Tag Archives: connecticut

Connect(icut) the Dots….

If nothing else, I am from Connecticut. My family background is 100% Italian-American, going back to the early 20th Century. One grandparent on each side was born in Connecticut, the other in Italy. Both sides settled in Southington, a mill town about halfway between Hartford and New Haven. Every immediate family member I have lived in Connecticut….

Point is, I don’t have another point of reference. I know other places, some pretty well, but my outlook is pure Nutmegger. Long, intense winters. Short but similarly intense summers. Our major industries are Wall Street finance, Insurance, and Higher Education, probably in that order. What is left of the military industrial complex and manufacturing is bringing up the rear.

You can drive across the state, the long way, in about two hours. You can drive from Connecticut’s capitol Hartford to Boston, NYC, Providence, Albany, or the Vermont border, in about two hours. The Canadian border is about 4 hours away. It is a compact region, is my point.

So you would think we have it made. Loads of highly educated people making a good living, cultural wonders in abundance, beautiful woodlands, rolling hills (no mountains, really), lakes, rivers, the ocean (aka Long Island Sound), etc… Not so fast.

We have staggering economic disparity, often in very close proximity. Fairfield County regulary battles for the highest per-capita income of any county in the country, but contains one of the poorest cities in the nation (Bridgeport). We have Metro-North, the most intensely utilized mass transit system in the nation, but the citizenry by-and-large considers any mass transit project to be something between a boondoggle and a mortal sin. Metro-North brings the wealthy and powerful into New York City every morning and brings them home every night, but it is basically a disaster waiting to happen due to being starved of maintenance funds. Simply put, the Gold Coast doesn’t call the shots in Hartford.

If the three bears came to Connecticut it would not be “just right”. We have massive overhead due to three interstate highways and sprawling suburban development. Connecticut has 169 towns, almost all with their own local governments, and no county government to fill out the middle of the state-local axis. The town budgets rely heavily on property tax which the state gets essentially none of. The state backfills the town school budgets with “ECS”, or Education Cost Sharing, so town taxpayers are often shielded from the actual impact of their largest cost, schools. The state has to fund itself with a mix of income tax, sales, tax, business taxes, use-taxes and fees, and an array of nickel/dime nuisance taxes. We still have not mentioned taxes paid to Uncle Sam. Connecticut is near the bottom in federal tax recovered per-capita. Our federal taxes are not coming back to fix Metro North, for instance, and nobody seems too sure why. Add in the high costs for housing and food/essentials, and it can be a very expensive place to live.

Day to day, this is the status quo. Often complained about, but never truly analyzed. That should change. If you take a step back, what I just described is “lossy”. A lossy system is one where efficiencies are abandoned in favor of tradition, or other “steady habits”. Not surprisingly that is the way we roll here. Which is a shame. What we really need is a top-down rebuild of many things we hold dear.

Once the villages and mill towns grew into one another in a petri-dish like explosion of suburban sprawl, the gig was up. Your quaint notions of sovereignty are vestiges of a time gone by. My favorite analogy is the “string of pearls”. In the beginning you had a “string”, let’s say Route 10, splitting the state in half from north to south. New Haven to Springfield on a ribbon of asphalt. Once you cleared New Haven you wold travel past farms and woodland between a series of village centers, the “pearls”. But those pearls were growing, and in time edged together. Where once there was string, it is now covered by overgrown pearls. It was originally a wagon route, and paralleled sections of a rail and canal system. Those wagons, barges, and boxcars kept the mills and factories running for a hundred years. It was host to a trolley line until, like everywhere else, it gave way to the supremacy of the automobile. With the car came the pressure of suburban development.

When those villages were isolated there was a logical case to be made for their fiefdom governments, but in time they used that independence to make decisions at the expense of their neighbors, or to the advantage of the town fathers. Suburbs with elbow room could depress taxes to draw home buyers away from their neighbors. They could also push up taxes to keep out low-income families. They could offer tax abatements to pull industry away from the cities. The cities watched their industrial base flee, to China as often as another state or city, yet they still had to feed a hungry city machine. As the cities crumbled, their taxes would rise, burdening an already underemployed citizenry. Due to “white flight” where city dwellers fled urban centers for the suburbs, his was not seen as a problem by a largely middle-class state. When it was confronted it was often seen as an “urban” problem.

That was then. The lack of long-range planning has handcuffed those towns. They thought they could build enough homes to satisfy their growing budgets but they were just digging themselves a deeper hole. School systems were expanded, as were snow plowing and other maintenance functions. Police and fire services grew, along with increasingly complex administrative departments. In short, the low mil rates that attract those real estate developers and home buyers mean that the property taxes they pay fall short of covering the costs of the services they use. It also means that the towns cannot afford to create tax-reduction zones or tax rebate/incentive programs for seniors. That has resulted in what might be called “grey flight” as retirees leave the state for less expensive surroundings.

What we have now is a restless middle class looking longingly at lower taxes in the southern states, the mid-Atlantic, and beyond. The Connecticut promise was that those hyper-local policies had no downside. Flee the city for the suburbs, trade up and get better schools, move over one town and halve your property taxes… The idea was that all was fair and all decisions were equal. The triangulation of housing, job, and commute was supposed to be zero-sum. If not equal, they were not to be questioned. What we actually built is a landscape of bloated suburbs dependent on the retail and service economy, with secondary education and government jobs replacing the manufacturing and white-collar business positions that built the suburbs in the first place. All those kids need to go to school, they all need electricity, police, fire, road maintenance, parks, recreation, drinking water, clean air, cellular phone coverage, and so much more. The overwhelming reaction, regardless of your political bent or income, is that smaller government is the solution. In our current situation it is an easy conclusion to draw. Even easier if the alternative is wholesale regime change.

At one point, a time I can barely remember (the 80’s), it seemed like a numbers game. Residential development went unchecked on the premise that it generated revenue. Even when the numbers showed that the tax revenues were dwarfed by the costs of educating the kids in those houses you were better off barking at the moon. Towns were going to build their way out of budget shortfalls and no egghead was going to spoil the party with “math”. The battle lines were drawn between town councils padded with developers, bank presidents, realtors, and insiders who bought in to their cause on one side; and good-government types and academics on the other side who lacked the connections and financial motivation to gain even a board seat. But the numbers didn’t lie. Towns privatized services like trash collection, moving the costs off the books. Road maintenance was deprioritized, along with parks and recreation. We have built a rift between parents with kids in the schools and empty-nesters. With Connecticut schools averaging about $8,000 per student per year to educate a child, $4,000 in property tax seems like a steal. If you stay around for an additional 13 years for each kid you put through the system it probably works out. Otherwise it is just the price of living in a community with educated children. That price is born equally across the community, but burdens fixed-income elderly in a way that hardly seems fair.

If I had a tidy solution I would have laid it out by now. I know that there needs to be a discussion. I know it will be divisive. But I know also that our current system has outgrown itself. That bucolic “string of pearls” with country roads, mill towns, farms, and tidy urban enclaves is now a memory. Mementos exist, but that’s all they are. The steady habit should have been cooperative improvement and long-range planning but instead it has been greed, isolation, and finger pointing. A good long look in the mirror might be the first step we need, even if we aren’t thrilled with what we see.

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Fuchsprellen Colog-nuh

A quick update on the adventures of Fuchsprellen. If this band is wrong I don’t wanna be right…

We secured a date at Cafe Nine in New Haven, on very short notice, and played a double bill with Light Upon Blight on November 9. LUB is Jeff Cedrone’s project, and I have been playing bass along with Peter Riccio on drums. Normally we would have Neil McCarthy on alto sax but he couldn’t make it for this gig. This means that the Fuchsprellen rhythm section opened as a trio under Jeff’s direction, then we switch back to Fuchsprellen mode with the Fuchsprellen Horns. This could go horribly wrong, but so far it has not. Jeff’s concept with LUB is heavier, darker, and more brutal than 90% of anything Fuchsprellen does. The result is improvised “doom jazz” in power trio format.

Note: this is an expanded version of the “Mother’s Day Debacle” show where LUB and Fuchsprellen played trio sets in the same way: LUB trio, followed by Fuchsprellen trio. Just as a musician can train for sight reading, or chord chart reading, or soloing over set forms, there is a strong New Haven area improvisational tradition that has New Haven Improvisor’s Collective at its core. All of the musicians I have been involved with through NHIC have improvisation backgrounds and ambitions, but the formalized work done at NHIC has helped with both vocabulary/skill building as well as providing context for musicians to launch their own projects, like LUB, and Fuchsprellen, among many. But I Digress…

We had a trio of reeds for the Fuchsprellen set: John Venter on tenor sax, Richard Brown on Alto, and Steve Chillemi on bass clarinet. The rhythm section is there to provide support for the horns, and keep them flying for the entirety of the set. One thing is for sure, these guys are ready to rock from the downbeat. The hardest thing we face is giving the rhythm section a chance to settle in before the horns get down to bid-nezzzzz. We did a great job at finding balance at this gig (audio to come, real soon now, and maybe video too).

Huge thanks to Michelle and the good folks at Cafe Nine, and all the people who turned out for the gig. We had an excellent crowd for a Sunday , and I expect that we will be back at the Nine over the winter. Hooo-Yeahhhhh!!!!

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Light Upon Blight – photo by Hank Hoffman

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The Fuchsprellen Horns – photo by Hank Hoffman

Can Politics ever really reach Bottom?

As the results trickle in from Connecticut’s 2014 midterm election I can’t help but wonder if the process can get any worse. It was impossible to find substantive discussion on either side. Republican candidate Tom Foley apparently spent the past four years in cryogenic suspension because he was less informed about every issue that he was when he ran four years ago. He either refused to answer questions about actual state policies, or admitted ignorance but made references to his problem solving skills, and gave no example of them but trust him they are impressive. Incumbent Democrat Dannel Malloy fell into a trap of taking the bait on nonsense issues. His record might not be the kind of thing that voters are thrilled about (sheparding a state back from a global economic meltdown without making things worse) but it is his record. His approach has worked, but it required state tax increases and a slower pace of deficit reduction in exchange for shielding the state’s 169 towns and cities from funding cuts. Since all property taxes are assessed locally this means that the citizens of Connecticut were spared mil rate increases that impact the poor and working poor especially hard.

Asleep yet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Malloy has stayed true to his “good government” blue collar roots. In return he has been largely tuned out by the electorate.

Foley had one pitch: “that stuff you don’t like, I wouldn’t have done that”. See. Easy to digest. No policy angle. You can go on with your day unencumbered by facts, figures, data, policy details, or anything else that can vaguely be pulled under the heading of “reality”. His track record is either sketchy, hazy, or negative. Six months heading the Provisional Authority in Iraq, where U.S. lucre was hauled away by the wheelbarrow load by… well, nobody knows who. But billions of dollars were unaccounted for. This was also over a decade ago, and the entire venture was largely undocumented. And he is a corporate guy. A business guy. All we really know about his corporate ventures is that he made millions upon millions of dollars and played hardball with labor.

But they had debates.That should have proved edutaining! Errrrr, No. The debates were like mud wrestling without the charm, and the voters found out nothing the really needed to know to make an informed decision. Nobody seemed to care. They were too busy staking out some imaginary high ground. There is no high ground. There is only swamp land.

So you have a showdown between a sitting Governor who was not that able to frame his policies in a way that appeals to voters, and a guy who has never held any elected office and who couldn’t remember his running mate’s name with three weeks to go before election day. Surprised that the election will be a nail-biter?

Good Night. Good Luck. Good Grief.

Bike To Work Day 2013 – Preamble

First off, if you want to see the 15 minute version of Mikael Colville-Andersen’s conceptual focus on Transit Planing and urbanization, Click Here . I highly recommend it.

Friday May 17 is this year’s Bike to Work Day, and my plan is to participate. I ride in to my job about twice a month, and I would like to ramp that up to once a week. It is a 18 mile ride, each way, if I take the most direct route. All of it is on surface streets with no bike lane or other bike/ped facilities. Because of that I have to be up for an early morning departure, and a 40 mile day on the bike, with a work day sandwiched into the middle.

But BTWD is more like Opening Day for fishing season. Even the people who won’t be out on the water at any other time will make it out for the Big Day.

Just like in 2011, my plan is to participate in DEEP Commissioner Daniel Esty’s ride from Cheshire to Hartford (about 30 miles, one way). Notice that the distances I am talking about are very different from the target audience for many bicycle advocacy campaigns: people who live within 5 miles of their workplace. In a region with normal urbanization that might be a healthy sampling. In Hartford it is the land of the 30-60 minute car commute. That is 15-30+ miles of roadway, much of it interstate highways. So those people (like me) have a double whammy of swapping a relatively fast and sedentary car commute for a long and sweaty 90 minute grind on the bike. The immediate options are along the lines of move closer to the workplace, or find a new job closer to your home.

Those options are based on minimal if any change in the current situation. You don’t need special lanes or traffic control or traffic calming… you just need to have a commute that doesn’t feel like you are training for an ironman competition. But where someone like Colville-Andersen comes in is completely about the future, and looking to the past as a codex for projecting how the future can be better than today. I have been following bicycle advocacy and its related branches for over a decade, and I have started to realize that I become most aggrivated/critical when I forget to view things through my preferred lens of futurism, and get dragged into the muddy waters of the status quo.

I have bloviated about the CT Fastrak project a few times and am regularly depressed regarding the way its mediocrity is its defining feature. Half of it, and not the useful half, includes bike/pedestrian lane. It crosses within a kilometer of a university campus (CCSU, my alma mater), but does not include a stop for university students/staff. It is considered a boondoggle driven by federal transt infrastructure funding, as opposed to solving an actual public need. And while it will meet/create a transit need, the lack of a distinct focus means that the peoject is easy picking for detractors.

My futurist mind sees a Fastrak system that links downtown New Britain to CCSU, and CCSU to downtown Hartford. That makes the city accessible to both univeristy people and New Britain people, without forcing them to deal with the cost of cars and parking. It makes the university accessible to the people of Hartford. There is a planned East Street station, over half a mile on foot from the CCSU Student Center. That sounds close, but it is a slog, and currently you would be walking on a combination of busy two-lane and off-campus housing streets. Is that the kind of decision you make when accomodating people, or accomodating cars? Maybe the university starts a shuttle service, but with the State University system taking cuts to essential services in each budget, I don’t see a lot of spare change around to run a shuttle service.

I’ll have a nice blog post with photos of BTWD 2013, but my feeling is that it will be a long time and many more BTWDs before the landscape supports alternatives to automobile commuting in any substantial way.

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter – 2

One great resource for bicycle reading is Urban Velo magazine out of Pittsburgh. In the great tradition of mags like Tape-Op and Beer Advocate, it is a sharp focus mag with a strong identity and strong opinions. In this case Urban Velo has a fixed-gear focus with a strong undercurrent of Bike Friendly and Bike Awesome development. Check them out, and if you like them get a subscription and support them.

Been There, Haven’t Done That

As much as I like what I see in places where bikes have a place in every day life, it is not lost on me that for every Portland, OR story or Manhattan High Line, there is China. China was bike-dominated until as recently as 15 years ago, and has since given over to the automobile in a huge way. I believe that is an indicator that much of this urge to return to bike-friendly fantasy land could be seen as a First World thing, a luxury item where it is easy to want it when you don’t feel you need it. But the difference, as I see it is about where on the development continuum you are. China is a rapidly growing economy with a huge demand for western conveniences. In time they will want to be less dependent on fossil fuels and want a return to bicycle-scale transport. What “First Worlders” have in spades is the opportunity to become more flexible and less dependent. Bike lanes in places like the US could be like Social Yoga, bringing flexability back to a too-rigid frame.

Aggro Culture

In my small part of the world the bike world is dominated by “racer types”. They are nice folks and all. You know, some of my best friends wear spandex bibs! There is a kind of split in the bicycle world between “racer types” and pretty much everyone else. Everyone else rides for fitness or for enjoyment. Racer types ride in more of a competition mindset, and they typically ride faster (less differential between their speed and the speed of a car). Far from being the spandex mafia (though they are) the racer type is a good fit when you lack bike infrastructure. That physical and mental profile can get you comfortable with sharing roads that lack even the most basic bike facilities, like a shoulder with painted line. In areas with real bicycle infrastructure the rider is able to ride in a more relaxed fashion, in normal clothes, at a more moderate pace. The bicyclists we see in Amsterdam, or Copenhagen, or Montreal for that matter, don’t have to duke it out with inattentive drivers on their commute. The “barrier to entry” is much lower, and in the best cases the barrier is actually higher for automobiles. As opposed to some cases where there is a “chicken or egg” paradox, in transit there is no paradox. The transit follows the path of least resistance. The best infrastructure provides the least resistance. If we had throngs of square-peg dorks on Dutch Bikes clogging up secondary roads it would be obvious, but in the case of suburban New England, the bikes are the effect, not the cause.

Back to the Future

To tie back in with the previous post: In central Connecticut, I think that the pessimism over Fastrak is based on lack of experience with successful transit projects. We have a popular rail-to-trail system that recreational bicyclists love, but it does not act as a commuter route for most users. That is recreation infrastructure (linear park) but it is a bad example for a commuter solution. The target for Fastrak is getting people into Hartford for work or entertainment, and then home safely. As the Capitol of Connecticut, and one of the most commuter-intensive cities I have ever been around, there is hope that demand for a better/cheaper solution to local transportation should be a winner. The on-the-books population of Hartford is roughly 125,000, but the “daytime” work week population gain is anywhere from 70,000 and up depending on your data source. A city that bloats from 125,000 to 200,000 in the morning and then deflates by 6pm. That is a commuter rich environment, and an option poor environment.

One of the weirdest arguments is that nobody will use infrastructure. Every example seems to point in the opposite direction. We have Metro North rail system linking the shoreline from New Haven to NYC and beyond. It is positively clogged with riders, and any increase in capacity is filled in short order. We have rail-to-trail and greenway projects that are again, filled to the brim with walkers, bikers, strollers, birders, and if you want to observe the Yeti-like rollerblade, that’s where you go. The same for State Park infrastructure, rivers with fishing and swimming, and boating opportunities, and infrastructure of their own. So we can assume that if you build it, people use it. Just as in those scenarios we can facilitate that use, just as we have done by connecting hundreds of thousands of rural residents to highways and malls with vast networks of solid two-lane. Nobody is asking for infrastructure at that level, but the scale shows how resources are allocated to support a single mode of transportation.

Bicycle Thoughts in Deep Winter

The winter of 2012 was a wonderful aberration. In most of New England it was the “winter without a winter”. While some people remember the lack of skiing, skating, ice fishing, or snow plowing, my memories involve bicycles. Not the lack of bicycles, but the amazing gift of a winter bicycling season. Unseasonably warm temps meant that I was taking rides around town in January, and not covering every inch of exposed skin against frostbite-inducing winds.

This winter, not so much. It has been business as usual with heavy snows, cold arctic-born winds, and our favorite form of frosty excitement: Wintry Mix! If it is, say, 37F and raining, and maybe some ice, sleet, snow, or other unknown matter is along for the ride, you’ve got Wintry Mix. Actually it is formal slang for “crappiest of winter weather” and can mean anything from a foot of ice nuggets to rain showers onto frozen ground at 19F… black ice machine weather. As a result there has been less time for riding and more time for thinking about riding.

Bike Curious

On top of that I have been following the progress of CT Fastrak, the project previously known as the New Britain Busway. It has many of the markings of a successful transit diversification project. As a pure transit service concept, this particular project is a loser. It provides one mode, rubber-tire buses on a closed roadway, in an effort to provide a service that nobody asked for. At least not that we know of. I have been around Connecticut long enough, and New Britain specifically, to know that it is possible that *many* people in New Britain are big fans but don’t have a voice or don’t feel comfortable in the current discussion.

There is a silver lining for some of us, tarnished as it may be: the southern half of the Fastrak project includes a 5 mile bike/pedestrian path. That solves a problem for me by eliminating one of the worst sections of my bike-to-work route. As usual, it creates another problem by dumping me in a residential area with zero bike infrastructure. That is where I would have been anyhow, but the idea is that the bike route ends near absolutely nothing. If there is nothing but the chance to ride on the shoulder of the road and battle it out with the texting and driving crowd, it can very easily turn into a kevorkian-esque piece of social machinery.

One thing I would like to find is a commitment to development that leverages the Fastrak project. If you are a struggling city you could do worse than have your own transit corridor to jobs and commerce. Location of residential or commercial development with good access to the Fastrak system would seem to be a given. To me, that is the identifying trait of successful transit development. The city needs to buy in for it to be a success. This could mean residential development in the South End or on the East Side, with solid tie-in to Fastrak.

I need to see more about mayor Tim O’Brien’s planning vision before resolving that question. I think he is doing a solid job as mayor, so maybe I need to look harder. In fact, I will. To hear the anti-busway voices, providing transit from New Britain to Hartford, Connecticut is a masterpiece of unintentional comedy. And of course, if that drives the dialogue, they could be right.

Bike Friendly

I recently had the very good fortune to attend a few events where the new direction of the Connecticut DOT has been touted, and even illustrated. The Bike Walk Connecticut membership dinner was a last minute thing, but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Bike geek stuff is usually a hit with me. On top of that I was able to see Dan Esty, the Commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP, where I am employed), speak on the topic of transit infrastructure and how great bicycles are! I have seen the same thing as part of my job, but seeing it “in the wild” was good for some perspective. Dan Esty was an infotational and positive as always. That is a compliment.

As well, there is a 600lb gorilla in most of the high-level communication about bike transit. I appreciate the enthusiasm, no doubt, but most of these presentations miss the fact that those bicycles are ridden on roads with zero bike-safety structure. You might get some painted lines, maybe even a “sharrow” or two. Might. probably not.

Bike Agnostic

Being bike-friendly at the destination is about showers and bike storage. We have had that at DEEP headquarters for a while now thanks to a few people who saw opportunity and bingo! Bike Racks! I had the good fortune to attend an awards event where a Deputy Connecticut DOT Commissioner awarded a Bronze Bicycle Friendly Business award to DEEP because of the agency’s bike-friendly policies and basic infrastructure (Bike Racks!). The DOT showed up with a great slide show on the bicycle infrastructure improvements in Connecticut. I am looking for a link to that content. It is a good example of how priorities at the top effect the actions of the agency.

One of the projects he brought up was Fastrak. I took the opportunity to ask, after the meeting broke up, “why didn’t we get the last 5 miles of bike trail on Fastrak?” Apparently the right of way was too narrow to accommodate more bike lane. I nodded and all, but I have a hard time believing it. I believe the answer, but I wonder what the prospect for the entire project is with the half measures and lack of continuity. As another attendee said “If they needed the space for cars, they would get it”.

I am happy to have a 5 mile section of bike path, so it is a net positive for me [less likely to be run down by a driver hitting 65mph on Cedar Street]. But, it would be many times more useful if Fastrak extended into Hartford. The right of way issues should be a spur in the replacement infrastructure department, but it seems to be off the radar. The challenge now will be to upgrade the roadways that extend from the ends of the bike path, giving them wider shoulders and better sightlines, and allowing more of the surrounding population to reach the trail by bike, and end up in bikeable distance to their destination. That is how you link a community to a job source, and consumers to stores, without tying them to the car as a solution..

HEBBY ROTAYSHUM!!!

fuchsprellen update:

Fuchsprellen Fever! Catch It!  Our friend Ernst shot a video at the January 3, 2013 Best Video show and it is currently experiencing “hebby rotayshum” on New Haven Cable Access…

Two videos up, and a few more in the pipeline:

https://www.youtube.com/user/fuchsprellen3000

Audio from 3 January, 2013 at Best Video now free, or best offer at:

http://fuchsprellen.bandcamp.com/

And one track from best Video, plus some archival stuff, free for the streaming at:

Coming soon: bandcamp album from 13 January at the Outer Space, Comp of the first two fuchsprellen recordings, reboot of some material from early 2012 “proto-fuchsprellen”, and perhaps a new studio/ambient piece.