Tom Keane Jr writes a perspective column for the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. In addition, he has recently begun writing a fortnightly review for the Boston Globe. Previously, he wrote for the Boston Herald for several years. Below are three examples of what he has written.


Commuter Rail's False Promise

As we all know, commuter rail is a Good Thing and the automobile is a Bad Thing. Trains are clean, provide cheap transportation, and get us to our destination quickly and efficiently. They discourage sprawl, with each station serving as a nexus for the "smart growth" so beloved by the new urbanist crowd. Cars, on the other hand, are the polluting, expensive, congestion-producing banes of the environment. These are the certainties that have been behind much of our public transportation policy and are behind, for example, the state’s $500 million investment in the soon-to-be-opened Greenbush Line.

In fact, though, many of these certainties may be untrue. A surprising analysis by Harvard-educated urban planner Eric Beaton adds more meat to the bones of some faint but persuasive arguments that call into question the value of fixed-rail mass-transit systems. Beaton looked at development patterns around commuter-rail terminals over the past 100 years. His study, published in September by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, contained some disconcerting results. (Disclosure: I’m an unpaid member of Rappaport’s board of advisers.) One would think, for instance, that new commuter-rail stations might encourage development nearby. It turns out they don’t. Areas around train stations are only modestly more developed than anywhere else. One would also think that new stations might encourage more use of public transit. That is also untrue. The number of people using transit to get to work is largely unchanged by the addition of new stations.

Those results may seem counterintuitive but, upon reflection, make enormous sense. Take a look at the MBTA’s lovely color-coded maps of its rail system. All lines run into Boston. That would be smart planning if Boston were where all of the employers were. However, though that may have been largely true a century ago, today just a quarter of the jobs in the metropolitan region are downtown. Instead, you’ll find them along the beltways – Route 128 and Interstate 495 – and at office parks in between.

Besides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typical worker holds a job for just four years. So, when it comes time to buy a house, there is little value in getting something close to a rail station. After all, most jobs can’t be accessed from one (try, for example, taking the T from Medway to the Westborough Technology Park – it can’t be done). And even if your current job happens to be downtown, the odds are that your next job will be elsewhere.

There’s more. Commuter rail is skewed toward serving the affluent. Unlike buses or subways, rail largely connects well-off suburbanites to downtown jobs in high-paid fields such as finance and law. Moreover, new rail stations have a trivial effect on automobile use, meaning they do little to help the environment. (In fact, according to the MBTA’s own data, commuter rail – which relies on diesel-powered trains – often increases the emissions of nitrogen oxides, which can contribute to the formation of smog.) And travel by rail is not as inexpensive as its advocates would have you believe. If you own a car already, the cost of driving may actually be cheaper.

Yet, what’s the alternative? More cars? Perhaps. As Beaton’s study points out, back before widespread adoption of the automobile, rail stations were popular places for development. But cars changed the ways we live and work. Employers began to locate outside of cities, where land was cheap. People moved to the suburbs, lured by the prospect of owning their own plot of land. Today, even with high gas prices and crowded roads, people love the privacy, comfort, and extraordinary freedom they get from their automobiles.

Can we put the genie back in the bottle? I doubt it. And if that’s the case, rather than fruitlessly trying to get people out of their cars, perhaps we should simply concede the battle and make the best of it. Encourage carpooling and hybrids, raise fuel standards, introduce congestion pricing on toll roads, and (I know this makes some gasp) expand our highway system. But more commuter rail? That’s just a train in vain.


Stay Out of Their Closets

One can understand the impulse. The kids get out of line, and a frustrated adult lays down the law: "From now on you will always. . ." Of course, the decree is probably unenforceable and too extreme and doesn't do much to help them grow up, but for the moment, it feels good. That seems to be the misguided impulse driving the City Council's new effort to bring uniforms into Boston's public schools. These teenagers, you know. They show too much skin; their pants are so baggy; their waistlines creep ever lower. Combine these with teen violence, our hypersexualized society, and the general feeling that there is something uniquely wrong with this generation of children and – damn it – it's time to clamp down. It may be, as one of the councilors sponsoring the measure admits, "only a Band-Aid," but, hey, that's sometimes more than kids these days are wearing!

Lamentations about the state of children's dress – or undress – have probably been around since the first toga, reaching their apex during the 1960s and '70s, when hair and clothing became the overt symbols of rebellion. Back then, they were burning bras. Now they wear them, but the straps are showing. The issue pops up regularly because of the nature of adolescence. Having lived in the cocoon of their parents' protection for 10 to 15 years, teens want to break free. The sweet things who once so admired Mom and Dad suddenly become obnoxious, adopting their own styles of clothes, music, politics, and communication. They don't obey our commands, refuse to listen to our good advice, and engage in all manner of activities – some genuinely dangerous – that worry their elders sick. So why not try uniforms?

Ask those who are actually running schools, and they'll give you the equivalent of rolling one's eyes upward. Boston and other districts in the area already have rules that allow individual schools to establish dress codes or even require uniforms. Most have put common-sense requirements in place. "Transparent blouses and shirts are not permitted," reads one of the rules at Brockton High School. Belmont High School prohibits "clothing depicting references to alcohol, drugs, sex, tobacco products, violence, hate groups, [and] other harassing categories." And Brighton High forbids "T-shirts that are visually or verbally offensive." The general attitude of them all, as Boston Latin School puts it, is that "students should dress appropriately for the business of education." And they do. "In general, kids show wonderful judgment," says Jocelyn Meek, a spokeswoman at Brockton Public Schools. "We don't have a lot of problems." Peter Holland, superintendent of the Belmont Public Schools, says, "It's not an issue." School officials, quite frankly, worry far more about tight budgets and crumbling buildings. Of course, there are kids who cross the line – but when that happens, schools don't go running to politicians for a solution. "We believe we're able effectively to deal with those issues on a case-by-case basis," says Toby Romer, headmaster at Brighton High. That's a sentiment echoed by other educators. Most of the time, they don't elevate bad dress to the level of some epic clash between adults and teens. Rather, it's a disciplinary issue best managed in the same way teachers and administrators manage other behavioral problems. (Schools don't always get it right, however. Last month, for example, Boston Latin Academy went way overboard when it suspended students for wearing costumes on Halloween.) That's not to say that stricter dress codes or even uniforms are never warranted. The key task of every school administrator is to create a culture that encourages learning. If for whatever reason student dress is interfering with that task, then perhaps a new policy is appropriate. Still, that's an issue of pedagogy, not politics. Brighton's Romer certainly has the authority to require uniforms, but, he says, "I'm not pushing for it." He doesn't think it would be worth the effort. Rather than making his job easier, he fears uniforms would become a "distraction." Or, as Belmont's Holland notes, "Kids would see it as an overreaction – a punishment of all for the sins of a few." It's a punishment that is neither needed nor deserved.


The Kindness of Tax Payers

In the waning days of his administration, as the wolves were starting to circle and friends were looking few, Matt Amorello, head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority until August, started handing out money. The Boston College Associates Program got $5,000, as did a community health center in the North End. In all, according to a report in the Globe, Amorello distributed more than $52,000 to charities in the first six months of this year - more than four times the Turnpike Authority's rate of charitable giving in 2005. The obvious implication: Amorello was trying to buy support from prominent political leaders by contributing to their favorite causes.

Perhaps you're not shocked. This kind of behavior, the cynics among us suspect, happens all the time. Yet that doesn't make it right. Moreover, some wondered in the wake of the revelations, what's the Turnpike Authority, or any other government agency for that matter, doing handing out money to charities? Since any money the government has is taken from us by coercion - by way of taxes, fees, and the like - all of this smacks of compulsory giving. It just shouldn't be allowed.

That's a good, clean answer - but also entirely unrealistic. Charities and governments are deeply intertwined, so much so that each now relies on the other. Most private human service and arts charities receive state and federal funds to carry out their work. So, too, do many international organizations, such as CARE. It's understandable. For one, charities existed well before the rise of the social welfare state during the mid-20th century. Sometimes, rather than creating their own organizations, governments just provided funds to help nonprofits do their work. Moreover, charities have advantages over the government: They're less bureaucratic, more efficient, and frequently have better relationships with the clients they serve.

There are dangers to this, however. The Bush administration's funding of faith-based organizations oftentimes crosses the line between church and state. And from a charity's perspective, there is the risk of Seducing the Samaritan, the title of a 1997 book by the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based public policy think thank. The lure of government money can be powerful, causing nonprofits to change their mission or compromise their ideals to win a grant. As a result, some organizations, especially advocacy or policy focused groups, largely refuse government money or apply strict tests on independence and disclosure to any they might receive. And then there is the risk that government money can undermine a charity itself - a situation that Catholic Charities faced earlier this year when its church-based precepts clashed with the state's insistence that it permit adoptions by gay and lesbian couples.

These are all troubling issues. However, they don't really touch on the problems with the Turnpike Authority, where the donations appeared politically motivated and seemed outside the scope of the authority's charter. Of course, it makes sense when the National Endowment for the Arts funds a mural project or the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services hires the YMCA to help out with troubled teens - done after the recipients have participated in a competitive bidding process. But what is a state transportation agency doing handing out money to homeless shelters (as it did last November) or holding charity golf tournaments for Toys for Tots (as it does every year)?

Still, it seems mean-spirited to frown on helping the homeless. And sometimes the donations fit within the agency's mission. The Massachusetts Port Authority, for example, liberally dispenses money to community groups, underwriting sailing programs at Piers Park and handing out grants to South Boston nonprofits. It's an attempt to buy good will from communities affected by Logan Airport - a kind of bribe, if you will.

The real problem is that we have no idea how much of this stuff goes on (indeed, the state's budgeting system doesn't track charitable contributions separately). The solution is disclosure - at all levels. Change budgeting systems, require donations to be visible, and make them subject to public accountability. It doesn't really bother me if the Turnpike Authority makes a small donation to clean up Boston Harbor. But for it to fund a charity's award dinner honoring an influential pol? That's altogether different.



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