Thursday, September 29, 2005

Shaking out the pork barrel

Many of us, as we learned how the deferred levee maintenance at New Orleans contributed to the flooding after hurricane Katrina, also lamented the billions spent every year on pointless public works such as the planned Alaska "bridge to nowhere." That's a $225 million earmark item in the federal highway bill passed by Congress earlier this year.

One of those earmarks was for a $4 million parking garage in Bozeman, Mont., where civic boosters hope to buff up the city's downtown development potential. Some of the citizens of Bozeman began to say this month that the money would be better spent in Louisiana, and they asked the city council to send it back to Washington. The council rejected the thought.

But a movement has been born, and I think this will not be the last we will hear of it. There's a good report from the grass roots in today's New York Times. Read Timothy Egan's piece . Egan writes:
Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said all $25 billion in special projects -- called earmarks -- from the transportation bill could be deferred.

If you are open to deferring your own county's federal largesse, you might want to check in on what the movement's organizers are doing. Here's their website.

For more on how the pork barrel gets filled, you may visit San Francisco Weekly.

The movement is putting some heat on Rep. Don Young, the Alaskan who controls the transportation allocation process. The Fairbanks paper reported this week:
Young, along with Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, earmarked more than $1 billion for Alaska in the transportation act, which President Bush signed in August. About $600 million was Alaska-bound through formula spending anyway--the earmarks just designated it for projects of the congressional delegation's choosing--but another $400 million was money above the formula.

The bridge over Knik Arm, just north of Anchorage, will receive a total of $230 million from the act. A bridge over Tongass Narrows at Ketchikan will get $223 million. Much of the money will be essentially deducted from the formula funds the state gets.

More from Fairbanks here.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Time for a return to the rails

When Florida was considering development of a high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando, I was hopeful something like that might be built out of Miami as well. Here's an argument that supports the idea. The writer notes the traffic jams in Houston and the utter inability to evacuate New Orleans ahead of this summer's hurricanes Rita and Katrina. High-speed rail, he says, could have taken fleeing thousands off the highways and saved anguish as well as life. It could work for South Florida, too. Remember the creeping traffic on Interstate 95 as Hurricane Andrew approached?

Here is Otis White, normally found in Governing magazine, writing today in the New York Times:

For decades, two myths have stymied efforts to develop intercity rail systems outside the Northeast: that rail can't compete with cars and airplanes and that the only region where passenger rail has been successful, the Northeast, has unique characteristics. Both are wrong.

The little engine that could (Registration required.)

Monday, September 26, 2005

A Story Better Told in Print

Once you get past the headlines and the raw emotion in a big news story like the recent flooding of Louisiana and Mississippi, if you want to understand the why and the "what next" you really need a good newspaper, not TV or the Internet. As most of us in the business acknowledge, it takes a serious newspaper to invest the time and energy in the necessary digging for facts that aren't standing out in broad daylight.

David Carr, on today's New York Times business front, makes this point especially well. Here is Carr:

Will New Orleans be a real city again, or just Disneyland with Jell-O shots?

Those are not questions that get asked or answered much on television. The New Orleans story needed the big muscles of print journalism to gain custody of facts that seemed beyond comprehension. People could Google their way through the storm, but for a search engine to really work, you need women and men on the ground asking difficult questions and digging past the misinformation and panic that infect a big story.

Read the story. (Registration required.)

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Refiners making out as fuel prices rise

If motorists are the big losers in the spectacular run-up in gas prices, says the Washington Post, the companies that produce the oil and turn it into gasoline are the clear winners. This piece, Gas Profit Guzzlers, lays it out in dollars and cents.

More details in graphic

Banks and credit-card companies also are doing well on the price increase, because their fees are proportional to the dollars charged each time a card user fills up his tank. But according to the Post, the gasoline dealer probably makes a fixed margin and enjoys none of the price increase. Here's that part of the story .

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

It's the Global Economy, Stupid

I particularly liked the part about land in Jim Bacon's piece on global competitiveness. He's writing with Virginia in mind, but it's a worthwhile analysis in any state.

Monday, September 19, 2005

When the nation moved on coal

I am reminded today of the high school essay that infected me with the writer's bug so long ago.

The occasion is Along the rails, a piece at the Bacon's Rebellion blog about rail travel in my native state, Virginia.

My own research was mostly conducted by interviews with octogenarians such as my Grandpa Yeatts. An authentic photograph inspired the piece, and it may actually be in the State Library of Virginia. It shows an old-style Danville & Western locomotive at the station in downtown Stuart, right off the square that even today is still called the Depot. A copy hung in my dad's warehouse, a hundred yards or so down the line. The sight of it puts an ache in my heart.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Aspirin for your pain at the pump

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forwarded an email calling for a boycott of gas stations. It was meant as a protest of fuel prices, and that was even before Hurricane Katrina knocked the New Orleans refineries out of service and drove prices even higher. At the time, all I could think to say was that any boycott, to be successful, would have to include restraint from using gasoline as well as from buying it.

Then I came across a column by the always savvy Floyd Norris, with this ironic headline: Conservation? It's such a 70's idea . Norris, in the Sept. 2 New York Times, points out,
"The nature of energy demand is that it is slow to react to price changes. In the short term, a person cannot stop driving to work. Longer term, that person can get a car with better fuel efficiency or move closer to the job ... But to the extent that this is a short-term problem, it needs short-term solutions."

I hope you'll get a chance to read the whole column, but here's the bottom line:
We should drive slower, when we must drive at all, should cool our homes less until cold weather comes, and this winter, set the thermostat low and rely on dressing warm to stay in the comfort zone. This kind of personal action did make a difference while Jimmy Carter was president, and it can again.

Here's the Norris column.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

No alternative

The key moment in my favorite college course probably came when Professor Herman Thomas confirmed my observation that the natural inclination of business seemed to be to combine -- to the point of monopoly. So it was no surprise to learn that the "alternative" press, as embodied in the Miami New Times and the venerable Village Voice, both now linked commercially to sister papers of the same ilk, may be wrapped into a single combine. Sigh...

Here's more about the possible merger.