THE TRANSPORTATION THING AGAIN…

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

OVERRIDING THE ZONING LAWS : GOVERNOR BAKER’s HOUSING BILL

Governor Baker and his zoning bill coalition

There never were any zoning laws in Massachusetts. Not until 1920 did our State adopt statewide zoning (MGL c. 40, sections 25-30), and not until 1954 did Massachusetts enact a zoning enabling law (MGL c. 40A). Before 1954 you could build pretty much anything anywhere — which is why in our oldest towns and cities one finds houses built in back of other houses, or built on tiny lots. After 1954 all that changed. Zoning today has become a bottleneck for builders — yet one to which, in ever more numerous cases, boards of zoning appeal are granting exceptions — “variances” is the administrative term. These exceptions pretty much amount to semi-repeal of c. 40A, except that winning exceptions costs the variance seeker tons of time and expensive legal fees. For those, however,who don’t have the time, or who don’t want to hire expensive zoning lawyers, and risk community hearings and a denial by the Board of Appeal, c. 40A defends itself with a bristling wall of weapons, chiefest of which is a requirement that two-thirds of a municipal council, or town meeting, must vote for a zoning override. Few such municipal legislatures get to two-thirds.

Into this mix of expensive lawyering, boards of appeal, and local zoning overrides, comes legislation filed last month by Governor Baker. Its mostly the same bill that he filed last year and which did not make it through to enac , newly tweaked but with the same basic reforms outlined in the administration’s announcement :
https://www.mass.gov/news/baker-polito-administration-files-new-housing-legislation-to-increase-housing-production-in

Baker’s bill would allow a city council or town meeting to adopt, by simple majority, rather than a two-thirds, zoning changes such as these examples set forth in the baker announcement :

  • Building mixed-use, multi-family, and starter homes, and adopting 40R “Smart Growth” zoning in town centers and near transit.
  • Allowing the development of accessory dwelling units, or “in-law” apartments.
  • Approving Smart Growth or Starter Homes districts that put housing near existing activity centers.
  • Granting increased density through a special permit process.
  • Allowing for the transfer of development rights and enacting natural resource protection zoning.
  • Reducing parking requirements and dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes.

Reading these, one envisions a situation not all that different from how houses were built during our state’s first building booms, 1700-1770 and 1800 to about 1830. Then, houses of all sorts of sizes, from large to less to small to tiny, were built wherever land was available. Go to any of our old cities — Newburyport, Marblehead, Salem, Gloucester — and you see it : density not much less than that in old European cities. People today clamor to buy homes in these old cities, the density and clutter no problem. So why is it a problem at all ? that’s a very good question, one that touches on some of the darker sides of our national thinking. It’s these ghosts that Baker’s bill is up against : fears in many communities — particularly from the NIMBY thinkers who often win town meeting member elections and also some city councils — that “they” will move into town in large numbers, altering the twon or city’s customs not for the better.

These ghosts are hard to battle, because the proposed zoning reforms will indeed change the look and shape of many towns and cities. The picket fence and front lawn ideal sought by generations of suburbanites, atop original settlers of our towns, commands our dreams and brightens our imagined good life. We want to live close to nature, to the pastoral image in which vistas and fields look peaceful and smell fresh. There’s nothing bad about this ideal, this dream, nor is there anything wrong with conserving open fields, woods, lakes and wild life habitats. Still, their dominance over community zoning has to change, because people work here and should be able to afford to live here — indeed, MUST be able to afford it, because if we cannot accommodate those whose work drives our general prosperity, that prosperity will suffer, to no one’s advantage. My wife and I love Sunday drives up-Country, to the open spaces and the mountains, the apple orchards and the town commons lined by picket-fence houses. We sometimes envy the lucky who live up there — until we remember that our own livelihoods are earned in the City, with its noise, density, clutter, and diversity of choices on ow to live. In Boston the zoning future is already here even without Baker’s zoning bill, because the City administration knows it has no choice but to vary c. 40A all the way to the sidelines as a practical matter.

Baker hopes that his zoning bill will spur the creation of 135,000 units of housing, statewide, by 2025. He insists that that’s whats needed, and I agree. It would not surprise me if the needed number turns out much larger than 135,000. To get there, his bill is almost certainly the path. It may also be only the beginning. Zoning is important, yet the needs of people are more important. Baker will be touring the state, holding town halls on the subject, starting now in Easthampton and coming east from place to place and finally to Salem, where a proposed zoning change failed in council by one vote.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE SUFFOLK DOWNS CHALLENGE

HYM’s Tom O’Brien balances the equities at a recent meeting concerning his company’s huge Suffolk Downs creation project

The vast Suffolk Downs development proposal will enormously change the physical and social architecture of upper East Boston and the Beachmont part of Revere. It will dramatically densen the traffic flows on Route 1-A. On this, everyone is agreed — not so much on anything else about the prospect.

Into this discussion, District 1 Councillor Lydia Edwards has deposited her own views on Suffolk Downs’s consequences. I quote her facebook argument in full :

Although the developers’ plans call for 1,000 of the units to be affordable, in accordance with the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy, that policy allows for incomes as high as $74,500 a year, far above the average individual income of $38,000 in East Boston. Edwards also points to HYM Investments’ estimates of 1.5 people per unit in their development, lower than even the Seaport Districts 1.7 people per unit and far below the current 2.6 per unit in East Boston.

We have babies,” Edwards said. “We have families. We are an immigrant community.”

Edwards, who has been a critic of the city’s supply-side economics theory that developers will build Boston’s way out of the housing affordability crisis, said the Suffolk Downs site could accelerate the displacement of middle- and low-income families already happening in East Boston or, if done right, expand opportunity.

“It is the single largest opportunity to grow the middle class in Boston,” she said, noting the project is expected to bring thousands of construction jobs to Boston over the next 20 years. “It will either be the greatest opportunity or the greatest loss.”

Edwards said she would like to see firm commitments from the development team to hire local workers in the construction and pay the prevailing wage.’

This is our generation’s airport. We need to organize and make sure that we fight for what’s best for our community and our city. Please consider attending one of my upcoming workshops on the proposed plan (information can be found on my events page to the left) and if you haven’t already please submit your comment to the BPDA on the proposal.

No one has better narrated than Edwards the economic contradictions of the Suffolk Downs plan. So : can the Suffolk developer offer housing at a p[rice that current East Boston (and Revere) residents can afford, while at the same time paying union wages to those constructing it ? The developer’s chief, Tom O’Brien, says No, that the land cost alone makes such an outcome impossible. He said so at a recent public comment session at the Downs, and he said it again to me privately when I conversed with him after the meeting.

As for what I think about the Suffolk challenge:

First, the Suffolk Downs proposal is not located in East Boston proper,. One third of it lies in Revere, the other two thirds in Boston but commencing just beyond East Boston’s northernmost residential street, Waldemar Avenue. It is an extension of East Boston — not a replacement, as are most East Boston developments on tap. Suffolk’s major impact on the heart of East Boston will be pricing influence : the buy prices for its for-sale units, and the rent costs for apartments, will firm up a market price from Day Square north. (Less so from Day Square to the Harbor, because the density of housing there is thicker, and living quarters are more in demand from many types of customers.) This will happen regardless of how Edwards’s suggestions play out, because Suffolk is building 10,000 units for 15,000 people.

Edwards asks that the Suffolk prices reflect, in advance, the income situations, and housing needs, of current residents. Markets don’t work that way. If the addition of 10,000 housing units to the East Boston-Revere housing market were priced to attract tenants and buyers who currently live in East Boston, and all were taken up by current residents — a hypothetical, to be sure — who would then come in to take their place ? And at what prices ? Almost certainly, if 10,000 current Eastie residents were to move into Suffolk Downs — to continue the hypothetical — the result would surely be a major rise in rents for units suddenly vacant, or buy prices for houses now for sale : because the overwhelming majority of in-comers to East Boston will be well-heeled earners clamoring to move into the City, as is the case now and why the City is desperate to build new housing galore. There simply isn’t the huge influx of immigrants awaiting, with thin budgets, the like of which made East Boston what it has been since the 1850s.

Fortunately for the future of East Boston, very few current residents will likely decamp to the new Suffolk Downs.

Huge numbers of immigrants were able to settle in East Boston during the past 150 years — including my grandparents in 1896 — because of very cheap housing — bare bones row houses and tenements with zero amenities — built by workers paid $ 1.00 a day. But builder workers today earn $ 20.00 an hour and more (and they should), and health codes prevent the overcrowding that was OK in 1896, including basement hovels with no windows, overcrowded occupancy, units with no central heat and the flimsiest electricity, shared bathrooms — and landlords who didn’t give much of a damn, in an era with few laws and regulations forcing them to. (One major Boston landlord was famous for keeping his rents far below market in exchange for which he never repaired anything.) None of that can exist today. If immigrants do come into East Boston, and aren’t simply homeless once here, they get apartments with modern kitchens and baths, storm windows, circuit breaker electricity, and landlords who must comply with significant MGL c. 183=-186 laws and the many Attorney General regulations issued thereunder (and under c. 93A, the consumer protection law). Workmen earning $ 15.00 an hour and sometimes much more do the repairs. The units are insured. That costs money — at least $ 5,000 a year. The Board of Health oversees sanitary conditions set forth in laws and regulations both State and City. All of this costs money that wasn’t needed by the people who housed the immigrants of 1896 — or of 1946, for that matter.

Edwards’s focus on East Boston’s median income at $ 38,000 also doesn’t reflect the actual living situation — which is that, in many, many households in the neighborhood, two, three, even four and five $ 38,000 workers live in one unit. Why ? Clearly it’s to pay the $ 2,000-plus rent AND save up enough down payment to buy a family house — in the picket fence suburbs, mostly, where one can park in a driveway and send the kids to schools that actually work. This is what my grandparents’ six kids did, and they were hardly an exception. This is what most East Boston people have been doing all along and even right now. For immigrant families, East Boston has always been a beachhead from which they can spread out to the entire countryside and live with trees, a lawn, fresh air and quiet at night. Because this was so, and overwhelmingly the case, Boston real estate had, until recently, always been in a bear market and vastly under-priced.

Yet in spite of the $ 38,000 point, Edwards thinks it politically smart to advocate enabling current immigrant residents to move into Suffolk Downs rather than buy a house in the suburbs, as their predecessors have long done ? Is she onto something ? She might be. Many East Boston people want to stay in the neighborhood; in communities teeming with diversity; amid noise and scant parking, with cost-free public transit and green-space readily nearby, with schools that work — somehow — and with all the amenities one expects in a big metropolitan city. Today, people talk of “community” when they extol East Boston as an attractive place with all the fixings. (It is that. I know, because I am trying desperately to move back in, as soon as I can afford it.) Yet prices in the city today are high and going higher, in keeping with the much higher than median earnings of those who are moving in.

I sympathize with those who continue to live in East Boston, who have always lived in it and now see their once ignored neighborhood become a destination. I understand those who do not want to either leave or pay $ 2,500 in rent. I can grasp the decisions of those who do not want to sell their house at a now lottery winner price because they want to continue to live near their neighbors and friends. However, why does the Suffolk Downs project promise the level of revolution Edwards hypothesizes ? Suffolk Downs is not on the waterfront — far from it. There’s no water views, no funky corner restaurants, no three-generation families. Those who might move from East Boston to Suffolk aren’t likely to be immigrants seeking a picket fence house nor a long-time resident looking for a change. They’re most likely to be either newcomers who can’t afford the waterfront but want to be as near as feasible, or older residents looking to downsize — units as planned now will be noticeably small.

Make the Suffolk units small enough, and even $ 38,000 a year people can buy them. Micro-housing is already here. For not too outrageous a price you can own a 350 square foot broom closet with bath and kitchenette. Suffolk could possibly even pay union scale to those who build 350 square foot squeeze tubes. Problem is that Suffolk isn’t planning units anywhere near that small — and in any case, Edwards says, about East Boston, “we have families.” Families aren’t going to seek out 350 square foot units. Families are going to need 850 square feet, probably closer to 1,150. These cannot be built by union-scale workers and then offered at a price affordable by $ 57,000 a year earners, much less $ 38,000.00. There will need to be two such workers per applicant family — at least.

To sum up : the problem is NOT one of housing or of construction worker pay. It’s one of income generally. The Boston housing market is in rampant bull mode because demand is surging, and most among very high earners. If Boston is to accord the majority of residents a pathway to the residential future,. we will need to boost the median income, radically. A City minimum wage of $ 21/hour isn’t too high for affording life in the new Boston. I’ve heard no one propose it. At $ 21/hour a forty-hour-a-week worker earns about $ 42,000 annually. (At $ 25/hour, that worker earns about $ 49,600.) A two-worker $ 21/hour family earns about $ 84,000 yearly — enough to afford most housing in the City, even if built by union-scale construction guys. The problem then will be to not lose one’s jobs, but with that (quite crucial) proviso, raising the minimum wage is an easier solution to affordability than devices for fighting or evading market forces. It’s the answer to Edwards’s challenge to Suffolk’s developer.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE IS CRUCIAL TO LIBERTY

The Constitution’s declaration of State power, State freedom. We must understand it and also why it matters a lot.

The Constitution makes it clear that the nation it governs is to be a federal system, uniting fully sovereign states for purposes common to all, and nothing but those which must be common to all, and toward the end of providing for the General Welfare of every state that has agreed to it.

Today we tend to take the Presidency as a popularly elected, plebiscital office, that the president is some sort of tribune of the people, as was the office of tribune in the Roman constitution — literally, the voice of the tribes into which the citizenry of Rome were divided. This is a mistake. The executive office described in Article 2 is almost entirely magisterial, tasked with “(taking) Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Actual power is given to Congress, in Article 1, wherein said powers are listed one by one, along with implied powers.

For whose benefit is the President tasked with executing Congress’s laws ?

The question is rarely asked. I can’t recall it being raised in the several courses on American history that I took in college and high school. I can’t recall ever reading an answer, so let me provide one: the President sees to carrying out Congress’s laws for the benefit of the people AND of the States. Why so ? Simple. The President is elected State by State, and each State’s decision is given by the voters registered therein. These are the operative sentences :

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice-President chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

When we tally up the votes for President not by State but as a total, we misread what happens on election night. It may be of note that an aggregate of all voters gives the majority to A rather than B, but the aggregate has no Constitutional significance. It’s beside the point.

This we know; almost all of us fail to understand the reasoning. The actual procedure by which the States elect Article 2’s office holder has nothing to do with aggregation. By empowering the States, each to vote separately, the Constitution encourages local authority to assert ITSELF: freeing each State to pursue its own political objectives — consistent with the Constitution’s prohibitions — because the framers saw power most effective and useful when exercised more locally than not. If that means that the “United States” then becomes 50 sovereign jurisdictions pursuing each its own policies and political shape, is that not what was intended ? The framers did NOT desire uniformity in anything other than the common-market purposes for which the Constitution’s signatories came forward in agreement. But for the exceptions — Equal Protection of the Laws, slavery abolished, citizenship for all who are born within the Federal jurisdiction, etc. — the States are authorized to seek each its own judgement how best to proceed on policy grounds. This is why the election of the national officer entrusted with effecting Congress’s laws receives sanction from the States. Given our current passion for community solutions and community politics, is the State-enabling electoral college more germane than we have come to think of it ?

But for the electoral college, the office of President would be a purely populist electee, unbound by any obligations to regional power centers, an overriding voice of the people — and unchallengable as such because whereas the entire nation knows the President’s name and gait, the entire nation of people knows very little about the Congress. Who can memorize the names of all 535 members of Congress ? Not many. Yet everyone can know the President. By such paths a President becomes the locus of popular aspiration. The Constitution wants nothing of the kind. It wants a power arrangement central only on those matters in which common ground should establish, but locally rules in every other way. That way the office of President is effectively hemmed in, able to act only within its scope, because the States can refuse re-election of even instruct their Congress people to bring a bill of impeachment.

The Constitution made a wise choice. We should learn to act locally, within our State, and add our power of deciding to that of our fellow State citizens and thereby assure that we remain free even as we agree to co-operate nationally on nationwide matters — and ONLY on national matters. May 50 States find 50 separate ways of putting freedom and opportunity into practice. Diversity of views, a multiplicity of choices taken — all gain their political legitimacy from the power given to States by the electoral college manner of choosing.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

IS BOSTON’s $ 1.273 billion 2020 SCHOOL BUDGET WORTH IT ?

John McDonough was the most effective, and one of the best liked, Boston school superintendents of my lifetime. The next super should be someone as much like him as feasible.

Every year now, Boston’s Schools system budget grows by a larger percentage than any other City account. For the coming year, the increase breaks all records : up from $ 1.19 billion to $% 1.273 billion. That’s an increase of $ 83 million dollars : 7.5 percent. In previous years, the increase amounted to three percent, or less than that. So why the huge bump ? Before I take a “deep dive,” as the current slang has it, into the numbers. I have to note that there’s actually a different Boston school budget, one that represents only direct allocation of City money. That budget hasn’t increased very much, only $ 27 million, or 2.6 percent — well within the usual — from $ 1.112 billion to $ 1.139 billion. I’ll take a closer look at both budgets, but before I do that, however, let me insert this quote about education from my friend Ed Lyons, who podcasts often about public spending matters :
Enrollment keeps going down. Spending must keep going up, despite education being information in the middle of an information revolution that makes everything else cheaper. Time for real change in education.

Unfortunately, we who advocate major education reform lost that fight in 2016, when the state’s education bureaucracies, commandeering every elected school committee in our 351 municipalities, beat back an attempt to open up the number of “charter” schools. Encouraging more “charter” schools might have invited a host of innovative school reforms, including online learning, home tutoring, small group experiments, and technology academies. None of that happened, and thus for the foreseeable future we’re left with taxpayer dollars funding an inflexible, sometimes cumbersome — and always too expensive — learning apparatus. One should look at Boston’s $ 1.273 billion schools proposal in this no-reform context. School accounts are given little choice but to continue feeding the beast.

As for the FY 2020 school budget, here’s a link to the proposal, itemized by school. It’s very difficult using this account method to focus on staff salaries at all, much less increase in staffing budgets : https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/domain/184/budgetvisualization/index.html#/SchoolAllocationActivities/SchoolBySchool

Next comes the school budget using only direct City alloocations. It itemizes in the normal manner, by classification, not by school, and is easier to examine : https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/Domain/184/190307FY20%20budget%20hearingcentral.pdf

Using the direct allocation budget, you’ll notice that the three salary and benefit accounts total $ 144 million, only $ 2 million higher than last year. The budget note says this results from “cost control efforts.” We’re not told what these are, however the schools budget does not list the three school facilities that the City closed this year. Perhaps custodial employees assigned to those facilities were laid off or took retirement ? The only account with an increase higher than most is the “Student Services,” which jumped from $ 54 million to $ 60 million. Why ? We are told this : Replacing federal funding for PEG grant (pre-K at community based partners); also includes out of district special ed and vocational placements and adult ed It is unfortunate to see Federal funding lessen, yet certainly no surprise given the proclivities of Mr. Trump. This hit we’ll just have to take. As for other allocations, the transportation account has risen by about 4.5 percent and now totals $ 96 million. That is a lot of money to send kids all over the city pursuant to a Federal Court desegregation order adopted 45 years ago. Nobody wants segregation to return, yet today’s Boston schools operate in an environment enormously unlike that of 1974. The City is much more residentially integrated, and many parents of color today do not prefer transportation over neighborhood seat assigning. Is it time to revisit the Federal Court order ? Maybe.

Next is the FY 2020 budget itemized by account, which you find not on the main web-page but in its “Budget Development” links. This is the link you need to look at if you want to understand the present deployment of schools money : https://drive.google.com/file/d/14sECY0h19xF9DFesrj5j_7YH1ILkYXVo/view

You find, in its “Salary” section, that three sub-accounts have risen five percent or more : ELT — English language Teaching, aides, and secretarial. Within the “Aides”: category, I note these exceptional increases: Security, from $ 1,012,178 to $ 1,147,462; Support specialist, from $ 222,908 to $ 373,338; ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) specialist, from $ 4,412,702 to $ 5,269,499; sign language interpreter, from $ 379,342 to $ 496,716. Evidently 2020’s students reflect, perhaps, an increasing number who aren’t prepared well at home, or experience behavior problems, or have sensory deprivation. I do not know why the last should be true, but maybe it is. In any case, my question would be, is the standard Boston school regulation the right venue for behavior difficulty students, or those who are deaf, or those who need support ? We aren’t soon going to find out, I’m afraid. Meanwhile the cost of meeting these kids’ serious needs goes up.

Perhaps the most disturbing numbers are these : the total salary for administrators and aides has risen 3.5 percent, but the total of teachers’ salaries gained only one percent. For 2020, total salaries to administrators and aides equals $ 144.6 million; total teacher salaries amounts to $ 435.2 million. The balance between actual educators and system managers continues favoring the regulators. Given the bright new leadership elected by the Boston Teachers Union, one hopes that this imbalance will reverse. Either the City’s public schools are directed by educators, or they aren’t. I am sure that teachers value having aides in or near the classroom; yet the only reason why the system keeps adding administrators is that more and more governmental regulations are required of school systems forced to compromise locally individual situations to the rules of common purpose. I would prefer regulatory flexibility, devised by the classroom itself and costing much, much less to operate. I think teachers would agree.

The Boston system serves 55,000 students only, yet it maintains facilities for far more students, who do not attend because they are enrolled elsewhere. This is waste. It should stop — and, to his credit, Mayor Walsh is moving to close down several under-utilized school facilities; he is also consolidating most of the rest. That’s a good start toward budget sense.

It’s not enough, however. Boston’s schools should be able to operate from the classroom upward, for most things — the exam schools entrance exam excepted; there may be other exceptions — rather than from the central office down. John McDonough was a very successful Superintendent because he understood this possibility and was working toward it.

Which brings me to my last topic here : choosing anew Superintendent. Tommy Chang was a poor choice from the beginning. You cannot just import an education bureaucrat from anywhere, to satisfy somebody’s “nationwide search” whimsy, and expect him or her to grasp the culture of our very peculiar system with its litigated history and administrative anomalies. Yet Chang also failed to require the most basic administrative diligence : witness the entirely inexcusable financial failures on his watch (and, in all fairness, from before). How many public school systems do YOU know that have been fined by the IRS for failure to file proper paperwork, or which have taken money from one account to pay shortfalls in another ? The ext superintendent must — MUST — be someone with a long record of accomplishment WITHIN OUR OWN SYSTEM; someone, yes, like John McDonough. That superintendent, once installed in office, must commit to reinventing the entire administrative handbook as well as discarding as much as feasible of the $ 96 million transportation budget. Schools should be teacher and student, as much as possible, not teacher, bus, and student.

—- Mike Freedeberg / Here and Sphere

REVENUE FOR THE T : RIDERS MUST SHARE THE BURDEN

Riders need the T ? The T needs their fares.

A petition is circulating expressing opposition to the MBTA’s proposed 6.7 percent fare hike — big deal. When has a proposed fare hike not been opposed by electeds ? The same electeds who see no difficulty in raising their salaries, and that of their staffs, which taxpayers pay for, somehow find fare hikes, which users pay for, in support of the MBTA budget more than troublesome. But why are taxpayers fair game and users not ? When the bankrupt rail lines of the late 1920s were taken over by the state, so that users could continue to have transportation, the takeover was never considered a free gift. If fares thereafter no longer funded the entirety of transit lines’ budgets, they were yet a significant contributor to transit revenue. That was the bargain : the taxpayers would assume the costs that users by themselves could not. Each interest would share. Otherwise there would have been no more transit.

The sharing of T costs would also be proportional. Users, taxpayers, and serviced municipalities each bore an agreed-upon share of the T budget. Thus as the costs of operating transit rise, so must the dollar contribution made by each interest. That was the agreement by which the current system was enabled.

I see no reason why this agreement should change and many reasons why it should not change. First, however, I include the long-ish column that I wrote about present MBTA financing about three months ago : https://hereandsphere.com/2018/12/29/massachusettss-transportation-future-part-3-more-revenue/?preview=true

All of the arguments adduced in that column by T mangers and elected officials continue in force now. They’re the basis of every dispute about T financing forward. The T confronts four major obligations, all to be met in the same five to fifteen year time frame : ( 1 ) bringing the current lineage to “state of good repair,” an $ 8.6 billion account; ( 2 ) expanding transit service on the Green Line and restoring to operation the Blue Line to Red Line connector between the Blues’ Bowdoin Station and the Red’s Charles Street stop; ( 3 ) converting the T’s bus fleet from diesel to electric as well as bringing mini-buses on line and more bus lines; and ( 4 ) funding the T employees’ pension obligations, presently a $ 97 million number. This last obligation is ramping up and crowding out T operations at the margins. Said Paul Brandley, the T’s CFO, “23 percent of the agency’s payroll costs now go toward pensions,’ a percentage that state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said was too high. “This is a risk to the T budget, but more importantly it’s a risk to our workforce,” she said. Brandley also said pension spending was budgeted at $97 million for fiscal 2019, but that number had to be increased to $103 million after the pension board lowered its estimate of investment returns from 7.75 percent to 7.5 percent. Brandley also ran some projections for 2022 which indicated costs would rise to $112 million if investment returns hold steady but could go as high as $137 million if returns tank.

The T’s employees are certainly entitled to all the benefits of contracts that they and T management bargain for and agree to. But are pension increases somehow exempt from the basic operating agreement that was set up in the 1930s and continues today ? And if users complain about T service, which remains resistant to full rider satisfaction, are users any less on the hook for the personnel costs of those services ? Let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that the T agrees to forego a fare increase and this throw the entire operating cost onto the taxpayers. Might they, too, not rebel ? Some advocates want the state to do just that : increase the gas tax and tolls on the Turnpike and bridges/tunnels. By what argument do they convince taxpayers who don’t use the T — including those who live and work outside the Boston metro — that they should bear the entire burden of increase of a system they do not use ?

I use the T. I would rather not pay more to use it. Yet even with a 6.7 percent hike, from a $ 4.20 round trip to a $ 4.48 round trip, the T is still a huge bargain compared to the cost of gasoline and of parking if I choose to use my car. It’s cheaper also than an Uber ride — by a lot. As for the argument that a 28 cent increase per daily ride, amounting to maybe $ 7.00 a month, will put the T out of reach of low income riders, I say : really ? And if, perchance, there are some riders who cannot afford an additional $ 7.00 a month, isn’t it about time that our electeds face the fundamental reform that is needed, namely enacting a $ 21/hour, gradual increase minimum wage ? At some point we have to consider this. The T’s proposed $ 7.00 a month hike is nothing compared to the $ 2,200 a month (and up) that most of the City’s two-bedroom apartments rent for. We can’t, or shouldn’t, tax or penalize landlords, who have their own costs to meet, but we can, and should, require employers operating in the city to pay their workers more, for the distinct advantage of operating within the City and not outside it. After all, the need to locate a business Downtown, or close by it, is great these days and growing greater. More and more businesses want to be in the center. Why should they not pay for it ? Not to mention that, the higher their employees’ paychecks, the better educated and more skilled employees they’ll have, and the more ready they’ll be to not jump from one company to another, thereby imposing large retraining and job-searching costs that really seem to me like complete waste of money and work time.

Perhaps businesses don’t like the $ 21/hour proposal ? (Of course they don’t.) Jeff Lyons, who managed Daniel Fishman’s Libertarian party campaign last year for State Auditor, suggests that the naming rights for T stations and bus stops be put out to bid, as is done these days with segments of state and Interstate Highways. It’s one-shot deal, but better that than nothing. The T currently derives some millions of dollars from advertising on buses and transit cars. Why not more ? Maybe the T might make naming rights a renewable, two-year matter. I can’t see huge revenue arising from it, but certainly several millions of dollars isn’t out of reach.

That said, the T’s current $ 2.10 transit fare and $ 5.00 commuter Rail price are incredible bargains. No competing “mobility service” comes close on price. It’s an enormous subsidy to users. We should count ourselves damn lucky that the T’s price isn’t double what it it now is.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

SNOW

Snow comes to visit, winter in coastal New England

This morning, as I write, the snow has stopped. At my house the snowfall measured eight and a half inches. I see that nearby, folks encountered twelve inches, even up to sixteen. That’s a decent enough number here in coastal New England. We’ve seen much more, now and then, but 16 will definitely do, It covers the trash barrels, buries the back yard snowman up to his armpits, forces the dog to traipse much too carefully, as dogs do not like to do. It falls off the branches and — if you’re not careful — onto the back of your neck, melting down the back of your undershirt.

The roads, however, are clear. as the temperature rises toward 40, melting changes snow to squish. If it were veggies, you’d cook up a hearty stew of it — that squishy is it under foot and in your hands as you try to make snowballs of it — much too wet ! But back to the roads. They’re wet and clear, and I have places to go, one of which was to the computer at which I am typing now, in the nearby public library because all I have is an iPhone. No tablets for me, no iPad, no PC. Turns out the library opened an hour late and is almost empty of readers. Perhaps they’rte reading at home — or still shoveling out. Myself, I started shoveling at 7.30 and made the driveway all beautifully driveable by 9.00. Then coffee at Starbucks, of course, and a cookie — because I can. There I watched the snow stop and the clouds lift just enough that I could see their contours, no longer a foggy mass of moist grey. I imagine Robert Frost planning the sleigh drive that, in the coming evening, found him stopping by the woods.

There’s woods near where I am typing, but they don’t surround. Not since i was a kid have the local woods sprawled over enough acreage that, once within them, you could not see their lend. In those days the snow was thicker, too, and it did not stop when you hoped it would. It kept on coming at you, as if to fill the entire wood deeply enough that you would need skis to traverse them. You could do that then. There were fewer roads through the woods, and those that did exist were rarely plowed. You put chains on your tires and you slashed through the snow, keeping to the road guided by the orange-tipped poles wise wood-keepers placed along the road sides. You needed them, because if you drove the woods you were more often than not the only driver on the road, and but for those tipped orange sticks there was no way to follow the road-bed. No tire tracks ahead of you and only yours behind. It was a partnership, you might say, the snow and you.

I am in the city with this snow. No partnership there, just the snow, begging, like a Golden retriever hungry, for some loving attention — which it will not get from any of the dozens of drivers hurrying along the salted clear highways and the snow-plowed side streets along which residents are still shoveling and snow-blowing their pathways from there to the job they must go to — because unlike school, jobs rarely send out a “stay home” text. The snow doesn’t know what to do with busy people. It wants attention, which means time out from the busy. It doesn’t get much attention. Perhaps I should give it some ? But I did. I attended to it by shoveling it out of my way. I suppose that was rude of me, but I’m no different from anyone else in the city, a place that’s about work, not snow. Fortunately for the snow, the kids differ. From them the snow can get attention. Kids don’t only love dogs, they love snow. You can’t pet snow, or rub its ears, but you can roll in it and laugh as it hugs you. Woof.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

MAVERICK SQUARE AND GOVE STREET TRANSFORMED

273-279 Maverick Street : “the Harbor/City view” version of East Boston comes to the Gove Street neighborhood.

Yesterday, after the latest Suffolk Downs development meeting, I was conversing with some union guys about a claim made in the meeting that the new Suffolk Downs is only 12 minutes from Downtown. More like 20 minutes, said one guy, “but hey –” that’s the difference between Suffolk Downs and Maverick — 5 minutes to Downtown is maverick ! 5 minutes. You can’t beat it.”

Sale price for the Suffolk Downs condos was actually the discussion. They’ll be far less than those in the ,maverick area, that’s just how it is, went the talk. And so it is. If you think that development in Revere and adjacent to it is a big thing, imagine what is going on around Maverick square and in the Gove Street neighborhood just northeast of it. AS another guy said in the same conversation, “and in Maverick you get the view.” Yes, you get the view. Boston harbor and the Tall ships,m not to mention the tall buildings beyond and the fireworks displays. As Downtown continues to boom, there’ll be more to view. Much more, and if you live there, you’re just five minutes away from all the action.

So it is that the parts of East Boston closest to “the view” are undergoing the most radical transformation on the Harbor’s north side. There’;s certainly development in Orient Heights, and a little in the Salesians region, and a great deal of renovation in Eagle Hill and Jeffries Point; but the Gove Street and Maverick-Central portions of “Eastie” aren’t merely being renovated. They’;re in utter reconfiguration. because they’re the close regions to “the view,” the sections where prices are climbing the highest and thus where real estate bounty is most bountiful.

Much of the rebuilding of maverick Square has already happened, by way of ugly apartment blocks along the Harbor front from Lewis Wharf to Piers Park and from Central Square up along Border Street to the Umana School. The ugliest “craptitecture,” as one activist calls it, phase does now seem to have burnt out. The proposals I’ve seen for the Gove Street neighborhood have, at least, a semblance of attempt not to impose ugly as a feature. Set-backs are on offer, and some restaurant amenities, maybe trees and some play space. (These were touted at Monday night’s Gove Street Citizens meeting as pluses for the large 273-279 Maverick Street proposal.) Nonetheless, Gove Street neighbors find themselves almost overwhelmed by big-box proposals. Maverick Street alone has projects at 320, 287, 273-2789, 205, and 179-175; add to that the vast Mount Carmel proposal and the creation of an hotel in the “Berlin 1945 movie set” building (as I cal, it) that abuts Porter and Orleans Streets. Then there’s Geneva Street, a bumpy, pothole trail, unaccepted so far by the city, on which only one, single-family house existed until recently. Today’s there’s four multi’s, and two new proposals will add 6 and 30 units of cramped-size condominiums for sale. (Cramp size is a feature here. With real estate in “the view” neighborhoods costing ever higher dollars — the Suffolk Downs developer says that it cost them $ 8900,000 a unit to build here — condos for sale have to be shoebox size or smaller even for well-walleted buyers.

This is not good news for Gove Street’s neighbors. Much of the area was developed too densely to begin with : brick six family, New York-style apartment houses bricked directly onto the property line, leaving no room for trees or a front yard. Gove Street badly needs breathing room, for people, and parking room for cars, but it has very little of either except in a few spots such as lower Frankfort Street, the Greenway, the park on the Airport side of Geneva, the McKay Schoolyard, or the park that abuts part of Orleans Street. The neighborhood needs to stretch its arms and legs — trees and street front set backs — but there’s precious little of it and not much in the offing,. But that view… oh yes,. That view.

THE FREEDOM COMPONENT IN AN MBTA FUTURE

The MBTA is great — for its limited purposes. But when you use it, you surrender some of your freedom. We should also keep that in mind when discussing expansion of the T, or burdening it on the taxpayer only

Recently I was asked, on facebook, by a most respected friend, to explain why I do not support City Councillor Michelle Wu’s petition to make the MBTA fare-free. This is what I responded :

OK, since you ask, it’s a matter first of simple fairness : no optional publicly funded service should ever be free to users. It’s not fair to taxpayers. We already gave users a huge benefit by having assumed the financial burdens If operating transit lines back in the 1930s when private transit companies went bankrupt because people gravitated to cars. There was and us no obligation to do so. 

Given the arrival of Uber and Lyft, transit, with its rigidities, becomes even more burdensome and difficult. Why have it at all ? Only because it operates in long established right of ways that keep tons of traffic off ordinary streets. I would like to see it expanded, which means all kinds of bigger budget allocations. In no way can such expansion just give itself away. If that’s the goal, I oppose expansion. Let Uber and Lyft do the job. They do it without asking taxpayers to foot the bill.

As a much more extended analysis may be helpful, let me try to explain at length my views on the role that publicly-funded transportation should play as we move deeper into the hugely congested Boston traffic boom, generated as it is by the City’s prosperity boom.

Most observers — maybe almost all — who opine these days about the future of the MBTA discuss its finances, its future expansions, and its prospects versus those of Uber and Lyft. I would like to add a dimension : that of liberty. Why “liberty” ? Because the option to travel is one of the fundamental attributes of freedom. You should, as a free person, be able to come and go when you please, where you please. Restrictions of free movement have always appeared unjust: because we, all of us, feel deeply that it is up to us to decide when to move about, and where. Public transportation does a very limited job of it. Buses and rapid transit take you where they go. If your destination happens to coincide with a T stop, fine; if not, not so fine. Also : our transit system is very able to take us to a destination: but not so capable if we have two, three, four destinations. Using the T to move across the City, rather than into it from an out point, involves hours and hours of transfers and waits.

Enter the automobile. Today many planners view cars as a burden, or a nuisance, or as pollution. Maybe they are that. Yet the automobile revolutionized people’s ability to come and go. In a car, you can go where you want, when you want, in all kinds of weather, and ask no man’s leave. Yes, free people were always free to walk wherever. But walking takes lots of time and involves a fair degree of decent weather and physical health. In a car, you can go much, much farther than a walker, and you can do it even if you are somewhat infirm. This summer I was without a car for five months. I had to use the T to go places. It enormously curtailed what I was able to do in a day. In a car I had been able to go to four, five, even six destinations in the course of a day. With the T it was difficult even to go to one. I recall having to go to a friend’s house in West Roxbury. Starting in Salem, it took me three hours and five changes of T and bus to get there. In a car, never more than half that time.

Having to get around town by bus or T, after doing it regularly by car — having to live in the weather, in the rain, the heat, the snow; waiting for the next bus, perhaps having missed the last bus by 30 seconds; freezing in buses with air conditioning on full blast — one learns a lot about freedom and loss of freedom. It was with this experience in mind that I read Senator John Cornyn’s Mussolini quote that has many activists on the left up in outrage : “We were the first to assert that the more complicated the forms assumed by civilization, the more restricted the freedom of the individual must become.”  

This, Cornyn is telling us, is the true voice of government administering stuff. Mussolini began his career as a socialist. He moved from there to the dark side, but his words are those of socialism everywhere : limit the freedoms that the individual person rightly cherishes. I don’t think it has to be that way, yet the danger is real. Those who want to downplay the use of cars and step up the use of public transit ask us to restrict our freedom to come and go.

The friends of public transportation tout its low cost: but low cost too whom ? Certainly not to the taxpayer who pays for it. They say that greater use of transit will keep cars off our local streets: but will it ? Unless you can walk to the nearest T stop, you still have to drive to it, and that means driving on local streets. As for the pollution issue, the gasoline engine isn’t a given. Electric cars are upon us. Yes, even in electric cars, Boston traffic will be congested to the max; and it is time consuming, and mighty inconvenient, to be stuck on the Southeast Expressway between 2 pm and 7.30 pm and again in the morning. But so is it time consuming, or inconvenient, to wait for a 117 bus, or to endure the hour and more that the 116 bus takes to go from Wonderland to Maverick.

The T is very useful for what it is able to do. It does, as I wrote above, utilize long-established rights of way bermed off from the communities they pass through. The T does get you from home to Downtown and lets you be there without paying $ 20 to park a car, assuming there’s a space available. And yes, the T should become — will become — more flexible and offer more route options. But we should never lose sight that using the T puts you at the mercy of the schedule, of human error, and of the route. In most cases, I’d rather move by myself; and so would you. We have that right. It is a paramount right. Mussolinis — and their administrative cousins of all government structures — are not to be allowed to interfere, or to explain our freedoms away in fancy theoretical boasts.

I’m willing to pay to use the T, and to pay more, because I want a T — when I want it –that is as bug-free as feasible and as modern as plan-able. Otherwise, I fully explained my reasons in my original response to my friend’s facebook post. Public transit is an option. It is not a gift.

Now on to a larger view of the liberty argument. In the so-called “Green New Deal,” there’s sections which call for building lots of high-speed inter-city and cross-country trains — as a way, so the wording has it, to eliminate air travel. What say ?? The same document, or cousin versions of it, want to restrict the use of private cars by tolling their highway use, or raising gasoline taxes, or by taxing the presence of cars in restriction zones. Some legislators want to tax Uber and Lyft trips to Logan Airport. I am quite sure similar taxes await legislative cation in other states. Companion legislation would increase tax dollar allocations to MBTA repair and expansion. Whether these proposals deserve our support, or not, is a question for another column/. In this writing I simply ant to note that ll involve restricting people’;s transportation options. Instead of making the MBTA a first traveler choice by persuasion or by improved service, they seek to force the traveler’s hand.

If politics wants to enhance one form of movement over another or others, it should do so by assuring that its preferred movement mode is the most desirable, not by pressuring the voters’ wallets to decide in favor of the political preference. Maximize the voters’ freedoms instead of curtailing them.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere