Talking about real money

In retrospect, President Trump should have chosen his words more carefully.

Who knew, right? That the man with the silver tongue would end up hoisting himself on his own petard as it were.

If Trump, eager to show his art of the deal making acumen, had just said that he made a deal with House leaders to spend “a gazzion bazillion” dollars on infrastructure, then everything would have been hunky dory. Because we all understand that a “gazillion bazillion” is shorthand for a lot of dough-ray-me. 

But he didn’t. 

Instead, Trump boasted that he and House Democrats had agreed to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure. 

And you know what they say in the D.C. Swamp. A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

And here’s the thing. No doubt those liberal taxers and spenders in the House would be delighted to spent $2 trillion on asphalt….or on anything else for that matter. That’s what liberal taxers and spenders do. 

But somebody must have whispered in the President’s pink ear that the only thing Senate Republicans would possibly pay $2 trillion for is still more tax breaks for the rich and shameless. 

So what’s a President to do? The only thing he could do was storm into a meeting with House Democratic leaders, glare at them for a designated number of seconds, and then storm out into the Rose Garden and announce to the press that he is shocked (shocked) to discover that Nancy Pelosi uttered the words “cover up.” Thus shoving infrastructure off the table. 

Listen, Congress can build roads or it can investigate the President. It can’t do both. 

In response Pelosi suggested that Trump needs an intervention. But I’m prepared to give the Prez the benefit of a doubt on this one. I think it’s very possibly the sanest and most rational thing Trump has done to date.

Because deciding to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure without first deciding how to spend it is nuts. 

In autoAmerican political speak “infrastructure” means new roads. It doesn’t mean clean water or modern airports or high speed rail or deeper ports or any of the other things politicians mention – but aren’t serious about – when Infrastructure Week and election years roll around.

Here in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature just decided that infrastructure means throwing billions of dollars at new toll roads that will run through vast areas of rural lands sorely in need of sprawl development. We’ll be paying that bill for decades to come, even as thousands of miles of existing roadways sprout potholes like warts. 

Politicians, like kids at birthday parties, want shiny new things they can show off to the folks back home. Like new interstate interchanges and ever wider traffic-stacking stroads. They throw billions at new lane miles, thousands at existing road repairs and pennies at transit.  

The result being a prescription for autoAmerican bankruptcy.

“As of 2017, we estimate that we would need to spend $231.4 billion per year just to keep our existing road network in acceptable repair and bring the backlog of roads in poor condition into good repair over a six-year period,” says “Repair Priorities,” the latest collaborative study from Transportation For America and Taxpayer for Common Sense. “By comparison, all highway capital expenditures across all government units totaled $105.4 billion in 2015, only a portion of which goes to repair. It is significantly more expensive to rehabilitate roads that have fallen into poor repair than to preserve roads in good condition on an ongoing basis through routine pavement preservation.”

I doubt either Trump or Pelosi has read the study. And I suspect that Trump’s eyes would glaze over long before he got to the part explaining that continually prioritizing new roads over basic repair “is an ever deepening money trap. “Every new lane-mile of road costs approximately $24,000 per year to preserve in a state of good repair. By expanding roads, we are borrowing against the future.”

So I don’t really care why Trump pulled the plug on his $2 trillion pact with the Democrats. Next year is an election year and if past if prologue a lot of politicians want to peg their reelection hopes on new roads to nowhere. 

Or at least as much hot asphalt as a bazillion gazillion dollars will pay for.

The Blue-Green Algae State

Remember that scene from “Jaws” when the police chief wanted to close the beaches and the mayor said no because it would scare off the tourists?

What an amateur. The mayor could have gotten some bureaucrat to post cautionary tips for shark infested waters (1. Look out for fins…) and washed his hands of the whole thing.

Ah Memorial Day weekend. The official kickoff of summer. Millions of Floridians and visitors alike will flock to the beaches. Tens of thousands more will plunge into our clear, cool springs, or take a river dip.

Wait, is that a fin? Is that a gator’s snout? Oh no, killer Suwannee River leaping sturgeon! Cue to panic mode. Summon Chief Brody, Hooper the shark geek and Quint the great white slayer. 

Or maybe just call a bureaucrat.

At the beginning of what promises to be a long, hot summer, Florida doesn’t have a shark problem, or a gator problem or even a leaping sturgeon problem. It’s got a red tide and blue green algae problem. Forget flashing white teeth and start worrying about flesh eating bacteria.

With toxic algae already appearing up and down the St. John’s River the Florida Department of Health has issued the following….um, tips:

Avoid scummy, foamy water (duh!).

Don’t eat fish caught in said scummy, foamy water. 

Don’t let Fido drink it.

If the water isn’t foamy and scummy but the fish still looks sickly, well don’t eat that either

Don’t swim in, jet ski through, or play in….well, you know.

And if some of it accidentally gets splashed on you, be sure to wash it off right away. 

With soap and…um…water.

And that’s not all. Just in time for Memorial Day, the slumbering Environmental Protection Agency – ever a day late and a dollar short – has issued new guidelines for determining when blue green algae has gotten too blue and green to be messed with. 

“With Memorial Day and summer vacations around the corner, EPA is providing this information to help Americans know when it is safe to swim and play near the water,” says an EPA bulletin.

But remember, this is Trump’s EPA. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the new thresholds are – dare we say? – “liberal” enough to please even the skittish mayor of Amity.

“We are very disappointed by the EPA’s decision to recommend criteria for toxic algae that are far less protective” than limits that were recommended in a 2016 EPA draft but never adopted.

This from Jason Totoiu, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity: “Dangerous cyanotoxins threaten our state’s families, waters and wildlife,” he told the Ft. Myers News Press. “Referring to the EPA guidelines, he added, “we expected better and we will be petitioning the state, which is well aware of the crisis before us, to adopt more stringent water quality criteria for toxic algae in Florida’s waters.”

What, and scare off the tourists?

Not to make light of all of this, but we’ve seen this coming. We saw it coming when Rick Scott became governor and proceeded to turn the Department of Environmental Protection into the Department of Environmental Whatever. When he gutted the water management districts and fired the scientists and put the polluters in charge of protection. When Donald Trump started undoing every Obama-era environmental protection reg he could get his tiny hands on. When we turned Lake Okeechobee into an open sewer. When we began dumping vast quantities of toxic gunk and sewage sludges into the St. John’s. When dolphins started going belly up in the Indian River Lagoon. When the red tide stopped becoming a Gulf Coast problem and started creeping up and down the Atlantic side. 

We saw it coming and we kept electing and re-electing the politicians who were letting it happen. 

So by all means, let’s stay out of the foamy, scummy water this summer. It’ll all clear up by January, or February at the latest. And now that Red Tide Rick has been safely packed away to the D.C. Swamp, things will be fine back here in the Blue-Green Algae State.

 

Ron’s hot asphalt folly

It’s never too soon to start working on the legacy thing.

I had rather hoped that Gov. Ron DeSantis would carry on the legacy of fellow Republican Claude Kirk. Instead he has opted to emulate Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. A Democrat.

Yeah, I know, Kirk was a bit of an eccentric, even a loose cannon. But he was also Florida’s first real environmental governor. 

In his biography “Claude Kirk and the Politics of Confrontation,” Edmund F. Kallina Jr. writes that Kirk “gave impetus to the environmental movement in Florida. Before his election environmentalism was anathema to all but a few politicians….Kirk personally led a crusade that made environmental protection a popular issue.”

Kirk brought Nat Reed – a visionary Florida conservationists – to Tallahassee to help shape state environmental policy. He opposed construction of a massive jetport in the Everglades. Heck, years after Kirk left office, he traveled around the state arguing for normalized relations with Cuba – if only to get major polluter Big Sugar out of the Everglades and back to the island paradise where it came from. 

But DeSantis hasn’t got the sand to be a Claude Kirk. Far better to emulate Florida’s turn-of-the-20th century “open for business” Gov. Broward. 

Broward was also a colorful boat rocker. Hell, he used to run guns to Cuba. But unlike Kirk, Broward was a graduate of the school of Florida politics that deems extremism in the defense of growth, growth and more growth never quite extreme enough. 

Case in point: When Henry Flagler was building his railroad up and down the east coast of Florida, he left an inconvenient problem behind up north – namely a wife who had been committed to an asylum.

Flagler wanted a divorce, but Florida law didn’t allow divorce on the grounds of mental health. That is until an accommodating Legislature, in 1901, passed a law declaring that “incurable insanity in either husband or wife shall be a ground for dissolution” of marriage.

As a state legislator, Broward voted for the “Flagler divorce bill.” But, really, he was only kidding, as Diane Roberts points out in her terrific Florida book “Dream State.”

After Flagler secured his divorce, Broward became governor. And then, as Roberts writes, Broward had Flagler’s mental health loophole repealed “with a maximum of righteous table-whacking and rococo speeches from legislators about the sanctity of marriage.“

But no question Florida was open for business under our home-grown Napoleon. 

If playing divorce lawyer for robber barons was his only offense, Broward might be forgiven. But it wasn’t. Instead, he was the governor who began in earnest the ditching, dredging and diking of the Florida Everglades in an attempt to turn all of that worthless swamp into productive farms, towns and cities. “Water will run downhill,” was Broward’s battle cry, as he tried to drain the Glades downhill into the Atlantic Ocean. 

“The water used to rule,” Roberts writes of Broward’s legacy, “now men with dredging machines and dynamite would rule.”

More than a century later we taxpayers are still paying for Napoleon’s folly – spending untold billions of dollars trying to restore the some semblance of natural hydraulic flow and function to the gutted Glades. 

So what has all of this to do with Gov. DeSantis? Well, his carefully cultivated a Teddy Roosevelt Republican image was shredded all to hell when our new governor signed a bill authorizing major new turnpike construction up and down the western half of the Florida peninsula. 

These days it isn’t just water, but asphalt that determines Florida’s destiny. And just as Broward went to bat for Flagler when he wanted a quicky divorce, DeSantis is helping out millionaire and billionaires who own thousands of acres of undeveloped land in rural Florida – land that will eventually become prime developable real estate after we taxpayers pay to connect them with new hot asphalt. 

“I think we need new roads in Florida to get around,” DeSantis said right before he signed the turnpike extension bill. 

Like Broward, DeSantis was only kidding. He really meant to say that we need new roads to create new sprawl and generate new profits for land speculators and developers. That expansion will expose vast areas of heretofore protected natural springs, rivers and wetlands to dredge and fill development. 

Oh, but DeSantis did bolster his environmental creds a tad by vetoing a legislative ban on local governments outlawing disposable plastic straws. Big whup. 

While we’re on the subject of legacies, I predict that going forward DeSantis will no longer draw favorable comparisons to Teddy Roosevelt, but rather to another, less estimable, Republican, Herbert Hoover. 

Hoover’s name graces the dike that turned the once wild and free Lake Okeecobee into a festering cesspool. That’s another colossal ecological mistake that we Floridians are still throwing money at and trying to rectify more than a century later. 

Republicans named the Florida Turnpike after Ronald Reagan. Please, oh please, let’s name these expansions the Ron DeSantis Freeway, so our descendants will know who to blame long after we are dead and the damage has been well and truly done.  

What a wonderful world

In retrospect, I blame IGY.

Or rather Donald Fagen did. And who knew that my favorite jazz-rock fusion guy would also turn out to be my own generation’s Nostradamus? 

Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” was the lead cut in his 1982 solo album “The Night Fly.” And 37 years later his dry irony still resonates. 

Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” promised us an amazing future secured by:

A just machine to make big decisions

Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision

We’ll be clean when their work is done

We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be

What a glorious time to be free.”

I read of Fagen’s inspiration on Wikipedia: “The title refers to the “International Geophysical Year,” an event that ran from July 1957 to December 1958. The I.G.Y. was an international scientific project promoting collaboration among the world’s scientists. Fagen’s lyrics sarcastically discuss the widespread optimistic vision of the future at that time, including futuristic concepts such as solar-powered cities, a transatlantic tunnel, permanent space stations, and spandex jackets. The song…offers a humorous critique on the naïveté of postwar optimism in America…”

And, listen, Fagen prophesied even before “just” machines began to transform our world with a vengeance. Back when the Moog Synthesizer was deemed the height of technological wizardry. The Internet was a Pentagon wet dream. The personal phone was the stuff of Dick Tracy. 

Oh, we grocked the menace of HAL, thanks to “2001, A Space Odyssey.” But Facebook? 

Still, the totality of all of the above has surely delivered us to the promised land. 

Except, it turns out, that those programmer fellows had less compassion and more warped vision (I’m looking at you, Mark Zuckerberg) than we thought. Who knew social media would hijack our democracy, debase our culture and turn us all against each other? Or that we would devolve into a meaner, uglier, more self-absorbed species once “just” machines began to make our big decisions for us?

We don’t trust government. We hate the news media. We fear “the other”…anyone who doesn’t worship our idea of god or look, think and talk like we do. We huddle over our screens and wage virtual war on each other in splendid anonymity. We want to build walls and arm ourselves, and we are ready to follow any tinhorn despot (I’m looking at you, the other Donald) who assures us that our hatreds and prejudices are right and just. 

What a wonderful world. How glorious to be free. And so easy to be clean at the end of the work day with robots doing more and more of the work.

I know someone – I’m sure we all do – who begins her day bidding Google good morning and getting its disembodied voice to tell her the news and weather and then turn on her television to the preferred channel. We’ve even made the remote control superfluous. How liberating is that? 

True, we can’t vouch for the veracity of the information we’re being spoon fed. But in this Post-Truth Age all “facts” are presumed equal whether factual or not, so no matter. 

Just machines now fly our planes, and only rarely crash them as pilots sit helpless to intervene. Just machines propel us down over-engineered highways with such excess power and at such velocity that we are happy to slaughter thousands of our fellow Americans each year just preserve our freedom of the road. Just machines have become so efficient and accessible that school children are sacrificed en masse on the alter of our sacred right to bear arms. Just machines track our purchasing, political and other perverse preferences. All the better to sell us the items, ideologies and idiocies that we had no idea we wanted. 

Algorithms tell us who and what we are. Facial and voice recognition technologies watch over us. Can’t remember all your passwords? There’s an app for that.

And we have long passed the point of no return on our journey to this brave new world. There may have been a time when we could probably survive a prolonged loss of electricity and internet access. But no more. Not now that just machines run our power plants, control our traffic control, our food distribution system and virtually every other sustaining facet of civilization. How long would the power have to be out before it all collapses into anarchy? Before the most machine-dependent – and not coincidently – heavily armed people in the history of human civilization descend into savagery?

Fagen’s prophecy is our reality.

Standing tough under stars and stripes

We can tell

This dream’s in sight

You’ve got to admit it

At this point in time that it’s clear

The future looks bright

On that train all graphite and glitter

Undersea by rail

Ninety minutes from NewYork to Paris

Well by seventy-six we’ll be A.O.K…

Get your ticket to that wheel in space

While there’s time

The fix is in

You’ll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky

You know we’ve got to win

Here at home we’ll play in the city

Powered by the sun

Perfect weather for a streamlined world

There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this’ll be

What a glorious time to be free

But take heart. Perhaps the real source of our collective discontent is simply that we do not yet possess that fantastical undersea railway IGY promised. Nor even Elton Musk’s more modest mag-lev tunnel. And, listen, those damned transatlantic flights are sooo long and cramped and boring and soul killing. 

But just imagine…90 minutes to Paris. What a wonderful world it will be then. 

autoAmerican Anarchy

Back when I was a young editorial writer, I produced a regular feature called “Gunshine State.” Just a periodic roundup of the latest incidents of, um, gunplay in our Blued Steel State. Somehow I never ran out of material. 

But I have lately come to believe that the truest form of American anarchy plays itself out every day on streets and highways that we purposely design to facilitate fast and careless driving – at the expense of thousands of human lives each year. 

So I’ve decided to revert to my early editorial writing form, sort of. Here’s “autoAmerican Anarchy: Edition 1.”

  •  Phoenix, Az., may be autoAmerica’s deadliest city, with 92 pedestrian fatalities in 2017 alone. Nonetheless the city council there recently rejected a modest “Vision Zero” proposal aimed at saving a few lives. “Proponents of this insane scheme want to … make driving as difficult as possible and slowly force people out of their cars”  by “slowing traffic to a crawl.” This from councilman Sal DiCiccio, who led the charge to preserve fast driving. He went on to blame potholes for much of the carnage on Phoenix streets. On the plus side, “Potholes Kill” would certainly make a great bumper sticker.
  • In Houston a deputy who was working the scene of a fatal traffic accident was injured by a driver who was subsequently charged with DUI. Then a second deputy working the same scene was hit and injured…by the inebriated twin brother of the guy who injured the first deputy.
  • In Melbourne, Fl., a 100-year old man was driving his handicapped-equipped van when he spotted a family of sandhill cranes crossing the road. Swerving to avoid them, the man was killed when he collided with another car. “In my 25 years, I’ve heard of people stopping for turtles or cows, but I’ve never seen this, a fatality involving sandhill cranes,” said Lt. Kim Montes, a spokeswoman for the Florida Highway Patrol, told USA Today.
  • And just down the road, in Broward County, a man standing in the median of a busy intersection was reportedly hit by no fewer than three cars. He died and all three drivers fled the scene of the….oops, I almost called it an “accident.”  
  • Dave Salovesh, 54, a longtime bicycle commuter and traffic safety advocate in Washington, D.C. , was struck and killed by the driver of a stolen van. I never knew him as anything but a bicycle advocate,” said Rudi Riet, a member of Salovesh’s bicycling coffee club. “He lived and breathed making the streets safe.”
  • An angry young man in Sunnyvale, Ca., plowed his car into a group of pedestrians, injuring eight people. Police later said the act was intentional because the suspect thought some of the pedestrians looked like Muslims. 
  • In Portland, Or., an impatient driver decided to use a right hand bike lane to get around the stopped car in front of him. In the process he hit a six year old girl in the crosswalk. “Before crossing, the child’s mother had activated the lights for the marked crosswalk, which is what caused the other cars to stop,” reports Willamette Week, “…the mother was not hit, and the vehicle fled the scene without stopping.”
  • Abdul Seck, 31, was walking to a store in Washington, D.C. when he was struck and killed by a vehicle that had been rammed by a driver who had just run two stop signs. Friends and neighbors began a fundraising effort to send Seck’s body back to Senegal, the land of his birth, for burial. Seck’s friend, Ebony Munnerlyn, told WTOP “He had great things that he wanted to do for himself and now his family has to bury their son, which is something that a parent should never have to do.” 
  • Galina Alterman became the 12th person to die in vehicle crashes in San Francisco this year when she was struck in crosswalk by a truck whose driver told police he hadn’t seen her. “I’m shedding a lot of tears for all the needless deaths we’re experiencing,” said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk SF, a pedestrian safety group, told the San Francisco Chronicle. She added “You just have to wonder how does a human not see another human in a crosswalk
  • The snow is melting in Minnesota, which means that prime cyclist and pedestrian hunting season is about to begin. Seven cyclists were killed in Minneapolis last year alone. Now that spring is here, John Elder, spokesman for the city’s police department, told the Star Tribune: “We have to be situationally aware and protect ourselves and each other. It’s unfortunate that drivers get angry at bikes. We have to share the road.”
  • In Salem, Org., local cycling activist David Fox took it on himself to post two official looking signs proclaiming that cyclists legally “may use full lane.” But he took them down after learning that the city would do so if he didn’t. “I think people misinterpret the law, if they even know what the law is,” Fox told the Statesman Journal. “It’s not just drivers, it’s cyclists, too. I think the majority of cyclists believe they’re supposed to ride next to all the parked cars, which is really dangerous.”9A703624-5E73-437E-BD32-0A48FFD67407

And finally

  • Cycling activists in several other cities, have begun to line up red Solo cups, fastened with tape on their bottoms, along the painted lines that separate bike lanes from traffic lanes. This to get the attention of motorists and to make the case for some sort of physical barrier between cyclists and cars. Cyclists Sam Balto told Bike Portland “I want these cups to become planters, cement bollards — things that actually prevent people form swerving into bike lanes and force drivers to pay more attention.”AD6DB6BC-BF7E-4FC4-8424-1174DB765467

Be careful out there….it’s a jungle. 

 

We’re killing our rivers

When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe he reportedly said “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

This because Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped fuel popular sentiment to free the slaves.

Too bad she couldn’t likewise free Florida’s St. Johns River.

“The wild untouched banks are beautiful but the new settlements generally succeed in destroying all Nature’s beauty, and give you only leafless, girdled trees, blackened stumps and naked white sand in return,” Stowe, who kept a winter home on the river, lamented in her 1873 book “Palmetto Leaves.”

Flash forward nearly a century and a half, and the 233-mile St. Johns, Florida’s only EPA-designated American Heritage River, is also one of its most endangered. 

“YUK!  Look at my river today.  First time I’ve seen the entire river green. Driving over the Palatka bridge is scary…Hey Gov. DeSantis we need to do something.”

That Facebook post was made last week by Sam Carr, who lives on the river south of Palatka. In a follow up post a few days later, Carr added “The river is still sick…I have come to the conclusion that the dumping of sludge on the headwaters of the SJR is the major difference..

“I call it the Gov. Rick Scott Memorial Algae Bloom.”

Carr knows the St. Johns like an old friend. He fishes it almost daily and has explored its length, tracing the journeys of his hero, William Bartram, the Quaker naturalist whose popular writings and drawings introduced the St. Johns to the rest of the world.

And Carr’s criticism of now U.S. Sen. Scott is not misplaced. During his time as governor Scott gutted funding and staffing for Florida’s water management districts. And he turned the Department of Environmental Protection from a watchdog to a lap dog.

In the meantime, South Florida was running out of places to dump its sewage sludge. So in the past decade nearly 90,000 tons of the stuff has been trucked north and spread on agricultural lands around the headwaters of the St. Johns. 

“What happens, when you dump it in the headwaters, it all flows this direction,” Lisa Rinaman, of St. Johns Riverkeepers, said in a recent PBS interview. “And then there’s more pollution added on to it due to septic tanks in areas, agricultural runoff, urban fertilizers…”

Unfortunately the St. Johns is not alone in its environmental distress. Every time there’s a raw sewage spill in Valdosta, Ga. – which occurs with distressing frequently – the Suwannee River gets a little sicker. The mighty Apalachicola is being robbed of the fresh water it needs to keep its celebrated oyster beds healthy. The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are poisoned whenever the cesspool formerly known as Lake Okeechobee is lowered to keep its levies from bursting. The Ocklawaha, once a major source of fresh water for the St. Johns, is impounded for the enjoyment of bass fisherman.  

Coming off a terrible year for red tides and blue green algae, Gov. DeSantis is promising to fix all of this. But the Florida Legislature just adjourned without doing anything to retard the pollution sources that are tainting our waters from panhandle to keys.

“It’s really bad and it’s gonna get worse” when summer begins to heat the river up, says Janice Brown-Stallings, who lives on the St. John’s in Welaka. It’s having an “awful impact on fishermen, crabbers, boaters, ecotourism and locals living along the river. Don’t eat anything from the river and certainly don’t swim or ski.”

Where is Harriett Beecher Stowe when Florida needs her?

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. This column was published in The Sun on May 5.