Friday, June 29, 2012

Shameless hypocrisy about transportation subsidies.

I’ve written here on quite a few occasions about conservative politicians who get their shorts all in a knot because Amtrak receives an annual subsidy from the federal government. My response to those objections is pretty simple: ALL public transportation is subsidized, from the airlines on down to bike lanes and sidewalks.

That always produces objections from people who refuse to believe that airlines get federal subsidies. Of course they do! The federal government, through the FAA, provides the air traffic control system. County and municipal governments all across the country build and maintain airports. And the federal government subsidizes air routes linking smaller communities all across the Midwest and West with direct payments to the airlines operating those routes.

Similarly, a very modest annual subsidy helps to keep Amtrak’s long-distance trains operating.

Amtrak’s Empire Builder, for example, runs daily in each direction between Chicago and both Portland and Seattle. Contrary to persistent misrepresentation from the far right, most of the passengers on that train are not wealthy retirees traveling the entire route. A majority of travelers would typically include a family traveling from Whitefish, Montana, to Fargo, North Dakota, to visit relatives. Or a young college student attending the University of Washington in Seattle going home to Spokane for Spring break. Or an elderly couple taking the train from their home near Wisconsin Dells to Red Wing, Minnesota, for treatment at the nearby Mayo Clinic. In many of these cases, the train is their only viable travel option.

Of course, the loudest voices clamoring for an end to Amtrak subsidies come from members of the Tea Party. And yet, if federal subsidies are keeping air service operating to towns in their district, they’re right there loudly demanding that those subsidies be continued.

Let us hope that many of these folks get their comeuppance in November.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Who’s Really Behind the Anti-Rail Campaign in California?

Californians are being hornswoggled by a massive misinformation campaign directed against the high-speed rail project proposing to link Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

A lot of the opposition comes from uninformed individuals whose argument is pretty much limited to describing the project as a “boondoggle”. As shallow as that is, it’s being repeated often enough and loud enough, and it’s having an impact.

But there is another, more organized effort being waged that’s also having an effect, and it’s keeping all those boondogglers riled up and baying in full throat. This second organized campaign involves the Reason Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute and numerous other ultra-conservative “think tanks”, all of which advocate an ultra-conservative and/or Libertarian philosophy.

It’s important to realize that much of the funding for these “foundations” comes from oil companies, several of the major airlines, the highway lobby and, of course and in particular, from the infamous multi-billion dollar Koch Family Foundation.

They provide ready-made "studies" for anti-rail groups, churn out op-ed columns for major newspapers, write letters-to-the-editor, and blog on the internet ... and it’s all from the same sheet of music. They wail about the cost of the project, predict that no one will ride the system, and rant about the likelihood that government subsidy may be involved.

But here’s the thing … they never address the one critical question which, in a perfect world, should be driving this entire discussion:

How is California going to provide mobility for the additional 20-30 million people that will swell the state’s population over the next several decades?

Of course, absent any reasonable alternative, more and more highways will have to be constructed and, even in today’s dollars, highways can cost as much as $75 million per lane, per mile. In other words, alternatives to high-speed rail will be more expensive, not less.

No matter. The special interests are doing their best to kill rail and they are doing it for both selfish and ideological reasons. Further, and to their great discredit, they are doing it with misinformation and deception. If they succeed, the vast majority of Californians will pay the price, literally and figuratively, for generations to come.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The National Review Takes a Swing at Amtrak … and Misses!

As regulars here know, I’m an active member/supporter of NARP, the National Association of Railroad Passengers. NARP is a non-partisan, non-profit organization that advocates more and better rail passenger service. There are more than 20,000 members in all 50 states, and those of us who serve on the governing body or board of directors do so at our own expense. That means attending meetings twice a year, one in Washington, DC, the other at another elsewhere in the country. There is also an office in Washington with a full time professional staff.

The National Review Online recently ran a column in which Amtrak’s Guest Rewards program (their equivalent to an airline’s frequent flyer incentives) was criticized for offering points (like miles) to people for the dollars they spend for NARP memberships. The writer fumed that this outrage would somehow increase the subsidy Amtrak gets from the federal government. And she went on to say that this was just one more example as to why – Are you ready? – Amtrak should be privatized.

Sorry, but that’s just plain dumb. Amtrak’s Guest Rewards offer is nothing more or less than a marketing promotion. By encouraging people to become NARP members, Amtrak is hoping to generate more business from a segment of the market most inclined to choose rail travel.

That’s the kind of knee-jerk right-wing nuttiness that NARP feels quite free to rebut in no uncertain terms.

The column generated the usual assortment of “witty” comments. Typical was the one who suggested that Amtrak be auctioned off on e-Bay. But not everyone, agreed. For instance, this guy, with tongue firmly in cheek:

"Thanks for the heads up! I saw this in my Google News feed on Amtrak. I found the E-mail, joined NARP and got bonus Amtrak Guest Rewards points! Thanks, National Review Online, for helping another Amtrak supporter find a way to show his support of Amtrak!"

Why not consider joining NARP? You’ll be joining the effort to improve passenger rail service throughout the U.S. And, by the way, NARP members receive a 10% discount on Amtrak rail fares. It’s a quick and easy way to say, “To hell with the National Review!”

Sunday, June 17, 2012

High-Speed Rail? Most Americans Have No Clue.

My niece, Keri, is here visiting for the weekend. She’s eleven and cute and smart and … Well, you know, a pretty typical modern day kid. Except she’s been to Paris four times. (Maybe five. She’s not sure.)

 Her dad, you see, works for Hawaiian Airlines and they have agreements with other airlines that permit him and his family to travel almost anywhere for almost nothing. I guess he goes free if on airline business and there’s just a modest add-on if his wife and daughter go with him.

Anyway, my niece has been to Paris four times (maybe five) and traveled around the country while she was there. I’ve been there three times. That includes my first trip there when I was 17 and didn’t go to the trouble of seeing a damn thing. The last time, we simply changed trains and went right through Paris to Chartres and, after a couple of days, headed down to the Dordogne from there.

Keri is learning French at her school and simply takes it for granted that there will be return trips to France and to the European continent in her future. She’s going to become an adult with an understanding and an appreciation of other cultures and what a gift that is!

By contrast, the American people as a whole have almost no understanding of what’s going on in other countries. I was shocked to learn that only 19 percent of Americans have passports … and one can assume that a large percentage of those are for travel to Mexico or Canada.

No wonder there is so much skepticism and outright opposition to high-speed rail in this country. Most Americans have no clue about what it is and what it can do because only a tiny percent of our people have ever had the opportunity to see it (let along ride it) and to realize that it and conventional rail is the transportation mode of choice throughout most of the rest of the world.

Keri knows.

Isn’t it a pity she can’t vote.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Finding a Dream in an Iowa Cornfield – Part Three

Lansing maintains the diamond himself and pays for the cost of its upkeep with proceeds from the sale of caps, T-shirts and other Field of Dreams items at a busy souvenir stand.

The community of Dyersville has also benefited from all the activity generated by the ball field on Don Lansing’s farm. Two new motels have sprung up in recent years and the ripple affect has been a boon for the local restaurants, gas stations and other retailers.

Once again our conversation is interrupted, this time by two couples who approach the fence and politely ask to have their photos taken with the farm house in the background. Lansing says that would be fine and ends up taking the pictures for them. One of the two men asks Lansing for an autograph, then fumbles awkwardly through his wife’s purse for a pen and any scrap of paper. Lansing scribbles his name and the man thanks him profusely.

“No problem,” says Lansing. “Thanks for coming by.”

“It was an honor,” the man said, and all four back away down the grassy slope, almost like courtiers withdrawing from a monarch’s presence.

A tour bus comes slowly down the driveway, stops and two-dozen people begin climbing out. There are a lot more people here now than there were an hour ago.

Because there is no admission charged at the Field of Dreams, no one knows for sure how many visitors come here every year. But from the number of names in the guest book he has placed on a stand behind the backstop, Lansing estimates that 60,000 people visited last year alone. What’s more, he says the number of visitors is actually increasing every year.

The people in the tour group drift over to watch the activity on the baseball field where a whole new line of youngsters is now waiting to bat. Kids and adults both are scattered around the field fielding balls and tossing them back into the infield. There’s no yelling, no horseplay. And, as Don Lansing points out, there’s not a speck of trash anywhere in sight.

“If all this was a problem, I’d give it up in a New York minute,” he says. “But everyone respects the place. They just figure it’s their own little piece of heaven.”

Is this heaven?

Well, no, it’s Iowa … but that 10-year-old about to step up to the plate would almost certainly disagree.

And, on this particular day, so would I.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Finding a Dream in an Iowa Cornfield – Part Two

Don Lansing has long since become accustomed to having people around his place most of the time, but he still shakes his head when he talks about the knock on his front door during the winter of 1987 that changed his life.

“There was snow on the ground,” he says. “It was a lady from Dubuque. The Iowa Film Office hired her to look for a farm with a two-story house that would be right for a movie.”

Dozens of farms in several counties were considered and there were three or four more visits to the Lansing farm over the next few months before it made the final cut. And how did Lansing feel when he got the news? “It was an honor to have my farm chosen,” he says simply.

Once the final decision had been made, things happened fast. The baseball field was finished within a matter of days. A crew of carpenters descended on the 100-year-old farmhouse and began remodeling the interior, all under Don Lansing’s watchful eye. A new stairway to the second floor was installed and several walls on the first floor were knocked out to give cameras more room to follow Kevin Costner and other cast members as they moved from kitchen to living room and back.

Outside there was another problem, one that couldn’t be fixed with a hammer and nails. There was very little rain during that spring and summer in 1988, and by late-May the film’s producers were starting to worry.

“They came to me saying the corn wasn’t tall enough,” Lansing says. “I told them, ‘Well, it’s the drought.’ So we dammed up the stream over there and pumped water on the corn around the outfield until it was tall enough so the actors could go in and out.” He stares out at the cornfield, remembering. “That was a real dry summer.” Then he brightens. “But we’ve had rain every year since.”

The filming was completed on the 15th of August. Almost 18 years later to the day, as we sit and chat on the same porch swing seen in the movie, a man and woman hesitantly approach the white picket fence that separates the house from the baseball field. The man calls out. “Are you Mr. Lansing?”

Lansing gets up off the swing and walks to the edge of the porch. “Yes, I am.”

“I’d just like to thank you for keeping all this going,” the man says. Then he adds, almost sheepishly, “This is my sixth visit here.”

Lansing nods, clearly not surprised. “What keeps you coming back?”

The man pauses, glances at his wife, then shakes his head. “I really don’t know,” he says.

They politely ask for and get permission to take Don Lansing’s photo, thank him again and head back to the field where their son is shagging balls in the outfield.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Finding a Dream in an Iowa Cornfield

Note: Regulars here know that I'm a big baseball fan. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Iowa farm that served as the location for Kevin Costner's classic film, Field of Dreams. What follows is one of the stories I wrote about that excperience.


Dyersville, Iowa, with a population of just over 4,000 souls, lies in the eastern part of the state some 30 miles from Dubuque and well off the beaten path. Most people would probably consider Dubuque to be pretty far from that beaten path, too.

Dyersville, you see, is where a baseball field was carved out of a cornfield and became the setting for the film, Field of Dreams, in which the ghosts of Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates from the 1919 Chicago White Sox come back to play ball again.

The field is still here and, for reasons few are fully able to explain, every year thousands of people from all over the country are drawn to this little Iowa town to see it.

Approaching the Field of Dreams down a dusty dirt road from the east, my first glimpse is from the far side of a cornfield. But it’s not just any cornfield …it’s the very cornfield into which the ghost players disappeared after their games. Remember? “I’m melting! I’m melting!”

Everything is here, exactly as it appears in the movie: the weathered white farmhouse with the wrap-around verandah, the red barns in the background and, of course, the baseball diamond.

It’s late morning on a sunny summer day and there are more than 20 cars in the gravel parking area. Nearby, a dozen or so kids are patiently waiting in line for the chance to step up to the plate and swing at soft pitches being tossed by a man wearing a Red Sox cap.

Out in right field, a father and son are throwing a ball back and forth. After a while, they tuck the baseball gloves under their arms and begin walking in and out of the corn stalks that border the entire outfield.

In the shade of a large tree just off the corner of the farmhouse, a family of five has spread a blanket and is in the middle of a picnic lunch.

The Lansing family has owned this farm for a hundred years. Don Lansing, born and raised in Dyersville and the current owner of the property, surveys the activity going on all around him and smiles. “Pretty typical for a summer day,” he says.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Daytime TV: Programming for a Nation of Morons.

As you probably know, I am pretty much stuck at home while recuperating from knee replacement surgery. In between physical therapy sessions, I have spent some time over the past 10 days, watching – or, rather, trying to watch – daytime television.

Aside from an occasional decent movie and every tenth snippet on one of the news channels (excluding Fox, of course), it’s across-the-board terrible … geared to the lowest common intellectual denominator.

I just quit trying after a couple of days and have fallen back on reading and watching the Boston Red Sox games on TV. Nothing better go wrong with my Kindle or with DirecTV. My sanity hangs in the balance.

By the way, any politician advocating the elimination of funding for NPR or PBS should be forced to sit and watch this mindless crap. (Of course, I suppose many of that ilk would probably like it.)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Home Again … New Knee and All. Now What?

My thanks to those who took the time to email wishing me well on the knee replacement. Very kind of you, and much appreciated. I expect to be resuming a normal blogging schedule within a few more days.

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that everything went well and I am back home on Maui (the surgery was done in Honolulu).

There’s an old joke in which a patient comes to his doctor with a complaint.

“Doc”, he says, “it hurts when I do this.” To which the exasperated physician replies, “Then stop doing it!”

I was introduced to a whole new concept during my first physical therapy session the other day. The new approach is, “Does it hurt when you do that? Good! Give me ten reps!”

Compared to the physical therapy, the surgery was a piece of cake.