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Posts published in October 2009

A Boise streetcar


Early Boise streetcar

A century ago, most cities of much size had streetcars, electric rail systems running through the populated areas. Boise had an extensive system that run through most of what then was town (which was a lot smaller than it is now) and out west into the farm country, where many families would go for a daytrip ride on the rail.

There are far fewer of these now, most wiped out by the mass of cars and buses. San Francisco has a famous system, of course; Portland has a neat downtown-area streetcar system that meshes well with the rest of the MAX/Tri-met system; and Seattle has its new unfortunately-acronymed South Lake Union Trolley.

And Boise just might get a small-scaled version, running east and west of and through downtown. Mayor Dave Bieter has been pushing it hard, Senator Mike Crapo has been working on federal funding (which would have to amount to $40 million)

It has become a big subject of controversy in the city's current council races - and the tenor of it suggests where the public attitudes are leaning. The streetcar critics (the more conservative candidates) are direct and blunt in their blasts - open-seat candidate Dave Litster calls it a "trolley folly." His opponent T.J. Thomson (who has Bieter's endorsement and, owing in large part to a much more extensive campaign, seems likely to win) hasn't exactly been taking the pro-streetcar approach. While not ruling it out, he declares himself neutral and a backer of a public vote on the matter. That's Bieter's supporter.

How might such a vote go? You may get a clue from a just-out Idaho Statesman poll showing 50.3% in opposition, 36.7% in favor and the rest undecided. Bieter maintained that many of those opposed haven't seen the financials and economic estimates in support of the streetcars, and that may be true. But that doesn't mean the numbers would move greatly even if they did.

On my last visit to Boise I spoke with a number of people about the streetcar, mainly people predisposed to public transport, a number of them big fans of the Portland system. There was little enthusiasm in this group (less than I'd expected) for the streetcar. The reasons varied, but most commonly came to this: The streetcar could do only limited good for downtown transit, would eat up valuable real estate, and gobble big money that could otherwise go toward beefing up a bus system in desperate need of more routes and greater frequency. There was also a feeling that it would place too much emphasis on downtown and not enough on the rest of the city, and thereby split attitudes (maybe leading to divisiveness) about public transportation generally. And public transportation has always had a rough patch in Idaho.

So if you find fewer candidates in Boise supporting the streetcar Idaho than you do throwing rocks at it, there may be reasons. And those reasons might be less clearly split philosophically than you might think.

At high cost

There's a lot of moaning around the Puget Sound about the Boeing decision to located its secondary 787 assembly plant at Charleston, South Carolina, rather than at Everett, which is near existing Boeing facilities and was of course badly wanted by the Seattle region.

It's not good news for the Northwest, of course. But before you start in on the finger-pointing and recriminations, read about what South Carolina did (among other things) to get the plant:

"The Boeing incentive includes up to $170 million in low-interest loans for construction, plus sales tax exemptions for computers, material and fuel used in test flights. It allows Boeing to pay very little corporate income tax for 10 years, by tying those taxes to in-state aircraft sales."

And, importantly, it gives Boeing a non-union work force (in a right to work state).

Would matching that have been a smart move for Washington? South Carolina's package amounted to massive payoffs (for that, in essence, is what they were), huge breaks on normal support for community services (which is what taxes are), and low-end wages. What kind of option would that have been for Washington?

For that matter, what is it saying about Boeing - the company that not so many years ago said it was uprooting corporate headquarters to Chicago in part because key public services (such as tranportation) weren't keeping up?

Another every-vote-counts post

At a recall election in Clatsop County, Commissioner Anne Samuelson apparently has lost her seat by the margin of four votes.

Once again: Every vote counts.

Although in a way this may not be a shock, since she was actually recalled from the Jewell School District board just last year (though she has been on the county commission since 2006, when she was first appointed and later elected).

H/t to Blue Oregon.

Ward’s emergence in the Idaho 1st

Vaughn Ward

Vaughn Ward

Campaign finance reports from the Northwest for the cycle ending September 30 showed mostly the expected. The two Democratic incumbent senators in Washington and Oregon have big mega-million warchests, and no one in their states comes close. The House incumbents are all raising substantial money, which for present purposes we'll define as six figures or more. Only three House challengers have. We'll return before long to two of them (Democrat Suzan DelBene in the Washington 8th, and Republican Robert Cornilles in the Oregon 1st).

The most interesting of them for now may be the third: Republican Vaughn Ward, running in the Idaho 1st congressional district. Unlike the other two, he has in-party opposition that facially should be running in front, but now clearly isn't. The numbers run this way: Incumbent Democrat Walt Minnick has raised $885,842 (a very solid amount) and has on hand $642,322; Ward has raised $242,875 (with $178,533 on hand); and fellow Republican Ken Roberts has raised $62,020 with $41,660 on hand. Among northwest challengers, Ward has been outraised only by DelBene, who so far has self-funded 59% of her warchest.

By traditional measures, Roberts, who is in state House leadership and has endorsement from much of the House Republican caucus and a big swath of Republican leadership, ought to be top contender, or at least the lead money-raiser: He would seem to be the inside establishment candidate, if just by virtue of his statehouse linkages. But Ward seems to be on the verge of swamping him, and the dollars are only one indicator of that. A range of politically-active Idahoans (across parties) we've talked with recently say that Ward is pulling ahead.

That may be a national conclusion as well. In the last few days Ward was in Washington and reports picking up an endorsement from Representative Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, the House Republican whip. National endorsements like that, while a competitive primary is still going on, are not unheard of (see the Democrats and the Oregon race for the Senate in 2007) but are unusual, and could open quite a few financial doors.

I spoke with Wardthis morning, and some of the reasons for that fell into focus. They also suggest how great is the challenge Minnick will face next year - which is to say, large.

An early guess about Ward, who has never run for office before and is on the younger side (age 40 at present), might be that he'd have a steep learning curve as a candidate, in developing a clear message, self-description, presentation and so forth. But whatever curve there was, is largely past: He is clear, concise, polished, confident (just short of cocky), well aware of his audiences and how to address them, with some sophistication in shaping and framing messages. As a candidate, he reminds in some ways of former Senator Steve Symms (who had excellent campaign skills), but drawing on a broader background.

He seems to have an effective handle on telling his life story (growing up in a low-income one-parent house, moving on to military, combat in Iraq, CIA experience and staff work on Capitol Hill for then-Senator Dirk Kempthorne). His core message doesn't stray from the Republican line (less government, lower taxes, etc.) but he has more to add to it. His take on Afghanistan, for example, essentially backs that of General Stanley McChrystal, with some detail but formulated simply: "Finish the job or get out." It may be a message easy to convey, and possibly easier than whatever the Obama Administration comes up with. (more…)

Snow in the Cascades


Near Willamette Pass, Tuesday/Linda Watkins

Linda was on the road Tuesday from Klamath Falls to Eugene. Here's some of what it looked like near Willamette Pass.

Town and Dairy: Social impacts of dairies


Dairy belt/University of Idaho

Large swaths of southern Idaho have been transformed in the last couple of decades by dairies - not the little norman Rockwell dairies of yore but megadairies, with populations of cattle that overshadow those of people, most notably in the Central magic Valley.

Most of the discussion has centered on the environmental effects of such masses of cattle. But the dairies have other effects too, social ones, that can have impact on politics and policy. These are the subject of a just-out 109-page University of Idaho report called "Town and Dairy."

The report inevitably focuses on two points, both highlighted early on: "Two parallel trends shape the context for this analysis. Both are consistent with national trends in farm-dependent areas of the country. First, the structure of Idaho's dairy industry is changing. The trend is toward larger and more geographically concentrated farms with an increasing demand for wage labor. Second, Idaho is becoming more ethnically diverse as the state's Hispanic population grows at a faster rate than the rest of the population."

Alongside these, the report looks into economic impacts - increases in population but also in unemployment and demand on social services, on crime (not that dairies are catalysts for crime but that population increases do lead to more activity), on schools and health care. The report isn't wholly negative; it points out some major economic boons the dairies have contributed. But also points out the costs.

Useful reading.

Appalling numbers

The fall audited circulation numbers for newspapers nationally are out, and they are . . . awful.

From a year ago to this fall, paid circulation for a whole bunch of newspapers around the country is down by more than 10% - that's more the norm than the exception. (The average is around 7%.) What has been the largest paper in the Northwest, the Oregonian, is part of that, down 12.1% to 249,163. In the spring of 2007, it was 319,625.

(This happens to come on the same day the Oregonian names a new publisher - Chris Anderson of the Orange County, California, Register, though he does have background in several Northwest newspapers.)

The Oregonian is now listed at 22 among the nation's newspapers, while the Seattle Times is now 20 - its numbers having grown after the collapse of the print Post-Intelligencer. But not to all that much: 263,588 is well short of where the two papers were a year ago.

About the opt-out

The current round - getting much closer to the end game - on congressional health care action, puts this as a final package headed toward Senate vote: Inclusion of a public health insurance options, with "opt out," meaning the included ability of individual states to decide not to participate.

While the talk swirls about the "opt-out" option, which has been notable in discussion for some weeks but now seems a solid part of the Senate package, the question for this space becomes: What of the Northwest states? What will Washington, Oregon and Idaho choose to do?

In the case of Washington and Oregon, the answer seems obvious. Since no further action would be needed (if the current package becomes law) to participate in a public option, and since both states are run by people who as a whole likely back the public option, that would seem to be that. These two will be "public option states."

The question mark will be Idaho. Many of Idaho's top elected officials are highly skeptical, to put it minimally, of the public option. Of the 50 states, Idaho probably would be among the half-dozen or so where opposition or criticism of the option would be greatest. A conservative Republican Idaho elected official (as most of them are) ordinarily would have to reverse stance heavily to go along with the public option.

And yet, what if they did not? If the program for whatever reason crashes and burns nationally, that would be one thing - it might be withdrawn or scaled back in the larger picture on its own. But suppose it functions somewhere close to as-intended? Imagine the scene of Idaho elected officials defending their refusal to allow Idaho citizens to obtain affordable health insurance, when they (and the businesses they run or are employed by) could do that by moving across the border? The "opt-in" option could put them in quite a bind, unless they went along with the thing described in so many conservative circles as a chamber of horrors.

It may even be so intended.

Sides in Boise

The sides have very much divided up in the city council races in Boise. Two readings make clear a good deal of it.

One is the Idaho Statesman editorial endorsements in the races, out today: Backing incumbents Vern Bisterfeldt and Maryanne Jordan, and T.J. Thomson best known in the area until this race as one of the prime Obama organizers in Idaho last year).

And the Idaho Conservative Blogger has the alternative viewpoint.