Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A July 4th plea for compassion, understanding

Few issues today raise people’s hackles like immigration. With millions of people in this country below the radar of our immigration laws, there is widespread agreement that the current system is untenable. People die every day trying to bypass border security in the Southwestern desert, while others live in daily fear of reporting a crime or seeking treatment for illness because they are scared of being discovered.
That this is a country of immigrants is common knowledge. There were, of course, thriving civilizations on the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans, and the subsequent treatment of these groups is one of the great shames of our nation. But everyone who built our American society and our system of government, everyone who wrote immigration laws and enforces border security, is himself an immigrant or a descendant of one. Many, or most, came here "illegally" — presumably, the Pilgrims declined to seek official permission from the contemporaneous residents of Massachusetts.
Since the birth of our nation, on this date 231 years ago, tens of millions more people have come here in search of something better for themselves and their loved ones. We are proud as a nation to call our society a melting pot, a place where immigrants and people of various nationalities are assimilated into one coherent group. But immigrants have always faced difficulties.
Nearly every nationality, religion or ethnic group can trace a history of repression and struggle upon reaching these shores. People of any imaginable descent can look back to their ancestors and remember a time when they were shunned by the wider populace, and held back from advancement in society. And we’re not past those problems; we still too often look for new groups to scapegoat and take the blame for our ills.
But we are mostly a country of great opportunities, and even greater compassion. As the debate continues over immigration, illegal and otherwise, we must keep in mind that the vast majority of people in this land strive to make our country greater — to improve their own lives, and, at the same time, their wider communities.
Most recent debate focuses on Hispanic immigrants, and the xenophobic charges revert to time-worn clich├ęs once directed at any number of other ethnic groups. One group or another is more likely to commit crimes or give birth out of wedlock, is spending our tax dollars on services, sending all the money they earn out of the country, or stealing our jobs. It’s no more true or false than it ever was. The difference now, with our neighbor to the south the focus of people’s ire, is the previously unimagined remedy of a giant border wall to protect us from the oncoming hordes looming as a dream, or nightmare, solution.
It’s a fantasy. Build a wall, and people will climb over it, or under it, or go through it. That has been long proven. What we need is to show compassion and understanding for the people living here and struggling to get by, whether they’re in the country legally or not. We are not blowing open our borders to invite all comers, but we must recognize the contributions of everyone in this great country. We all deserve health care, schooling and police protection.
We are all Americans. Some of us have a piece of paper to prove it. Others show it in a different way, through their hard work and dreams of something better, every day of their lives.

Court at odds with speech protections

Individually, two cases decided last week by the U.S. Supreme Court could each be said to have merit. Upholding the right to try to influence voters, even by moneyed interests in the days and weeks before an election, is, to many people, a defensible posture. Similarly, asserting the right of a school district to limit students from promoting the use of illegal drugs is arguably a safe position.
Together, though, the court sent a troubling message. Free speech is to be defended if the speaker has money, but not if the speaker is powerless.
The use of so-called "issue ads," where, in the weeks before an election, a group not directly associated with a campaign will pay for commercials that implicitly support one candidate over another, was banned by a campaign-finance reform law passed in 2002. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4, was one of two House sponsors of the act.
The High Court, though, overturned that clause, again opening up the airwaves to groups seeking to push one agenda or another without explicitly naming the candidate of choice. By their nature, however, these ads could not be clearer in their purchasers’ preferences.
Until the United States institutes some sort of legitimate public financing of political campaigns, fundraising will play a huge role in running for office. It’s unfortunate that lawmakers spend so much time hitting people up for cash that could be spent tackling the issues they were elected to deal with, but it’s a fact of life.
But to pretend that multimillion-dollar commercial buys constitute free speech is debatable at best. No one is suggesting that anyone be muzzled or not allowed to state his case; the argument is that election laws are clear, and money shouldn’t be the end-all of political debates. Free speech, in this case, is a canard.
In the other case, a high school student was suspended from school for holding up a nonsensical banner on television that seemed to promote the use of marijuana. The court ruled that the principal was justified in the suspension, even though the student was not in school. So where does this student’s right to free speech come in? Apparently, because it is within the school’s purview to discourage the use of illegal drugs, it is allowed to restrict the speech rights of students who defy that goal.
Each decision has its own tortured logic, but taken together, the implication is indefensible. Free speech is to be preserved for people and groups who can afford to buy television advertisements, but not for mischief-making high school students. Average citizens will have to decide where on that spectrum they fall before they put their own speech to the test.

Hold off criticism of Stratford plan

Residents of Lordship need to take a deep breath.
A proposal for a greenway that would link parks and open space along the town’s waterfront has people in the Sound-front community in a tizzy. They are raising objections that make no sense, and overreacting to a proposal that will likely be decades in the making.
The first thing to remember is that the waterfront is a communal resource. It’s true that properties on Long Island Sound or the Housatonic River are among the town’s most expensive, and those owners pay the most in taxes. But encouraging people to take advantage of the outdoor benefits in Stratford makes good sense. The greenway concept has been successful across the country, including in many of this region’s communities.
Towns and cities in the Naugatuck Valley have worked to create open space along their riverbanks, with the idea that the area’s greatest resource had for too long gone untapped. Stamford is turning its own Mill River into a destination for walking and other recreation. And New York City has made the greening of its waterfront a top municipal priority for the coming decades.
Fearing the worst from possible visitors, Lordship community activist Robert Sammis asked, "Are they going to be knocking on people’s doors to ask for a glass of water or to use their restrooms?" No, they aren’t. The full plan likely couldn’t be completed for 20 years, giving the town plenty of time to work out logistics and funding issues.
Litter and traffic are legitimate concerns, but for now, it would behoove people to take some time and learn more about the benefits and possibilities from such a project before ruling it out. A greenway could be a real community treasure, and town officials should be given every opportunity to state their case.
In the meantime, nothing has yet been decided. Lordship remains a part of Stratford, and the communal waterfront is everyone’s resource. Give this plan a little time to develop before jumping to conclusions.

Valley tries leaving the car at home

If the region is to get away from its all-car-all-the-time mentality, this is exactly the kind of program we need to see more of.
The Valley Transit District has launched a program that will provide shuttle service from homes to bus stops and train stations. It could go a long way toward solving one of the key shortfalls of a push for reliance on public transit — bus lines can’t go everywhere.
People like their cars, and our suburban sprawl isn’t going anywhere. But for people who don’t have cars — or people who’d like not to have to use them every time they leave the house — a system like this will be useful. Without density, which most of Connecticut is sorely lacking, public transit can only go so far. People have to get to and from train and bus stations somehow, raising problems from traffic tie-ups to parking shortages. Those are the issues mass transit is supposed to solve, not exacerbate.
The new service will run along a corridor between Derby and Seymour Town Hall; a one-way fare of $2.50 will be charged, with reservations required 24 hours in advance. It’s not a perfect system, or one flexible enough to put a real dent in car traffic, but it could be a model of how things are done.
Smart-growth initiatives and transit-based development aren’t about getting people to give up their cars. The goal is to offer alternatives. Our streets aren’t laid out in a way conducive to mass transportation around here, but there are some plans in the works that could offer a change. Until we all live a quick walk to the bus depot, though, for those trips when we do need to go a ways for something, programs like this one in the Valley will serve a need. It may even serve as an example for other communities.

Sox fans are right

Red Sox fans have mostly gotten over their communal, lifelong inferiority complex — and whenever they start feeling down, they can always pop in a tape of the 2004 American League Championship Series to make themselves feel better. But in one important way, they really are being treated like second-class citizens around here.
Mets and Yankees fans are all set; they can watch every inning of every one of their team’s games, from spring training to the victory parade. Sox fans, though, are shut out. New England Sports Network, which carries the team’s games, is not available in Fairfield County. Because the area falls in the New York market, Boston fans have to do without.
Even more galling have been a series of technical problems that kept Red Sox games that should have aired off the television. When national outlets like ESPN show games involving a local team, those games are only available on the local network; for example, a Yankees-Orioles game slated for ESPN would be shown on the Yankees network, YES, while ESPN in that area would show alternate programming.
But something was missed during a few Sox games this year. Even though NESN isn’t available here, nationally televised Red Sox games on ESPN were blacked out in Fairfield County. Somehow, local Boston fans got caught in some sort of baseball double jeopardy.
It’s not the end of the world, obviously, but people take their baseball-watching seriously. And when fans tried to get to the bottom of the problem, they got the pass-the-buck response — blame was cast on the cable company, local stations, ESPN and Major League Baseball, or all of the above.
Boston fans are famous for reveling in their suffering, but they have a case. ESPN can do better; get those games on TV where they belong.

Competing plans show real promise

The most recent development news from downtown Bridgeport confirms what people in City Hall have been saying for some time: The city is playing in the big leagues. The competing proposals for the 11-acre site adjacent to Harbor Yard are from well-established, accomplished teams. And they are each, coincidentally, affiliated with retired sports stars — NBA legend Magic Johnson with one and retired NFL quarterback Roger Staubach with the other.
The proposals, of which the city, citing nondisclosure requests from the competitors, has revealed only the barest details, are impressive in scope. Each foresees a mixed use of apartments, movie theaters, shops, a hotel and other destinations. If completed, the development would add an entirely new dimension to downtown.
And the area is full of such promise. The Remington site next to Seaside Park could overhaul the vision of the shoreline. The Citytrust apartments may inspire a new standard of downtown living. And, of course, the long-awaited Steel Point project could change the very face of the city.
Now it’s about making sure these ideas are more than just promising. The site at the center of the sports-star showdown is considered prime development space, but it presents its own problems. For one, that space is currently used for parking overrun for events at the Arena and Ballpark at Harbor Yard. More parking levels are slated at the facility’s garage, but the city would be well-served to have good plans in place for out-of-towners to deposit their cars someplace safe.
The site is also, like the Remington location, not far from the noisy, unsightly power plants on a nearby tract. The negative impact of that facility can’t be allowed to hold back the potential for growth in the area.
The real potential in the Harbor Yard site lies in the possibility of healing the open wound that sears the city in half — the elevated Interstate 95 expressway. Separating one segment of the city from the other, the highway isn’t going anywhere (no Big Dig for us, thank you). But if this location, directly south of the highway and right off an exit ramp, can lure people into those dank underpasses from downtown and help reconnect the severed streetscape, it will be a real accomplishment.
The city needs to make a real effort to make those underpasses more inviting, and make foot traffic through the area an everyday activity. Good transit-based development counts on pedestrians, and the city can go a long way toward that goal if this development is done right.

Work on bridge will be for the best

It turns the daily commute from aggravating to intolerable. It can turn a 5-mile hop into a 90-minute nightmare. It’s indisputable — no one likes highway construction.
Sometimes, though, it really is necessary. When a heavily traveled bridge is showing signs of getting older, it’s probably time to get to work. So though no one is looking forward to the idea of construction on the Moses Wheeler Bridge, connecting Milford and Stratford over the Housatonic River on Interstate 95, it’s the kind of project that no one would argue has to get done.
But it’s going to get rough for a while. Starting this summer, the state Department of Transportation will get to work on repairs for the existing bridge, all so they can tear the whole thing down when they build a new one. The bridge is due for replacement, but officials have determined that the old one won’t last until the new one is ready, and so another phase has been added to the project.
The work will total $117 million, with the vast majority of that going toward the new bridge. About $7 million is set aside for patching and repairs on the current structure. And when the state is willing to spend that kind of money on a span that’s about to be put out to pasture, it’s clear the work is seriously needed.
Commuters can take heart, though. Up the river a few miles, the Sikorsky Bridge, which carries the Merritt Parkway between the two shorelines, has been replaced to everyone’s benefit. The old one sent shivers down the spines of the heartiest travelers, what with its metal grate surface that made a driver feel like the car was about to careen off into the river at any moment. Now, the double-span replacement, complete with walking trails to connect the nonmotorized among us, is a testament to how these things ought to be done.
Despite the Wheeler repair work, the existing bridge won’t be closed completely at any time until the new one is ready. But still, anyone who has tried to drive I-95 late at night knows those one-lane-only travel times in the overnight hours can back up traffic for miles. There really is no time of day when you can safely assume you will reach your destination in a decent time frame.
But if all goes well, the new bridge will be worth it. The state has, at the very least, set a good example farther north.

No more war based on lies

First off, no one should be surprised at this latest blast of lunacy. Followers of the neoconservative doctrine, of which Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman is among the most famous, have been itching to go after Iran for years. So though CBS host Bob Schieffer was taken aback by Lieberman’s push last Sunday to go after that country for supposedly endangering our troops in Iraq, he really should not have been.
It was never a secret that Baghdad was just the beginning. And had the current war gone well, the push to move on into Tehran and Damascus and points beyond would have commenced apace. But, of course, Iraq has been an unceasing disaster, so supporters of constant warfare have been forced to hold off. Whatever their actual reasons are for this grand empire in the sand, no one seems to know.
Among constituents who think Lieberman’s stance is sheer madness, there’s an awkward balance. No one wants to be seen as defending a country run by a tyrannical, fundamentalist regime. Iran’s religious leadership espouses a worldview that is antithetical to everything our country is supposed to stand for. It has long been recognized as a supporter of international terrorism, and many observers thought our country could have been justified had we decided to take on that nation, instead of Iraq, all those years ago.
But that’s not how it went. Five years ago, we were at the peak of our international stature. Had we then laid out a coherent rationale for taking on a violent, regressive Tehran regime, we might have been followed by much of the world. Instead, we decided to lie our way into the neighboring country. Saddam Hussein made a more convenient villain.
So what is one to make of Lieberman’s claims, repeated on Friday, that Iran is training forces just over the border to go into Iraq and harm our soldiers?
"We’ve told them," said Lieberman, "we’ve said so publicly that the Iranians have a base in Iran at which they are training Iraqis who are coming in and killing Americans. … We can’t just talk to them. If they don’t play by the rules, we’ve got to use our force and, to me, that would include taking military action to stop them from doing what they’re doing now."
Here’s the problem. In the wake of WMDs, never-ending reports of progress, the insurgency’s "last throes" and politicized terror alerts, our leaders have lost the country. We don’t believe you.
It’s a dangerous scenario. Having been wrong so often and having so completely politicized national security policy, our leaders have no credibility to tell us who is and is not a threat. We’ve been lied to before, and our troops are paying the price. After everything we’ve seen, does Joe Lieberman honestly expect the country and his home state to fall in line behind him?
"We cannot let them get away with it," he says. "If we do, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness on our part."
Enough of this. We don’t make policy based on how other countries will "take" it. We don’t want never-ending war, and our Army couldn’t handle it if we did. Surely Lieberman knows the Iranians wouldn’t react meekly to military action on our part. We can’t just strike once from the air and be done with it.
Lieberman and his ilk cannot be allowed to lie us into another war. This madness must be stopped.

Grant belongs with those who need it

The problem started right at the top, with the first two words in the headline: "GE gets."
Fairfield-based General Electric Co. in April reported net income of $4.5 billion for the first quarter of 2007. By any accounting, that’s a lot of money. But Thursday morning brought news that the multinational behemoth was the lucky winner of a $722,000 state of Connecticut grant to help cover the cost of installing solar panels on its headquarters.
Heaven forbid the company foot the bill by itself.
The grant, from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, supported by a charge on commercial and residential electric bills, is designed to encourage the use of renewable power sources, and it’s a grand notion. By all means, the state should be encouraging a move away from fossil fuels and their air-fouling, war-starting side effects.
State officials are clear that the grants are not need-based; all ratepayers are equally eligible. And GE is not the only successful business to take advantage of some green PR; a Staples, a B.J.’s Wholesale Club and other businesses, towns and schools also accepted grants.
But PR works both ways. Yes, we are all happy with GE for making an effort to promote renewable energy, and we applaud their forward-thinking approach. But maybe that state money could go someplace other than the company account.
Surely the business doesn’t need it. In a multibillion-dollar budget, $722,000 is a rounding error. For Plainville High School, on the other hand, a $736,000 green-energy grant will present opportunities and set a sterling example for the educational community. This is where money from this grant belongs.
Similarly, a $46,000 grant to a homeowner could enable environmentally friendly solutions previously undreamed of. The money only goes toward installation, not purchase of the panels, so grant recipients need to have a financial stake of their own in the project.
It’s a good, responsible program, and one that could be a model for future environmental projects. But recipients would do well to consider their options. There must be a school out there they could pass that money along to, right?

Train station can be a model project

With the massive train station development in Fairfield clearing every regulatory hurdle, the largest project in town history is starting to take shape. It will be a boon not just to its town, but to its larger neighbor just to the east — specifically, the Black Rock neighborhood of Bridgeport.
The planned Fairfield Metro Center will likely see a groundbreaking next month. All the permits are in hand, all the approvals have been granted. What’s left now is to watch and wait for the train station/hotel/office building/retail center to rise from the shores of Ash Creek. It’s an opportunity for the neighboring communities to work together for the benefit of everyone.
The first phase, scheduled to open in early 2010, includes the rail station, hotel, a concourse building with 89,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of retail space, and the first of what will eventually be four 200,000-square-foot office buildings.
The train station is key — the state says it favors "smart growth" development, and projects based around transit and walkable communities are vital. With the promise of express trains from what will be Fairfield’s third train station down to Manhattan, the location should appeal to workaday commuters.
This is where the relationship with Black Rock comes in. The nearest populated area is right over the Bridgeport line, and housing and condominium developments are already being marketed as within walking distance of the new transit center. It’s in both community’s interest to make sure the development serves everyone’s needs, and doesn’t create unnecessary traffic, noise or congestion.
The train station project has been years in the making, and some initial reluctance on Bridgeport’s side appears to be in the past. With continued good planning and follow-through, the area can be a model for the less car-centric future that might rescue a state choking on its own exhaust. If this project succeeds, everyone gains.

I-95 crackdown should last all year

There’s not much more nerve-wracking around here than taking your chances on Interstate 95 next to an 18-wheeler. With narrow lanes, constant on- and off-ramps, limited sight lines and questionable road conditions, the trip is harrowing under the best of circumstances.
Drivers know this and state officials know this, but nothing much is ever done about it. Once a year, though, for three days, the state shows off its regulatory wares with the DMV Roadcheck, an event that sends Department of Motor Vehicles inspectors out on the highways to put a halt to noncomplying truckers. It’s a great idea — these may be the only three days people can feel relatively safe on the roads.
But, of course, violations happen every day, whether they’re caught or not. And it’s less than comforting to hear about the problems officials came up with Tuesday, at the start of the inspection period. "You’d be amazed at what we’re finding out here," said Sgt. Ralph Cafiero, an inspector. "Unlicensed drivers, cracked wheels, steering and brake problems — it’s scary."
Yes, it is scary, as we’re all well aware. There is only one truck route through the area, and I-95 is a bad highway that’s only getting worse. Barring a dramatic breakthrough in feeder barge service or some sort of rail link under the Hudson River, it will continue to be the only cargo path through Fairfield County. As populations and demand keep rising, the problem only stands to worsen.
A bill in the state Assembly to keep weigh stations at the state line open for longer hours makes good sense; it’s tied now to the state budget process, and it’s yet to be seen whether it will survive. But increased enforcement would be a good step. If inspectors are finding so many problems in this well-publicized three-day stretch, it’s a good bet there are problems the rest of the year, too.
All of which makes the DMV crackdown welcome, but disappointing. The highway is dangerous, and hazardous trucks (and cars) don’t help. We’ve avoided for a long time the kind of mass-death tragedy on the interstate that might inspire some real changes, but it’s probably only a matter of time. Until then, we cross our fingers every time we climb that on-ramp.