Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bainbridge Sails Again

The dramatic release of the MV Maersk Alabama and the rescue of her captain from pirates off Somalia have been widely applauded as a major success for the Obama administration. But it’s not the first time the United States has flexed its muscle to protect American interests from pirates on the high seas, and it won’t be the last.

The Maersk Alabama was a 17,000 ton cargo ship containing emergency relief supplies destined for Kenya. Somali, enveloped in anarchy and poverty, has been a hotbed for pirates in recent years because of the enormous profits involved. There have been seventy pirate attacks since January, and 14 foreign ships and 260 crewmen are currently being held for ransom. The Maersk Alabama was the first American-flagged ship to be waylaid in almost 200 years.

Piracy has been around for centuries. Any local warlord with a few fast boats could hijack a passing merchant ship and hold it for ransom from its owner. Safe passage could sometimes be guaranteed in advance by the payment of tributes to local leaders, for whom it became a lucrative source of revenue. Although only used once during World War II, Article I of our Constitution authorizes Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal, meaning we could enter the piracy business if we wanted.

Dealing with piracy was one of the first great international challenges of the United States. After the American Revolution, our fledgling Navy was inadequate to protect shipping that was so essential to the country’s survival. In 1784, Congress began allocating protection money for pirates along the Barbary Coast of the Mediterranean. Thomas Jefferson, then the ambassador to France, argued that paying tribute would only encourage more attacks, but in the short run it was less expensive to pay the tribute until an adequate Navy could be built. By 1800, the ransoms and tributes we were paying amounted to twenty percent of the annual revenues of the United States.

When Jefferson became president in 1801, the ruler of Tripoli demanded $225,000 from the United States for safe passage through the Mediterranean. Jefferson refused, and began deploying ships and blockading ports on the Barbary Coast. For the next four years, American ships clashed sporadically with pirate frigates. One American ship, the USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli harbor while chasing a pirate ship, and was converted to a Tunisian gun battery against the Americans until it was torched by Stephen Decatur Jr. and the U.S. Marines four months later.

In 1805 an expedition of eight Marines and 500 mercenaries marched from Egypt to capture the city of Derna, marking the first time the American flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.

Under assault and weary of the blockade on his port, the ruler of Tripoli signed a peace treaty with the United States, exchanging captives for $60,000 in ransom. The U.S. had proven it could execute a war far from home, could support a navy, and could fight as one country rather than separate states.

When the United States became distracted with the War of 1812 with England, piracy resumed, and the United States had little choice but to start paying ransoms again.

After the war ended, the United States sent ten ships to the Barbary Coast and forced the pirate ruler to capitulate. The resulting treaty ensured no further tributes and granted the United States full shipping rights to this day.

The great irony of this story is the history behind the USS Bainbridge. Launched in 2004, she is the fifth American warship named for Commodore William Bainbridge. In 1800, as captain of the USS George Washington, it was Bainbridge who delivered American tributes to pirate leaders along the African coast. While making a delivery to the ruler in Algiers, he made the mistake of anchoring in the harbor directly under the guns of the fort. The ruler insisted that Bainbridge hoist the Algerian flag and shuttle the Algerian ambassador on an errand to Turkey, or be sunk; Bainbridge complied with the embarrassing demand, much to the delight of the pirates.

In 1803 Bainbridge was the captain of the ill-fated Philadelphia when it became stranded in Tunisia. He was held captive in Tripoli for nineteen months. After he was released as part of Jefferson’s treaty with Tripoli, he served as captain of the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 and later against the Barbary pirates after the war with England ended.

Renegade pirates are no match for Navy Seals, and it’s clear this administration will have little patience for such behavior against United States interests. It’s good to see America’s respect being earned again around the world.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bucket list

Having just turned 52, I've given some thought to some things I'd like to have on my bucket list. Here's a start.

1. Go to Switzerland and Germany for a few weeks, to visit the places my ancestors came from.

2. Take my wife to Ireland, stay in family farms, spend a few hours in a good Irish pub, just soak it all in.

3. Ride in a hot air balloon with my wife on a beautiful fall day.

4. Fly an airplane.
5. Scuba dive, preferably in one of those incredible coral locations with crystal-clear water and schools of tropical fish. No sharks, of course.
6. See Oklahoma vote Democratic again. See Oklahoma have reasons to vote Democratic again.
7. See my TKE chapters in good quality housing like I enjoyed at the University of Washington. No more dumps, no more fire traps, no more Animal Houses.
8. Be able to take light rail to work instead of driving a car.
9. Walk among the redwoods in California.
10. Landscape my backyard. Better yet, move to an acreage and do whatever I want on it.
11. Sail Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands again.

12. Pet a live lion or tiger.
13. Have dinner with any of the following: A. Jimmy Carter, B. Barack Obama, C. Bill Clinton, D. Nelson Mandela, or E. Dan Johnson.
14. Leave a legacy.

How many items should be on a bucket list?

All aboard!

Mountains of dirt, heavy road equipment and detoured roads are evidence of continuing work on the realignment of I-40 through downtown Oklahoma City. But the vacant lots between Shields and Walker are eerily quiet, as a war rages in Washington D. C. about whether there’s room for passenger rail in Oklahoma’s future.

Last summer the Surface Transportation Board – successor to the Interstate Commerce Commission – threw out the proposal to abandon the rail yard behind Union Station because of misrepresentations made to the Board. A new petition was filed, and the STB is contemplating whether it should intervene.

Without the current rail yard, Union Station would be virtually useless as a nexus for passenger rail in central Oklahoma. Recreating the station and the rail bed elsewhere would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. That means I-40 would be the main access to central Oklahoma for years to come.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual on the Crosstown Expressway. Heavy truck traffic has not been diverted, and continues to pound away at the old concrete. There’s been no effort to reroute any of the 100,000+ vehicles per day, over 95% of which is high-speed through traffic. Locally, ODOT has raised no red flags that the Crosstown is unsafe.

But ODOT is telling the STB something completely different. In a pleading filed January 30, ODOT Director Gary Ridley begged the Board to hurry up and approve the elimination of the rail yard at Union Station so ODOT can proceed with new construction contracts. The Board’s failure to act “is impacting the Department’s ability to insure the future safety of the people who use the current I-40 bridges.”

In his letter, filed through ODOT’s Philadelphia lawyer, Ridley said ODOT must continuously monitor the condition of the existing highway, and that “new serious issues including cracks in fracture critical members are constantly being discovered and repaired.”

Only two months earlier, however, Ridley assured the Oklahoma Transportation Commission that the existing highway would “absolutely” last until 2012. “If we felt there was anything wrong that would cause us concern, we would close it, and we wouldn’t think twice about it.”

Ridley, former executive director of the Oklahoma Asphalt Paving Association, doesn’t want to alarm Oklahoma taxpayers about I-40’s safety under his watch. The ten-lane realignment, after all, was supposed to be completed this year; that obviously hasn’t happened. Delays and cost overruns unrelated to Union Station have already bumped it back at least three years. ODOT’s stumble with the STB won’t help. It was ODOT and its allies, after all, who misrepresented material facts to the STB in the first place.

The real reason for Ridley’s letter may be the change in leadership in Washington. The Obama administration is decidedly more supportive of passenger rail than the previous administration. On March 13, Chairman Doug Buttrey, a Republican and former lobbyist for Federal Express, resigned from the board. President Obama will be appointing his replacement soon, subject to Senate confirmation. President Obama appointed current Board member Francis Mulvey, a Democrat, to succeeded Buttrey as chairman. The term of Charles Nottingham, another Republican, will end December 31. The new STB will likely be more supportive of passenger rail, which is not good news for ODOT’s current posture. It’s no wonder Mr. Ridley wanted the old board to make that decision before the tide turned.

More recently, Mr. Ridley has said it would cost $2 billion to build high-speed rail between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and therefore it’s unfeasible. But that’s a straw man argument. The state owns over 800 miles of railroad, including a perfectly good track between the stations in downtown Oklahoma City and Tulsa that can support passenger rail with minimal upgrades. There is support for light rail within the metro areas, both locally and in Washington. The key to economic growth is the convenience of transportation. Edmond, Norman, Midwest City, Tinker, Shawnee, Yukon and Oklahoma City would all benefit. What the state lacks is the willpower to make passenger rail a reality.

The test of good government is not how much money you can spend, or how big a highway you can build. The test is how effectively you can provide the common services needed for the economy to run smoothly and the people to prosper. It takes smart, progressive thinking.

ODOT’s club-fisted handling of the I-40 project has at least tripled the projected cost. One wonders if it wouldn’t have been less costly to just run through traffic in a tunnel beneath the new boulevard, saving millions of dollars in land acquisition and construction costs.

ODOT never considered putting I-40 underground, of course, and that’s not a practical alternative today. But it is time for ODOT to leave the Union Station rail yard alone and move ahead with a modified I-40 realignment. Moreover, it’s time for ODOT to start supporting passenger rail transportation in Oklahoma.

The photo shows a Parry Transit light rail car in England, an ideal product for use in urban communities in the United States.