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The bright side of ineptitude PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 17 May 2017 20:20

The incompetence that is on such vivid display in the White House is worrisome—the people in charge of an entire branch of the government of the most powerful nation in the world are supposed to know what they’re doing. There is a bright side, however: The bumbling of the Trump presidency has in a number of instances saved the country from policy and budget proposals that would be harmful if adopted.

Good examples are the Trump administration’s fizzled-out threats to the Great Lakes.

Trump and his budget team called on Congress to kill the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and the NOAA Sea Grant program by denying them funding in the federal budget. The funding cuts were among many pushed in a strategy to free up federal money for building the wall on the Mexican border and other Trump priorities.

But the Republican-controlled Congress had no problem rejecting the deal offered by the self-proclaimed king of negotiators and author of the self-aggrandizing book “The Art of the Deal.”

Funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, which administers the Great Lakes program, and Sea Grant was approved at about the same level as 2016. No money was included in the budget passed by Congress for construction of the border wall. Few of the Trump significant budget proposals of any kind made it through Congress.

It is possible that the administration functionaries who drafted the cuts that threatened the lakes had no idea what the targeted programs mean to the Great Lakes. Maybe it was enough for them just to know that they involve science, a subject of scorn in the Trump campaign. 

The GLRI has worked with documented success to restore Great Lakes damaged by industrial pollution and prevent catastrophic degradation of water quality by explosive algae growth and invasive species. 

Did the staffers who put together what the Trump administration named “The America First Budget” even know that the Great Lakes provide drinking water for 35 million Americans, support 1.5 million American jobs in tourism, boating and fishing and contribute $5 trillion a year to America’s economy?

Sea Grant is but a small piece of NOAA, so the administration budget drafters might not have taken the trouble to find out what it does before they decided to stop funding it. With a national network of 33 colleges and universities, Sea Grant fosters research, training and projects aimed at the conservation and practical use of ocean coastal waters and the Great Lakes. Its research has been particularly important to commercial and sport fishing, but its benefits extend well beyond that.

The Wisconsin Sea Grant program, managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was the first in the Great Lakes. Its work has touched Ozaukee County and its Lake Michigan port, Port Washington, in a number of ways, including identification of shipwrecks lying off the county coast for the proposed NOAA sanctuary.

Sea Grant provides training and technical support for the Clean Marina initiative. The Port Washington Marina was one of the first to qualify for the program, which protects the local aquatic environment and adds appeal to the marina in attracting slip renters.

Sea Grant’s impact on Port Washington is evident also in the beach safety measures recommended by Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, which have been adopted in the rescue devices and explanatory signs provided here. 

Also thanks to Sea Grant, rip current detectors are in place in Port Washington to address the rough-water phenomenon that claims more lives in the Great Lakes region than tornados, lightning and floods and was a factor in the drowning of a local teenager five years ago.

Sea Grant and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative have dodged fatal bullets, but will surely be vulnerable in the future. While the country certainly needs a better functioning executive branch, it would be best for the Great Lakes if Trump and company don’t get any more competent at getting misguided budget cuts through Congress in time for the next budget cycle.

Wise gas tax words from on high PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 10 May 2017 21:26

A voice of reason on the subject of America’s transportation needs was heard last week. The voice belonged to Donald Trump. 

Yes, that Trump, the president of the United States. Unlike some of his more colorful utterances, this one seemed intended to be taken seriously, and it should be, especially by Congress.

Trump said the federal gasoline tax should be raised. He put out the idea in an interview with Bloomberg News as a way to help fund his $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

Trump seems to get it about road funding. The gas tax is a simple and effective means already in place to raise money to fix the country’s woefully neglected highways and bridges. It just needs to bring in more money.

During the same week the president showed his grasp of the transportation funding issue, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker again displayed his obtuseness on the matter by rejecting a plan by legislators of his own Republican party to address the state’s road crisis by increasing the fuel tax.

Deteriorated roads, besides endangering users and increasing the cost of vehicle ownership, are a drag on the economy. Twenty-one states have countered this since 2013 by increasing their fuel taxes. Just last week, California increased its gas tax by $5 billion a year to help sustain the best performing state economy in the nation.

Meanwhile, with the governor rejecting a restrained fuel tax increase that would have raised $200 million a year, Wisconsin remains stuck with a huge road maintenance and building backlog and no plan to deal with it.

The federal fuel tax of 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel fuel has remained at this level for the past 20 years. With inflation and vehicles getting more miles per gallon, fuel tax revenue is diminishing when its need is increasing.

The result is highway conditions that get worse by the year. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, which gave the highway system of the world’s richest nation a D grade, the deteriorated state of roads cost the U.S. $100 billion in 2014 alone. The Department of Transportation estimated the current repair backlog at $90 billion.

There is no mystery, or even complexity, about the issue: Failing to restore transportation infrastructure quality to a reasonable standard costs lives and hurts the economy. Better roads are safer for drivers and passengers, make for shorter commutes and stimulate economic growth by making the shipping of goods and materials more efficient.

Assuming he doesn’t upend his sensible recommendation with a midnight tweet, Trump’s gas tax idea can be expected to resurface at some point in Congress. There it is certain to be met with resistance from those representatives who are members, as is Wisconsin’s governor, of the all-taxes-are-evil sect. 

Refusing on ideological grounds to consider raising taxes regardless of need is no service to taxpayers in any context, but it is especially contrary to progress in the case of transportation infrastructure. 

Road taxes may be the oldest of all taxes, levied for centuries as tolls and fees by advanced nations and municipalities that recognized the ability to travel as essential to promoting commerce and improving the standard of living for citizens.

Walker has been so unbending on the gas tax that Republican legislators, pressed by business interests to do something to lift the state out of its gaping highway funding hole, resorted to packaging their transportation plan in clownish wrapping paper to disguise the gas tax increase. 

Their plan would actually reduce the gas tax by 4.8 cents per gallon, but then charge the state’s 5% sales tax on gasoline sales. The net result would add 7.2 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas to be used for roads.

Road funding doesn’t have to be as complicated—or as foolish—as that. Trump is often criticized and sometimes ridiculed for oversimplifying complex government issues, but raising revenue to start upgrading transportation infrastructure really is simple for the federal and state governments.

As the man said, just raise the gas tax.

Poems written on the sky PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 20:22

A tornado cut through Port Washington like a giant chain saw in August 1964. The twister didn’t just remove roofs and topple walls, it actually cut some houses in half. That not a single person was killed or seriously injured was so hard to believe that people called it a miracle.

There was nothing miraculous, however, about what the tornado did to the trees of Port Washington. It laid waste to much of the city’s cover of shade trees. Along the western reaches of Grand Avenue in particular, it took down stands of magnificent deciduous trees, many of which dated to the 19th century, towering, thick-trunked elms, maples and oaks whose arching branches created a verdant canopy over a street bordered by stately old homes. 

Other arboreal disasters were to follow. Dutch elm disease claimed many of the tornado survivors, and in a 21st-century plague, the city’s ash forest was decimated by the emerald ash borer, with more than 500 sick trees in public spaces cut down in the last two years alone.

The presence of trees is often taken for granted, but when they’re gone their contributions to a community are starkly obvious and badly missed. Besides their seasonally evolving beauty, urban trees grace streets with shade, quiet, wind-breaks and bird life; they clean the air and emit oxygen while introducing nature into a largely man-made environment.

Port Washington has been hit hard by tree loss, but it’s fighting back with an aggressive program to restore the leaf canopy. This year the city’s Public Works Department will plant 600 trees along Port streets, even more than in the recent past when it added about 500 trees a year. The tree program is so ambitious that the city is starting its own nursery to ensure a dependable supply of a variety of tree types. 

It will take years to regrow the canopy, but even at a young age the plantings bring many of the benefits of trees to city streets. Some of the varieties in the eclectic mix are remarkably beautiful, especially the ornamental fruit trees at blossom time.

Residents of Port Washington have Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven to thank for the city’s commitment to trees. Under his aegis, the city has invested not only in thousands of trees, but in the resources needed to manage the public forest. The DPW now has crews led by two foresters to plant new trees, remove dying trees and maintain the tree stock with systematic pruning.

Not everyone is enthralled with the extent of the city’s tree program. A few critics have noted that the trees cost taxpayers a significant amount of money for their purchase, planting and upkeep. Others of a practical bent have said the trees will be a nuisance when they grow tall enough to interfere with utility wires and that the downtown trees will block commercial signs and views from second story windows.

There is some truth in all of the complaints, but the gifts of trees are worth every bit of their expense and bother.

The tree planting program will enhance residential streets more every year, but it has already brought new beauty and character to the downtown. For the first time in city history, trees were planted on both sides of Franklin Street as part of the rebuilding and streetscaping of four its blocks. Ten years later, the results are satisfying beyond expectation. The ranks of trees add texture, color and perspective to make Franklin one of the handsomest small-town commercial streets likely to be seen anywhere. When aglow with strings of white lights, the trees bring a sense of fantasy to the street at night.

“It’s just intuitive that a tree-filled space is better to be in than a space devoid of trees.” Vanden Noven said that in a news story in last week’s Ozaukee Press.

That’s a pretty good tree quote, if not quite as inspirational as what the poet Khalil Gibran said about trees: “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”

Amen to the words of both tree lovers.

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