Amid political currents --- never mind the economy and the state budget --- the Rochester-Toronto fast ferry project's compass spins wildly. In just the past week, local media have run big headlines on some twists and turns:
• The project ran aground because of holdups in promised state funding; shipbuilder Austal Ltd. announced it would suspend work on the ferry, now around one-quarter complete.
• Yes, said re-election-seeking Governor George Pataki during a local stop, the state funding is assured and the project is a go.
• Not quite, said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver during his own local stop: No money has actually been released, and something mysterious is happening in the governor's office.
• Let's make a deal, said Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, tying his support for a new soccer stadium to progress on the ferry.
• More questions arose about the role of the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, the conduit for state funds. (RGRTA head Don Riley recently told City Newspaper his agency wouldn't run things but might get involved later if the city asked it to.)
So what's really happening? There really is a funding glitch, but it may not prove fatal. Dominick DeLucia, a partner with ferry operator Canadian American Transportation Systems (CATS), put the issue into a Q&A: "Do [we] have any money? No. Do [we] have the loan documentation in place? No."
Mayor Johnson and Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson couldn't be reached for comment. But Johnson, like practically all politicos with a stake, has consistently favored the project. Last month, for example, in a news release from the governor's office, Johnson recalled "tireless efforts" and "intense negotiations." He thanked "all parties," especially in the State Assembly, for "doing the right thing by the Rochester community."
We wondered how the story is playing in high circles across the lake. Famed Toronto-based urbanologist-activist Jane Jacobs told us she wasn't aware of the project. Jacobs has been deeply involved in planning issues connected to Toronto's multi-billion-dollar waterfront revitalization, the vast context for the fast ferry dockage.
Jacobs did sound positive about a Rochester-Toronto ferry in the abstract. "I think it would be great if there was one," she said. Motor vehicles are Jacobs's pet peeve; she criticized plans for a new surface road to augment the lakeside Gardiner Expressway, for example. But she wondered if enough Canadian development dollars would flow to complete the revitalization package.
The Toronto City Council has endorsed the project and urged Ottawa and the Ontario provincial government to chip in. But CATS partner DeLucia told City Newspaper recently that no additional Canadian funding is necessary. "[It] will make the project stronger," he said, "but right now, it can be launched with what has been committed to us by New York State."
Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon stood in the rain --- well, actually under a portable shelter --- behind the WDKX studios last week. Behind her was a yellow school bus dubbed the "Twelfth Grade Express."
Both star and bus were vehicles for a message from the Alliance for Quality Education, which has chapters throughout the state, and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The message was directed at Governor George Pataki, who according to the groups has devalued and underfunded New York State's neediest school districts.
The reference to twelfth grade came from an ongoing court battle. Many advocates, including the Alliance, argue the state has a constitutional duty to fund an equal, high-quality primary and secondary education for every student. But in court, the Pataki administration responds that the standard of a "sound basic education" means basic, indeed: only the equivalent of eighth grade.
Nixon, who has a daughter in a New York City public school, said budget cuts and state stinginess have hurt public systems statewide. She said her daughter's class used to have two teachers for 26 students; now there's just one teacher. "Two-thirds of the school districts in New York State receive way too low funding," she said. "For the last eight years, Governor Pataki has been fighting the lawsuit [seeking an equitable funding formula]; he's spent $12 million fighting it."
Rochester school board member Darryl Porter was on hand for the "bus stop." He addressed the governor's victory (so far) in court. "This decision," said Porter, "runs counter to the [federal] No Child Left Behind act, which promotes academic rigor to the highest standard." He noted that "over 80 percent of all perpetrators and victims of homicide in Rochester over the last 10 years, especially those African-American males aged 16 to 25, had one thing in common: They were all high school dropouts." The eighth-grade standard, he said, "guarantees that this tragic figure will grow."
The final Defense Appropriations bill emerged from Congress October 10. The good news is that the bill provides $11 billion less than George W. Bush requested. The bad --- make that disgusting --- news is that the bill provides $37.5 billion more than was shelled out for the Pentagon in 2002. The new total is $355.4 billion; some choice items, as noted in a Council for a Livable World analysis, are $7 billion for ballistic missile defense (neo-Star Wars), $3.5 billion for the Joint Strike fighter aircraft program, and $4.7 billion for F-22 aircraft procurement and R&D.
When some other items --- for example, a $10 billion "war contingency fund" --- are added in, the Council says, the true total climbs to nearly $400 billion. The Council notes that US military spending totals more than the combined spending of the next seven nations on the profligacy scale. And how does the little boost of $37.5 billion stack up? The National School Boards Association says the federal Department of Education laid out $48 billion (around 2.5 percent of the federal budget) for elementary, secondary, and higher ed in 2002.
So how did our representatives vote on the conference report? As if under the gun. The House vote was 413-18, with three not voting. The 18 nays included stalwarts like Democrats Tammy Baldwin, Dennis Kucinich, Barney Frank, Jim McDermott, and Barbara Lee; and Republican-libertarian Ron Paul. No nays came from the Rochester region. In the Senate, the vote was 93-1, with six not voting. Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin cast the valiant no vote; both New York senators voted yes.