Cynical Synapse

Mon, 17 Oct 2011

A Tale of Two Dysfunctional Systems

Filed under: Budget, Customer service, Detroit, Economy, Governor, Michigan, Politics, Stimulus, Transit — cynicalsynapse @ 8:17 pm

city and suburban buses in downtown Detroit

Detroit and its suburbs enjoy bus service from not one, but two dysfunctional systems. Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) buses primarily serve the city while Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) buses serve the suburbs, including forays into downtown Detroit. It’s not at all uncommon to see buses from one, the other, or both, chasing each other—even leap-frogging as one stops while another goes to the next stop. As many as half of DDOT’s buses are in the shop waiting to be fixed. Even former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick knew way back in 2004 that DDOT was a broken system. As for SMART, individual suburbs can opt out, so the system has traverse these unserved areas to connect those that are served. Declining property values left SMART underfunded by its millage, so the system plans to lay off 123 and cut or eliminate service on 36 routes.

Nine years ago, Southeast Michigan was on the cusp of a solution called the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority (DARTA). After years of negotiating and political maneuvering, the Michigan House and Senate had passed the necessary legislation. Then, in a moment of extreme self-importance and political spitefulness, the Jaba-the-Hut-esque John Engler (R) vetoed the bill mere nanoseconds before his rotundness rolled out of office as his term as governor expired. Thanks, John. The region has been paying the price ever since.

Peter Rogoff, Mayor Dave Bing, Sec. Ray LaHood, Gov. Rick Snyder

Ray LaHood, US Secretary of Transportation, was in metro Detroit today to meet with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing (D) and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) regarding transit in Southeast Michigan. During a press conference with Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff, LaHood announced $928.5 million in grants to over 300 projects nationwide. For once, Michigan faired well, snagging about 5% of the grant money. Ann Arbor will get $3.8 million, DDOT $6.8 million, and SMART almost $5 million of Michigan’s $46.7 million share to fund 16 projects.

The elephant in the room is still getting city and suburbs to put their differences aside and craft a true, workable transit solution for Southeast Michigan. Imagine how much farther along we would be if Engler hadn’t been such a jackass.
 

Well! The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Previously on Southeast Michigan transit:

Mon, 10 Oct 2011

Snyder Pulled a Romney; Wants Higher Michigan Gas Taxes After All

Filed under: Budget, Deceit, Government, Governor, Hypocrits, Michigan, Politics, Taxes — cynicalsynapse @ 2:02 pm

Southfield Freeway reopens after summer closure

Michiganians want good roads and there is no doubt a good transportation infrastructure is important to Michigan’s economy. Of course, this takes money and there’s no secret Michigan is struggling with budget deficits. Last month, a bipartisan legislative committee recommending doubling Michigan’s road funding. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) even made a propaganda film, using my tax dollars, to justify it. And now, Gov. Rick “No New Gas Tax” Snyder flip-flopped, à la Romney, and climbed on board the tax increase steam roller.

I want good roads, just like everybody else. But I’m not convinced MDOT is spending our money as wisely as they say. I get the whole Federal-State match thing, but to squander 20% on stupid stuff to get the 80% is not solving the problem. I offer Exhibit A: mile marker signs with the direction, highway designation, and, in urban areas, placed every 1-2 tenths of a mile. If someone needs to be reminded what highway they’re on and which direction they’re going every 2/10ths of a mile, they shouldn’t be driving. Even if these markers cost the same as the originals, which they don’t, the cost has skyrocketed 5 times; for no significant value. The irony is the example pictured was part of a Detroit News article warning how bad Michigan’s roads are going to get. And don’t even get me started on the project a few years ago when the replaced all of the big green signs for better night visibility. Why not replace them as they wore out or got damaged?

West Michigan variable message sign

As Exhibit B, I offer Michigan’s so-called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS), intended to facilitate traffic around greater Grand Rapids and southeast Michigan (metro Detroit). The most visible aspect of ITS are the nearly 100 variable message signs (VMS) like the one pictured, including those at Grayling and Clare for which there is no traffic congestion justification. The VMS routinely depict messages about as useful as the one pictured near Grand Rapids. With fall approaching, you can expect them to say “Don’t veer for dear.” I spend a lot of time on the road and I think I can count one one hand the number of times a VMS has assisted my travels in any meaningful way.

But ITS is more than just useless electronic signs. It includes nearly 270 closed circuit TVs, not counting the out-state ones like those in the upper peninsula, obviously with no congestion management purpose. And it includes two manned operations centers. MDOT’s website shows 3 people in the metro Detroit center, presumably a typical shift of staff that “oversees a traffic monitoring system”“. Neither these MDOT employees nor the VMS they are masters of contribute substantially to reducing congestion. At what expense are we gaining such miniscule benefit?

I-94 west to I-696 west

For Exhibit C, I offer the I-94/I-696 interchange. MDOT completely reconstructed this interchange in 2010 to the same exact specifications as existed previously. Here’s the problem with that: two lanes exit from I-94 east and west each to become four lanes of I-696 west, except the right lane becomes exit only in a quarter mile at Gratiot, a major arterial. Why didn’t MDOT add another lane to accomodate this and allow four lanes to continue past Gratiot? Gratiot’s westbound on-ramp restores the fourth lane. The same intersection was previously rebuilt, again to the same standards, in the late 1990s. So, despite changes in traffic volumes and flows, MDOT has rebuilt the I-94/I-696 interchange twice to 40-year-old (1968) design criteria.

While I could keep going on, let me finish with Exhibit D, the 30 MDOT transportation service centers across the state. This includes five in metro Detroit alone. At least MDOT plans to consolidate some service centers. I hope they reduce their seemingly large fleet of red minivans, with several to a dozen or more at each service center.

Before MDOT expects additional state revenues for road projects, they need to show they’re fiscally responsible and working smart with what they get. The additional lanes at the reworked Okemos/I-96 interchange is proof they can when they want to. Oh, and don’t use my tax dollars to lobby me about your funding.
 


 

Previously on Michigan Roads:

Fri, 23 Sep 2011

Obama Grandstands for Stimulus 2.0 Jobs Bill

Filed under: Budget, Economy, Employment, Government, Politics, President, Take action — cynicalsynapse @ 10:50 am

Obama pushing his jobs bill in Cincinatti

Pres. Barack Obama was in Cincinatti yesterday to push for passing his jobs bill, which is really just the Stimulus on diet pills. At $447 billion, Obama’s proposal is just over half the $850 billion economic stimulus package of 2009. Like the original Stimulus bill, Obama’s jobs bill focuses on infrastructure.

Behind us stands the Brent Spence Bridge. It’s located on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America. It sees about 150,000 vehicles cross over every day. And it’s in such poor condition that it has been labeled functionally obsolete. Functionally obsolete. It’s safe to drive on, but it was not designed to accommodate today’s traffic, which can stretch for a mile.

If the Brent Spence bridge is in such bad shape, why didn’t it get fixed by the original stimulus bill? Why is Obama advocating for it as part of his jobs bill? Could it be, oh, I don’t know, the bridge links House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH-8) district with Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home? Why, yes; yes it does. In his remarks, Obama said:

Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work.

will code for food

Obama’s jobs plan focuses on construction, which had 13.5% unemployment in August, compared to 9.1% overall. The the President talks about putting unemployed construction workers back to work. Unfortunately, his jobs bill won’t help the right people. Jobs grew over the last year in every construction sector except residential; they’re not the ones who build bridges. And what about all the unemployed in other industries? Less than chickenfeed for them.

Considering its questionable effect, Big Stimulus was very costly with little benefit. Unemployment was at 7.3% before enacting the stimulus bill; it’s 9.1% today. The government reports stimulus saved or added about 2.4 million jobs which means taxpayers spent $288,000 on each of them. That equates to 976 weeks (almost 19 years!) of unemployment benefits at the averge US amount of $295 per week. Seriously?

Tell your Senators and Congressperson we cannot afford Stimulus 2.0. It’s too costly and it won’t fix unemployment.
 

Previously on the stimulus bill:

Fri, 16 Sep 2011

Mission Distraction Redux: Train the Libyans

Filed under: Africa, Allies, Arab states, Budget, Global War on Terror, Government, Libyan War, Middle East, Oil, Politics — cynicalsynapse @ 9:07 am

Libyan rebels capture another city

I don’t know what the real deal is with Libya, but I’ll tell you “we” (the US/NATO) had no business there from the beginning of the uprising. Say what you want, but intervene not; until everyone looked the other way, Libya was a sovereign state. As for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), they said preventing civilian casualties was their primary purpose. So, why not NATO (or even United Nations) action regarding the thousands of casualties in Syria? A little huffing and puffing by the international community has accomplished nothing.

On the surface, Syria and Libya seem like very similar “Arab Spring” situations. There are distinct differences, however. Key US allies, in particular France and Britain, have substantial stakes in Libyan oil interests while none of the western countries have appreciable involvement in Syrian resources. Ugly as it is, that’s the simple reality of it.

volunteers receive military training in Tripoli

Since the French, especially, and British are the key stakeholders, I say let them train the Libyans in security and defense matters. Except the Brits and French want no part of supporting a new Libyan regime. Unfortunately, because we always have to have our fingers into the pie, US State Department officials are offering US assistance to Libya. From my perspective: what part of Iraq do you not realize was a distraction from the Global War on Terror? Why would you not think Libya is also a distraction?

In the Global War on Terror, which political correctness now calls “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO), the Taliban, especially in Afghanistan, has always been the enemy of concern. I believe the war in Iraq distracted us—the US—from the key fight against terrorism and allowed the Taliban to build the insurgency we are now battling. We are paying a price—in lives, dollars, and public support—for failing to keep the focus where it needed to be.

Despite such recent history, my concern is we’re about to repeat the same mistake regarding operations in Afghanistan as we did in 2003. It doesn’t matter if it’s as big as Operation Iraqi Freedom or as small as training teams for Libya. In the likely future of constrained resources, we can’t afford anything taking our eye off the ball. And in my mind, we cannot permit the Taliban, who aided and abetted the 9/11 terrorists, any appreciable powerbase in Afghanistan.
 

Previously on Libya:

Fri, 09 Sep 2011

Déjà Vu: Obama’s Jobs Plan is Just Stimulus 2.0

Filed under: Budget, Business, Congress, Economy, Employment, Government, Life, Politics, President, Stimulus — cynicalsynapse @ 5:00 pm

the new homeless

Déjà vu is the feeling of experiencing what’s going on now repeats some previous similar event or activity. President Obama’s jobs speech to Congress, in an 8 September 2011 joint sesssion, feels like that. Some other concepts that come to mind:

  • “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
    Winston Churchill
  • “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
    Henry Ford
  • “Hope is not a method.”
    Gordon R. Sullivan
  • “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
    John Heywood

The size of Obama’s proposed $447 billion jobs bill is over half that of 2009′s stimulus bill. Like its predecessor, the jobs bill includes tax cuts designed to spur private sector jobs and give working class people more take-home pay so they can spend it and create a need for more workers. It also includes money for education and infrastructure projects, just like the stimulus bill. Counterintuitively, both the stimulus and jobs bills also called for extended unemployment benefits.

Pres. Obama makes his jobs bill speech

Obama urged Congress to pass his jobs bill, pointing out it includes proposals from both parties and will be fully paid for:

There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. Everything in here is the kind of proposal that’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans—including many who sit here tonight. And everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything.

With no plan for where the bill’s nearly a half trillion dollar cost will come from, Mr. Obama tasked the bipartisan deficit reduction supercommittee to pay for jobs on top of the deficit reduction they’re already charged with. Since unemployment is now 9.1%, compared to less than 8 (7.6%) prior to 2009′s stimulus package, why does anyone think “Stimulus Lite” will work? If they do, they’re part of the Chain of Fools (meaning no disrespect to Miss Aretha).
 

Previously on the stimulus bill:

Mon, 05 Sep 2011

In Detroit: Obama’s Jobs Plan? Just Stimulus 2.0

Filed under: Budget, Detroit, Economy, Government, Politics, President, Stimulus — cynicalsynapse @ 7:31 pm

black hole

Sen. Debbie Stabinaw (D-MI) was there. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-14) led cheers for jobs. Seriously? Can anyone see Conyers cheering for anything? His speaking style is the most depressing I’ve ever seen or heard. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) rode with the President on Air Force One to Detroit. It was like a black hole of hope amidst the ruins of reality.

Obama speaking in Detroit

At a Labor Day speech in Detroit, President Obama praised unions, which isn’t a surprise considering the event he spoke at was an AFL-CIO rally. But, Obama fell back on the meme of the failed Stimulus bill:

We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding. We’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building. We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it. Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board.

So, while unemployment remains at 9.1% and there were zero jobs added to the US workforce in August, Obama’s solution is just a repeat of the ineffective Stimulus from 2008. It didn’t work then, so why would it work now?
 

Sat, 03 Sep 2011

Panetta’s Trips Home: Real Issue is Government Aircraft Costs

Filed under: Budget, Congress, Flying, Government, Hypocrits, Paradoxes, Politics, Rants — cynicalsynapse @ 2:47 pm

Panetta arrives in Iraq

Thursday, 1 September, the Los Angeles Times “broke” the story Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has flown home to California 5 times in his 9 weeks in office. No one begrudges the man his weekends to decompress and spend time with family. The article’s tone suggests insiders wonder if Panetta takes his job seriously and just how in charge is he. To clarify the significance of this, the Service Secretaries (Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force) and the Combatant Commanders report directly to him. He is second, only to the President, in the National Command Authority.

Curiously, the article fails to cite any specific allegation the Secretary’s shirking his duties. To the contrary, several official sources state Panetta is available 24/7 and taking care of business. Panetta is required to use government aircraft to ensure he has secure communications available. There’s no doubt Secretary Panetta has secure communications capability in his Monterey CA home, what some are calling the Pacific Pentagon. So that’s not the issue, nor is it Panetta himself. From the Times article:

It is common for members of Congress to fly back to their districts every weekend or so, and Panetta did so when he represented Monterey in the House from 1977 to 1993, and as CIA director, his first job in the Obama administration.

Some general arriving somewhere

For his trips home, Panetta must reimburse the Treasury for the cost of commercial coach fare. Since he’d never fly coach, why not require him to reimburse the cost of first class? I checked coach from DC to Monterey; round trip cost was $427. Panetta typically flies on a C-37b, the military version of a Gulfstream 550, which costs $3,200 an hour to operate. Flight time by C-37b between DC and Monterey is 4-1/2 hours, so each round trip is $33,280. After Panetta pays his share, taxpayers are left with the remaining $32,853 per trip cost. At the current rate, Panetta will make about 26 trips per year, taking $854,178 out of our pockets.

We all know, however, Panetta is not the only senior official who takes junkets in government aircraft. Suppose, for the sake of argument, the 21 other cabinet and cabinet-level officials make 10 trips per year equivalent to Secretary Panetta’s. In such a scenario, there’s an annual cost to taxpayers $7.75 million. There are 535 Sentators and US Representatives, which the Times article mentioned also make frequent trips home. Since travel distances are different for each, and some travel more or less frequently, let’s assume each makes the equivalent of 10 of Leon Panetta’s round trips per year. Under that assumption, total cost to the taxpayers for our elected officials to commute is $178.05 million. Ending this perk, just at this level, could cut the deficit by $186 million annually. That’s not much by deficit standards, but it’s a start and it doesn’t affect the little guy.
 

Previously on government travel costs:

Sat, 26 Mar 2011

Inconsistency, Questionable Morality Mark War in Libya

Filed under: Africa, Allies, Arab states, Budget, Government, Hypocrits, Libyan War, Military, Oil, Opportunists, Politics, President — cynicalsynapse @ 11:40 am

US F-15 crash in Libya

Operation Oddity Dawn might be a better name for US military actions in Libya instead of the Pentagon’s Operation Odyssey Dawn. The Libyan war marks an increase in US military commitment without Congressional approval. There was no message from President Obama to the American people. And yet, US military are engaged in hostile missions over Libya on a daily basis. Never mind where funds are coming from to pay for this major operation by a US fleet in Libya while under a continuing resolution. By definition, continuing resolution means funding at previous year levels and no new programs or expenses.

Beyond domestic politics and policy, why Libya? President Obama says the basis of intervention is preventing a “humanitarian threat.” But how is Libya different from Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, or even Darfur? Certainly there were or still are humanitarian threats in those places. But no international hue and cry and no international intervention. With inconsistent policy and unpredictable actions, we should not be surprised other countries view the US with suspicion and a degree of mistrust.

Qaddafi compound hit by air strike

Last time I checked, Libya was a sovereign state; a full member state of the United Nations. Whether you like Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi or not—and I don’t—he is recognized as head of state. Clearly, the popular uprisings—revolution—is strictly an internal matter. There is no legitimate basis for the UN to sanction military action against the Libyan regime absent some threat to the international community.

At best, the “humanitarian threat” is a selectively applied rationale for attacking Libyan forces. The as-yet nebulous mission morphed from establishing a no-fly zone to attacking Libyan ground forces to regime change. Those are all questionable escalations of force or end state. Consider, also, the disproportionate use of force in attacking ground troops with jet combat aircraft and precision guided munitions.

NATO air strike in Libya

So, why did a western coalition come together so quickly? Simply put, Western Europe has a lot of business interests in Libya and there’s a lot of oil there. And what of the driving force behind the UN resolution on Libya? It seems the Arab League is not actively involved in the no-fly zone. It is more likely using Western forces to its own ends.

Here’s the real question: will Libya be better off without Qaddafi? Will the world?

Tue, 15 Mar 2011

Some Things Don’t Get Better With Age

Filed under: Behavior, Budget, Congress, Government, Politics, President, Rants — cynicalsynapse @ 8:09 pm

Twilight Zone

Like politics. When I was 18, I was idealistic and relished the right to vote. I considered myself a supporter of one of the major parties at that time, although I’ve never been a member of any party.

After the first couple of presidential elections, I began to cast my vote more on the basis of the candidate I thought was the lesser of two evils. That was the end of any semblance of party allegiance, although I still tend to identify with one over the other. And I’ve always been opposed to straight party ticket. The vote all one party lever/box/chad/radio button simply panders to laziness and facilitates thoughtless lack of reasoning on the issues of the day so people can say they voted. A straight ticket vote is like a plebiscite in a dictatorship; there’s no real choice there.

Candidate Obama was not my choice for president in 2008. In fact, most of the candidates raised my ire by dissing Michigan. Nonetheless, I never expected the divisiveness and extreme partisanship that followed Mr. Obama’s inauguration. It seems politicians, and those who consider themselves political pundits, have lost all sense of civility. They refuse to compromise, or even discuss matters, with the other side, simply because.

Pig putting on lipstick

Before the elections in 2010, it was Democrats Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who were arrogant as hell and did whatever they please. Now it’s Republicans stonewalling everything based on the “will of the people.” Wake up! We voted for change (except in Michigan) because we were tired of politics as usual and failure to deliver. What did we get? A pig with lipstick. We’re halfway through the fiscal year and there is no sign of an honest-to-goodness effort to sponsor and pass any appropriations bills, one of Congress’ key Constitutional obligations.

Lest you all consider this is a strictly US phenomenon consider, and all of my rant just to introduce, I Wish by Uncommon Sense:

I find it really hard to care about Canadian politics these days.

The same old parties are ranting along the same old lines about the same old things. Not a one of them offers or even wants any change to the system. Sure they gripe and moan about how “they” would do it differently, about how “they” are the only ones offering any new this or that, but the fact remains that if you look at it really hard you can see that all you need to do is change the faces, and the rants spewing forth across the house could come from any party at any time.

We don’t have political parties we have pragmatic collectives who feed, vampire like off the votes of those who they dupe into their ideological lairs. Conservatives sell their souls in the hope that their particular status-quo will be maintained, Liberal voters pant and repent at the altar of progressive reform while the Dippers don the revolutionary garb and wave the red flag of socialism. All, in the end, get exactly nothing.

Our politicians word is written in water and nailing down any ideal (other than their prime directive of “thou shall get re-elected”) is like nailing jello to the side of a battleship in a North Atlantic gale.

The best-worst thing is I can see an end to it, but it relies on the end of the entire system, which is to say a political or social or economic apocalypse the like of which has never been seen.

I imagine an Atlas Shrugged type collapse, a greatest depression, widespread social chaos spread across the entire planet. I see an unstoppable absolute and irretrievable end to the world as we know it and it think…

I wish.

Fri, 18 Feb 2011

Is Wisconsin Being Set Up as Republican Governors’ Egypt?

Filed under: Behavior, Budget, Economy, Government, Politics, Unions — cynicalsynapse @ 8:59 pm

Protestors outside Wisconsin capitol

Wisconsin public employees are protesting the bill they claim will destroy public employee unions. There are marches on the capital and the matter is very contentious. Gov. Scott Walker (R) hasn’t helped the situation, saying he’ll call out the National Guard. One cannot help but see some similarities between recent events in the Middle East and upcoming budget battles in a number of states with new Republican governors. Michigan’s Rick Snyder seeks concessions from public employees, as well.

There is much discussion—at least in Michigan—about how public employee wages and benefits compare to those in the private sector. One can cite statistics to substantiate whatever position you want. I can tell you, from personal experience, I had very good, and inexpensive, healthcare benefits while on state duty with the Michigan Army National Guard. When I became a Federal employee, my benefits were actually less than I was acustomed to in the private sector, yet entailed similar employee contributions. It sounds like great benefits for Wisconsin state workers is also the case.

Support Wisconsin workers

Still, the main stream media is painting Wisconsin’s budget bill as union-busting. Teachers, in particular, have taken up the hue and call. The fact is, the Wisconsin bill does not break unions. It places limits on pay raises, tying them to the Consumer Price Index, but doesn’t affect most other collective bargaining topics. Calling the bill anti-union is disingenuous and fails to recognize the other side of the coin.

Gov. Walker promised no furloughs and to not lay off 6,000 state workers if the bill passes. Seems like a pretty fair deal to me. The reality is Wisconsin has a structural deficit that needs to be addressed one way or another. There are only 3 options: increase revenues to cover expenses (raise taxes and/or fees), reduce employee expenses (concessions), or cut costs (employee layoffs).

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