Friday, April 30, 2010

Two articles on SE Wisconsin rail. Same paper, different angles.

Does anyone else find this juxtaposition strange? Today's Daily Reporter, a pro-labor union paper carried two stories about SE Wisconsin, both mentioning development and the KRM train, the proposed Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee train line that would be an extension of the popular Metra line that runs through Chicago's northern suburbs.

That line currently stops in Kenosha, and there is no train service from Racine or Kenosha to Milwaukee. The closest train is in Sturtevant, WI, west of Mt. Pleasant. That is the Hiawatha line that runs six times per day between Chicago and Milwaukee. (And makes money, by the way.)

To relieve congestion on I-94, the KRM was proposed as an alternative, but its future is in doubt, since the Wisconsin Legislature finished it's session without passing taxing authority for the SE Wisconsin RTA.

So today, one article, "Waiting for Change," talks about the transition, actual or possible, or SE Wisconsin to less a manufacturing base and more a series of bedroom communities for Chicago and Milwaukee, especially Chicago.  It prominently mentions the KRM as both a transportation option and a development tool.

And then another article today, "Fighting Over the Railroad," talks about both legislative efforts to pass the RTA legislation and local resistance to kicking in funds.

It also talks about the development that could come with the KRM line, however one commentator misses the point.

“Kenosha has had commuter rail to Chicago for 20-plus years,” Kisley said. “There’s no development there.”

Kisley said his group, along with other taxpayer groups such as the Racine Taxed Enough Already Party, will continue to oppose the project and pressure legislators.
What he fails to see is that the KRM would allow people to travel into Milwaukee, a much shorter trip than Chicago. Sure, as the first article points out, many people are willing to travel all the way from Kenosha to Chicago to get cheaper housing, lower taxes, and lake access. But think what an extension of that same lien would do for Racine and Kenosha if people could quickly and conveniently get to Milwaukee as well.

However, that isn't going to happen for awhile now.

As a former developer, Racine Mayor John Dickert said he experienced an immediate effect when the state Assembly effectively killed the KRM project in 2008. He said he had been working on $40 million worth of developments, only to have the deals fall through because the KRM did not move forward.
Oh, well, I guess Racine and Kenosha just aren't ready to grab the opportunities in front of them.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

One community not willing to spend local dollars for bigger roads

Here's one answer to yesterday's question, which asked, "What road projects would be funded if citizens voted on each capital project?"

Apparently, the citizens of Franklin, WI desperately want a new interchange with I-94 to bring more people and traffic into their community. They say that it will help Northwestern Mutual expand, which will bring additional tax revenues for the city. Their share would be $500,000 out of a total $12.9 million project. But they don't want this interchange enough to pony up the money from local funds. They want others to pay their share. Citizens made it clear that they didn't want this road project to get any of their tax money.

From the article:

Oak Creek this week agreed to spend $4.4 million in tax-incremental financing money on the project, and Northwestern Mutual, which has a building near the site, agreed to give $1.6 million. But that leaves a $500,000 gap in the local share.
Franklin Alderman Tim Solomon said the interchange is too important to Franklin’s future to pass up, especially considering the potential benefit of any Northwestern Mutual expansion.
“Northwestern Mutual spent $2 million in taxes last year,” he said. “Spread that over 10 years, that’s $20 million, and they want this interchange. We need to make this happen.”
But Franklin residents at a Wednesday night Common Council meeting opposed spending city money to fill the gap.

Now, I don't know the area. I don't know the economic situation. I don't know if this is a god project or not. But it's clear that the citizens of Franklin feel they would rather lose out on this interchange than put any local funds into it.

So, what would happen in Madison if citizens were asked their thoughts on each road project?

To see what's planned for the next 5 years - with your Property tax dollars - attend the special briefing on Tuesday, May 4, 5:00 PM, in Room 201 of the City-County Bldg. It's not on the City's meeting schedule yet, but I assume it will be, as a quorum of the Council could be present.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Well Said: Our friend in Oregon tells off his state rep

 Hans Noeldner is fighting the good fight down south in Oregon (WI, for my friends in other parts of the US.)

Today he had an excellent letter to the Cap Times taking Rep Brett Davis to task for standing in the way of progress and a better, greener future.

Start with fresh ambitions for the lieutenant governor’s office. Shovel in supersized helpings of campaign funding from road builders, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and petroleum interests. Whip to a froth with party ideologues desperate to thwart any progress for which Democrats could take some credit -- and the public interest be damned.
What do you get? Brett Davis trotted out in front of the cameras to torch clean energy jobs legislation. Davis spearheading efforts to derail 21st century train service in the highly congested Madison-Milwaukee corridor. Davis conniving to cripple fledgling steps toward regional transit authorities -- i.e., more local and regional control over local and regional issues. [more]

Read more from Hans at his blog, Entropic Journal.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lessons from the Wisconsin Bicycle Summit

Yesterday I attended the Wisconsin Bike Summit, and thought I'd share some thoughts, both from the sessions and my thoughts about advocacy itself.

The first session I attended was one on building effective community partnerships for bicycle trails. However, I want to write a bit about advocacy in general, whether it's for bicycling or other topics.

1. Decide what you want. Specifically. More funding from a certain source. A change in law. A specific piece of infrastructure built. A specific policy change from a government body. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to articulate your message. This will make it easier to tell the decision-makers what you want, and also easier to gain support from people that can help you by joining, volunteering, giving money, etc.

2. Start small. Many of us want big social or legal changes, but remember the proverb about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step. Especially if you are new to advocacy, or an unknown group, it will also be less overwhelming to those involved if they don't have to take on a huge project.

3. Celebrate the small victories. I almost want to put this first in the list, because it is so important for both those involved directly in your advocacy and for growing your group or movement. Those of us who feel like we are banging our heads against a brick wall, or fighting a hurricane force headwind, need to see that our work is worth it. Change is often incremental, but it is also often steady. I am old enough to remember being told:
  • Women can't work outside the home because it will destroy our families. They don't need to be paid like men because they don't have to support a family.
  • We can't prohibit industries from dumping raw effluent into our lakes and rivers because it will kill our economy. It's unreasonable to ask industry to clean up their smokestack emissions.
  • We can't ban smoking in offices, because no one will ever get any work done.
Look around and notice when you have made a change, no matter how small. This is important for both getting others to join you and to keep your staff, volunteers, and donors motivated. Change is very hard and often exhausting for those trying to effect it. If you don't celebrate the small victories, you will get burned out.

5. Build partnerships. Your partners may not be just the true believers in your movement, but also those who would benefit in some other way from a change you want. Are there health, economic development, social justice, environmental, or personal economic savings benefits to be gained? If you can get well-respected people that are not the expected allies to show support, your message will be heard - not just received - by more groups and will be more likely to succeed.

6. Perfect your message, vision, and mission. Be able to state it to anyone in 15 seconds. Everyone hates sound bites, but they work. If anyone expresses interest in your group or movement, you should be able to explain what you do and why it is important before their eyes glaze over (or they reach for the remote if you are being interviewed.) A good solid message, vision and mission will also help with possible funders, volunteers, political contacts, or those partnerships you want to build. Obviously, you should be able to give more details when asked, and your message may be different if you are talking to the local PTO vs. the Tourism Council.

7. Be flexible in your methods, but stay true to your mission. If you get turned down for funding, find things you can do that are free or cheap. If you have lots of smart, hardworking volunteers, you will use different methods than if someone offers you free advertising or printing. Press can be very important, and is essentially free. Social media can get people to write letters or turn out at meetings. Maybe someone wants to help you make those important contacts, or has other talents that will make possible a tactic that you thought was out of reach.

8. Communicate with your members, volunteers, and allies, and also your opponents. There are many groups, issues, and news swirling around. Don't overwhelm people, but make sure that they don't forget you. Let supporters know both that you appreciate their efforts, and what you need them to do for the next step. Or just make sure they know you are working hard for what they want. Thank the people  that have helped you, and make sure that those who are standing in your way hear from you too. Especially if want a political change, communicate victories - someone says they will support your efforts, and also communicate when there are elected officials that need a push or convincing.

9. You are not alone. If you are not working in an office with plenty of like-minded people, or part of an organization with regular meetings, it can feel like you are the only person out there, the only person working on this issue, or the only person with these views. You are not alone, and it is important to get feedback and reinforcement in your mission from others working toward the same goals. That is one reason for tip # 8 - communication. If you don't communicate with your allies and supporters, it can get very lonely. Talking, emailing, blogging, or meeting with others working for the same goal can also give you fresh ideas. Maybe there are others, in other cities, that have used a technique or tool that you haven't thought of or discovered. If there is no one in your immediate area, see if there is a national or regional listserv or meeting. Even if you have to join a group in another geographic area, you will see that others are also struggling with the same issues and problems, and you can support each other.

10. Finally, don't give up. Funding will come and go, or not come at all. Volunteers may burn out or float away. You will get good and bad press. Local or world events will make your message more or less relevant to the general public. But keep your eyes on the goal, and remember why you thought it was important. And remember # 3 above.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Maybe Madison's not such a bad place for business after all.

Despite low unemployment, a high standard of living, giant cranes operating non-stop even in a recession, and a constantly growing population (which can also bring problems, but that's a different blog post), Madison is constantly being scolded as a bad place to do business, or a city that drives away business. Every time a company decides to move elsewhere - whether it's Epic wanting a gazillion acres and tax breaks or Famous Footwear moving to the home of its new corporate parent - the Madison Chamber of Commerce or Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce wring their hands and issue a press release about how we need to be nicer to corporate types.

I am not arguing that we should actively chase away employers, but there can be drawbacks to bending over backwards too. For one thing, when you bend over backwards, you have a hard time seeing what is in front of you. This is the case for Verona, who somehow couldn't foresee that building a huge corporate campus on the far west side of it's city might mean traffic congestion on Hwy M. Now they beg the Transportation Planning Board (TPB) - the entity that doles out federal transportation funding - to give them the money to widen Hwy M. However, this project in line behind all the other big road projects that others feel are essential, and Hwy M to Verona likely will come up for funding in 2013 at the earliest.

When asked how the road could be done sooner, the TPB Director, showing candor that is all too rare when dealing with costs for road expansion, told the Verona folks, "Pay for it yourself." Shock, horror, disbelief! What? Pay for a road yourselves? How is that possible?

A month later, at the regular TPB meeting (which I sat on for six years), the Verona representative again pleaded his case. Another board member, who although he represents an area outside Madison is much more astute about transportation funding than many, innocently asked, "Well, you must have assessed impact fees to Epic for the increase in traffic caused by their new campus, right?  That would be a pool of money to use for this road." Dead silence from the Verona rep. His mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air.

I had a hard time not falling off my seat laughing. Of course, Verona didn't assess impact fees for the expected increase in traffic! They were doing everything they could to hand Epic executives freebies, so they could crow about stealing this company from big, bad Madison. Now they are stuck with the impacts, and the costs.

But these stories never get told. We only hear how Madison chased poor Epic out of town.

And we never hear about businesses that decide to locate here, or even come home again. Today there was a tiny piece about Spectrum Brands returning it's corporate headquarters to Madison. Of course, this little piece is buried and will never be waved around at a Council meeting as a counterargument to the mantra that Madison can only lose businesses. No, we don't hear those stories.

[Update: Since I didn't get a chance to post this morning, the afternoon papers and TV news did actually do stories about Spectrum's return to Madison. However, in the story, Sean Robbins, Executive VP at Thrive sounded he was fighting to restrain any enthusiasm, by calling the development, "reassuring."]

We also don't hear much about the start-ups that are constantly bubbling up around town. The University Research Park and the MG&E Incubator, among other places, are wondrous places for little businesses that come into being because of two things we have in abundance in Madison: smarts and innovation. The UW is a major research institution, and many companies have spun off of that research. They start and grow right under our noses. Others leave the academic and research life behind and go a different direction in life, but they too often start businesses that grow and thrive.

Madison is a great place to live. We know this in our hearts, and we see the reviews and top ten rankings all the time. People want to build a life here, and that's good for business. I'm not sure why the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce is always so determined to tear down the city as a good place to locate. Isn't part of their job to attract business? Or do they exist only to push for less regulation?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What happens to your tire treads when they wear down?

Eewwww. I knew this, but it's nice to have it in the paper, where everyone else can see, and think about it.

Just one more reason that single occupancy vehicles, especially large, heavy ones, are not good for our environment, health, or society. All those bits of tire? You are breathing them into your lungs. And the pieces that don't get breathed in eventually end up in our soil and water. That sounds benign until you read all the toxic compounds that are contained in those little bits and pieces.

The next question is, "Where does the asphalt go that used to be in the roadway?" You know, that part that gets worn down by all the trucks, cars, buses, etc. Where does that go? Pretty much the same place.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Greyhound doesn't want your business and the city doesn't care

How else to explain their shuffle of the pick-up/drop-off location in the last week. According to Brenda Konkel's blog, as of tomorrow (Thursday?) Greyhound will be picking up and dropping off at the TA Truck Stop. Since there is no bus service there, and even I wouldn't want to bike or walk to that location, how are people supposed to get to the bus? If you are taking Greyhound, you probably don't want to pay $20-30 in taxi fare either.

Just to be a rabble-rouser, I decided to call Greyhound and ask them what's up. It's been interesting getting the run-around.

First, I went on their web site to use the "station locator." This will tell you that they are using the North Transfer Point (NTP) on Huxley St, as well as Memorial Union and Dutch Mill Park-and-Ride for limited service. Interestingly, the only telephone number or "hours of operation" lists the Memorial Union (even for Dutch Mill), and the Union doesn't even sell Greyhound tickets.

So I called their customer assistance number - 214-849-8966 - and was on hold for quite a while before getting a person. I could hardly hear the person who again told me that Greyhound was operating out of the NTP. When I asked about the news on Brenda's blog, he said I should call the fare and schedule phone number - 800-231-2222. I told him that I wanted to be sure that I would be talking to a real person that could actually confirm this new information. I didn't just want to talk to another auto-routing system or be told, "We don't know anything about that." He assured me that anyone at that number would have up to date and correct information, and they could address any concerns I had about the stop moving to a location with no bus service.

So I called the 800 number and got stuck in the auto-routing system again. I got one recording that told me that the Greyhound stop was at 2023 S Stoughton Rd. Great, that's at least two decisions old. So I pressed a few more buttons, and after being on hold yet again got a nice woman who told me that the Greyhound stop was at the NTP.

When I asked about the memo in Brenda's blog, she put me on hold and asked a supervisor. She came back and said the bus was picking up and dropping off at the NTP, and no one at her office knew any difference. She then suggested I called "the corporate office" and speak to Customer Assistance. She gave me... you guessed it - the same number I started with. When I insisted on knowing an extension, department, or person to ask for, she said, "anyone there can help you.

By the way, the real corporate office phone number is 214-849-8000. I haven't called it yet, but I will, and I'm not going through any auto-routing system when I do.

In the meantime, I called Brenda and asked where she got the info on her blog. Ray Harmon from the Mayor's office sent it out this morning at 9:30 AM.

OK, so I called the corporate offices, and got transfered to the "executive customer assistance" department. There wasn't anyone available to assist me at this time, and they asked me to leave a detailed message with my customer ID number or reference number, and they would get back to me within 24 hours. I declined to leave a message.

I finally spoke to the person that made this decision, and he said that, after 9 month, Greyhound could not find a location where they could sell tickets, ship packages, and pick-up customers in the same place. When asked why they didn't at least do a pick-up downtown, or anywhere that had bus service, he replied that Greyhound typically has only one stop.

So the answer seems to be that Greyhound has completely written off serving the city of Madison, since the new stop is not actually in the city.

As a private business, that is their right, I suppose - the city nor any individual or committee can force them to make stops where they don't want to make stops - but it doesn't say much for the city administration that they are willing to settle for losing the only bus service to many areas of the state and US.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Google Maps Street View goes 3-D

In the normal course of looking for something on Google Maps, and switching to Street View, I discovered a new feature by accident. 3-D!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Magic mulch - but hold your nose

Thanks to my neighbor Paul, I discovered the wonders of "lake weeds" shortly after moving into my house. Paul has taught me a lot about gardening, and we trade advice, plants, and supplies on a regular basis. Thanks, Paul, you're a great neighbor!

So what are the lake weeds, and what do you do with them? Mostly it is Eurasian Milfoil, that stuff they cut off the lakes every summer, and we use it as mulch, or to start a new bed for planting the next year.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Speeding up the compost with coffee

Continuing the theme of free local resources for gardening, and making the garden more productive and easier, I'm going to share the secret to making those oak leaves decompose more quickly. At least I hope it works. Last year it worked very well for the marsh hay that was rotting in a corner of the garden. I thought all that hay would take forever to break down, especially mixed with the leaves (ash and maple) that had just come off the garden beds, but after adding the magic ingredient, that pile became hot. I took the lid off the bin, and I could feel the heat coming off the pile. Soon enough, the hay was almost gone, and all the other compost ingredients were also well on their way to being decomposed - and ready for the garden.

So what is this magic ingredient? Coffee grounds. Lots of them. 

Out in the garden again

One of the nice things about working at home is being able to take advantage of days like the last two to get outside a bit. It makes me more productive to get outside and move about anyway, and I can catch up on work when it starts raining or gets cold.

So for the last two days I've been out in my garden: cleaning up, moving compost to the garden, moving leaf mulch to the compost bins, turning over the soil, and generally getting the beds ready for planting later.