Friday
Jan172014

Freedom Only Rings Loudly with Choice

America being overrun by the tyranny of the minority. The remedy? Freedom of choice.

By JAMES BEDELL

It was a choice. And the fact that they had a choice is what brought them here in first place. Having choice is what made them us.

The Puritans who journeyed to Massachusetts came here because they wanted to have the choice of how they worshiped. But after the Puritans settled, they began to create rules limiting choice. At that point, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, took his followers to a place where their choices were still up to them. They uprooted their lives to preserve their right to personal choice.

Rhode Island and Massachusetts were civil societies and successful ones. But one of them, Rhode Island, was founded because the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s theocratic magistrates no longer respected an individual’s choice of how to worship. Even in those early years there were problems when a person's beliefs and civic actions intersected.

Roll the clock forward. Frontiersmen push the boundaries of America West. As they were overcoming the new challenges they encountered in the new world they were making, they had no time for minding their neighbors’ business. Their focus was on advancing their nascent society. Matters which were not common to the public welfare were handled in the family forum.

As our Founding Fathers were hammering together the structure of the America we know today, they included protection against “unreasonable search and seizure.” This was another example of giving people a choice. The choice they were guaranteeing was that citizens would be free to do what they wanted inside of their own homes as long as it neither negatively impacted their neighbors nor restricted in any way their neighbors' choices. The background social concept that developed was that Americans could choose to do whatever they personally wanted, as long as it did not diminish another’s welfare. This social aspect of our society has persevered to this day, and is the primary reason that freedom-seekers from around the globe are still willing to risk everything to reach our America and become one of us.

So what has changed? One thing is that politics is now a career — a permanent career. To keep getting re-elected politicians need dependable constituents. One way to create that committed support is to cater to people’s beliefs. Beliefs, after all, are not topics that someone running for office has to continually debate or carefully watch. Unfortunately, this “chunking” of the electorate by our officials into values populations has one set group vying with another group in a social tug of war that is not in the best interests of any of us.

There was a time when we Americans had more common threads woven into our society. Not too long ago, when every soul in America watched the same three networks, there were many things that all Americans could discuss around the water cooler the next day.

The present society in which we are immersed is much more fragmented. The extent to which we are now able to access information instantaneously and people around the globe camouflages the fact that we actually identify less with major portions of our fellow citizens. Part of this new separation is a media phenomenon. Whatever a person’s skin tone, religious dispositions or social preferences, there is a cable station or radio channel focused directly at that person’s profile.

We as a society are now being shattered by the accelerating and sometimes questionable use of the tremendous reservoir of “big data” which our personal communication devices silently gather and store. This trove of personal information makes us vulnerable to being marketed and informed as a nation of discrete individuals. The communal consequence is that we are left with limited connections through the society around us to bind us as a coherent people.

In the present political arena, disparate social and religious differences are used as political wedges. In the early days of the country, many of these differences would have been privately addressed inside each citizen’s “Castle,” and would not be part of the wider public discussion. The arena of public debate was reserved for issues that impacted everyone.

This shifting boundary between what is public concern and what is private territory is a major problem of our day. This issue stands between the current schismatic society we fret about and the cooperative and productive community we collectively desire. Let’s look at some examples of how the beliefs of small groups of Americans are being injected into our political scene to shore up the power base of our now permanent politicians to the detriment of us all.

Take the issue of same-sex marriage. Segments of the population are holding politicians hostage because of something in which that particular group believes. The members of the population who are against the concept of same-sex marriage are trying to remove the choice of same-sex marriage from other people’s lives. It seems these people have forgotten that there was another time when some citizens, because of their beliefs, would not allow a black person to marry a white person — to the shame of us all.  We’ve come a long way along the freedom road as a nation, but we are not all marching at the same pace.

A second example of small parts of the population pushing the buttons of our career politicians is the issue of giving people the choice to end their lives with dignity and without suffering if diagnosed with a fatal disease. Throughout most of human history, humans simply did not have the resources or the technology to sustain the heartbeat of an aged and infirm member of their group. The current set of statistics which inform us that a preponderance of a person's lifetime medical costs will be incurred in the final days of his or her life is evidence of the same reality. Death and dying are natural aspects of life that should be dealt with, not fought against. Again, a segment of the population is seeking to prevent the majority from having that personal and final choice in their lives.

Another issue of choice is the topic of abortion. In the fractured discussions in which partial information is directed toward groups with strong belief frameworks about the topic, significant background knowledge is never mentioned. There are parts of our country in which a fertilized egg in a woman's reproductive system is believed to have all the rights of full citizenship. The medical fact that up to 80 percent of all fertilized eggs never successfully implant, and therefore never become a functioning human being, does not seem to be part of the discussion.

Furthermore, of the fertilized eggs that do successfully begin a pregnancy in a woman's womb, roughly a third of those pregnancies are aborted by nature — more commonly referred to as miscarriages. These natural abortions occur because pregnancies are incredibly complicated cavalcades of precise biochemical and developmental stages which often and understandably suffer unrecoverable errors. One flawed reproductive attempt is terminated by Mother Nature to save the biological resources for the next try.

With this clinical information available, but apparently ignored, faith-based constituencies put tremendous pressure on everyone else in America to abandon a choice that might have profound consequences for their lives.

As a last example, and perhaps the most perspicacious of them all, is the issue of stem-cell research. As the rest of the world forges ahead in this area of medical promise, America is being left behind. Some of our best and brightest scientists are going elsewhere to continue their research. The exploration of the medical benefits that will cascade from this technology is just beginning. Yet in America alone, almost a half a million frozen embryos, which could serve to move medical science forward, are silently discarded as medical waste. This wasteful tragedy will happen because relatively small groups of the population are forcing too many of our permanent politicians to cater to their belief-based position condemning stem-cell research. The effect of which is to deny everyone else in the country the choice of pursuing the medical, economic and life-quality benefits that this breakthrough will bring in the future.

Listening to statements put forth by groups seeking to limit the choices mentioned here, one gets the impression that the people seeking to limit the choices of others would somehow be forced to do something they didn’t want to do if everyone were free to choose. As though allowing other people to marry someone of the same sex would somehow be a mandate for the children of a fundamentalist Christian family to be required to marry someone of the same sex. That allowing women in America to choose to end a pregnancy because of reasons they deemed paramount to their lives somehow would force women with strong faith-based opinions to the contrary to also have an abortion. That allowing terminally ill people to end their life calmly surrounded by their family at a time of their choosing would force people with beliefs forbidding such actions to do the same.

Choice is the antithesis of force. The freedom that allows a citizen to choose to do something is the same freedom that allows another citizen to choose not to do it. So what choices must we make to regain this fundamental American value: our freedom of personal choice?

The concept of separation of church and state was instituted exactly for this reason. The Founding Fathers were generally religious, but saw that accommodating different beliefs into the arena of civil society introduces conflicts that literally cannot be resolved. To believe something is to hold it to be true without proof or question. To the people holding the belief, it is taken as a fact, a reality. The believers invite that concept into their lives and make important personal decisions based on that believed reality. But to other people that fact both does not exist and certainly should not be a factor in any public policy making. Beliefs, by their nature, are beyond reason and are not open to compromise. Beliefs and the influence they are given on a person's life belong solely in the domain of one’s Castle and not in the public square.

In the search for coherence in the social fabric the word “tolerance” is often used. The appropriateness of tolerance depends on which definition Americans choose from the two offered by the dictionary. One leads to resentment and acrimony, and one opens the way to the individual and communal vision of America that inspires us all.

One definition encountered in the dictionary for tolerance is “the act or capacity of enduring.” This definition implies that someone is being forced to suffer something that is malevolent or improper. That is not what I am talking about here.

The higher definition on the dictionary page is “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude towards opinions and practices that differ from one's own." This is the definition that has worked, and can still work, for America.

Allowing choice in the lives of Americans does not force anyone to do anything. On the contrary, it frees us. It frees us to come together on all aspects of our overlapping lives that drive us as a people toward the common betterment of our condition. It frees us to rule in our castles as we see fit. It frees us to follow our beliefs, our passions and our dreams however we choose in our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

The choice is ours. Protect it.

James Bedell is a Wakefield, R.I., resident.

Saturday
Jan042014

Providence Needs Protected Bike Lanes

By JAMES KENNEDY

PROVIDENCE — The next mayor must re-envision our city streets by supporting protected bike lanes. Westminster on the West Side is the first place Providence should start the transformation.

Providence doesn’t have cavernous streets like Los Angeles, but many of its streets are much wider than streets in other East Coast cities ... but without bike infrastructure. While Philadelphia has buffered bike lanes that are 8-feet wide on streets that are around 24-feet wide, there are no such lanes on the West Side’s Westminster Street, which is about 40-feet wide.

It would be nice if the city implemented bike lanes on Westminster because:

Bikers already use Westminster, but at their peril. Although a 25-mph street, cars routinely are traveling about 40 mph. Parked cars mean that bicyclers have to “take the lane” on a street that is too fast for them to ride safely and comfortably in mixed traffic.

Westminster is home to several schools, including three high schools. Protected bike lanes would help students get to school more independently and safely.

Protected bike lanes would be a great improvement over less advanced infrastructure that already exists on Broadway. Studies show that elderly riders, small children, disabled persons and people who are less athletic are much more likely to use protected infrastructure than narrower lanes that are next to parked cars. Protected bike lanes also prevent dooring.

Studies also indicate that bike lanes are good for business. Cyclists spend more money on average than non-bikers, because of the money saved on transportation. While biking infrastructure would improve the business climate of Westminster Street, it would also provide an affordable way for low-income residents to continue to enjoy the neighborhood. We need transportation solutions that improve our neighborhoods, but don’t price people out.

I propose that businesses be able to test out these bike lanes as temporary infrastructure. I feel confident that the neighborhood will like the change if they get a chance to see it. Important projects like the closure of Times Square in New York City to cars happened first as temporary projects. They soon proved so popular that they are permanent, and are inspiring change in cities around the world.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence with Rachel Playe.

Wednesday
Dec182013

RhodeMap for R.I.: Follow the Money Trail

By KYLE HENCE

If money makes the world go around, what’s it doing in Rhode Island? That’s the billion-dollar question that should be asked by every resident, voter, state representative and official concerned about Rhode Island’s economic future.

For Rhode Island to find its way out of the economic doldrums and reach the promised land of economic resurgence, it must first follow the money trails. Only by illuminating the money trails — of business loans, government grants, pension investments, deposits of public revenues — and the full story they tell, can we identify the critical clues and the ultimate solution to the financial malaise that has plagued this state for far too long.

This piece is a call for a new level of transparency and “accountability through accounting” within the state’s banking, investment and finance sectors, especially now as millions of dollars are invested in comprehensive planning for a “sustainable” Rhode Island by the RhodeMap RI project.

RhodeMap RI is a federally funded, comprehensive planning process begun earlier this year that follows previously completed Land Use 2025, Transportation 2035 and Rhode Island Water 2030 plans. Along with in-the-works waste and energy plans, these studies will inform the State Guide Plan and subsequently comprehensive plans of our cities and towns for years to come.

The official documents represent hundreds of pages, thousands of consulting hours and the input of every division and department in the state — there’s a lot riding on these plans. The assembled team of RhodeMap RI consultants deserves credit for creating cool, up-to-date maps of cherished state environmental, cultural and business assets vital for sustainability planning. However, there remains a dangerous blind spot that will perpetuate economic injustice and undermine economic renewal.

To illuminate this dark hole and inform useful debate, Rhode Island must create a multilayered map of the money trails that reveals how the liquid assets of state revenues and investments move in and out of, and within, the Ocean State; how they are vulnerable to, or subject to, unnecessary risk, veiled conflicts of interest and hidden inflated fees. Without a new brand of accounting, the State Guide Plan will ultimately fall short of forging a bright future.

What good are big plans if hard-earned and increasingly scarce dollars leave the state in the form of profits to foreign-owned banks and businesses? What good is a comprehensive plan that requires stretching every dollar when out-of-state consultants squeeze the state for millions in rapacious fees?

What good are the plans if so-called alternative investments better serve New York’s Wall Street than Rhode Island’s Main Street? Our elected leaders and our state planners are responsible for providing answers and being responsive to those they are meant to serve. In their exposed failing, there is revelation and opportunity.

Politicized mudslinging
The recent back-and-forth over management of hedge-fund investments between gubernatorial candidates Providence Mayor Angel Tavares and General Treasurer Gina Raimondo is testimony to the need for greater scrutiny and a signal to make a clean break from the status quo of finance and investment strategies.

Here is just a taste of the scrutiny that preceded the brouhaha, reported by dogged Wall Street muckraker Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, who brought a new level of national attention to Rhode Island pension reform in September.

“Raimondo’s strategy for saving money involved handing more than $1 billion — 14 percent of the state fund — to hedge funds, including a trio of well-known New York-based funds: Dan Loeb's Third Point Capital was given $66 million, Ken Garschina's Mason Capital got $64 million and $70 million went to Paul Singer's Elliott Management. The funds now stood collectively to be paid tens of millions in fees every single year by the already overburdened taxpayers of her ostensibly flat-broke state.”

Is it no wonder folks are outraged that Tavares and Raimondo are overseeing public investment portfolios with large holdings in Wall Street hedge funds, especially when we see how the waters have been muddied. According to Taibbi, Wall Street firms bailed out after the collapse, including Goldman Sachs, Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital and JPMorgan Chase, have donated heavily to Raimondo’s campaign for governor; and a now-dissolved advocacy group, EngageRI, whose funding was shielded from public scrutiny, spent $740,000 promoting her ideas and propping up Wall Street.

A GoLocalProv investigation early this year found that the state pension fund lost more than $200 million in 2012 under Raimondo, who had begun to move public funds into hedge funds and other alternative investments. The huge loss came after fiscal-year gains of 13 percent in 2010 and 20 percent in the first six months of 2011, before Raimondo came into office.

One is left, mouth agape, wondering who is being served by this investment strategy, especially when Rhode Island’s pension losses are seen alongside the gains in the treasurer’s political war chest.

Raimondo’s resistance to scrutiny over hedge-fund investments led four open-government and public interest groups — Common Cause Rhode Island, the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Rhode Island Press Association and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island — to release a joint letter that upped the push for transparency over management of public funds.

Edward Siedle is hot on the trail. Siedle is a pioneer of the emerging field of forensic investigations of money management, having conducted investigations into managed asset investments worth more than $1 trillion. As a contributor to Forbes.com, he’s no partisan hack. In fact, Siedle was among the most qualified in the country to take a closer look at Rhode Island’s investment of public funds. No wonder AFSCME Rhode Island Local Council 94 hired him to undertake an investigation of the state’s pension fund management.

Siedle’s 106-page report estimates that Raimondo’s reforms will take the roughly $2.3 billion cut to workers’ cost-of-living adjustments over 20 years and use it to pay roughly $2.1 billion in new hedge-fund fees. Raimondo has since revealed that there will be at least $70 million in fees for next year alone.

Siedle’s year of digging into Rhode Island’s money management is only the beginning.  His investigations and Taibbi’s muckraking ought to be a prelude to a “money map” making process that could be a trailblazing model of financial transparency and public engagement for the whole country.

Call for genuine leadership
The RhodeMap RI website describes the current process as “a coordinated and forward-looking effort by the state to make Rhode Island a better place to live and work by mobilizing state and community assets in a whole new way.”

If Rhode Island money managers, led by Raimondo, put their faith anywhere, it should be in a Rhode Island that lifts community resiliency on the strength of its own bootstraps. Looking to loafers on Wall Street has already led to economic collapse and worse, bailouts, that rewarded high-finance ineptitude, manipulations and fraud. Clearly, the faith must shift.

If Rhode Island is as rife with promise as touted in these glossy reports and plans put forth to attract new businesses and outside investment, why isn’t the state’s own treasurer investing more directly in Rhode Island by establishing revolving funds or a state-owned bank, for example?

Identifying “growth centers” and “economic clusters” and drafting elaborate plans for energy, water, land, transportation and waste will be for nought without a comparable full-spectrum money map that sets the table for possible reform of the state’s financial and investment systems.

Rather than mudslinging for political gain and stonewalling investigations, Rhode Island leaders must put public interest first and work with other state leaders to undertake a wholesale review of bank lending, grant making, money management and investment strategies across the state and its 39 municipalities. Only with genuine leadership and 100 percent transparency can Rhode Island planners mobilize state and community assets in “a whole new way” that will make Rhode Island a better place.

Money map
State planners and the consultants they hire need to dig a lot deeper if they are to create a truly realizable plan for the future of Rhode Island. That must include a new Rhode Island investment agenda and a new money map.

A full and independent audit could include a critical review of 1) the protocols and policies behind the investment of state and municipal revenues, 2) profiteering by and possible conflicts of interest of money managers, and 3) banks, both foreign and local, and their performance lending to small- and medium-sized businesses.

A money-mapping audit would reveal how and where the treasury is banking and investing the state’s revenues and set new standards on what percentage of state revenues are deposited or invested locally. A full audit would delve deeply into Rhode Island’s systematic investing in Wall Street and underinvesting in Main Street. This new money map would reveal which Rhode Island entities are investing locally and which are rolling the dice on Wall Street.

Such an effort would ensure many more millions would remain in Rhode Island, rather than being siphoned off to Wall Street. This new form of accounting and investment branding could inform a whole set of money maps and be equally or more revealing and ultimately have more impact than any of the RhodeMap RI maps being developed.

Without a new brand of accountability the state has little chance of pulling itself up by its bootstraps, rooting out conflicts of interest and cronyism, leveling the economic playing field, and attracting new investment. Without transparency, most will be left in the dark even as consultants and money managers line their pockets, or worse, while we lose our shirts when the next shoe drops.

Once this fundamental shift is accomplished, we can come together with confidence to place our full faith and trust in Rhode Island, and the mustering of all its assets — natural, cultural and financial — for the benefit of all.

Show us the money.

Newport, R.I. resident Kyle Hence is a ecoRI News contributor.

Saturday
Nov302013

You Say You Want an Energy Revolution

By PAUL KLINKMAN

Every energy revolution has four stages: the Moral Imperative Age, the Early Adapter Stage, the Dead Whale in the Water Stage and the Next Steady State.

In the Moral Imperative Age, about 100 people on the planet can see that the price of solar will be coming way down someday, and that the price of oil will be going way up someday. In the case of photovoltaic panels, a price of $10 per kilowatt-hour was once prohibitive. A few people guessed that the price would someday be driven down by 99 percent. As a rule, none of the foundations look at the long picture. Neither do any of the universities. Neither do state or federal government.

In the Early Adapter Stage, the early adapters — town oddballs, depending on your viewpoint — put solar panels on their roofs. Other principled people start little ethical companies that in time employed up to 100 people. In the case of PV panels, costs eventually drop to something like 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, and the people who took an extremely long view can barely afford them.
 
In the Dead Whale in the Water Stage, the biggest sharks in the ocean show up. With the PV industry, the United States gave $600 million in commercial loans to Solyndra, Congress’s friend on both sides of the aisle. Not to be outdone, the Chinese Communist Party came up with $30 billion in interest-free loans so that China could monopolize world PV panel production. The name of the first dead whale is nuclear energy. Coal is still a growth industry, but it’s the next whale in line.

In the New Steady State, worst-case, the new monopoly or cartel cranks up prices on consumers two weeks after getting rid of the last competitor. It also buys up governments to forestall antitrust actions. Better cases than worst-case are possible but they have to be carefully planned by us, the citizens, and not by the monopolists.

I believe that active solar heat for buildings is about to enter the Early Adapter Stage.  Solar thermal electricity is in the Early Adapter Stage. An excellent transit system is in the Moral Imperative Age. Biofuel from algae is getting close to the Early Adapter Stage.  As the price of each of these vital inventions drops to near-competitive prices, the sharks will show up.

I see two different types of geoengineering: ecologically outrageous schemes (sulfuric acid in the sky) and environmentally sensitive plans (substituting white roofs for black roofs). Most schemes in the latter category are in the Moral Imperative Stage. Any schemes to protect and shelter millions of the earth’s animal species from climate-caused mass extinction (in zoos; embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen) are still in the Moral Imperative Stage, although some countries are now freezing millions of plant seeds in liquid nitrogen.

I’ll add two more vital inventions to this list. We need to invent elections that aren’t being bought and paid for by the existing nonrenewable-energy industry. For example, look at the Cambridge, Mass., election system as an alternative. Given a corruption-resistant government, we need to invent a marketplace without the worst bad effects of monopoly predation.

As a rule, neither the Dead Whale in the Water Stage nor the New Steady State needs one finger of our assistance. For example, adding more insulation is already a steady state activity. You’re not considered “green” these days if you bring your attic up to R-10 of insulation, when R-15 is the old average and early adapters are moving into the R-30 range or better.

The Early Adapter Stage needs some of our help. However, if you want to inhibit, stop, reverse and then end climate change, work on the Moral Imperative Stage. Lay aside all fears and arguments against this work, because stopping catastrophic climate change is a moral imperative.

Businesses, colleges and charitable foundations can set up endeavors that individuals can’t accomplish. Pointedly ask your local socially conscious business whether they’re getting our planet through the Moral Imperative Stage, if they’re at least trying to be something close to an early adapter, or if they’re just trying to tap dance on the cheap.

It’s not only that two-bit greenwashing looks so bogus that you lose customers, but that genuine integrity commands respect and is good for driving business, good for hiring workers and good for floating stock. Pointedly ask your local university to demonstrate both its moral courage and its humility in the face of a world catastrophe. Pointedly ask your government, where’s the Manhattan Project?

A number of personal skill sets match up well with the Early Adapter Stage. If you have business skills, you might drive down early-adapter solar costs using your talents, even if you don’t invent anything new. Start and run a social venture aimed at driving down consumer costs or driving up consumer satisfaction. If you can lobby or protest, by all means convince the government to stop subsidizing dangerous forms of energy with high lifetime costs. These skills are complementary to early-adapter efforts. But, please don’t ever confuse early adaptation with our moral imperative.

Paul Klinkman is a Providence solar inventor now working on solar heat/hot water retrofit systems and fuel-free midwinter greenhouses.

Friday
Nov292013

Dark Side of Renewable Energy: Megawatt Turbines

By FRANK HAGGERTY

In the past few years most anyone that has gotten up in front of a crowd to speak about commercial megawatt wind turbines starts with an apology. The speakers usually say I'm all for green energy and I like the idea of renewable energy, but commercial megawatt turbines have serious issues. The days of apologizing before speaking about renewable energy programs in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are over.

The public needs to hear the truth about the maintenance issues with the gear-driven wind turbines installed in the past four years. Many of these turbines are suffering major catastrophic gearbox failures within three to five years of installation. Portsmouth (R.I.) Island High School is a prime example. The repair estimates range from $600,000 to a million dollars. The Portsmouth High School wind turbine sits there day after day with 40,000 vehicles going by the broken and forgotten megawatt turbine. There is no news on any repair date in the foreseeable future.

Massachusetts has several examples of turbines sited far too close to residential homes. Massachusetts Superior Court recently ordered wind turbines in Falmouth shut down from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. The court agreed for the first time in U.S. history that the noise was hurting residents.

Noise and “shadow flicker” complaints against commercial wind turbines installed in Fairhaven, Scituate and Kingston also have been registered.

The green community and those interested in renewable energy need to bring a halt to the poor installations of commercial, land-based wind turbines larger than 1.5 megawatts. The community needs to focus on other sources of renewable energy. Those sources include photovoltaic, heat pumps, geothermal and fiber-optic lighting in industrial buildings. Too many resources are being wasted on commercial wind.

The current policies and actions with commercial wind turbines are making misbelievers in renewable energy.

Frank Haggerty is a Jamestown, R.I., resident.

Sunday
Nov242013

A ‘Grand Vision for Matunuck’ Can’t Be Ignored

By JAMES BEDELL

SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Our seaside village of Matunuck is clearly a place feeling the pressure of change. Some might say under the threat of extinction. It’s hard to see the way forward, to see the vision of the Matunuck that will be, through the cloud of uncertainty, competing viewpoints and compelling emotions.

Though we can’t see everything clearly, it’s safe to say that the shorefront owners in the area desperately want things to stay the way they “were.” The residents want their views; the commercial interests want their livelihoods to stay intact. It’s hard to make a point which goes against their dream of a return of wide beaches in front of their properties protecting them from the sea’s energy.

In contrast the geologists evaluate how the Matunuck shore is changing using an empirical lens. They look at the situation with the cloud piercing radar of centuries of data and they frame a bleak scenario. These specialists know that sea level has been rising in the post-glacial era for thousands of years and will continue to do so. Current, valid science also informs us that global warming is real and will accelerate that rise in the future. It’s a fact that when the sea rises, the location of the land/sea boundary will shift inland, and property for which people currently hold deeds will cease to exist.

Left to natural forces alone, the beach will recreate itself further upland, where bedrooms and busy kitchens now stand.

The proposed steel-sheet curtain wall along the roadside in the current action plan will, in a relatively short time and despite temporary experimental sand-trapping efforts, become the edge of the sea. The road will be the defensible shorefront, and the public will have passage along the shore. People will sit on that wall with the water lapping at their feet, and the pizza joint across the street may well become a “Turtle Soup West” — the successful restaurant in Narragansett across the street from the sea — with a fine view of the water.

As tragic and sad as that will be for some, when the land yields to the rising sea it is literally true that “one man’s loss is another man’s gain.” The present shorefront property owners look out across a breathtaking blue horizon vista, under which is a seabed littered with fireplaces, stoop stones and other remains of former waterfront properties. But there is another, wider perspective from which to look at the Matunuck situation.

Widen out your gaze to include Misquamicutt Beach, where Superstorm Sandy threw the entire beach across the parking lot onto Atlantic Avenue in order to adjust to the change in sea level.  Westerly decided to (with federal help!) make the investment to basically pick it up and put it back in front of the commercial shore properties. Similarly, look at Narragansett, which (again with federal help!) repaired the famous wall, the street, the sidewalks and the beach after taking a hit from Sandy.

Both Westerly and Narragansett did this because each town is supported by a thriving tourism industry, and it was worth committing the resources to keep their economic engines running.

Matunuck is also a treasure by the sea. In a way Matunuck is more advantageously situated than either Narragansett or Misquamicutt. It’s imbedded in a roughly 20-mile-long, uninterrupted, south-facing white, sandy beach. As is said, “Location, location, location” are the three major determinants of real-estate value.

So picture this possible futurescape for the Matunuck shore, starting at the town beach on the west and extending to Deep Hole, maybe even as far as the memorial stairs going down to East Matunuck State Beach and Jerusalem, on the east:

A permanent, sufficiently robust sea wall situated just seaward of the current shore front buildings.

The structure would be wide enough to allow both the public to exercise their constitutional rights to pass along the land bordering the sea, and provide the room for maintenance and repair equipment to move along the top when needed.

It might be configured so that patrons on the decks of the Ocean Mist, Tara’s and the residential properties could look out to the horizon over the heads of passersby.

The commercial interests get to entice people to leave some of their vacation money in the business’s cash registers and the shorefront residents get to walk from their decks along a beautiful seaside promenade to Jerusalem or Watch Hill if they feel like taking a stroll.

If this could be accomplished, Matunuck would become a third commercial leg supporting a state coastal strategy to make the most of our fabulous shoreline. We would pay for the maintenance required to support these three “anchors of tourism” — Misquamicutt, Narragansett and Matunuck.

Then we hold hardened shore protection to only those three “armored” regional commercial anchors.  The rest of the south shore is allowed to slowly yield to sea-level rise and retreat landward. This would leave the preponderance of the shoreline a natural beach for all to enjoy, because after all, “it’s the beaches, stupid!”

Our beaches are what makes Rhode Island the summer destination for much of New England and beyond. Though the shops and taverns are visited and enjoyed by the tourists, the tourists didn’t come to shop. They came to go to the beaches, and the beaches are what allow the shops, restaurants and other commercial ventures to prosper. Our tourism industry is a gift bestowed on us by Rhode Island's geologic history.

I don’t know if anyone else recalls that this is not the first time this “Grand Vision for Matunuck” has come before the public. At one of the first open meetings regarding this issue, the first speaker from Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) included this very design as one of the proposals to be considered as a possible future for Matunuck. The energized crowd in attendance at that early point in the discussion steamrolled right over this proposal in its rush to discuss ways to try to bring back the sandy beach of yesteryears in front of their properties. The stakeholders weren’t ready at that time to deal with the realities of the situation ... unfortunately, some are still not ready.

Ready or not, it behooves us to respect one of the great truisms of nature: “The only thing which never changes is that everything changes.” The configuration of the shoreline in Matunuck is changing and we have to plan for, and deal with, the Matunuck of the future and stop wishing for the return of the past. The plan on the table is a viable design to take action in a forward direction, albeit with some questions remaining.

The present proposal, with the line of defense being a sea wall along the roadside, will create a lovely seaside walkway and effect protection for the critical municipal infrastructure that lies underneath the pavement. Is that enough? Does that solution leave enough of Matunuck intact to be the desirable seaside village we have all come to love and cherish? Maybe it does. Or is it true that Ocean Mist and Tara’s, along with the cottages presently on the water’s edge, are critical threads in the fabric of Matunuck, and that the whole character of the place would unravel without them? Maybe it would.

My concluding thought is that having a vision to share is the easy part. I do not have a crystal ball and I do not know the intricacies of all the permissions and regulations with which this vision would have to deal.

What I do know is that profound change is coming and the community has to deal with it. Though it would be a tough task, I think a positive outcome is possible if enough clear thinking, balanced rational reasoning and shared effort can be brought to bear on the problem.

It's up to all of us to take another few words of wisdom to heart. “Lead, follow or get out of the way,” because the evolution of Matunuck-by-the-Sea is at hand.

Wakefield, R.I., resident James Bedell is a member of the Rhode Island Shore Access Coalition.

Thursday
Nov072013

Just Keep to the Side Streets, Bikers

By JAMES KENNEDY

There was nothing hugely surprising about the recently released Providence bicycling master plan. The original plan was scheduled to come out in June. It's was pushed back several times, though, to the point that a few days ago, after the “official release” of the plan, when I called up to ask where it was online to view it, it still was AWOL.

There's nothing particularly criticism worthy of the postponements in themselves. In the grand scheme of things, taking a few extra months to produce a truly quality design is admirable, especially if it springs from a motivation to increase the amount of public input time.

What I find disappointing in light of the time this plan took is that it doesn't feel like it has changed much at all. The first presentation I saw on the plan over a year ago covered the same basic recommendations that exist in the current proposal. The biking public hasn’t been heard.

Rhode Island Public Radio did a short piece in which Sheila Dormody, the city’s sustainability director, is quoted explaining the merits of the plan:

“Putting bicyclists on the busiest streets is a little intimidating for many bicyclists, so with this plan we’re looking at how we can more comfortably navigate the city.”

While it's obviously true that the heaviest trafficked roads in the city are not comfortable for even daring cyclists, the problem is not the diagnosis but the proposed treatment. The bike plan mostly opts to invite people to bike on the streets that are already bikeable. I'd like to invite you to imagine this logic if it were applied to improving public schools in Providence (ahem):

"Our (underfunded, failing public schools are) a little intimidating for many (parents) so with this plan we're looking at how we can (steer parents to the suburbs and to private schools),” said A. Politico, running for City Council.

So let’s not remove parking from W. Westminster Street, where it’s hardly used and could better support businesses as protected bike lanes. Let's not address routes on Waterman, Angell, Hope, Cranston, Broad, Elmwood, or Harris. Let’s get people to ride their bikes on Elmgrove. The data from the smart phones shows that they already do this. So this must be the way.

The plan, and its accompanying presentations — many of which I have sat through — have presented making biking easier in Providence as if it's rocket science. I'm tempted to quote from extensively from Donald Shoup's explanation (see page 10) of how traffic engineering likes to present the blood-letting and lead-poisoning of its craft as a delicate and highly trained pseudo science.

The Providence plan divvies out percentages to different aspects of what makes a route good. Safety gets 20 percent. Directness gets 15 percent. And so on. To quote from the margins of the “Ease of Implementation” part of the chart, which explains the mathematical points assigned to potential routes:

• Signing and Striping = 10 points
• Minor Reconstruction = 5 points
• Full Reconstruction/Parking Removal = 0 points

Why does parking removal get zero points, as a direct equivalent to “full reconstruction?” Parking removal can easily be achieved on some streets in Providence where cycling is in high demand, but parking is not. W. Westminster Street had an 11 percent parking occupancy when I checked it during one peak period. We could put bike lanes there with paint this year — the lines are already there, they just need bike stencils — and next year start planning and implementation to make them more permanent with “full reconstruction” if they prove popular. We can opt to take them away if they're really such a shonda.

Making the city bikeable is not expensive, especially in light of how much money is wasted on lesser things. There are serious proposals to fund the construction of yet more parking in our already parking dominated downtown on the I-195 land. At $30,000 to $50,000 a space, a mile of two-way, completely physically separated cycletracks could be bought for the equivalent of three to six parking spaces.

We keep being told by moderates that this should take us 40 years to develop, because it took 40 years in Amsterdam. Since when do we reinvent the wheel each time we do something just because it took a long time for it to be originally developed? When I get sick, I don't go into my bedroom and fool around with various molds until I figure out, by accident, that there's something called penicillin.

I go to the pharmacy and get the fourth or fifth generation improvement of that idea, with little more than a slip of paper from my doctor. Advocates are acting too tepidly when they present the problem of creating biking safe spaces as if it's some monumental problem that will take decades to fix. If Providence wants people like me to stay here and raise children (I'm 28; it's coming sometime soon) then it ought to act like creating safe places for my children is a high priority.

And in case it seems like I'm harping on parking as the only example of expense mislaid, let me point out a transit example. Building an infill train station for Olneyville or Pawtucket will cost about $1.5 million — enough to build almost 10 miles of two-way cycle tracks. With Olneyville as close to the existing train station as it is, I have to wonder why we wouldn't build five 2-mile approaches to the train station, greatly improving its functionality to those coming and going without slowing the trains with an additional stop.

Bike infrastructure, unlike an additional station, would help people get around between things once they get into the city, instead of leaving them to fend for themselves when they get here. I don't pose this example to say that we shouldn't build urban infill stations. I only do so to say that bicycling is treated as an afterthought to transportation planning, and in many cases it offers more bang for the buck than any other option.

Cycle tracks are not all that’s needed. Shared space is a completely appropriate way for a city to approach the needs of cyclists, and as the plan states, no matter what, cyclists will have to encounter traffic somewhere. But the way the city is presently approaching shared space through the bike plan isn’t helpful. A sharrow on what the plan’s consultant calls a “calm residential street” like Doyle isn’t helpful, because while Doyle is not as trafficked or as fast as, say, North Main, it's 25-mph official speed limit is far too fast for any but the most elite cyclists to keep up with cars.

A speed of 25 mph doesn’t count as “calm” for the purposes of shared space. It isn’t to say that 25 mph (or even faster) can't be a tenable speed for many roads. It’s only to say that inviting people to “take the lane” when they can’t keep pace with cars is a failed approach.

The plan presents the “five Es” of bicycle design — education, engineering, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation — and takes the approach that engineering, while the sexiest and most interesting of the Es, should have to share the spotlight more with the others on the list. While a reasonable argument obviously stands for the inclusion of all the Es, I find the plan’s use of the non-engineering components of design to be implemented in a way to distract from the real need for engineering.

For instance, the plan does approach the subject of cycle tracks. While the wording of the plan isn’t quite as critical of cycle tracks as the consultant’s in-person presentations have been, it more or less keeps the same story of cycle tracks being an expensive half-blessing that cause as many accidents as they prevent.

While it's no doubt true that cycle tracks that are poorly designed result in injuries from drivers who don't yield at turns to bikes, well-designed cycle tracks have been a key to making Dutch injury rates 10 times lower than Boston rates, all while boasting a third of trips nationally and two-thirds of trips in city by bike.

The plan’s hired consultant keeps implying that adding real infrastructure will result in bike deaths from “right hooks.” But it takes 30 seconds on the Internet to find an explanation of how to build a safe, well-designed cycle track that doesn't have these problems.

Even where the plan stretches out toward idealistic sounding recommendations, there is danger lurking. Take this gem:

“While many advocates look to European countries for inspiration regarding bicycle  infrastructure design, they overlook the importance of the European bicycling education programs. In Denmark, bicycling education in schools begins at the kindergarten level and culminates with a national standard written exam and road test for students entering high school.”

There is no question that a vigorous bicycling education program can produce tangible increases in the level of bicycling activity. I'd be impressed by this quote if I thought it was a genuine recommendation with teeth to develop Danish all-ages bike education to change over our whole society.

Unfortunately, I was at a Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC) meeting and asked for some easy-to-implement bike lanes in my neighborhood, and had the plan’s consultant use this exact part of his argument to try to refute the need for that infrastructure.

"It’ll take years to remove parking,” he said, and then launched into how important education was. Well, I won’t hold my breath waiting for the U.S. education system to add consistent history and art classes, much less cycling classes. Offering education as a true complement to infrastructure is a great idea, but using it as a rhetorical distraction isn’t acceptable.

Providence should invest itself in biking like its future depends on it, because it does. “The Bottom Line” just interviewed the chair of the I-195 Commission, and the program reminded listeners that much of the 20 developable acres of the former freeway lies only a few feet above the water table. What happens when sea levels rise just a foot? The program excitedly predicted that the building space that could be added to the city in that 20 acres could add another third to the city, and become one the most important centers for our whole state and region. That ain’t no spotted owl we're talking about saving. That's money.

Providence needs to stop being the A+ student that slouches and earns a C-, and then has the nerve to tell its parents that it tried its best.

Providence resident James Kennedy runs the blog Transport Providence with Rachel Playe.

Wednesday
Oct302013

Notes From the Coast: Revisting Superstorm Sandy

By KATHIE FLORSHEIM

As I write, it’s almost a year to the day that Superstorm Sandy visited. While mention of the storm hardly provokes nostalgia, considering the myriad ways Sandy affected us, it would be foolish not to mark the occasion, somehow.

So when I got an invitation to participate in a recent climate change workshop organized by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the city of Cranston, NOAA, the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve and MIT, among others, it seemed like the best way to observe that anniversary.

Prior to the workshop, I was knowledgeable about the effects of climate change, and had a reasonable understanding of the kinds of mitigation efforts under discussion. That’s because I have, as a photographer, been documenting parts of the Northeast coastline since 2003, with a particular interest in coastal land use. I have also photographed the community at Roy Carpenter’s Beach, in Matunuck, since 2004, and as such have witnessed the retreat of the shoreline in that community.

When I accepted the workshop invitation, I understood that there would be role-playing as part of the effort to project how we citizens might work through the problems climate change presents. Without giving away the details of how the simulation works, because there are other similar workshops planned, I can say the exercise was worth the time. It made the situation tangible, and the questions we need to consider clear.

The given is that climate change will affect all of us, sooner or later. We will all shoulder the expense and loss as we proceed. Also given are the conflicting and competing economic and personal interests. Accommodating them in some fashion will require compromise. That’s where the sausage making starts. This is a bargaining process. It comes down to these messy questions: What are the least bad solutions to the problem that serve the most people — given that there are no ideal solutions? And who pays the bill?

Clearly both the public and private spheres will be affected. While it’s obvious that a partnership between those two domains is necessary, we need to define the processes and criteria that determine how we finance the necessary mitigation. We also need to know how long and for what level of severity is the mitigation intended to serve.

If we are to accommodate the greatest number of people, then we need to depend on data-driven research to guide us. The importance of the science community in these decisions is paramount.

As we determine how to cope with these issues, it also will be important for communities to coordinate their efforts so that what is done in one community doesn’t adversely affect adjacent communities.

However, the most critical aspect of dealing with climate change, even before any of the above is considered, is a public understanding of the challenges and threats climate change poses. Without that, there is little means for approaching problems that will be with us well into the future.

Providence resident Kathie Florsheim is an independent photographer whose work has been shown in museums and galleries nationally and internationally.

Monday
Oct282013

Offshore Wind Nothing But Hot Air

Editor’s note: This opinion piece was submitted in response to the recent ecoRI News story headlined “Big Projects, Money at Offshore Wind Conference.” *Denotes information added by editor.

By BARBARA DURKIN

The Big Money is public funding for wind turbine boondoggles offshore and onshore. America's flagship offshore folly Cape Wind is "discontinued,” “sinking,” "shifting” and "corroding" based on developer's specifications in the 4,000-page Environmental Impact Statement and the developer's specifications in the Construction Operation Plan*.

Cape Wind is more corporate welfare plan, as is Deepwater Wind. Neither LLC has built a wind turbine offshore, yet they’re “Preferred Developer” status by the feds puts the public and environment at risk. Deepwater has been denied cable access, but they and their supporters won’t take “No” from the Narragansett Town Council for a cable landing at Narragansett Beach.

The status quo with the state and feds and wind developers is "regulatory capture.” This is First Wind’s area of expertise that undermines public and environmental interests, with the assistance of our government acting on the developers’ behalf.

The irony is that history is repeating with the Minerals Management Service, which changed its name to the Bureau of Energy Management after the Gulf oil disaster. MMS or BOEM is the lead federal regulator in charge of the Cape Wind and Deepwater Wind permitting reviews. MMS — now BOEM — was deemed a culture of ethical failure by the Office of Inspector General, which accused MMS employees of drugging, drinking and having sex and exchanging items of value with oil industry executives. These oil execs diversify their energy investment portfolios by adding wind generation, thus they are one in the same — oil and wind companies That's not encouraging in context of the federal and state mandates that require us to purchase inferior goods and services — wind — that the free market dismisses as a bad investment.

The fishing industry representatives with whom I collaborate with and hear at public hearings are outraged about the loss of fishing grounds and essential fish habitat to wind developers. Neither the feds nor state worked with fishing industry reps, they steamrolled them.* Politics drive the wind initiative.

Wind energy's excessive and burdensome cost is prohibitive. From the public perspective, these offshore wind projects are boondoggles.

The $25 million stimulus for the Wind Turbine Testing Center in Charlestown, Mass., doesn’t include the windfall for Massachusetts public officials, in jobs and monetary terms. How many jobs has the Wind Turbine Testing Center created? Top executives are collecting ratepayers' dollars and funding themselves.

All of the projects’ added cost and risk will be shouldered by the public, but we will still rely on fossil fuels to backup wind energy.

Barbara Durkin is a Northboro, Mass., resident.

*The Bureau of Energy Management has issued a favorable decision on the Cape Wind Plan.

*In Rhode Island, collaborators of the state’s Ocean Special Area Management Plan (Ocean SAMP) worked with the fishing industry to craft the lengthy document.

Thursday
Oct172013

Statehouse Lawn Ripped Up for More Parking

By FRANK CARINI

Where there was once grass will soon be more Statehouse parking. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)PROVIDENCE — Leave it to chronically shortsighted state government to give the city just what it doesn't need: more impervious surface. Even as city officials work to reduce the amount of asphalt that covers the Capital City and local groups slowly coax people out of their cars and onto buses and bikes, the state Department of Administration (DOA) decides more paved parking is needed downtown.

Ron Renaud, DOA's executive director, recently told the Providence Journal that there is a growing demand for more parking on Smith Hill. “There’s a very big shortage of parking space,” he says.

Work on the two tiers of new parking to the east of the Statehouse, along Smith Street, will replace 2,000 square feet of grass with some 40 parking spaces. This latest swath of hot top will add to Providence’s heat-island effect and help deliver pollutants more efficiently into Narragansett Bay. A 1,000 square feet of impervious surface generates 28,000 gallons of runoff annually.

Stormwater pollution is caused when rainwater and flooding from groundwater and rivers moves quickly over paved surfaces such as roads, driveways and, yes, parking lots. Along the way, this rush of water — aided by impervious surfaces — picks up tar, oil, chemicals, metals and other harmful pollutants that ultimately end up in the Ocean State’s most important natural resource.

To address that problem and the many others associated with growing amounts of impervious surface, the city is considering creating a stormwater utility district. Such a move would place a fee on asphalt-covered surfaces such parking lots. Some 2,000 U.S. cities and towns use such districts to pay for costly repairs and upgrades to storm drains and drainage systems.

But instead of working with local officials who have a different vision for their city's future and embracing some much needed outside-the-box thinking — i.e., working to properly fund the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and aggressively promoting public transportation as a way of getting to the Statehouse and beyond — the state aimlessly continues down the paved road of building asphalted rectangles.

The DOA also has plans to build a new parking lot on the west side of the Statehouse, on recently purchased property on Francis Street. City zoning laws prohibit new surface parking lots downtown, but the state really isn’t interested in local regulations. For proof, see the “slopes bill” that was passed this year by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Lincoln Chafee. The bill allows sloped land to be included in buildable lot calculations — a generous gift to developers, and a move that ties the hands of local officials statewide.

Even as the DOA pushes ahead on its plan to expand Statehouse parking, the General Assembly is working on an idea to create even more downtown parking. A special legislative commission will hold its first meeting Oct. 23 to discuss the idea of building a parking garage next to the Garrahy Judicial Complex.

In the meantime, about 14 percent of the Narragansett Bay watershed is covered by streets, roofs, driveways and parking lots. Within Rhode Island, impervious cover by municipality ranges from 3 percent to 40 percent. When impervious cover is between 10 percent and 25 percent, streams show signs of degradation. When such cover is less than 10 percent, streams support a wide range of life. Only 17 municipalities in the state have less than 10 percent impervious cover. Providence isn’t one of them.

The head of the commission charged with overseeing development around the Statehouse told the Providence Journal he is opposed to these additional parking lots. “My view is there should be less parking around the Statehouse not more,” Deming Sherman, chairman of the Capital Center Commission, told the Journal. “To build a parking garage behind the Department of Administration — that’s the answer.”

Improving the state’s public transportation system and encouraging and promoting its use is a better answer.

Frank Carini is the executive editor of ecoRI News.