Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When public discourse is not civil

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is no political novice.

The former Illinois congressman has been through the political wars and is still standing, a Republican appointed to his post by a Democratic president.

So it was with some surprise this week that I read that LaHood said that "trash talk" on conservative talk radio and cable television programs is impeding the nation's ability to solve big problems -- like transportation infrastructure.

LaHood, speaking at a Ohio transit facility, reportedly said the conservative attacks on President Obama make it hard for the president to get his message across to the American people.

"All of this background, all of this trash talk in the background, it does not contribute to civil discourse, and it does not contribute to the government or the country's ability to solve big issues," said LaHood, according to media reports.

I personally don't listen to talk radio or watch the cable talk shows on a regular basis because they bore me. The hosts are all about promoting their political agendas and have transformed what was once a respected news medium into a tabloid shouting match where sensationalism is more important than substance.

I am a news junkie, reading several newspapers each day and catching news reports on several networks. I am old school, and I don't care much for the so-called news talents who come across as more cheesy than professional.

The advent of 24/7 news cycles and celebrity talking heads has resulted in more public discourse than ever before. Issues and events are bantered about and analyzed until it seems no angle is ever left unexplored.

During my channel surfing I catch brief snippets of these shows and they will take a tragedy and milk it for all of its worth until the next scandal/catastrophe/revelation emerges. I caught a few minutes of one show where they were interviewing friends of the suspect in the murder of a Yale student.

The friends of the suspect were telling us that their friend was not capable of such horrific acts. Who decided this was newsworthy? It was tabloid journalism at its worst.

Transportation Secretary LaHood and President Obama may not like the tone of opposing voices who inhabit the radio and television shows and rail against them.

But let's not ever forget that the freedoms enjoyed by those talking heads is one of our most precious freedoms. I may not agree with their rantings, but I sure believe they should be free to say what they choose.

And if I don't agree with what they are saying -- I don't have to listen.

David Fierro is a transportation public relations consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor. He worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Who was that masked man?

Dave VonTesmar is a 47 year-old Phoenix flight attendant who believes photo speed enforcement cameras on Phoenix freeways are just a money grab and he doesn't want to play by the rules.

So VonTesmar has been donning monkey and giraffe masks while driving on the freeway so when the traffic cameras photograph him he is unidentifiable.

VonTesmar argues that since authorities cannot identify him they cannot collect on more than 50 tickets issued to him and more than $6,700 in fines.

Not to be deterred, authorities photographed VonTesmar putting on the masks and have issued an additional 37 tickets for speeding between 11 and 15 miles per hour over the speed limit. Authorities believe they will be able to convince judges in three cities that VonTesmar is the freeway jungle boy and make the fines stick.

Arizona started using the speed enforcement cameras a year ago and has issued more than 497,000 tickets and brought in more than $23 million in revenue.

VonTesmar argues that the cameras are more about money than safety.

When I drive the freeways I usually set the cruise control about two or three miles above the speed limit because I know law enforcement will not cite me for excessive speed. Often, drivers blow past me in the passing lane traveling much faster than the speed limit. It is not unusual for me to later pass those same drivers as they are stopped by the side of the road getting a ticket.

Excessive speeds are unsafe. Accidents often occur when one driver is driving too fast and crashes into someone doing the speed limit. I have no sympathy for people who speed and who get ticketed.

I hope VonTesmar ends up paying for his traffic violations. Who will be the monkey then?

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor. He worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Our dependence on foreign oil

Dubai opened its metro system last week and celebrated an early success with more than 100,000 riders in the first two days of service.

The $7.6 billion system came in 80 percent over cost estimates but is carrying a significant amount of the city's population, at least in the opening days of service.

Dubai is one of the seven emirates and the most populous state of the United Arab Emirates with a population of 1.2 million. Dubai's economy was originally built on oil industry revenues. Today, real estate, financial centers and tourism drive the economy with the oil industry contributing only six percent of the economic revenues.

Oil, and its byproducts, catapulted the Arab States into financial power which we have seen wielded on the international stage.

Which makes me wonder what will happen if the U.S. and other western nations become independent of foreign oil with the advent of electric cars and other non-petroleum fuels.

Will the balance of financial power shift away from the Middle East? Will the U.S. and other economies reshift the financial playing field?

The Dubai Metro is being touted for its luxury features and premium services. I contrast that with so many American cities that are struggling to provide even basic services.

Dubai, and much of the United Arab Emirates, is basking in its oil wealth.

I, for one, would be happy to drive an electric car if it meant some of that wealth could be brought back to American shores.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Maine's mascots

A moose, a lobster and a fisherman walk into a tollbooth.

Ok, this really isn't a joke.

This Labor Day, as on the nine previous, the Maine Turnpike did a good thing -- pass out calendars to some 15,000 motorists who visited the state over the holiday weekend. In past years, Maine's Turnpike handed out magnets and other souvenirs.

This year the calendar features six Maine lighthouses and a listing of signature events scheduled for this fall in Maine. Obviously, Maine wants those people to go back.

But what caught my attention, and I'm sure the motorists on the Turnpike as well, were the three mascots on hand for the promotion.

Miles the Maine Turnpike Moose, D. Claude Lobster and Laney the Lobster Fisherman were the featured attractions.

I didn't see a picture of the moose, lobster or fisherman, but I'm sure they were a sight. The Maine tourism promotion is a great idea. People were lined up on the Turnpike for miles on the holiday weekend so having some characters running around with calendars might have at least provided some distractions.

My experience with Maine is very limited. I went to a transportation conference there once and what I remember most is the lobster house where we feasted. Maine lobster lived up to the hype and I enjoyed the mild summer weather.

Coming from California and having spent a long time in Florida, Maine is almost an alien environment.

A quick check on Maine's tourism website revealed the following:
  • The state capital is Augusta
  • The state bird is the chickadee
  • The state insect is the honeybee
  • Maine is 320 miles long and 210 miles wide
  • Maine has more than 60 lighthouses
And on Labor Day weekends you have a chance of getting a nice parting gift from a moose, lobster or fisherman.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Red means stop

A hot topic in Florida, and many other states, is the use of red-light cameras for traffic enforcement.

Many cities and counties have installed the cameras and are generating revenue from the program. Opponents of the cameras cite Florida law, which does not allow the cameras to be installed on state right of way and requires a law enforcement officer to be present if a citation is issued.

The cities and counties have worked around the legal requirement by making the running of red lights code violations, which do not appear on a person's driving record.

I believe the red light camera issue comes down to a question of technology getting ahead of the laws. Lawmakers did not anticipate a technology that would cite red light violators without a law enforcement officer being present.

The technology allows cities and counties to photograph the license plate of the vehicle running the red light and the driver as well, and send the owner of the vehicle a citation.

Opponents of these systems are crying foul, saying the system violates their privacy and is not supported by state law. Lawsuits have been filed in a number of locales and legislation to address the issue is being kicked around several legislative committees.

I think it comes down to a simple fact. If I run a red light and the city or county I am driving in photographs me and my vehicle, they have a right to send me a notice telling me I have violated one of their laws and require me to pay a fine.

To me, it doesn't matter if a police officer was present or not. If they have photographic proof that my vehicle was involved in a potentially life-threatening act, I am responsible. If my vehicle was loaned to a family member of friend, I am responsible.

When will the time come when people take responsibility for their actions? There is a simple solution to those who oppose red light camera enforcement -- don't run red lights.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Schwarzenegger battling political fires

As if a crippled economy and raging wildfires weren't enough to keep him up at night, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is battling political fires as well.

Two issues warmed up for the governor this week.

First, news broke that a $9 million public relations contract to promote high-speed rail was going to be awarded to Mercury Public Affairs, a company that employs a number of former Schwarzenegger staffers, including his former campaign manager.

Two members of the selection panel have ties to firm principals and some in California are saying the selection smells a bit funny.

At what point does a company cross the line of conflict of interest? Mercury Public Affairs hired those former Schwarzenegger staffers because of their contacts and knowledge of administration issues.

So when does the conflict of interest emerge?

I think some agencies do it right when they say an employee cannot leave and come back and work on projects that they had some influence in creating. At Florida DOT, I have seen top professionals go work in other regions of the state and even other parts of the country so they would not even give the appearance of conflict of interest.

People who worked on the governor's staff influenced the high speed rail project.

They should not be allowed to leave the agency and come back and work on that same project. Corruption is too prevalent in government. We hear on a regular basis of politicians and government workers setting up a private sector landing spot while they are still working in government.

It is wrong for these former government workers to now go to the private sector and cash in.

The irony here is that we are talking about a public relations contract, where perception is everything.

Members of the selection panel say there is no conflict and that Mercury Public Affairs had the best proposal.

Well, here is the bottom line. Mercury Public Affairs, if awarded the contract, will go into the endeavor with a handicap. There is now a perception that they were the recipient of a sweetheart deal and they will have to spend a lot of public relations capital to erase that perception.

On top of the high speed rail affair, Schwarzenegger is also dealing with the aborted appointment of James Ghielmetti to the California Transportation Commission. Ghielmetti's appointment was withdrawn by the governor's office because of his opposition to the administration's position on public-private partnerships.

California state senators trumped the governor by appointing Gheilmetti to the commission independent of the governor.

It's not been a good week for Schwarzenegger.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Growth sputters in the sunshine

We have all seen the sad stories. Rust Belt states where steel mills were shuttered, whole towns decimated in a single, fell swoop.

People packed up their belongings and moved to places like Florida, where the sun shines almost 365 days a year, the land used to be cheap and the taxes used to be low.

The times have changed. Land is no longer cheap, taxes are no longer low, and people are not packing up and moving to Florida as much as they used to do.

For more than a century, Florida has been a growth state, becoming the fourth most populated state in the U.S. with 16 million people in 2000.

The state's economy is reliant upon growth and tourism. The state's new housing starts peaked at double the national average.

A state where schools and other social services were taxed beyond capacity, Florida is now coming to grips with the fact that for the first time in more than a century, Florida is not growing. Between April of 2008 and April of 2009, Florida's population decreased by 58,000.

The loss of 58,000 people is not in itself a major issue, but is it the canary in the coal mine. Does 2008 signal a turning point?

Will Florida continue to lose population and the tax base that goes with it?

Transportation revenues are based primarily on gas tax revenues and if there are fewer people buying gas, coupled with more efficient vehicles, what will happen to transportation funding in the state?

Some states are exploring alternative methods of transportation funding, with the mileage-based system showing the most promise, according to a report from the Transportation Research Board.

Perhaps the end of a 100-year growth cycle will encourage Florida lawmakers to take a more serious look at the alternatives.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.