Like many other observers, we have found the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group to have made a convincing case for a fresh look at the feasibility of the California high-speed rail project. The group's report was issued as eleven House Democrats – eight from California – joined an earlier request from twelve Republican House members for an independent GAO investigation of the embattled project.
That is why we find Governor Brown’s reaction – that the peer reviewers' report "does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change of course” – to be incomprehensible. Either the governor issued the statement without the benefit of having read the report, or else he is so ideologically committed to the project that he refuses to look the facts in the face.
Precisely which conclusions of the report are not compelling enough, the governor’s spokesman has not made clear. Is it the statement that "the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments" and therefore "the project as it is currently planned is not financially feasible"?
Is it the reviewers' assertion that "the [travel] forecasts have not been subject to external and public review" and, absent such an open examination, “they are simply unverifiable from our point of view"?
Could it be their statement that "the ICS [Initial Construction Section] has no independent utility other than as a possible temporary re-routing of the Amtrak-operated San Joaquin service...before an IOS [Initial Operating Segment] is opened"?
Or, is it the Panel's conclusion that "...moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California?"
To us, the findings seem at least deserving of a respectful consideration.
But the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is not ready to concede anything. Here is the opening paragraph of its response:
"While some of the recommendations in the Peer Review Group report merit consideration, by and large this report is deeply flawed, in some areas misleading and its conclusions are unfounded. ...Although some high-speed rail experience exists among Peer Review Panel members, this report suffers from a lack of appreciation of how high-speed rail systems have been constructed throughout the world, makes unrealistic and unsubstantiated assumptions about private sector involvement in such systems and ignores or misconstrues the legal requirements that govern construction of the high speed rail program in California."
It is not our intention to delve in detail into the Authority's response and judge the soundness of its arguments. No doubt, the CHSRA response will come under a detailed examination by the Authority’s critics in the days ahead. Suffice it to say that, having carefully and with an open mind examined the Authority’s rambling nine-page response, we find that it did not satisfactorily rebut the peer group’s central point: that it is not prudent, nor "financially feasible," to proceed with the $6 billion dollar rail project in the Central Valley (including $2.7 billion in Proposition 1A bonds) in the absence of any identifiable source of funding with which to complete even the Initial Operating Segment. To do so, would be to expose the state to the risk of being stuck, perhaps for many years, with a rail segment unconnected to major urban areas and unable to generate sufficient ridership to operate without a significant state subsidy.
The Authority's lashing out at the peer reviewers and the dismissive tone of its response suggest that it has already made up its mind to stay the course and circle the wagons. That is not a wise posture to assume in the face of an already skeptical state legislature.
As befits this time of year, our thoughts turn to the events that await us in the days ahead. Putting aside the major imponderable — the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections that inevitably will impact the federal transportation program —what can the transportation community expect in 2012? Will Congress muster the will to enact a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization? Or will the legislation fall victim to election year paralysis? What other significant transportation-related developments lie ahead in the new year? Here are our speculations as we gaze into our somewhat clouded crystal ball.
Will Congress enact a multi-year transportation bill?
In 2011, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee passed a bipartisan two-year surface transportation bill (MAP-21) and the Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure’s safety, freight and research components. But at the end of the year, the bill’s titles dealing with public transportation, intercity passenger rail and financing were still tied up in their respective committees (Banking, Commerce and Finance). What’s more, the Senate bill ended up $12 billion short of meeting the $109 billion mark set by the EPW Committee as necessary to maintain the current level of funding plus inflation.
Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has yet to publicly identify the offsets needed to cover the final $12 billion of the bill’s cost. Repeated assurances by EPW committee chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that the necessary "pay fors" have been found, has met with widespread skepticism. "I’ll believe it when I see it" has been a typical reaction among congressional watchers. With the Republicans opposed to using "gimmicks" (Sen. Orrin Hatch’s words) to come up with the needed money, it’s not entirely clear that the bill, as approved on the Senate floor, will contain the full $109 billion in funding.
On the House side, the fate of a multi-year bill remains equally clouded. In November, Speaker Boehner announced that he would soon unveil a combined transportation and energy bill, dubbed the "American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act" (HR 7). The bill would authorize expanded offshore gas and oil exploration and dedicate royalties from such exploration to "infrastructure repair and improvement" focused on roads and bridges.
However, questions have been raised about this approach. Critics, including Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) EPW committee's ranking member, judge the approach as problematical. They allege, along with many other critics, that the royalties the House is counting upon would fall billions of dollars short of filling the gap in the needed revenue (the gap is estimated at approximately $75-80 billion over five years). They further contend that the revenue stream from the royalties would not be available in time to fund the multi-year transportation program. What’s more, using oil royalties to pay for transportation would essentially destroy the principle of a trust fund supported by highway user fees. In sum, the House bill, if unveiled in its currently proposed form, will meet with a highly skeptical reception in the Senate.
Assuming that both reauthorization bills in some form will gain approval in February, will the two Houses be able to reconcile their widely different versions by March 31 when the current program extension is set to expire? Or will the negotiations bog down in an impasse reminiscent of the current payroll tax stalemate? Given the importance that both sides attach to enacting transportation legislation and given the desire of both sides to avoid the blame of causing an impasse, we think the odds are in favor of reaching an accommodation — probably more along the lines of the Senate two-year bill than the still vague and unfunded House five-year version. If this simply kicks the can down the road a couple of years, that may be OK with Senate Republicans. As one senior Senate Republican confidently told us, by the bill’s expiration date the Senate will be in Republican hands and "the true long-term bill will be ours to shape."
Will California lawmakers pull the plug on the high-speed train?
In 2011 Congress effectively put an end to the Administration’s high-speed rail initiative by denying any funds to the program for a second year in a row. Does the same fate await the embattled $98 billion California high-speed rail project at the hands of the state legislature in 2012?
At a December 15 congressional oversight hearing, witnesses cited a litany of reasons why the projects is a "disaster" (Rep. John Mica’s words). Among them: unrealistic assumptions concerning future funding; quixotic choice of location for the initial line section ("in a cow patch," as several lawmakers remarked); lack of evidence of any private investor interest in the project; eroding public support (nearly two-thirds of Californians would now oppose the project if given the chance, according to a recent poll); a "devastating" impact of the proposed line on local communities and farm land; unrealistic and out-of-date ridership forecasts; and lack of proper management oversight.
More recently, the project came under additional criticism. The job estimates claimed by the project’s advocates ("over one million good-paying jobs" according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) have been challenged— and acknowledged by project officials— as grossly inflated. Four local governments in the Central Valley, including the City of Bakersfield, have formally voted to oppose the project, fearing harmful effect on their communities. And agricultural interests are gearing up for a major legal battle, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But most unsettling for the project’s future is the inability of its sponsors to come up with the needed funding. To complete the "Initial Operating Segment" to San Jose (or the San Fernando Valley) would require an additional $24.7 billion. To finance this construction, the California Rail Authority’s business plan calls for $4.9 billion in Proposition 1A bonds and assumes $19.8 billion in federal contributions – $7.4 billion in federal grants and $12.4 billion in the so-called Qualified Tax Credit Bonds (QTCB). But the latter assumptions came in for sharp congressional criticism as so much wishful thinking, given the bipartisan congressional refusal to appropriate funds for high-speed rail two years in a row.
Further challenges await the project early in 2012. A group of 12 congressmen led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has formally requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the project’s viability and "questionable ridership and cost projections." Also expected early in January are a critique of the Authority’s business plan by the Independent Peer Review Group and a follow-up report by the State Auditor.
Meanwhile, the governor and state legislature, are being asked by the Rail Authority to approve a $2.7 billion bond issue authorized by Proposition 1A to fund and begin construction of the initial Central Valley section of the rail line from Fresno to Bakersfield. Will they be swayed by the findings of the three respected reviewing bodies and by the increasingly negative editorial and public opinion? Or will they continue to hold on to the seductive vision of bullet trains zooming from northern to southern California in two and a half hours — however distant and uncertain that vision may be? At this point, we believe the decision could go either way. However, sharply critical reports by the Peer Review Group and the General Accountability Office could tip the scale against funding the Central Valley project.
Will tolling join the gas tax as a mainstream source of highway revenue?
With the possibility of a near-term gas tax increase "less than zero," attention has turned to alternative means of raising transportation revenue. The most prominent option appears to be tolling— and 2012 may be the year when tolling becomes accepted as a mainstream source of highway revenue.
Recent toll increases on the nation’s highways attest to their growing use (if not popularity) as revenue enhancers. In New Jersey, tolls are set to rise by 53% on the New Jersey Turnpike and by 50% on the Garden State Parkway. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also has approved substantial toll increases on bridges linking the two states. These moves have provoked Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to sponsor a "commuter protection act" that would transfer toll setting powers to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. But the Senator’s initiative does not appear to have obtained much support in Congress. IBTTA, the toll industry association, has lodged strong objections, arguing that federalizing toll rate setting would encroach on the states’ jurisdiction and interfere with their ability to use tolls as a tool of infrastructure financing, and Congress appears to be listening.
A recent Reason Foundation poll has found that people are more willing to pay tolls than increased fuel taxes (by a margin of 58 to 28 percent.) Moreover, the formation of a new "U.S. Tolling Coalition" suggests a growing interest in tolling on the part of the states. Under a pilot program that allows up to three Interstate highways to be reconstructed with tolls, Virginia will add tolls along the I-95 corridor and Missouri will toll its stretch of I-70. Arizona and North Carolina have applied for the remaining slot in the pilot program. Other states are embracing tolling to finance new capacity. Washington State, for example, has begun tolling the SR-520 floating bridge over Lake Washington to help pay for its replacement. Nor is the practice of tolling confined just to a few states. All told, 35 states already depend on toll revenue to some extent.
The Tolling Coalition wants to expand the pilot program and give the states the flexibility to toll any portions of their Interstate and other federal highways, "whether for new capacity, system preservation, or reconstruction." So far, neither the Senate nor the House have agreed to relax existing prohibitions, but they are prepared to retain the current pilot program.
However, the need to reconstruct and modernize the existing Interstates which are reaching the end of their 50-year design life, combined with the necessity to expand capacity of the Interstate highway system to meet the needs of an expanding population, may soften congressional opposition to relaxing the current Interstate tolling restrictions. With the gas tax no longer able to meet the nation’s transportation investment needs, and with the concept of a VMT (vehicle-miles travel) fee still a distant vision, the year 2012 could mark a turning point in the acceptance of tolling as a serious highway revenue enhancer.
Note: the NewsBriefs can also be accessed at www.infrastructureUSA.org
A listing of all recent NewsBriefs can be found at www.innobriefs.com
A congressional oversight hearing, focused on the concerns surrounding the troubled California high-speed rail project, cast new doubts on the likelihood of the project’s political survival.
The December 15 hearing was the second of two hearings called by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to examine the Administration’s "missteps" in handling the high-speed rail program. Before a largely skeptical groups of committee members — Reps Mica (R-FL), Shuster (R-PA), Denham (R-CA), Miller (R-CA), Napolitano (D-CA), and Harris (R-MD)— two panels of witnesses offered a mixture of support and criticism concerning the project’s impact, financial feasibility and prospects for the future. The first panel comprised six California congressmen — three testifying against the project (Reps. Nunes (R), McCarthy (R) and Rohrabacher (R)), three in support of it (Reps. Cardoza (D), Costa (D) and Sanchez (D).) The second panel consisted of FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo, California Rail Authority CEO, Roelof Van Ark, local elected officials and representatives of citizen groups.
A Brief Project Overview
The proposed high-speed line, from Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego, was originally estimated to cost $43 billion in 2008 when the state’s voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure (Proposition 1A) to help finance the project. Since then, the total cost estimate for the project has more than doubled to $98.5 billion and the completion date has been pushed back by 13 years to 2033.
The "initial construction section" of 140 miles is proposed to be built in the sparsely populated Central Valley from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield. The $6 billion project is to be financed with a $3.3 billion federal contribution and $2.7 billion worth of state Proposition 1A bonds. Construction is to begin in 2012. However, to qualify as an "Initial Operating Segment" as required by the authorizing bond measure and capable of running high-speed trains, the line has to be extended by another 290 miles to San Jose (or 300 miles to the San Fernando Valley), at an additional cost of $24.7 billion.
To finance the latter construction, the California Rail Authority’s business plan calls for $4.9 billion in Proposition 1A bonds and assumes a $19.8 billion federal contribution – $7.4 billion in federal grants and $12.4 billion in the yet to be created Qualified Tax Credit Bonds (QTCB). The latter assumption came in for sharp committee criticism as wishful thinking. The bill authorizing QTCB (or TRIP) bonds, proposed by Sen. Wyden (D-OR), is not given much chance of passing in the House. Even if passed, it would only offer $1 billion for the California HSR project rather than $12.4 billion as claimed in the Authority’s business plan. Further federal high-speed rail grants are equally uncertain given the bipartisan congressional refusal to appropriate funds for high-speed rail two years in a row. In other words, the funding for the Initial Operating Segment hinges on highly questionable assumptions as to continuing federal aid.
Even more conjectural are the Authority’s funding assumptions for the subsequent phases of the project— a line extension from San Jose to the San Fernando Valley and a southern connection, to Los Angeles and Anaheim. That phase of construction according to the Authority’s business plan, would require a further federal contribution of $42.5 billion between 2021 and 2033 (plus $11 billion in private investment).
Left unstated in the Authority’s business plan, one informed observer speculated, is the secretly entertained hope that by 2015 (when the additional federal funding will be needed), the economic circumstances — and perhaps political circumstances as well — will have changed, allowing a resumption of generous federal support.
A "Boondoggle" or a "Compelling Opportunity for Our State"?
Witnesses testifying before the committee aligned along predictable fault lines. Critics of the rail project (mostly, but not all, Republicans) tended to focus on the specific weaknesses of the project: its unrealistic assumptions concerning future funding; the quixotic choice of location for the initial line section ("in a cow patch," as several lawmakers remarked); a lack of evidence of any private investor interest in the project; the eroding public support for the project (nearly two-thirds of Californians would now oppose the project if given the chance, according to a recent poll); the "devastating" impact of the proposed line on local communities and farmers; and the unrealistic and out-of-date ridership forecasts (with more passengers in 2030 predicted to board trains in Merced, a small farming community in Central Valley, than in New York’s Penn Station). Other witnesses asserted that the current project is vastly different from the one Californian voters approved in 2008; and that it is lacking proper management oversight (it is a project "of the consultants, by the consultants and for the consultants" one witness remarked).
Defenders of the project (mostly, but not all, Democrats) resorted largely to abstract arguments about the merits of building a high-speed rail system in California. They saw the project as a compelling long-term vision, as a travel alternative to congested highways and air lanes, as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and as a means of creating thousands of jobs. They argued about the difficulty and prohibitive costs of the alternative of building more highways and airports to accommodate future population growth.
Federal officials are fond of reminding us that construction of the interstate highway system also began "in a cow patch " — in that particular case, a wheat field in the middle of Kansas. But they ignore a fundamental difference between the two decisions: the interstate highway system was backed from the very start by a dedicated source of funds, thus ensuring that construction of the system would continue beyond the initial highway segment "in the middle of nowhere."
The California project has no such financial assurance. Should money for the rest of the system never materialize— as is likely to happen— the state will be stuck with a rail segment unconnected to major urban areas and unable to generate sufficient ridership to operate without a significant state subsidy. The Central Valley rail line would literally become a "Train to Nowhere" — a white elephant and a monument to wasteful government spending.
Note: the NewsBriefs can also be accessed at www.infrastructureUSA.org
A listing of all recent NewsBriefs can be found at www.innobriefs.com
The Census Bureau released their yearly population estimates today. As noted by Wendell Cox, the estimates showed signs of the South's continued leadership in population expansion. While the overall numbers of people involved are much smaller, the Dakotas, in particular North Dakota, also showed signs of growth worthy of note. According to the Census Bureau, North Dakota now has an estimated population of around 683,000, up over 11,000 in just one year. This made it the 6th fastest growing state in the nation over the past year- a notable achievement in its own right for a state more accustomed to dealing the challenge of outmigration.
However, the most interesting thing about the new estimate is that it represents a new record population for the state. There have never been more North Dakotans then there are today. The previous high count was about 680,000 way back in 1930. With the onset of the depression, the state entered a long period largely marked by periods of population decline and stagnation.
As a lifelong North Dakotan, I've occasionally found myself having difficulty coming to grips with our state's recent prosperity. North Dakotans can be a self effacing lot, and it sometimes seems that there’s a still a healthy dose of skepticism among my fellow citizens regarding our current good fortune. We’re not used to being on top like this, seeing our often ignored home highlighted in the press for its economic strength and tagged as "the state the recession forgot." For decades, we've been trying to find ways to deal with what seemed an inexorable cycle of rural decline and depopulation. While the new estimate is just a number, it does serve to break a bit of a psychological barrier for the state. We’re not just making up lost ground anymore- we’re now in uncharted territory and building beyond previous limits. It's a refreshing change.
Historians refer to the 1880s and period from 1900-1915 as the “Great Dakota Booms”. Growth was unchecked in what became North and South Dakota, and the population soared as immigrants poured into the region in search of economic opportunity. While oil has taken the lead role in place of land in this performance, it appears that our corner of the nation is in another "Great Dakota Boom" for many of the same reasons. Hopefully it will prove lasting. I, and my fellow North Dakotans will just have to learn to deal with prosperity. Call it “How North Dakota (and Matthew) Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boom”.
All in all, it's a good time to be a Nodak.
Bert Sperling just released a new list of “The Best Places to Hit Refresh” and perhaps surprisingly many are located in the much-ignored flyover states. According to the list, five cities throughout the Midwest and Great Plains perfect for those looking to start over. Their methodologies included looking at the city’s overall population, unemployment rates, rates of singles living in the city, and the types of economies that the city can call their own—from oil in the upper Great Plains to education in the eastern Midwest.
What cities grace the list and why? In fifth place, Sioux Falls, SD, with its location in a state with some of the country’s most business-friendly laws (no corporate income tax, for example), low unemployment rate (5.5%), and a singles rate that rivals some of the larger U.S. metros (19th in the nation) allows for a perfect opportunity for those looking to start over. An economy that includes a number of banks and other financial firms and excellent health care has attracted a huge growth rate in recent years.
Next on the list is a tie between two more southwestern cities: Lawton, OK and Logan, UT. Both of these locales offer low unemployment rates (5.6% and 5.7%, respectively) and a high singles rate (15.9% and 16.4%). Lawton’s economy consists mostly of the Fort Sill U.S. military base, while Logan’s boasts Utah State University as its major economic provider.
Next up is the city of Lincoln, NE whose residents enjoy the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 4.1%. The city’s economy is composed of several financial and insurance firms, a Goodyear tire factory, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln which helps to give the city a high rate of singles at 15.1%.
The second best city to start over is the northern city of Fargo, ND. Home to Microsoft Business Solutions, Fargo began its growth even before the explosion of the oil and gas industry in western North Dakota. The populace enjoys the nation’s third-lowest unemployment rate at 4.5%, while the presence of North Dakota State University and Minnesota State University at Moorhead contribute a high rate of singles (15.9%) as well as a young feel to the isolated city.
Finally, the best city to start over according to Sperling is the Midwestern college town of Iowa City, IA. The city boasts a very low unemployment rate (4.7%), a high singles rate (16.1%), and a well-educated workforce thanks to the presence of the University of Iowa. The city’s culture is positively affected by Chicago’s proximity and the university’s label as a Big Ten college, as well as a diverse student population. Iowa City is a flourishing Midwestern city with deep cultural roots that make for a great place to not only start over, but to live as well.
All of this comes at a perfect time after a University of Iowa journalism professor, Stephen Bloom, openly marginalized the state of Iowa’s populace as the “elderly waiting to die”. Sperling’s list helps to solidify Iowa (and the rest of the Midwest and Great Plains) as a hopeful place with opportunity as fertile as the soil itself.
Illinois has become famous for producing Barack Obama, but now another sort of fame is in the news. The Illinois Policy Institute has come out with a devastating report on “the state of Illinois”:
Illinois residents are fleeing the state. When people leave, they take their purchasing power, entrepreneurial activity and taxable income with them. For more than 15 years, residents have left Illinois at a rate of one person every 10 minutes.
Recent data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that, in 2009, Illinois netted a loss of people to 43 states, including each of its neighbors – Wisconsin, Indiana, Missouri, Kentucky and Iowa. Over the course of the entire year, the state saw a net of 40,000 people leave Illinois for another state.
The data reflects a continuation of a trend of out-migration from Illinois that has lasted more than a decade. Between 1995 and 2009, the state lost on a net basis more than 806,000 people to out-migration.
When people leave, they take their income and their talent with them. In 2009 alone, Illinois lost residents who took with them a net of $1.5 billion in taxable income. From 1995 to 2009, Illinois lost out on a net of $26 billion in taxable income to out-migration.
Illinois lost one person every 10 minutes between 1995 and 2009. Will the people who stay in Illinois demand reform before more wealth and jobs leave the state?
A recent poll of 3,000 C-level manufacturing company executives found that 85% see certain manufacturing functions returning to the U.S., citing increasing costs overseas (37%), logistics/delivery demands (20%), quality issues (7%) and other reasons (37%).
From the Cook Associates Survey:
85 percent of manufacturing executives see the possibility of certain manufacturing operations returning to the U.S., with 37 percent citing overseas costs as the major factor. Nineteen percent cited logistics and 36 percent stipulated other reasons, including economic/political issues, quality and safety concerns, patriotism and overseas skills shortages for highly technical manufacturing processes.
Cook Associates Executive Search polled nearly 3,000 manufacturing executives primarily in small- to mid-sized U.S. companies from October 13 through November 18, 2011. Participants consisted of C-level executives (CEO, CFO, COO) and key functional Vice Presidents (Operations, Manufacturing, Supply Chain).The survey data was supplemented by written comments submitted by individual executives.
The survey identified low-volume, high-precision, high-mix operations, automated manufacturing and engineered products requiring technology improvements or innovation as the primary forms of manufacturing returning to the States.
New Internal Revenue Service migration data, compiled by the Tax Foundation, confirms that more people are again moving to Florida than are moving out. After a loss in the number of 30,000 domestic migrants ("exemptions") in 2008-9 as indicated on tax returns, Florida added 30,000 in 2009-10. This is still a far lower net migration than before the burst of the housing bubble, but is an indication that Florida has returned to growth. Florida's migration turnaround was recently noted in new American Community Survey data (see Domestic Migration: Returning to Normalcy?). Additionally, in 2009-10, Florida ranked third out of the 50 states and DC in personal income gains from net domestic migration relative to 2009. Only Montana (#1) and South Carolina (#2) did better.
Phillip Marlowe, Joe Friday, pack your bags. Your talents are needed elsewhere. The City of Angels is starting to live up to its namesake but the same cannot be said of the state’s agricultural communities.
Homicide has long been associated with the inner city, the worst crime suffered disproportionately by those who fare the worst. But the annual report on homicide released this month by the California Attorney General reveals that counties traditionally dominated by agriculture have the highest rates. Monterey, Merced, San Joaquin and Kern counties top the list where the largest city to be found is Bakersfield with under 350,000 residents. In fact, the counties that hold the state’s four largest cities, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco, are not even in the top ten. Alameda, Fresno and Contra Costa are the only arguably urban-dominated counties to be in the top ten and including Fresno on this list is a stretch.
Why is this the case? The city of Salinas in Monterey County has a horrible gang problem as does Fresno. Although most criminologists do not link murder to a poor economy, the Central Valley has suffered tremendously in recent years, causing one observer to call it “California’s Detroit .” Los Angeles, which had the state’s second highest murder rate in 2001, saw a precipitous drop in violent crime in the last decade under LAPD Chief Bill Bratton. It’s 2010 murder rate (5.9 homicides per 100,000 residents) was nearly half of the rate in 2001 (11).
Another eye-popper in the report was the incidence of homicide in the Hispanic community: Hispanics comprised nearly 45 percent of the state’s homicide victims and nearly 49 percent of those arrested for the crime (27 percent of victims were black and 18 percent were white for comparison).
Other interesting highlights of the report:
• The homicide rate went down for the fifth year in the row to a rate of 4.7 homicides per 100,000 residents – the lowest rate since 1966. Monterey and Merced both had rates of 10.
• Thirty-six percent of all homicides were gang-related. Another thirty-six percent occurred as a result of an argument.
• Whites who murder and are murdered tend to be older than other ethnic groups: 40 percent of white arrestees were age 40 or over, and 52 percent of white murder victims were over 40.
• For cases in which the cause of murder is known, 71 percent of homicides involve a firearm.
I came to report on the occupation of Zuccotti Park expecting it would pass in a matter of days, like the stillborn movements before it.
In spite of its self-celebrated cosmopolitanism, New York after 9/11 has become an arid environment for protest under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The press and the public yawned through the massive anti–Iraq War march in 2003 and the excessive police response to the 2004 RNC protesters (the city is still dealing with those lawsuits). Even after the Wall Street meltdown, an eerie silence prevailed.
Zuccotti was something else: a physical presence, symbolically charged by its location a stone’s throw from both Ground Zero and Wall Street, with no end date to wait out and no demand to be placated.
While the act of occupation had little to do with the broader complaint—at the core, unhealthy economic distribution perpetuated by increasingly unresponsive elected “representatives”—it proved a dramatic setting for airing them, and for bringing participants together. For one season the park took on a life of its own, before reverting to a place for “passive recreation.”
In the course of that season, though, the scene aged badly. With a big push from the Bloomberg administration and tabloid coverage fixated on civic order, Zuccotti Park descended from a new public commons to a fever dream.
I surveyed the scene for the first time about a week after it started. In that first of what became many such visits, I stayed from early afternoon through the next morning, listening to professors, students, union members, veterans, homeless women, eccentrics, lunatics, librarians, old colleagues from other newspapers, members of various working groups and even a neighbor from Brooklyn there to take it in.
Occupy Wall Street had yet to draw the high-profile NYPD abuses and errors—the pepper spraying and Brooklyn Bridge arrests—that would give them a shape and purpose they couldn’t sustain themselves. But amid the drum circles and music festival “model society” absurdity of the park, people who’d been at a loss until now about how to express an array of concerns sensed an opening.
I was less interested in the protest itself than in the creation within Zuccotti of the sort of freewheeling commons New York City has lost under this mayor, even as the Internet and mobile devices eroded what was left of a shared café culture.
That shift is epitomized by the increasing commercialization of public spaces like the generator-powered gift market at Union Square. But it left a hole that the occupiers briefly filled.
The handmade cardboard signs, the conversations with engaging strangers, the library, even the General Assembly all seemed like flashes of the participant city that’s hunkered down to wait out an unpopular mayor. Bloomberg has built an ever-expanding safe space for the very well-off at the expense of the rest of us, using his private fortune to encourage New Yorkers to simply leave the city’s civic life in his hands.
Problems in Zucotti stemmed in no small part from the massively disproportionate police response, intended in part to limit the size and scope of the protests by warning the economically marginal, the physically frail, and the meek about the bad things that might happen to those who participated.
That tactic backfired. As the occupation grew, the would-be political participants found themselves starved for space, overwhelmed by their own tents and by an excess of hangers-on, panhandlers and carnival-goers unsober in all senses. They were ringed by barricades and police officers, blinded by spotlights aimed into the park at all hours, and eyed at all times by dozens of NYPD cameras carried by officers and atop a 20-foot pole on an unmarked police truck.
“Just because you’re paranoid,” one Occupier said, sweeping her arm across the park, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
The NYPD response was a far more significant disruption to the life of the city than the protesters themselves—for the first time since 9/11 penning off streets to those without IDs to prove they “belonged” there, erecting barricades that starved businesses of customers, sending so many officers to “protect” the demonstrably nonviolent marches that crime rates went up elsewhere.
In turn, the occupiers became fixated on the police department. At each march, rumors would swirl about brutality, arrests and reports that “they’re taking the park.” Crowds would at times work themselves into mobs, facing off with the NYPD as though they were in Oakland or Egypt. Yet they failed to notice—let alone respond to—the tactics used to manage them, like complicated penning schemes that broke bigger groups into smaller ones or tricked protesters into separating themselves from the rest of the city instead of showing they were just like everyone else.
After I reported that the police were exacerbating a split between participants and nonparticipants in Zuccotti by encouraging drunks and rowdies to head down there, the NYPD’s main mouthpiece issued a tepid denial. “Not true,” he said, without specifying what exactly wasn’t true, adding that those types would of course find their way there.
Explaining his decision to finally clear the park, Bloomberg pointed to the EMT who broke his leg on the sidewalk just outside the park (but inside the barriers separating the police from the protesters) a week earlier, in the middle of the night.
I was the only reporter on the scene when that happened. My colleagues had dispersed around the park to track a spate of seemingly contagious violent incidents on an especially ugly night.
Two very large OWS “community watch” members were patiently working to calm down and eject from the park a crazed 20-year-old, Joshua Ehrenberg, who I was told had punched his girlfriend in the face earlier that night. Just outside the barriers separating the sidewalk from the street, officers watched the crowd swelling around the scene.
The police ignored requests to move on as Ehrenberg kept playing to them, spitting out slogans of the occupation: “The process is being disrespected” since “the community hasn’t consented to this,” trying to get friends to form a human chain with him. As ever, the gawkers accused each other of being infiltrators and police agents.
As that scene played out, two huge men in still another fight emerged behind us, inside the park, throwing ineffective haymakers at each other, nearly toppling tents. One of the OWS security members left to try to handle that, while his partner finally asked the police, watching from outside the barriers, to come in and remove Ehrenberg.
Despite the invitation, the crowd swarmed around the entering officers, yelling “Pig!” and the like as the police carried the struggling, still slogan-shouting would-be Occupier out by his arms and legs.
An EMT there to take him for a psychiatric evaluation, walking backward just ahead of the swollen group of police, protesters and park campers, put his foot through the rungs of a ladder that for some reason was leaning against the sidewalk.
As he wailed in agony, the crowd gave no space—even as the police calmly asked them to give him room, pushing those who wouldn’t listen back with measured force.
In press reports about the incident, a city spokesperson incorrectly claimed that the EMT was shoved or assaulted, while Occupation sources peddled the line that this was just one of those things, an unavoidable accident unrelated to the occupation.
Did he fall or was he pushed? Yes.
Would the Occupation movement—really, a moment—have collapsed under its own weight without the city’s heavy-handed help? Thanks to that help, we’ll never know.
This piece first appeared at City and State New York.