Friday, February 29, 2008

Most Salemmites are uninformed on the bypass road

In talking with people on Salemweb and elsewhere, a lot of people are unaware of this project. By contrast, the Salem-Beverly bridge project in the early nineties happened before the Internet, the web and blogs, but it was much better reported. The Salem News had good newspaper reporting then with frequent and substantial news updates on the bridge project. People were very ambivalent about the bridge, but they were not uninformed. That may not be the case with the bypass road.

Except for one photo in the Gazette last summer, and scattered mentions of the project, there's been little reporting on a project that directly affects not only my corner, but also all of Bridge St., including the impending Jail project.

The image above is an annotated copy of a blueprint sheet that I got from Sue Cranney, the manager of the road project, two years ago when it started. I've marked several major landmarks, including both halves of the Jefferson, the Salem Jail and the elderly housing complex on the corner of Bridge and St. Peter.

Of most interest to me and others, is the section in the middle of the print between St. Peter and Howard. This section, directly in front of the Jail, will be turned into a pedestrian path when Bridge St. is jogged towards the river to meet the new roadway.

This is, as far as I'm aware, the last major part of the road to be completed. As you can see elsewhere in my Flickr set, the lighting and traffic signals, and some of the signage, have already been in place for a while. There was a lot of digging and utility relocation done in the past two years of construction that might well be complete.

I'm concerned about the pedestrian signal to be placed on my corner. I and the Salem Commission on Disabilities asked Sue Cranney two years ago to put in voice-announcement ("Talking") signals for people with disabilities. These signals can be found at Marlboro Road, Vinnin Square and the Jefferson/Canal/Loring Ave intersection near Salem State College Central Campus. These are different, and much nicer, than the buzzing audible signals you may have run into.

We wanted these installed at Salem Depot, but when the rotary was removed, we got "regular" audible (buzzing) pedestrian signals. Apparently, they had been ordered well prior to construction before we had even met with Sue.

I hope not to be disappointed again.

The project is presently shut down for the winter but spring is not far away. It's still scheduled for completion in the summer.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Future of SATV's Audible Bulletin Board

I want to address a matter that came up at the end of February's Salem Commission on Disabilities meeting yesterday, concerning SATV and its audible bulletin board service.

SATV, like most other public access facilities, runs text announcements of upcoming community events. There's been a problem: These text announcements do not serve those who are blind or visually impaired.

For the past several years, SATV has had volunteers read announcements from a videotaped copy of the bulletin board as run. Their audio is then laid onto the tape, and this tape is run over the air just as a regular program.

Andy LaPointe, of our Commission, has been getting our volunteers. He has no trouble with this, and it's not uncommon for 10 people to show up at SATV after he goes on his radio show, looking to help. I and SATV like and appreciate this. Many volunteers have enjoyed reading announcements.

Unfortunately, while it's easy to have volunteers read announcements, our program coordinator, Dave Gauthier, had to do a lot of up-front manual work to get the audible bulletin board on the air. He has to record the existing bulletin board off the air on all three channels, import it into one of our Macs, cut it, and then run it to a third machine to do the voice overs.

Over the long term, this kind of manual effort is not doable. It didn't help that last December, the machine that runs Channel 3's announcements died and had to be replaced.

Dave, and SATV, cannot continue the service as it is right now.

I realize Andy and many other visually impaired people depend on our bulletin board. I appreciate all the support I and SATV have gotten over the years for this.

Unfortunately, with only three full time employees, SATV often has to make difficult decisions about what we can and cannot do for our community.

Oftentimes, the Commission on Disabilities has on the one hand been accused of wanting things from the community that are not realistic, but on the other hand is accused of being insensitive to the needs of the disabled. This is the nature of our board, and I would not have taken the oath if I didn't know the balance we have to take.

As a commissioner--and an experienced IT and video professional--I know well the challenges involved in making our programming accessible to people with disabilities. Ten years ago, I produced a promo for the Independent Living Center of the North Shore and Cape Ann and sent it off to a facility in Maine to be closed-captioned. Very few public-access programs are captioned for the hearing impaired; it's simply too much of a burden in time and money for the average producer or even the average access facility.

And I speak as one who wants to do this! SATV isn't required by the ADA to provide accommodations for the visually and hearing impaired. But we want to do this! SATV has hosted the Commission since 1994, and is very aware of the needs of the disabled community in Salem.

It is always frustrating as a technical professional to realize that the things we want to do and the things we can do are often not the same. I had hoped to develop an automated process to "read" announcements and assemble a voice track to go out over the air, but it is not possible with the equipment we have.

SATV is always hoping, though. We are upgrading our cablecast equipment this summer and it might yet have the features we need. It is a talking point I will use when I speak with our vendor.

In the meantime, we've been airing TIC Network audio for the visually impaired over Channel 3, and I'm glad to say that that will continue for the forseeable future.

UPDATE: We are talking with the vendor of our cablecast system to see what they can do for us. We'll either have a technological fix (most likely) or we'll look at our process again and see if we can't improve it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

MBTA cut bus and subway trips to save money

From the Herald, the T quietly dropped certain bus and subway trips for budgetary reasons. Money quote:

Grabauskas attributed the improvement to hiring about 300 employees across bus, subway and maintenance divisions. In 2004 and 2005, he said, officials kept staffing at artificially low levels so the agency could keep up-front costs down but could not field enough employees to operate its bus and subway lines.

Got it in one! I've been screwed by this at least once; I was in Boston a few years ago waiting for the 450 so I could go home. I had attended some IT seminar or another and it was around 12 PM at Haymarket. Waited for the 12:15 trip to Salem--it never came. At 12:45 I have the bright idea to ask an inspector. He calls and after some minutes tells me it didn't run because they "couldn't get a driver".

At least I got an answer. It may have not been completely truthful:

“I had one very (senior-level) person say to me, ‘We knew we were dropping bus trips, so we’d go to the communities where we were dropping trips out of garages - and we would lie to people,’ ” Grabauskas said

We don't take notice of bus service, being more concerned with commuter rail. However, I take the bus more than any other mode of the T, but to most people in Salem, it's just a way for their domestics to get to work. Or not, sometimes.

Bus-ted: T lied to cut costs -

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Salem Jail developer switching from condos to apartments

Salem News reports that the Salem Jail, slated for development for over 15 years, will be developed as apartments rather than condos. On the Housing Bubble Blog, people refer to those as "repartments".

I'm not really surprised. The economy has been cited as the main reason for this, but I believe also that the changes that this area of Salem will undergo, notably the bypass road, will be more risky than many condo owners would want.

The developers, New Boston Ventures, briefly reviewed their plans at last night's meeting of the Salem Redevelopment Authority. There will be 36 residences and 22 of them will be leased as apartments for the first five years. There will be 7 permanent parking spaces for the complex in the Museum Place garage. There will be 5 spaces reserved in the garage for the senior housing complex next door (where this blogger lives), during construction. (Interestingly, it was not mentioned in the meeting, nor did I think to ask, if these spaces would be permanent. Parking is the most serious concern in my building.)

Here's a model:

The view of the model is from St. Peter St., with Bridge St. and the bypass road to the left of the frame and St John's Church to the right. The parking entrance is the "historic house" on the right, and the main jail building is left of the center courtyard.

A restaurant has long been proposed for the jail site, but no proposals were named at the meeting; Aquitaine had a proposal for the jail site several years ago, but had since pulled out. New discussions are ongoing but are said to be at a sensitive stage.

Rental prices were not given but the condos will be in the range of $400K to 700K.

My councilor, Mike Sosnowski, was very enthusiastic and could not stop praising this project.

I don't feel the same. I'm very upset.

Why can't the SRA promote something other than condos?

The Aquitaine proposal for the restaurant at the jail was killed by its grandiose nature: There was to be a new garage at Church St. (long a dream of the city but no money.) There was going to be valet parking to Museum Place. Those things were never to come together, indeed, they're not even on the horizon now.

So the SRA tries again to develop. And makes condos. What a surprise.

I'm angry with my councilor for approving this: Mike is a working-class lobsterman. There is no way someone like him or his family or kids could afford any of the apartments even if they were feasible for him. He could not afford Aquitaine had it been developed, and he will surely not be able to afford whatever restaurant comes in there.

If one comes in.

The approval of the Salem Jail project comes on the eve of what many believe is an oncoming recession. Many in the financial blogosphere even fear that we are back in 1929, headed for another, greater depression, brought on by the massive worldwide credit bubble that may have just popped.

Imagine 2010. The developers have half-completed the project. Still no restaurant, and it's rumored there'll never be one. Joe Yuppie, a new resident of the Jail, is trying to leave house for work. He'd take the train but because of budget cuts the trains are late and when he tried taking the train, it took 20 minutes to walk to Salem Depot in the teeth of the bypass road traffic. He missed his train and he was late. His boss told him "never again!" He'd like to get a job within walking distance but Dunkin Donuts doesn't pay enough.

So he's been idling at St. Peter St. behind a line of traffic waiting to get onto Bridge. It's raining hard. He sees his neighbor walking on the street behind him. He's not one of the lucky ones--he has to walk a block and a half to Museum Place to get his car. He can't wait to move out.

So too, does Joe. Joe has been sitting in traffic for ten minutes. He fumes, knowing that when he goes through the intersection, another one awaits at Washington St., and still others at North St. or Boston St. He looks at his watch, angry. He knows it will take him 20 minutes in any direction to get out of downtown, and 20 minutes after that to even think about reaching the highway, to 128, 93 and another workday.

Is this worth $700,000?

Other photos from the SRA meeting:

Brick Sidewalk Problems

Even more sidewalk problems to report. I've written before about the many brick sidewalks in Salem and their problems. Ken Bonacci, formerly of the Salem Commission on Disabilities writes about the ongoing calls to enforce snow removal ordinances on property owners:

Reference is made to the ordinance making building owners responsible for removing snow and ice from their sidewalk within a specific time frame. Article 1, Sec. 38-13 and Sec. 38-14 "Removal of snow from sidewalks," addresses this matter as stated.

The foregoing addresses the responsibility of the homeowner. But there are two parties involved, each with their own community responsibility, the other party being the City of Salem. In this time of economic stress we are coming to learn that we must function more than as a city, we must come together as a community to solve our problems. It does not always produce the ideal solution, but rather one each side can live with in relative harmony.

Sec. 38-165: "Maintenance by city. Every sidewalk constructed under this division shall thereafter be kept in repair by the director of public services at the expense of the city."

Now we have a "shared responsibility." My being able to meet my responsibility under Article 1, Sec. 38-13, "Removal of snow from sidewalks," is predicated on the city meeting its responsibility that the sidewalk in question is in a state of repair conducive to the use of a shovel

If you have a brick sidewalk like I do, that may not be possible. Each brick is a separate and distinct walking surface. Each one rises and falls at a different rate. It gives undulation new meaning.

By their very nature, a brick sidewalk is made up of hundreds and even thousands of individual surfaces. They wear out unevenly. Their edges, never intended for foot or wheelchair, chip and crack. There are thousands of seams in a brick sidewalk, all of which collect ice which freezes and deteriorates the brick in very short order.

The brick sidewalks on Federal Street are the least passable walks anywhere in the city; frost heaves make them dramatically uneven and tree roots upheave what few straight level spots there are.

But don't hold your breath waiting for them to be fixed: They're "historic". They are an integral part of the property values of Polly Wilbert and the Federal Street Neighborhood Association.

Ken continues:

For 15 years I have complained on an annual basis, all to no avail. I understand this is a labor-intensive matter. Translation: It costs too much to repair.

That's fine; I have no problem with that. That is until I am told that I will incur a fine for noncompliance, while the city bears no equal burden. Now you want to increase that penalty while still looking the other way. That, my friends, is what is known as dictatorial and oppressive government. The illusional partnership is exposed.

If Councilor Prevey and the city want to resolve the problem--instead of ritually threatening fines every winter--he, and we, will have to confront this fact: "Historic" sidewalks everywhere in Salem are a luxury we can't afford.

We need to evaluate "historic" sidewalks throughout the city and make plans to replace some with asphalt or concrete. It is past time to reevaluate the Essex Street Mall, remove its cobblestones and determine what future it is to have, whether it be opened to traffic or remain a pedestrian zone.

The neighborhood associations need to be reminded that their decisions towards "their" neighborhoods can and do affect people in surrounding neighborhoods and even, especially, Salem as a whole. They decide for all, whether they mean to or not.

Councilor Prevey should now stop posturing and agree to get some work done on the sidewalks.

Letter: Sidewalks need to be fixed before they can be shoveled -, Salem, MA

P.S. The Salem DPW can't win for losing: At 285 Derby (SATV) and the wax museum, there is an artificial brick sidewalk installed 5 years ago. It's crumbling. Badly. Cars are taking huge pedestrian-swallowing chunks out of it. "History" seems expensive.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Votemark machines perform at the primary

The new Votemark ballot marking machines for people with disabilities have had their 2nd election.  Quote from Cheryl LaPointe via the Gazette:

There was, however, some confusion caused by new voting machines designed to assist physically disabled residents. Although the machines — one at each polling center — debuted during the city’s preliminary elections last September, many residents seeing them for the first time mistook them for ballot boxes.
“We need to add more signage for next year,” said Lapointe. “People were confused because the screen on the machines says, ‘Insert ballot here.’”
The machine, an AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal model A100, is designed to aid blind, deaf and physically disabled voters. It is equipped with a computer touch screen, audio headphones. A disabled voter slides his empty ballot into a slot in the machine and casts his vote electronically, and the computer marks the paper ballot.
On Tuesday, many non-disabled voters attempted to slide their standard, secrecy-sleeve covered ballots in the small slot, jamming it up for the users who needed it.
“Several times I had to go down and un-stick the machines,” said Lapointe. “Then we’d have to retest them to make sure they worked.” She added that one of the machines is presently out of commission due to a jam.

Mrs. LaPointe didn't specify which precincts were having problems.  I know I had a problem using the machine in Ward 2 Precinct 2;  the tray that the ballot is fed into was not folded down for use, so I couldn't feed my ballot into it until someone fixed it.  It's somewhat like feeding paper into a printer.  I did get to vote with it after all.

This will be on the agenda for our commission meeting next week.

Transportation Update

Lots of news about roads and bridges. The railroad drawbridge between Salem and Beverly will get a new swing mechanism this summer after being hit by a barge a few weeks ago. The Salem Gazette has video. The MBTA is installing new signals along the same track. And the bypass road is now substantially complete and appears on time for completion this summer, needing only the interchange at St. Peter St. to be built.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Political Alienation in Salem

The Globe is writing about "The Irritables", those citizens who don't believe in voting.  Mostly, they feel so alienated by the political process that they feel their participation doesn't matter.

I'm familiar with the argument since I participated in the Net, modems and computer bulletin boards before that.  Libertarianism and anarchism were, and still are, very prevalent political philosophies.

I don't have much of a choice but to vote tomorrow;  as I've said before, I and the Commission have fought too hard to defend our rights not to use them.  I'm certain we'll all be at our respective polling places tomorrow.

Yet, I'm very sympathetic to the "Irritables"?  How could we be so alienated from the people who we trust to run our country, our state and our community?

Whole books have been written on just that subject.  But here's a story:  I've been a volunteer at SATV ever since we opened in 1994.  In our first five years, I trained myself in all the aspects of TV production, but my best talent was (and is) in engineering and TV graphics, so my talents were well in demand by many other volunteer producers.

I was doing graphics and engineering for many shows, including almost all of the "political"  issues-based shows;  this went on for almost 7 years.  I had the opportunity to encounter a number of elected and appointed officials.

It was the most thankless job I've ever had.  To a person, most elected officials look down on the help.  When they appear on our channels, they do so as a favor to the producer and ourselves.  It's not a small jump for an official to think that those under him move to his command.

I never got the time of day from most officials as I worked to get them on the air.  One time, I was verbally blistered in public, in front of my producer and the other guest, by a candidate angry with me that I wasn't ready to put him on the air right away.

I've helped produce shows where it was obvious the host and guests were patricians,  deigning to tell the rest of Salem how they should vote and behave.  I've had producers call me to do shows at the last minute because some crony of theirs wanted the camera and wanted it right then and there.

Only once has an official been kind to me.  Some years ago, I had to work over a two day weekend to set up a show.  The show needed to be early Sunday morning as the official was campaigning in our Heritage Days parade that afternoon.

We did the show Sunday and the man stopped by the control room when the cameras stopped rolling, thanked me for my work and shook my hand.

Later on, I was at the SATV compound along the parade route, helping run cable and looking out for the other camera people.   The politicians came, one by one.

One man came up to me, shook my hand, and thanked me for my work that morning.

It was Scott Harshbarger, then running for governor.

He had my vote just then.   No other politician ever did for me what Harshbarger did just then.  Not just the handshake, but an apparently very sincere appreciation, and most importantly respect for my work.   I was very upset when he decided not to seek public office again after his defeat in the gubernatorial race.

Although I still work on one issues show, Leo Jodoin's Salem Now, I never want to work on a political show ever again.  Ever.  If I were Leo, I wouldn't even have such people on his show, having instead working-class people and others who can appreciate and respect what we do.

Sadly, many if not most, or even all, elected officials and party officials really don't respect America or its electorate.  They don't need to.  The real measure of a person, as is often said, is how they deal with people lesser than they.  Politicians fail this, and hard. 

They don't have to respect the average citizen.  They already have their power.  Lobbyists, private concerns and pressure groups give them what they need, incumbency each and every term.  Every four years, they arrange with consultants to get them the wholesale votes!   The average voter is stupid, they think, just give them their goodies and they'll go away.

In Salem, we have those groups, too.  A city councilor doesn't need to poll the voters;  he or she has the neighborhood groups, running their wards through a minority who discourage those citizens without "property values" and a large mortgage.  Developers and consultants will gladly tell the councilor how to vote.  I've often wondered just who and what the at-large seats are supposed to "represent"?

Tom Furey, one of the at-large councilors, recently got criticism for missing many meetings of the Council on Aging which he is a liason to.  Of course, politicians, like any person, often have things come up, like family emergencies and such, but the thought is firmly in mind:  Furey doesn't go to the CoA--there are more important people to meet.

I have no choice but to be knee-deep in politics.  But I sure do sympathize with those Irritables.  I just don't have an answer for them.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Voting machines ready for primary

The Salem Gazette reports that everything is ready for the presidential primary on Tuesday. The voting machines they refer to are not the Votemark machines I wrote about last fall, but the devices you slide your ballot into so that they're counted and go into the secure box. Not a lot to go wrong with those.

When I covered the special Council meeting the other night, I saw the Votemarks lined up in the back hallway in City Hall along with piles of ballots, the sure signs of an oncoming vote.

I'm undecided myself as I write this; I was a big Edwards supporter who voted for him in 2004 and wanted to vote for him in 2008. The older I get, the more I've become an angry liberal and I really admired his fight even though he, like almost every politician in the US, is in a "higher" social class than myself and most people. Then again, I liked Tsongas (RIP) and wish Scott Harshbarger would run again for public office.

I'll be there. I'll be cynical the next day but I'll be there.