t moved beyond the talking stage. Will it do so now ? I wonder. Connecting the Red Line to the Blue Line is simpler : an existing track already exists, bet.ween Bowdoin Street and the Charles Street Bridge. (T trains once traveled that track. Why did they stop ?) As for other MBTA reforms, they face every obstacle that the Green Line extension spent a decade overcoming.

More radical transit advocates want much more draconian moves. They see the presence of cars on city streets as the big problem — it is one, to be sure — and the T as the solution. make it so expensive to drive a car into Boston that only the rich will be able to afford it. To these advocates, its not enough that those who drive into Boston face parking fees of $ 20.00 a day and up, or that they pay tolls to use the fastest roads, or that municipalities impose a once “temporary” excise tax on vehicle owners, or that parking meter fines continue to rise, $ 90.00 now being the bottom line in Boston, or t.hat if you happen to get towed in Boston, you’ll pay 4 142 to $ 245 just to get your car back, plus the inconvenience of finding a way to get to where it has been towed. Boston and its adjacent communities already crush car owners. Add to their imposts the cost of car insurance — I pay $ 181 a month, $ 2200 a year — and of inspection, car repair, gasoline, and maybe an auto loan, and you’e put car ownership way out of reach for people on limited incomes. None of t.his is enough for radical anti-automobile advocates. They seek to penalize Uber and Lyft rides with fees and fines. They want the State’s gas tax, already onerous, raise even higher. They want a “miles driven” tax. Some have recently proposed something called ” congestion pricing,” a law which, if enacted, will credit those who drive in off-peak traffic hours. That’s fine, if you can do that. Most of us cannot. As for the explosion of Uber and Lyft cars taking commuters to Logan Airport or picking them up, why should they pay a fine or a fee for providing a service vital to our City’s hectic economy of prosperity ? I suppose that one-way designation can fend Uber and Lyft cars off East Boston local streets: why not institute that ?

Without question traffic on East Boston streets has ballooned past the toleration point : residents on residential streets reasonably wish their street to be free of pass-through traffic. East Bostonians — and others — thus ask why the State cannot push major MBTA build-outs quickly. At least put plans in place, they ask. And so ? The State is doing so. A comprehensive transportation plan was released three months ago — I wrote about it at the time. It’s an ambitious plan that takes environmental issues into account as well as traffic concerns. It will not, however, be quick. How can it be ? We would like to see many more trains put in service on the T lines, than the few which now ruin ? That requires major upgrades to track, switch, and signaling — all of which is being done now and will be be done all the way to 2022, at a cost of $ 8 billion. The Baker administration has also begun work to repair some major bridges in serious need: these include the Mystic River span and the bridges that connect Charlestown to Boston and to Everett. Doing these all at once requires “two years of pain,” as my friend at the T said to me, but “that’s less than the four years it would take if we did it piecemeal.”

In sum, there is no easy or simple answer to our transportation predicament. I do not favor making it even more expensive for cars than it already is, and i do not favor tax impositions arising from the desire to hurry transportation improvements. We do need more trains on the T lines, and more effective bus routing, and these will require the line upgrades which I mentioned earlier and the coming on service of the T’s electric buses, now planned for 2022-2023. We’re not wrong to want more people to use the T and buses, and fewer to choose car travel into the City; but I think we’ve already reached the maximum T and bus preference that can be expect without penalizing people for preferring the precision and efficiency of cars. Public roadways are not property of those who reside on them. If residents want power over who may use their street, let their street become private, as some streets are. As long as tax dollars are used, however, to maintain a public street, the public has a right to use them. If we are going to bring the T and buses to optimum performance, many years of incremental improvement will be needed — to stay within budget and to meet all of the myriad concerns and interests that any transportation proposal faces, from environment and convenience to cost and design. Let the decade and more that it took to get Green Line extension on its way be alesson t.o us all in t.his complex matter.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Comngressman Nadler has known Mr. Trump for decades. Theyre both from NYC. He knows where to look, and what to look for.

We strongly support the impeachment of President Trump. In this column I will list and explain our reasoning. The question, therefore, is not whether Mr. Trump ought to be impeached but SHOULD he be ? Opinions differ. In my mind, the Mueller report — which you can read here :
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/politics/read-the-mueller-report/?utm_term=.c12649065162 — is a referral to Congress of findings that support, maybe even require, an impeachment proceeding. On almost every page the narrative tells of acts and notions that reek of corruption, self-dealing, mendacity, indifference to the national interest in favor of personal interests. We see that Mr,. Trump and his circle not only do not live up to their oaths of office — “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” in the words of Article 2, Section 3 — but instead either violate laws or show complete indifference to them; we see cronyism, personal gain, laziness, incompetence, waste of taxpayer dollars, total lack of secure access and communication. We see not a Presidential administration but a clique of grifters, cheaters, shamelessly selfish and almost laughably indifferent to any obligation of trust. Such an administration has no business holding office under the Constitution, and the only question is, how best to end it ?

That the Mueller report amounts to an impeachment referral requires, I think, that the debate must begin : impeachment now, or later ? Or not at all, because, as some Congresspeople have posted, the matter will be decided by the voters 18 months from now ? I think that the impeachment process must begin now. If not — if Congress decides to take a cautious view — it sacrifices its Constitutional duty at a time when the powers given to Congress by the Constitution have already been seriously vitiated by decades of accession of primary power to the executive, accessions never intended by the Framers and for very good reason, as we now see in the gigantic power claims of Mr. Trump. Holding him fully accountable, via the means expressly set forth in the Constitution, recovers significant portions of the Constitution’s framework that have been compromised over decades thanks chiefly to World War II and the long Cold War, in which the President’s powers as Commander in Chief overrode the Constitution’s normal, non-wartime system. In sum, the impeachment process must begin.

Jerrold Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — which has jurisdiction over the decision to bring a bill of impeachment — will now begin by ( 1 ) subpoena-ing the unredacted Mueller report, so that Congress can know the full details found by SC Mueller. After his committee has that document, Nadler will call Mr. Mueller to testify before his committee. He also plans to interrogate Attorney General Barr and probably others. (All of this will take time, and it will go where Nadler wants it to go : Mr. Trump might have tried to fire SC Mueller — unsuccessfully, thank goodness — but he cannot fire members of Congress. Just the reverse. Congress has power to impeach the President; the President has no such power to impeach anyone.) I would be very surprised if, after Nadler has held his hearings, and more of the Mueller report is made public, a bill of impeachment is not put to a vote of the House. If so, it will certainly be adopted and impeachment trial mangers appointed.

Though I predict this outcome, it is not certain that it is the right outcome, politically. All during the Nadler hearings, right wing media will be blasting him with sensational stories mostly half true and otherwise taken out of context and made to look scandalous. This has been right wing media’s M/O for years now, accompanied by noise and kooky stuff all over social media. Expect, too, that Russian cyber attacks — and from other rogue regimes — will muddy the mix with lies and hallucinations cleverly disguised as they were leading up to the 2016 election. In short, Nadler and his committee won’t have the news cycle to themselves. Counter-narratives will dog them every step of the way, aided and abetted by most (but not all) House Republicans, as has happened already all along. The House Democratic leadership will have to work very hard, and smartly, to maintain the initiative and to make sure that its views dominate every day of the news cycle. Given this scene, is impeachment worth the trouble ? I say yes.

There can be no avoiding the duties that await Congress. Read these lines from Rich Wilson’s latest article in The Daily Beast over and over. They’re all spelled out in the Mueller report, and they aren’t pretty :

The smart legal folks are still parsing the things that kept Mueller from charging Trump, leaving that decision to his old friend Bill Barr. What’s clear from his report is that Mueller had the goods on obstruction, but saw no way to make the case given the DOJ’s rules.

We also know, with even more certainty than we already did, that Donald Trump’s cadre of people who lie with ease and dispatch made it hard for Mueller to do his job.

This is a damning portrait of a president with almost no command of his emotions or his government, one with no compunctions about wrapping up his most loyal staffers in his lies and crimes. The portraits of this White House as madhouse from Fire and Fury to Fear to freaking Omarosa are of an administration where no one is in charge, nothing is true, and chaos rules each day. All are borne out in the special counsel’s report.

In this White House bedlam, Trump has been saved his own ineptitude—with a big assist from Bill Barr—by aides and allies just brave or afraid enough to ignore his criminal diktats.

This is where we are at. Now back to my impeachment call.

As to the argument that Mr. Trump’s fate will be decided by the voters, I agree that if he is in office on election day 2020, he will be defeated, probably by a significant margin. Anyone who is not inside his support bubble is not likely to become a supporter; his approval rating stands at 38 to 42 percent, and in most polls the question “deserves re election / time for somebody else” runs about 38 for re elect, 57 to try somebody new. I doubt these numbers will change in his favor. Obviously, defeat at the polls ends his holding the office and, by returning him to private citizenship, opens him to a host of potential criminal indictments. That would b e a just outcome, but the question of impeachment involves another scenario, one that is completely political : if Mr. Trump[ is impeached and convicted, Mr. Pence takes over; and he would certainly ask the voters to give him a chance to “right the ship.” Such a plea would not fall on deaf ears. Mr. Pence is almost the opposite of Mr. Trump ; a careful man, one who likes people and is liked by those who know him, a man of the House not unlike Gerald Ford, who acquired the Presidency after Nixon’s resignation. I can well understand why Democrats would not want Mr. Pence to take over and be able to make that plea. I share their unease with such an outcome, because Mr. Pence supports laws and policies that I do not and cannot. Nonetheless, I am uneasy with making a calculation decision about impeachment,. I don’t think that Congress can hold the people’s trust if it puts Democratic party interests ahead of upholding the Constitution and the oaths that office holders take to it. These must come first.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


These folks deserve every bit of the support we all are giving them

The strike against Stop & Shop by UFCW workers has almost completely closed the grocery retailer’s New England business. As the Boston Globe reports, even in wealthy communities people aren’t crossing the picket line. In my own neighborhood, parking lots at the two Stop & Shop stores stand as empty at 10.00 am as they normally do at midnight — maybe even emptier, because on a usual midnight the Stop & Shop clean-up crew is working, and delivery trucks are being unloaded. Not now.

How did Ahold-Delhaize, the publicly traded international firm that owns Stop & Shop, so badly misjudge ? As the Globe story notes, if even five percent of Stop & Shop customers get used to shopping elsewhere and don’t come back, it’s terrible for a business that operates on a 1.5 percent profit margin. It’s not as though Stop & Shop has monopoly power. Shoppers have plenty of options, and Stop & Shop prices, on most items, are much higher than at Market Basket, for example; and Market Basket pays its workers better and offers them profit-sharing. I do stuff for a firm that performs contract work for Stop & Shop, and I am now shopping exclusively at Market Basket; the stores I shop at are super busy, and people who may not have shopped there before have to be amazed at the prices, compared to most offerings at Stop & Shop.

How the blazes did Ahold-Delhaize end up in this predicament ? I see a whole host of reasons :

( 1 ) as a publicly traded company, Ahold is, like all the rest, pressured by hedge fund speculators, quick flip day traders, and take-over specialists buying controlling amounts of company stock in order to force “maximizing stock value,” which almost always means squeezing thousands of workers out and cheating the rest, because the quickest way to widen a profit spread is to cut week to week costs. That this kind of very short term earnings boost hurts the company long term is of zero interest to the hedgers and quick flippers, because as soon as the stock price reflects the quick fix, they’re out, letting their buyers hold the wounded bleeding corporate animal their amputations leave behind. The only current way to avoid this kind of extortion is for management to own a controlling block of stock: but these days, few publicly traded corporations enjoy this level of long-term, stable financial commitment.

( 2 ) you do not try to protect corporate profits by squeezing workers at a time when there’s an actual labor shortage, as exists right now. Ahold can’t get replacement workers, because there aren’t any, and its strikers can easily find fill-in work themselves because almost every labor-intensive business needs line people badly.

( 3 ) the past two years, almost every kind of labor action, from teachers to utility workers to hotel and university service workers, has ended up a big win for the strikers. Did Ahold-Delhaize think things would be different ? For a business surrounded by easily accessible competition ?

( 4 ) If you operate a labor-intensive business, you have to accept that your workers are your asset — almost by definition. You cannot see them as a cost item, because that view leads to where Ahold is now. You really must follow the lead of Costco, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Market Basket : pay your workers a much higher wage than the minimum, offer stronger benefits and longer paid vacations than standard, and give every vested employee a profit sharing participation. This last item especially seems crucial. If your employee has an ownership stake in your success, she will work with some enthusiasm and also not seek a better job as quickly as possible, as many workers now do because they have to, given the minimal level of pay too many labor-intense businesses impose.

( 5 ) even a labor-intense business has to think beyond its niche. Business models aren’t guaranteed. Competition and innovation affect them. Grocery stores can’t continue to offer every sort of product on a very thin markup because far too many shoppers these days prefer special items that a general store can’t market as efficiently as a specialty store. Specialty retailers offer stuff that shoppers see as superior quality at premium prices — think Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, but also small, local, one or two-location stores — and even people who use food stamps and thus have to budget rigorously are willing to buy less quantity in favor of higher quality, because who likes goods inferior ? No one that I know. Ahold stores offer specialty items that differ from store to store, but too much of what they try to sell doesn’t sell; every cycle, their reset teams remove tons of, discontinued items — called “disco” — that did not sell but occupied shelf space and required much worker time to stock. (You’ve seen, I’m sure, those workers stocking 22 aisles of stuff; they do it all day long, from 7 am to 9 pm.) Specialty stores enjoy much more efficient control over their stock. Because they appeal to niche markets, they offer only products in that niche, which means that they have much less product to waste work time discontinuing because it didn’t sell. Ahold operates almost like a consignment store : a product gets a shelf space — which shelf and where on it is decided by a computer-generated shelf plan — and if it sells, great; if not, it is de-shelved. Yet Ahold is NOT a consignment store. Consignment stores are specialty retailers. Consigned goods are all that they offer, and they are usually very small operations with very few staff who work mostly on commission. Ahold can’t do that. If it wants to offer specialty goods within its store space, it probably should lease out a portion to a concession operation — assuming that union rules allow it.

All of the above explain, I hope, the predicament that Ahold finds itself in and for which it has no answer except the huge blunder it now has to find a way out of.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


striking for a fair contract

Last Thursday, at 1.00 p.m., Stop & Shop’s wage employees began a strike against the company, which is part of Ahold-Delhaize, a firm headquartered in the Netherlands. We support the workers. Read our argument for why we support them :

Ahold is looking to increase workers’ dollar contribution to its health care plan. This has become a standard negotiation position for many companies. It was the central feature of the National Grid dispute that arose last year and of the Verizon conflict the year before that. It’s true that health care costs generally are rising much faster than the economy is growing, much of it resulting from vastly increased drug prices. The proper response, I insist, is not to penalize workers but to negotiate better price deals with pharma companies. Massachusetts is doing this, why can’t Ahold ?

The company also offers its workers a two percent pay boost. That’s less than the COLA upon which Social Security payments were raised last year (and will be raised again this year) and much less than the raises being won by service workers in other industries. If the average Stop & Shop worker wage is $ 21.50 an hour — which seems high — a two percent boost moves it from $ 21.50 to $ 21.93. That’s $ 17.20 a week, $ 68.80 a month. Not exactly a boost to one’s family budget, many costs in which incur much more than two percent increases. For example, MBTA fares, which on July 1, 2019 will rise by 6.3 percent. The price of gasoline in our area has also risen, from about $ 2.29 a gallon to about $ 2.55. That’s a 13 percent increase. Ahold should commit to a boost of at least the 6.3 percent, and the 13 percent would not be unjustified either. A 13 percent increase would accord its workers $ 24.30 an hour, $ 97.20 a week, $ 388.80 a month. That’s a significant change, one that enables Stop and Shop workers to increase their spending into the general economy, even.

Ahold also proposes to pay its part time Sunday workers only a $ 2.00 an hour premium. Some have argued that the “time and a half” that workers once got for Sunday employment was bargained away in last year’s “Grand Bargain,” but that’s not appropriate here. Part time workers for Sunday only aren’t giving up one thing to get another, better thing. They work only on Sunday and so deserve to be bargained with strictly as such. A $ 2.00 premium would be OK if attached to the kind of regular hourly that I have suggested above. Otherwise, they ought to receive more.

Supermarket operations depend on labor intensity. You can add self check out, but cashiering is the least part of operating a supermarket. The bigger part is shelf stocking. Only humans can do shelf stocking — and price tagging. These jobs can’t be outsourced. It’s physical labor, all of it, a mind-numbing, detailed slog. You wouldn’t want to do it. There’s no skill acquisition in it that leads you to a more challenging position. You just do it, year after year. Exhausted physically and mentally scooped out.

Some S & S workers aren’t always smiling or gracious ? believe me, there’s a reason. I’ve seen Stop & Shop workers on the job because the job I have now involves interaction with them. It’s blue collar work requiring your full commitment, a job that isolates you from the social world and the political. You begin at 7.00 am and work through to quitting time; a second shift follows. The shelves must be stocked, old items removed, price tags updated, fast-moving items shelved favorably, other items shelved less so. Some of the items are fitted into sliding plastic slots which must be moved if the item being inserted has a different size. These shelves don’t always slide easily: the plastic becomes old and sticks on the sliders. Try doing this work for five hours and see how happy you feel about stuff…

Stocking items means constant movement of one item to another’s location, and that items to another spot, and so forth. Meanwhile other workers are off loading bulk deliveries from food service trucks, categorizing, moving them in quantity from off load rooms to the store floor. Other workers maintain the data bank upon which shelf plans are predicated and price tags — fully coded with store code and item code — updated and printed. Its both a body job and a mind job. Just you try doing it for a week and see how you feel at the end of the workday. The ,least Stop & Shop can do is reward its employees liberally enough that they feel valued and that the job is worth every minute of effort.

The company responds that it operates on a very thin profit margin — never more than 1.5 percent — and that it faces mostly non-union competition as well as the presence of specialty stores and online grocery applications. All true. It may be that the general supermarket business model no longer works, that people now prefer to buy specialty items, at higher prices, or to order stuff from online sources. This is how almost all retail is going, so it’s no surprise to see it dominating the current groceries situation. What’s the answer ? Clearly Ahold ought to think about restructuring Stop & Shop operations quite radically, to become both an online operation and a specialty store. In part, it’s already doing that : different stores offer different items, locally favored, on top of the general stuff. Until that decision is made — and I think it will have to be — Ahold has the market power to defend a profit margin one fifth of a percent less — 1.3 % — against all comers, a margin that it might have to accept in order to keep its workers fully engaged and economically viable. I don’t see how the current dispute can end any other way, which means that Ahold ought to reach such an outcome now, not two months from now when shoppers have found comfort buying from other food sources.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


The progressive wedge : DA Rollins sees an opportunity to advance the entire movement

You might think that reforms to how we handle criminal charges might be easy now that major portions of both political parties support them. Unhappily, your thinking thus would be wrong. A big battle has recently erupted, between the Governor and the District Attorney in charge of Boston. How did this happen at a place and time of general agreement ?

Last year the Massachusetts legislature enacted, and Governor Baker signed, a significant reform to our state’s handling of criminal justice. Little controversy attached to the effort. Aside from objections chiefly by Bristol County’s Sheriff Hodgson, the legislation was enacted by an overwhelming vote: 37 to 0 in the Senate and 148 to 5 in the House. The bill moved Massachusetts criminal law in the direction of treatment and away from incarceration; it did away with mandatory minimum sentences for addiction crimes. Consensus is the essence of Masslive’s report on the bill’s enactment, in this article from a year ago :

As the report makes clear, Governor Baker offered a few tweaks to the bill, all of them itemized in the report. He then filed his own bill in support of those tweaks. So far his bill has not been acted upon. What is now clear, however, is that the next step in reform will not be as easy as last year’s work. Baker has found himself embroiled in a fierce debate with Suffolk’s District attorney, Rachael Rollins, over her now notorious “list” of fifteen smallish crimes that she will not prosecute absent special circumstances and office support. The debate started when Baker’s Secretary of Public Safety, Thomas Turco III, sent Rollins a letter critiquing her list of non-prosecutions. Masslive wrote the following report, in which Turco is quoted objecting to several items in Rollins’s list of changes :

Turco’s letter raised other concerns, ones that I admit to not having noticed when Rollins published her “list” last year : especially her suggestion that the criminal histories of persons cannot be accessed beyond 36 months back. As Turco points out, this limitation would, if adhered to literally, block out some of the most serious offenders, as — so he notes — most of them would have been incarcerated for the past 36 months (and more), during which they would therefore have no criminal history for that time frame. It’s a fair criticism.

That said, Rollins’s response to the letter was not to publish a rebuttal but to attack the Governor on a personal, family level. Her attack generated both outrage and celebration, and wisely, I think, she and the Governor called for a “reset” — not that anyone out here was lulled by the call, yet it was still a wise public move. Said “reset” lasted only one day. Next morning, Rollins was calling out Democratic office holders who had not rallied to her side ( and there were plenty of these).

(My thinking is that her advisers got to her and said something like “you don’t want to cool this dispute off, you want to charge it up, it’s an opening for our side — the “progressives” — against the beacon Bill Democratic establishment. We tried that with the Safe Communities Act, but they wouldn’t take the bait, and Baker didn’t either; now we have another chance, on a less thorny issue, let’s go for it.” I can’t prove that something of this sort transpired, but why else would Baker and Rollins agree to a “reset,” only to see Rollins go back to attack mode just one day after ? The opportunity is there, as Baker wants the tweaks of rigor which I discussed above, while Rollins wants criminal justice to reform even further in the direction of alternative sentencing rather than conviction and incarceration.)

Rollins may well be right to want further reform; a case can certainly be made that conviction and incarceration have been too liberally applied to smallish crimes which more confident Western societies in the past often handled as matters of fine or money compensation. Nor can anyone dispute that our incarceration preference costs enormous amounts of money and subjects far too many people to the horrors of imprisonment. It’s hard enough for people to become imprisoned thereby subjecting their lives and bodies to the whims of some guards, without their having to suffer the risks of injury, rape, and even murder, that occur in almost every American prison. Our incarceration preference has also led us to create private prisons — a barbarity that should never, ever have been permitted, in any jurisdiction. For these reasons, as well as the job and housing deprivations that cripple anyone who has been incarcerated, I support the general purposes that Rollins is advancing.

I also suspect that Governor Baker agrees with her and that they differ only on the details of her plan. So why has the discussion between them taken such an adversarial turn ? I think we know the answer : Rollins is not only the Suffolk District Attorney. She’s a leader of an entire movement, by “progressives,” to take charge of Massachusetts’s public policy generally. The movement has some legs thanks to her election and that of Congresswoman Pressley — not to forget the defeat of House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez by a woman whom Rollins campaigned closely with — and Rollins is now using the opening that Secretary Turco’s letter gave her to force the Democratic establishment — whose views on most issues are very different from hers and the movement’s — to defend itself on an issue where alternatives to Rollins’s agenda are few and risk sounding racist, a card central to her reform justifications..

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


Rush hour traffic on I-93 viewed from Southampton St. in Boston

A couple of days ago, a truck accident in the Sumner Tunnel turned Boston’s expressway traffic upside down. Gridlock extended for miles and lasted for hours. Thousands of drivers fumed and fussed; passengers missed appointments. Everybody was late for work, or to return home from work. Excess pollution barfed the atmosphere. It was a damned messy magillah with zero escape. Politicians swore to fix the mess. Alternative transportation became the golden calf. And so it went last Friday in Boston, a city booming with business, population, and bumper to bumper crush.

There isn’t much one can do about accidents, but that did not stop politicians from advocating all sorts of remedies that won’t work much. An accident in one of the tunnels leading into and out of Downtown definitely hits the weak points; yet it’s hard to see how our transportation system can account for them. Alternative transportation, such as ferries, doesn’t work because who would use them except during the one tenth of a percent time when an accident blocks the roads ? They’d be sitting there, bored at the dock, waiting for the magical hour of their greatest need. We could build duplicate tunnels : but the same argument applies to these. Who would use the duplicate tunnel except during a crisis ? That, or, maybe an extra tunnel would gin up extra traffic: it’s kind of an axiom that the more roads you build, the more cars will find their way to use them. In any case, it might take 20 years to plan and build extra tunnels and get them safely through 20 thousand environmental regulations.

If alternative transportation doesn’t work — it might be a good idea to create it, but on its own, not as a crisis savior — and as duplicate tunnels aren’t likely to be built, can we do anything at all to keep Boston moving during an accident in a tunnel ? We could, I suppose, forbid accidents in the first place — just penalize those who suffer an accident even more than those who cause one, by imposing a ruinous toll on big scary trucks at tunnel entrances. Perhaps we could ban vast trucks altogether and have big bulk goods transported only by Harbor barge. I dunno… Perhaps we could create truck-only lanes and wall them off from the general traffic. Only problem there is that entrances onto the Central Artery are one lane wide, not two. Oh well.

The big problem is that cities change much more flexibly than transportation systems. When you build an expressway, or a tunnel, or a rapid transit line, or exit ramps, what you build is literally cast in stone. The city around it may ebb or flow, boom or sag, grow busy or fall empty and do all of that naturally and easily because the human body can move on its own; it is NOT written in stone. Not so with roadways and rails. These use rights of way that can’t be shifted from here to there. The cement and steel they’re built with are a fact on the ground — cannot be moved. And if they can be blasted and demolished, and new ones created in their place, that’s not a project one can undertake on a whim or every time that traffic sticks.

Boston’s roads and transit lines were built in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1950s-1960s, or they were built in the 1990s to plans drawn up in the 20s, 30s, 50s and 60s. Their location and size concurred with traffic expectations and transport modes assumed two to three generations ago. If we now commit to a major transit and roadway overhaul, and to new devices for transporting, what we decide actually to build won’t be in service, likely, til the 2030s. By which time, who knows what Boston’s mobility demands will be ? Of course we could just decide to snuff the Boston boom out and revert to the Boston of 1970, that nobody wanted to live in, that had nothing going on, in which house prices were dirt cheap because everybody with an option at hand wanted out to the suburbs. We could go back there, perhaps, but chances are we won’t do that. Most likely the City will continue to boom and build for several decades to come. Maybe only sea rise will stop it. Which means that we and our kids and grand-kids are going to be living with stalled traffic and fewer transit lines than needed. (The Blue Line would benefit enormously from expansion to Lynn, or beyond, but this has been talked about since 1990 to no avail, nor do I hear any sort of viral outcry now to do said expansion.) There will surely be expansion in some service, and perhaps some alternative roadways and dedicated lanes, but the law of traffic likely applies : build more roads and more traffic will use them.

To sum up : we should continue to commit to T expansion where feasible, create dedicated roadway lanes, and add bus routes and increase our Harbor taxi service — not because it will cure the crush but because they make sense to provide. We can also bulk up highway and transit rescue crews — it should not take two or three hours to clear the expressway of an accident. We should NOT try to tweak the public with give-away T fares, or chivvy drivers by imposing price benefits on those who can flex their driving day into the off-peak hours (this magic is called “congestion pricing.” It would turn the work day upside down.) There is plenty, I suggest, that can be done and just as much, if not more, that shouldn’t be done. Other than these predictions, however, I have one more : almost certainly we’ll have to live with, perhaps sometimes enjoy, the density, in everything, that accompanies city prosperity.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

“We’re creating a Constitution here…”

Analogizing the Suffolk Downs development’s public discussion to a Constitutional convention ? Yes indeed

Last night, at one of the many public meetings going on these days concerning the vast Suffolk Downs proposal, Lydia Edwards — District One’s City Councillor — was seeking how to explain to a room full of East Boston’s most needful people what she was urging them to conceive. The neighborhood’s very low income people, many of them homeless, don’t often engage with city planners and vast real estate build-outs; questions were asked that made it fairly evident that many didn’t quite understand what part they were asked to play in deciding what sort of project Suffolk Downs’s 10,000 housing units and hundreds of commercial spaces would end up as. Edwards was listing the parameters of the proposal, and the numbers, and the rent costs in full detail; and she wanted her listeners to ask questions, to challenge the project’s design, to offer their own opinions.

“Look,” she ended up saying, “this is your project as much as it is theirs. This is a Constitution we’re making, it’s like the Constitution, and we’re creating it !”

This was adventurous language indeed. Yet it seemed to register. People asked more confident questions, demanded stuff that the Suffolk developer ought by now to know the East Boston community wants and expects.

I’m not going to discuss those expectations any further in this column because I’ve already written about the Suffolk project at length. What I want to write about here is Edwards’s using the Constitution as an example of community engagement with a major issue (and housing is about as major an issue right now, in Boston, as it, gets).

Most of us, I think, regard the Constitution — if we think of it at all — as something drawn up long, long ago by men who wore powdered wigs and buckle shoes, some of whom owned slaves, all of whom were white males. It’s there, we feel, the way a huge granite building is there, or the Interstate Highway System, or a vast bureaucracy. Many of us, in the age of Mr. Trump, talk about the Constitution as we haven’t ever done before, as justification for what we don’t like about his willful orders and such like. We say “but the Constitiution says,” as if we were saying “Highway XXX is there, it goes from A to B, and you damn well better not make it go to point C,” or we may say, “if Trump says A goes to c and not B, he is making Route XXXS great again !” This is the current Constitutional custom.

But what if we were tasked with creating a Constitution ? A set of basic rules for how to do this or that ? Can we even imagine that such power is given to us ? Let us recall that the Constitution we all know about was created to change the basic rules of how the 13 original states were interacting with each other because the original set of rules was not working. And so those who were delegated to fix the rules drafted an entirely new set of rules. That is what Edwards was suggesting, I think correctly : the current rules by which housing is built in Boston are not working, or are working the wrong way, and we the people ought to convene and together create new rules that can work. Heady stuff, but why not ? The Constitution of 1787 was submitted to ratification conventions to which delegates elected by all the voters of that year were elected. Since in 2019, in Boston, every citizen 18 years old or older can vote, why not engage every such citizen in the fight to create development rules that work as they should ? And to those who say, “my vote doesn’t make any difference,” all I can respond is, “you’re very wrong.” Believe me, politicians listen. They may not tell you they listen, or they may not listen to you every day, but they do listen when the chips are down.

That, anyway, is the faith that Edwards has and ponied up to the betting game that is the future shape of the 10,000 housing unit Suffolk Downs development, 151 acres of land with hundreds of commercial spaces, loads of parking, tons of green space, the biggest such development in Boston since the land-filling of the Back Bay 150 years ago. Almost everyone agrees that the present rules of development, with respect to affordability percentages, design, density, and traffic impact, aren’t working — at least they aren’t working for people who have lived in Boston during very different times and now find themselves walking the plank of a twilight zone, Thus the challenge, by Edwards, to imagine ourselves making a Constitution in place of a very dis-functional confederation. It’s a big message — but one that calls us to reactive the history behind us and to live as boldly — but purposefully, knowing our responsibilities as well as our powers — as did our forbears of 1787.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere