High-speed rail is not a partisan issue
I missed last Saturday's "Save the Train" rally in Madison -- being somewhat indisposed toward standing around in cold weather after an evening spent celebrating my upcoming birthday, I'll admit -- but I had several friends report back about the event.
By all accounts, somewhere between 200 and 250 people turned out (hardier souls than I) to show their support for high-speed rail in Wisconsin. The crowd was, perhaps unsurprisingly for Madison, overwhelmingly liberal. Speakers included Rep. Mark Pocan, Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now, and several others who all advocated for saving the train project from Governor-elect Scott Walker's death wish.
One speaker stood out, however, for his declaration of being a Republican who voted for Scott Walker. Lien Tech CEO Bob Lien spoke about how the decision to kill rail directly affected his business, which had been contracted to do steel fabrication for the project. Lien recognized Walker's stance on the train for what it really is: "politics, pure and simple." And yet the revelation that he had voted for the man, and differed from many in the crowd on certain other issues, was apparently met with heckling from some in the crowd.
Which is extremely disappointing, to say the least.
The fact that a self-identified Republican, one who otherwise supported Scott Walker, came out to speak at this rally in Madison should be met with gladness, not boos and hisses. Support for better mass transit in this country is not a partisan issue. It doesn't belong to Democrats or to Republicans. It's important because it benefits everyone: through job creation, through increased access to cities and towns that might otherwise be difficult for some to reach (or just never on someone's travel paths), through environmental betterment, through positive economic impact.
Connecting our state and our country via the rails isn't political, it's personal. Bob Lien knows that first-hand.
So why on earth would you heckle someone who was on your side in fighting to have that fact better recognized by our elected officials? Because you disagree with them on a few other things?
It's that attitude that so often leads to the defeat of more lefty initiatives. The Republicans are experts at staying on message, but we progressives are notorious for diluting our battles with a million other causes. Turn up at just about any left-leaning rally and you're likely to see signs for everything from ending the Iraq War, to saving the environment, to freeing Mumia -- even if the event itself is supposed to be for gay rights.
None of this is to say that any of those other issues aren't deserving of our passion, time and efforts -- but can we please focus?
And can we please get over that desire to argue about every issue we care about all at once, at the expense of gaining allies who might agree with us on some things but not on others? That's how we have real, productive conversations. That's how things actually get done.
Resuscitating high-speed rail in Wisconsin is going to be an epic uphill battle. Walker and his allies still seem hell-bent on ending it, and all of the rallies and petitioning don't yet seem to be making a dent in that stubborn decision. But if those of us who support the train hope to see any progress made on the subject at any point in the future, we're going to need to learn to put our differences aside to build the coalition -- Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian -- to make it happen.
Never getting over Overture
There's been quite a lot of discussion around town regarding the Overture Center's future during the course of the last several years. After the national economy took a nosedive the Center's own finances --tied to the stock market in what was, in retrospect, a spectacularly bad business plan -- went south, too. Ever since then the city has been scrambling to come up with a solution to the OC's various problems. Private ownership? Public? A mix of the two?
Go back far enough, of course, and the Overture Center has been controversial from the get go. I distinctly remember a chorus of critical and skeptical voices when the initial blueprints were being announced and readied for construction. People wondered about the design and scale of the thing -- the expensive architect with no ties to the city, all those blank walls, the Jell-O mould crown, the seemingly random way the old Civic Center faade was left wedged in the middle of the new, modernist building.
And despite how one feels about the actual function of the Center, physically it does seem to jut out like an expensive sore thumb from its surroundings; the old two-story shop fronts of State Street.
So it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that eyebrows are again being raised by recently unearthed property purchases made on the blocks surrounding the Overture Center by Jerry Frautschi's private foundation, Central Focus LLC.
Frautschi is, of course, the guy who made the initial $205 million donation to see the center built. It makes sense that he would be interested in preventing "inappropriate development" around the current building. And though it may raise questions about priorities when the OC itself is in the midst of such severe financial struggles -- when the city is looking to essentially bail out the behemoth arts center -- Frautschi privately buying up adjoining property is his business. He gets to choose what he wants to do with his money.
Still, it would be more than worth it for city officials and concerned citizens to keep a close watch on whatever development plans for those properties get pitched.
Some of the properties Frautschi now owns include city landmarks at 125 State Street and 120 W. Mifflin St. In general, the 100 block of State adds a great deal to the coherency of character on the pedestrian thoroughfare, and any major changes to it should be debated long and hard.
I'm not terribly keen on ending up with more incongruous design like what we currently enjoy in the Civic Center faade/Overture Center mash-up. And I'm also not fond of the idea of losing more historic buildings (or beloved businesses, as was the case when the Radical Rye was forced out to make way for the current center).It's also important to keep in mind the already skyrocketing rents on State Street that have slowly but surely been forcing out local independents and making way for more and more chain stores. Further development of the street -- necessary, of course, to prevent the crumbling of infrastructure -- should be balanced with some sort of rent control. State Street has been a unique and awesome feature of Madison because of its individuality, something we risk losing if the locals are priced entirely out of the market.
We've already made too many mistakes when it comes to the Overture Center -- a facility with enormous potential (some of it already proved) in terms of the city's arts culture. I don't want to see the place fail. I don't want to see it act as heavy weight around the neck of the city, either. And I certainly don't want to see it used as an excuse to degrade the area around it with unchecked redevelopment.
I can only hope that, in the future, Madison spends a little more time and effort before diving into such large-scale projects (cough... Edgewater ...cough) with the potential to sink or swim entire districts. And that the OC is finally given the sound, level-headed financial and organizational support that it needs and deserves.
Being that this coming Thursday is both Thanksgiving and my day of birth, Emily's Post will be taking the day off for some much desired R&R. I would also like to extend my sincere wishes to you all for a safe and happy holiday! See you again in a week.