Destination bridge

What the new bridge will look like.

What the new bridge will look like.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

The new pedestrian bridge to go over the Providence River, with its opening scheduled for later this year, is indeed expensive. GoLocal reports, for example, that the project is now estimated to cost $1,470 a square foot – 145 percent more, for example, than the estimated per-square-foot cost to replace the Henderson Bridge (aka “Red Bridge’’), linking Providence’s East Side and East Providence!

But the pedestrian bridge, in downtown Providence (“The Creative Capital’’?), will have aesthetic features (including custom-fabricated steel and a wooden (love it!) decking system) befitting its location (essentially on the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design, perhaps America’s most famous art school). It will not only be a pleasant way to travel between downtown and the East Side/College Hill/Fox Point; it will also be a destination point, where many people will linger on nice days. Sort of a mini-park. It should even lure some tourists (and their restaurant, etc., dollars) to the city. So special attention and added costs seem reasonable.

To read the GoLocal piece, please hit this link.

But sell the reservoir?


From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

‘Congratulations to Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza’s administration for ending fiscal 2018 with a $9.2 million surplus, for the third surplus in as many years. This leaves a modest rainy day fund of $11.3 million.

Mayor Elorza’s chief of staff, Nicole Pollock, said “This surplus was achieved primarily through realistic budgeting practices, a steady increase in tax collections, a hiring freeze on nonessential employees, better departmental revenue and reduced operational expenses.’’

But the last few years have been relatively prosperous. What happens in the next recession? And what about the city’s unfunded pension liability of $1 billion?

So the city should continue to investigate whether it can sell the Scituate Reservoir for several hundred million dollars.

Providence's Urban Innovation Project

On the Woonasquatucket River, in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood.

On the Woonasquatucket River, in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood.

From The New England Council (

“The City of Providence recently announced a partnership with anchor institutions to drive urban innovation. Mayor Jorge O. Elzora explained that this partnership would revitalize two innovation districts in Providence, one in the Jewelry District and another along the Woonasquatucket River Corridor, by prioritizing public and private investments in those areas.

Providence’s Urban Innovation Partnership echoes a model embraced by many other cities across the country, where city governments are considering how to thoughtfully partner with local businesses. Officials believe that partnering to grow the economy in Providence in a way that serves the diversity of the city will ensure a collective success. In efforts to advance their vision, the City of Providence has selected Boston-based Venture Café Foundation to serve as “Urban Innovation Districts Maker Incubator Program Manager” to help organize collaboration between various local institutions.

Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said in his announcement, ‘Through the Urban Innovation Partnership we’re making a commitment to work collaboratively because we know that Providence’s future success requires that our diverse anchor institutions join us at the table. Our city has so many existing resources and strengths and to truly advance them we must work shoulder to shoulder to support innovation and job growth in our capital city.’

Try to glom onto megacity wealth

The Boston skyline from across the Charles River in Cambridge.

The Boston skyline from across the Charles River in Cambridge.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Emily Badger had a very important story in the Dec. 24 New York Times entitled “The Megacity, Untethered: Urban Giants are going global but losing their connections with smaller neighbors’’.

It basically says the such big globalized high-tech cities as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle no longer need as much their old connections with manufacturing centers, both nearby or elsewhere in America. She writes:

“The companies that now drive the Bay Area’s soaring wealth — and that represent part of the American economy that’s booming — don’t need these communities in the same way. Google’s {which also has a large operation in Cambridge/Boston} digital products don’t have a physical supply chain. Facebook doesn’t have dispersed manufacturers. Apple, which does make tangible things, now primarily makes them overseas.’’}

“A changing economy has been good to the {San Francisco} region, and to a number of other predominantly coastal metros like New York, Boston and Seattle. But economists and geographers are now questioning what the nature of their success means for the rest of the country. What happens to America’s manufacturing heartland when Silicon Valley turns to China? Where do former mill and mining towns fit in when big cities shift to digital work? How does upstate New York benefit when New York City increases business with Tokyo?’’

So how do the old manufacturing cities of, for example, Worcester and Providence deal with this problem? They become lower-cost extensions of Greater Boston, using their higher-education institutions to supplement the work being done in Greater Boston. They’re better positioned to do this sort of thing than are most old American mid-sized cities.

CVS-Aetna merger: Who would benefit besides top execs and other shareholders?


From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Besides senior executives and other Aetna shareholders, who would benefit most from CVS’s $69 billion acquisition of Aetna?

Well, the  new behemoth’s pharmacy benefit management operation might use its even greater bargaining power with drug makers to negotiate down the extreme, indeed extortive, cost of so  many prescription drugs in such a way as to benefit consumers. But I doubt it. It’s  more likely that they’ll keep the savings to benefit CVS-Aetna senior executives and other shareholders and consumers will see little if any benefit from that.

Indeed, if the merger drives competitors out of business, CVS might, in the fullness of time and pricing power, increase other prices for its captive customer base a lot. But with giant insurer UnitedHealth Group also getting into the big-time clinic business, too, maybe that might not happen.

Anyway, much good can come from this combination.

The merger is part of CVS’s plan to turn itself into a much-wider-service health-care provider, building on its rapidly expanding chain of Minute Clinics. There, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and regular nurses are joining with pharmacists to offer many services that you’d once have to go to a doctor’s office or hospital to get, at very high cost.  After all, U.S. physicians are highest paid in the world, co-payments are jumping, etc. A brief visit to a hospital emergency room shows that far too many patients go to that very expensive venue for problems that could better be addressed in a, well, Minute Clinic. The aging of the population, and thus a flood of sicker people, especially raises the potential of Minute Clinic-like health-care retailers to slow surging health-care costs, or some of them anyway.

Indeed, whatever happens with drug prices at the likes of CVS-Aetna, consumers can save time, and thus money, by using a facility that will offer many primary-care services beyond pills, such as  medical tests, physical exams and medical consultations, as well as food and other products. Life can be frantic. One-stop shopping is very attractive. At the least, these centers might help you cut down on transportation costs.

Getting your health insurance from the same organization where you get much of your health care may also make your life easier.  For one thing, the sharing of patient data between the insurance side and the provider (CVS) may facilitate better care, especially for those with such chronic ailments as heart disease. But, yes, it will also make your personal data more vulnerable to computer hacking from crooks domestic or foreign (especially the Russians and Chinese)….

But again, much depends on whether the merger ends up squashing CVS-Atena competitors so much that the behemoth can jack up prices, including for insurance. Many patients may find themselves trapped in expensive “health-care hubs.’’ Always remember that most companies care far more about their senior executives and other shareholders than anyone else.

And the CVS-Aetna deal is more bad news for hospitals and physician groups: The new entity will probably drain away many of their patients.

Unless executives of the new outfit decide they really want the glamour of a big city headquarters and move it to, say, New York or Boston (remember Fleet Financial Group leaving Providence for Boston?), the merger is good news for Rhode Island, both psychologically (having such an even bigger company based here) and in the new employees that CVS-Aetna would presumably need to hire here for additional administrative, marketing and other headquarters-related work.

But don’t bet the farm on CVS keeping its headquarters in Woonsocket. Increasingly, those working at corporate headquarters, especially younger up-and-coming employees,  and the executive suite, like to be in a dynamic city instead of some suburban-style office park.

So Providence’s Financial District, once an important banking center, might eventually host CVS-Aetna headquarters. Given that Aetna is a financial company that would be fitting. And the Rhode Island School of Design’s  army of graphic and other designers would be next door;  a few blocks away would be the Brown Medical School. Both very handy for a consumer health-care chain. There’s been chatter lately that toy-and-entertainment giant Hasbro might consider moving its headquarters to downtown Providence. Wouldn't it be nice if this old city once again became a major corporate headquarters town?


Maybe city managers can govern better than mayors


From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

Worcester’s bonds are rated Aa3 while Providence’s are a much lower Baa1. Worcester is in most ways a considerably less important city than Providence, and with a smaller economic and institutional base.

So what explains the rating difference? I’d guess Providence’s continuing failure to get its pension and other employee costs under control is the biggest factor.  That’s at least in part because Worcester has a city manager system,  which encourages professional (“technocratic’’) administration with far more insulation from political and special-interest pressures (e.g., municipal unions) than you get in a traditional mayoral system like Providence’s. The lower the bond rating, the higher the interest rate that a city must pay and the higher the taxes to pay the bond interest.

Realty tax breaks benefit whom the most?



Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

This comment from the Providence Rules Web site is well worth discussion in most cities:

“The City of Providence is giving away tens of millions of dollars in tax subsidies to real estate developers to do what they were going to do anyway. Booming demand for residential housing — particularly rental units for students and trainees in our educational and healthcare institutions — has made real estate development a profitable enterprise without any government subsidy. These real estate tax subsidies are not enhancing economic development in Providence. They are simply enriching a few individuals at the expense of the rest of us.’’

Hit this link to read more.

The taxes that others don’t pay because of these deals, the rest of us have to make up for. And the hype of the entry into a city of a big-name company obscures that, say, 10 smaller, little-known companies may be leaving. Of course, sometimes a big, famous company comes in and starts buying a lot of goods and services from local companies. Economic development is complicated.

Llewellyn King: Houston may bring about sea change in climate public policy

On a street in Houston this week.

On a street in Houston this week.

Almost every word that can be used to describe a disaster has been used to describe the one that has befallen Houston. But there is one that hasn’t been used yet: seminal. It means a work, event, moment or figure strongly influencing later developments.

The flooding of Houston and the Gulf Coast is such an event. It will influence public policy for decades to come.

First, there is going to be the gigantic national job of rebuilding the nation’s fourth-largest city — and quite possibly abandoning large parts of it. It will affect property values in flood-prone cities, like Miami, New Orleans, New York and Tampa, Fla. It will result in urgent calls for the construction of new flood barriers, or the beefing up of those that already exist in cities like Providence and New Bedford, Mass.

Going forward, there will be a new existential threat felt in the United States: climate uncertainty. It will not matter whether the Houston disaster is linked to the burning of fossil fuels. What will matter is that the warnings of dramatic changes in climate will have an influence they have not hitherto had.

The sky has fallen.

The aberrant weather — which has not only assaulted Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, with flooding but also, among other weather disasters around world, to  agriculture in much of Sub-Saharan Africa with severe drought — now will be a real concern to Americans. We will start to take notice of floods in faraway places.

Leaving aside whether human activity is contributing to the disasters, climate uncertainty will move to the very front of the national agenda, and it will influence our politics and sensitize us to the warnings of scientists. Those who have thought climate change to be some kind of liberal scheme to punish big coal, big gas and big oil will get short shrift in the court of public opinion.

President Trump went out on a limb, urging more coal production, trashing the Paris climate accord, disbanding the federal advisory panel for the National Climate Assessment, shrinking the Environmental Protection Agency and undoing its rules, including the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. But the Houston disaster may have him climbing back.

There will be other changes affecting public policy as the nation moves forward. A debt ceiling increase without a shutdown is now assured: No one in Congress or the White House will want stories of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees being furloughed while people are still in shelters in and around Houston — and where they might be for a very long time.

There might be a change ahead for Trump’s plan, still vague, for a tax overhaul. Large tax cuts may not be appealing to Congress as it contemplates the enormous new costs for cleanup, demolition and construction along the Gulf Coast, and for fortifying coastal cities.

Texas will be seeking and getting masses of federal aid. With its powerful congressional delegation and political friends at all levels in the Republican Party, Texas will be hard to deny. It is going to be all Texas, all the time on the news and on Capitol Hill for weeks and months, even years.

Meanwhile, huge flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal will help to buttress climate fear. According to the United Nations, The New York Times reports, at least 41 million people in those three countries have been directly affected by flooding and landslides resulting from severe monsoon rains this summer; and more than 1,000 have died in floods across South Asia.

This will increase the pressure on the Trump administration to make climate a policy priority. If the president won’t, Congress will; and it will be because of Houston. New electric generation — wind, solar and possibly nuclear — and electrified cars and trucks will be the winners.

It’s no longer the economy, stupid. Now it’s the climate, stupid — and it will be for decades. Something truly seminal has happened.

Llewellyn King ( is executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, and a frequent contributor to New England Diary.  This first ran in Inside Sources.

The hurricane barrier in Providence.

The hurricane barrier in Providence.

Retail will churn: Deal with it

Thayer Street, Providence   -- Photo by Infrogmation

Thayer Street, Providence

-- Photo by Infrogmation

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The current issue of East Side Monthly, which serves Providence upscale neighborhood, hasa long article by Amanda Grosvenor is about Thayer Street, on Providence’s College Hill. The basic theme is that the street, long seen as Providence’s Harvard Square because of the proximity of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, has become less“edgy’’ and “funky’’ as some of the quirky stores have moved out and other, presumably more boring stores and, especially, restaurants, have moved in. Indeed, it’s now mostly a restaurant strip.

But such changes never stop.  Retail is always a churn.

My wife and I first lived in Providence in the late ‘70s, before exiling ourselves to France, and remember that back then, the street was rather stodgy, not edgy, with shops (or “shoppes”) appealing to “blue-haired ladies.’’

The biggest Thayer Street retail disaster in recent years was the closing of the College Hill Bookstore, a wonderful place to browse and buy. It had a much more interesting collection of booksand periodicals than the nearby Brown Bookstore, which has been sliding into mediocrity for years. The College Hill Bookstore’s owner, local real-estate mogul Ken Dulgarian, decided that he could make more money with another tenant, Spectrum India, which sells boring (to me) cheap clothes, jewelry and other stuff generally associated with the Subcontinent and/or retro hippies.

But bless Mr. Dulgarian for keeping the high-end, intimate and Art Deco’ish Avon Cinema going with an electic and exciting mix of films, big and small. (More comfortable seats  and a better sound system, however, would be appreciated.)

I think that there’s still a future for small stores with good service and a commitment to neighborhoods, especially the most attractive and walkable ones. I’m not so sure about the big physical stores, such as Macy’s. These brick-and-mortar outlets (and yes, of course they also have Web sites from which you can order) are being walloped by Amazon. Thus store traffic is way down  in many of them and these retailers respond to that by keeping fewer and fewer items in stock.

In my case, which I’m sure is common, I find that they often lack the sizes that they used they have, and as Americans become ever fatter this won’t get better. Being by American standards (but not the rest of the world’s) thin, I now must order almost all my clothes online. (That’s not much; I’m no clothes horse.)  The Web, being so huge,  has my  small size. So that’s one less customer willing to go to a real, physical store. Vicious circle and all that.

Trying to control unhealthy self-medication

Adapted from Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

The new ordinance banning smoking outdoors in  part of downtown Providence reflects the confusions and hypocrisies of American policies regarding tobacco and some other drugs (such as alcohol). On the one hand we say that smoking is very unhealthy and leads to many thousands of deaths a year and vast health expenses, on the other hand, tobacco products are legal and pull in billions of dollars a year in tax money. (Some argue that smoking, by causing early and often fast deaths,  actually saves on overall national health costs: Fewer of those too-expensive old folks who take so long to expire.)

I think that the new ordinance isn’t a bad idea. It may extend a few lives, including of those people who must breathe in second-hand smoke in situations such as waiting for buses at Kennedy Plaza. And there will be fewer cigarette butts and other smoking-related litter on the streets and sidewalks.

Smoking is self-medication for many mentally ill people, many, perhaps most of whom suffer from intense anxiety. Thus, assuming that the Providence police are willing and able to enforce the smoking ban, you might find fewer insane people hanging around downtown scaring some “normal people’’.  That, presumably, would be good for most retail and other businesses. But in our unfortunate era of deinstitutionalization, where will the mentally ill go? I’d guess that many will simply move to the edge ofdowntown, to join the ones below my window at the corner of Orms and Charles streets.

Now back to the scarier substance-abuse problem – opiate addiction and lethal overdoses.


Bankruptcy filing would be a basis for Providence resurgence

From Robert Whitcomb's Dec. 15 "Digital Diary'' in

Ken Block, the systems analyst and formerRhode Island gubernatorial candidate, and Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro, are right to urge that Providence promptly be put into bankruptcy protection. (I have said for years that the city should do this.)

The city’s vast $1.9 billion liability for unfunded pensions and capacious retiree health benefits, and largely intransigent municipal unions, make it impossible for the city to dig itself out of its hole unless it goes into bankruptcy, with a  highly experienced, decisive and tough receiver appointed by a federal judge to make drastic and long-overdue changes.

The aforementioned liabilities can be blamed largely on  past mayors’ (especially the late, outstandingly corrupt  thug Vincent Cianci) sweetheart deals with labor unions in return for their political support,  and wishful thinking about, for instance, the rates of return possible for the city’s investments.

Paying for this immense debt eats up money that otherwise could go into better city services and lower taxes. Better services and lower taxes would, of course, make Providence much more attractive to taxpaying businesses and individuals that might consider moving to it. The city’ssuperb location, distinguished educational and other institutions (albeit too many of themofficially “nonprofit’’ and thus sharing little of  the tax burden) and many cultural charms would have drawn many businesses, large and small, over the past few decades if its fiscal condition had been healthy.

Providence is already effectively bankrupt. It’s past time to accept that and enter a fast and efficient bankruptcy process. Detroit has recently done just that and is now enjoying a revival. So has Central Falls. And Providence has much more going for it in the long run than Detroit, especially in  location and institutions. It’s embarrassing for politicians and residents in general to admit that their city is bankrupt, but energizing to know that bankruptcy can help shovel out the manure left by years of irresponsible governance.

Disinfecting Providence’s finances would, of course, be a big boost to all of Rhode Island, which is in many ways a city-state, and indeed to all of southeastern New England, of which Providence is the center.



A Providence Guatemala Summit

On Oct. 11-16, the City of Providence will host the Providence Guatemala Summit. Dignitaries from Guatemala, led by Former Guatemala President and now Guatemala City  (the nation’s capital) Mayor Alvaro Arzu, will visit with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza and other city and state dignitaries and sign a Sister City agreement between Providence and Guatemala City. The dignitaries will also help broker relationships between business counterparts from both nations.  Mayor Elorza’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala.

This agreement will expand economic, cultural, and academic exchanges between Providence and Guatemala, as well as acknowledge the substantial Latino(a) community in Providence and, more broadly, in southern New England.  Note that Providence hosts the Guatemalan Consulate for New England.

Former President Arzu negotiated an agreement in 1996 to end a bloody 36-year civil war.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace pact, Mayor Arzu will speak on Oct. 12 at noon to 1 p.m. in the Joukowsky Forum at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, on Thayer Street, Providence, in a conference titled “Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the End of the Guatemalan Civil War, and Thoughts on Guatemala’s future.’’  See or call (401) 863-2809 for further information.

Charles Chieppo: Will Providence, teetering on a fiscal cliff, finally face reality?

The longer a government's finances are allowed to deteriorate, the fewer options there are when corrective action is finally taken. Anyone who doubts that ought to look at a proposed 10-year plan commissioned by Providence and produced by the federal National Resource Network (NRN). It makes a number of important recommendations, almost all of which would require very unpleasant decisions --  the kind that all too many local governments are facing after years and decades of imprudent fiscal decisions.

Providence is confronted with tremendous fiscal challenges, ones severe enough that they could lead to municipal bankruptcy. The city faces an ongoing structural budget gap, one of the drivers of which is payments needed to rescue a public employees' pension that is officially just 27.4 percent funded.

The real pension picture is even worse, because that official funding ratio is based on the wildly unrealistic assumption that fund assets will earn an annual return of 8.25 percent. And there is more than $1 billion in unfunded liability for retiree health care.

The city also has a comparatively low credit rating, which boosts the cost of borrowing. The degree to which new taxes can be relied upon to raise more revenue is limited: Providence's property taxes and its overall household tax burden are already among the highest in New England. Business taxes also are well above average.

The recommendations by NRN, a public-private consortium that is a component of the Obama administration's Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative, could serve as a template for action for just about any fiscally struggling local government. To begin with, NRN suggests monetizing city assets and using the receipts to pay down pension and retiree health-care liabilities. A city-owned golf course could be sold, and the Providence Water Supply Board, which operates the state's primary system of reservoirs, water treatment and water distribution, could be leased with a large up-front payment to the city.

NRN also calls for suspending city retirees' cost-of-living adjustments. But a more radical recommendation is to freeze the existing defined-benefit pension fund and convert to a defined-contribution plan under which the city would be responsible only for contributing a set amount, not making specific periodic payments to retirees.

Other recommendations would also affect city workers. One calls for a dramatic reduction in raises based solely on longevity; another recommends reducing the number of paid holidays that employees receive. The Fire Department is a particular area of concern, one that provides yet another reminder of the perils of making topics beyond pay and benefits subjects for collective bargaining. The department has overtime costs and minimum staffing levels that are the highest among eight comparable New England cities. NRN suggests suspending existing minimum staffing levels once overtime spending reaches a set threshold. A more dramatic recommendation is that the city look at reducing the size of its fire department.

The story of how Providence dug itself into such a deep fiscal hole is a familiar one. During the 1990s, the city spent countless millions, most of it financed with debt, developing its downtown area. Unlike so many other cities that invested heavily in their downtowns, Providence did get something for its money: It soon gained a reputation as one of the nation's hippest medium-sized cities. But amid all of the attention city leaders seemed to forget that those creditors would eventually expect to be paid back.

Downtown Providence is indeed vibrant, but now the bills are coming due and the path to solvency has become extremely narrow. Whether Providence and its residents will find the will to take that difficult path remains to be seen. If the city does rise to the challenge, it might even end up providing a map for other cities facing similar self-inflicted fiscal crises.

Charles Chieppo ( is the principal of Chieppo Strategies, LLC, a public policy writing and advocacy firm. He is also a research fellow at the Ash Center of Harvard Kennedy School, where he is contributing editor to the “Better, Faster, Cheaper” blog on

In 2003 to 2005, Mr. Chieppo was policy director in Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance, where he led the Romney administration’s successful effort to reform the commonwealth’s public-construction laws, helped develop and enact a new charter school funding formula, and worked on a variety of public-employee labor issues such as pension reform and easing state restrictions against privatization.  This piece first ran on

Providence panhandling out of control

Providence officials must be willing to take on the ACLU and address the ever-more-serious panhandling and loitering problem in Providence. It seems obvious that the city’s failure to stop this epidemic is drawing in more panhandlers in what is not really a freedom-of-speech issue but  a public-disorder one. These people are causing traffic problems, littering and harassing citizens just trying to go about their business.  And, of course, hurting the economy. Time to enforce common-sense ordinances. Go up to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

-- Robert Whitcomb

Robert Whitcomb: Open woods; the aim is merely fame; Art Deco challenge

A version of this first ran in the Digital Diary feature on

The other week, as I drove through miles of woodsin inland southern New England where caterpillars had consumed the leaves of so many trees, I thanked God that no one has suggested spraying to kill the creatures. You hear enough about massive spraying campaigns to kill mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

The trouble with these campaigns is that they kill a lot more than the targeted culprits. They kill, for example, bees, which we need for pollination of our crops,  as well as birds, fish and many other creatures.

The trees will come back without chemical bombing. For now, we can enjoy the eerie sight of midsummer woods looking like November’s.


In picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Donald Trump has shown yet again that he really doesn’t have any “policies.’’ His only real apparent interest is maintaining himself as a “winner’’ and Mr. Pence might help.

Mr. Pence’s support for “free-trade’’ agreements that have helped kill jobs and lower wages in the U.S.; his backing for open immigration (which also cuts U.S. wages), and his evangelical  Christian views don’t jibe with Mr.  Trump’s rhetoric or behavior.

Mr. Trump has two main issues:  Crack down on “free trade’’ and on immigration. On the latter, he wants to kick out 11 million illegals, build a “wall’’ on the Mexican border and make it tough for Muslims to enter America. Operational details to come.


The governor has also been a loyal servant of the Koch Brothers and other very rich  people.  For a time, Mr. Trump made  vague populist noises about the need to reduce the power of  Wall Street big shots and Washington lobbyists but that has gone away as he realizes the Republican reality. The public has less and less patience with details anyway, and citizens rarely remember what a candidate said a few months back.

Judging by how he has conducted his business and much of his personal life, The Donald would rank high up on most metrics of, to be polite, ‘’amorality’’.

But that matters little in the Reality TV and Twitter age, even to the Boy Scouty Mr. Pence, who has decided to try to ride the Trumpmobile back to Washington, where he was an ineffective, if pleasant, congressman promoting the usual collection of Tea Party and supply-side nostrums that,  although having been tried for much of the past few decades, do not seem to have ushered in a golden age for the middle class.

Anyway, the aim is fame. Isuspect that Donald Trump originally ran for president  simply to keep himself and his businesses in the news. He may have been surprised that his incoherent, virtually detail-freebut entertainingly demagogic primary campaign did as well as it did. And this pathological liar and con man will get a lot of votes in November from people who won’t admit their choice to their neighbors. As for Mike Pence,  he knows that there’s a good chance that a vice president can become president.


People tend not to like Hillary Clinton because she has told some self-protective lies; because she has a reputation for extreme secretiveness; because she seems to feel herself privileged to make her own rules (but not as much as Donald Trump), and because she and her husband have made a fortune by mingling/cross-self-promoting government work, “nonprofit’’ work and for-profit work (especially by being paid vast sums to speak to companies and other special-interest groups).  And, as unfair as it is, a lot of people find her voice grating.

Not surprisingly, she generally avoids press conferences. But she could do herself a big favor by holding a long press conference in which she takes any questions. She could, for example, elaborate more on why she used a private server to conduct top-secret discussions by email and  also explain the mysterious workings of the Clinton Foundation. Such a forum might help lance the boil of public distrust, if not dislike.


David Sweetser, whose High Rock Development owns the Industrial Trust Building,  in downtown Providence, is smart to have arranged for public tours of the Art Deco skyscraper to be offered over the next couple of months to, he hopes, get people excited/intrigued enough to rent there (or buy the whole place).

It’s a gorgeous structure, although, of course, fading. The model in New England of how to retrofit such a stepped-back Art Deco building is the gold-topped United Shoe Machinery Building, on Federal Street in downtown Boston, which is now fixed up and full. But it’s  usually a lot cheaper to tear down an old building and put in a cheap utilitarian replacement than to save it.  And there’s much more money in Boston than in Providence. But hang in there, Mr. Sweetser!

Robert Whitcomb is the overseer of New England Diary.

A tax-free profession

Panhandlers are proliferating in Providence. (There are usually several stationed outside my little office across the street from the Marriott Hotel all day. One is a very bad saxophonist.)

They seem to be raking in money from motorists waiting at the red light.

Do these street merchants declare any of their income for taxes?

--- Robert Whitcomb

Former city worker tells the truth about Cianci

This piece by former Providence municipal worker Joaquim L. DeAmonim expresses a well-justified outrage that state and city officials honored, after his recent death, the profoundly corrupt former Mayor "Buddy Cianci,'' whose nonstop sleaze did great damage to the city and state. Their pathetic honoring of him was a signal to businesses and individuals who might consider moving to the state that too much much of the leadership remains at least passively corrupt.


The stadium scam: Read 'Field of Schemes'

Don't believe any promises about a Providence stadium deal being "revenue neutral.''  All deals for professional sports stadiums are overwhelmingly for the benefit of the team owners. This note was sent along to me to respond to the attempt by Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and his pals to cheat the public with a   deal to put a baseball stadium in prime land in downtown Providence. They have thought  that Rhode Islanders were too stupid and/or passive to stop this special-interest scam.

"A message for those elected officials still supporting the PawSox stadium deal: With all the data and analysis now available ) a ‘yes’ vote on a stadium deal allows for only one explanation. You can no longer run your mouth about it being good for business (see Forbes, see WSJ). And you can no longer pretend it will encourage development in the neighborhood and benefit anyone but the owners (see sports economist Victor Matheson and John Oliver.) -- and, ultimately, their political friends.

"Still not convinced and need a book for the beach? Try “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profits” by Neil deMause and Joanna Cagan. It came out in 2008!''

"Field of Schemes is a play-by-play account of how the drive for new sports stadiums and arenas drains $2 billion a year from public treasuries for the sake of private profit. While the millionaires who own sports franchises have seen the value of their assets soar under this scheme, taxpayers, urban residents, and sports fans have all come out losers, forced to pay both higher taxes and higher ticket prices for seats that, thanks to the layers of luxury seating that typify new stadiums, usually offer a worse view of the action.''


Robert Whitcomb: Private-sector passenger rail?

Since the disappearance of private-sector passenger rail  service decades ago, intrepid entrepreneurs have tried to bring it back. None have succeeded.

However, in some densely populated places, passenger rail has even thrived in the public sector, at least as measured by passenger volume. This mostly means Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor and several major cities’ long-established commuter-rail networks. But  new  commuter rail is  also catching on in some unlikely places, including such Sunbelt cities as Dallas and Phoenix, which now have popular light-rail systems.

Now, with an aging population, the proliferation of digital devices that many people would prefer to stare at rather than at the road and the increasing unpleasantness of traveling on America’s decaying highway infrastructure amidst texting and angry drivers, private passenger rail looks more capitalistically attractive.

Consider All Aboard Florida, a company that plans to offer extensive rail service starting in 2017. It will connect Miami and Orlando in just under three hours, with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Its advertising copy eloquently describes commuter rail’s allure in populous areas: “{Y}ou can turn your stressful daily {car} commute into a productive or peaceful time by choosing to take the train instead of driving your car. By becoming a train commuter, you’ll also help the economy and environment while you’re at it.’’

Southern New England, like much of Florida, is densely populated, with some unused or underused rail rights of way. So our entrepreneurs occasionally propose private passenger rail for routes not served by Amtrak or such regional mass-transit organizations as Metro North and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

Consider the Worcester-Providence route, on which a new company called the Boston Surface Railroad Co. wants to start operating commuter rail service in 2017 on the (now freight-only) Providence and Worcester Railroad’s tracks. Most of the commuters going to work would be traveling from the Worcester area, via Woonsocket, where there would be a stop, to Greater Providence. While Providence itself has fewer people  -- about 178,000 -- than Worcester (about 183,000), the two-state Providence metro area -- about 1.6 million -- is much bigger than the latter’s metro  area’s about 813,000.

The density is there for rail service. That the region has an older population than the national average and frequent bad winter weather also give the idea a lift.

But the old rail line needs to be upgraded if the trips are to be made fast enough to lure many travelers. The company hopes to offer a one-way time of about 70 minutes on a route that you can drive in about 45 minutes in moderate traffic and clement weather.  That could be a killer.

What this project and similar ones need is new welded track, rebuilt rail beds (with help of public money?) and some entirely new routes to make service competitive with car-driving times. We need more passenger and duel-purpose passenger-freight rail lines, not more highways. But getting them will be tough in a country that so blithely tolerates crumbling transportation infrastructure and has a deeply  entrenched libertarian commuting  habit of a single person driving long distances to work. Unless gasoline tops $5 a gallon and stays there for at least a year, it’s hard to see millions of Americans deciding that they’ll quit their cars to take the train.

Still, I applaud the project’s CEO, Vincent Bono, and hope that thousands of commuters will give his railroad a try. While the trip  would be long, think of how much uninterrupted Web surfing (free Wi-Fi!), reading and snoozing you could get on these trains, with their reclining seats.


An Aug. 10 USA Today story was headlined “Smaller cities emerge among top picks for biz meetings.’’  Depressingly, Providence was not on the list of the top 50 places for “meetings and events’’ in 2015, say evaluations by Cvent.  But many far less interesting and attractive places were.

The reasons probably include Rhode Island’s under-funded and balkanized self-promotion and the long delay (now  finally being addressed) in building a longer runway at T.F.  Green Airport.

Robert Whitcomb (,  a Providence-based editor,  writer and consultant,  oversees and is a partner in Cambridge Management Group, (, a healthcare consultancy, and a fellow at the Pell Center. He used to be the editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal and the finance editor of the International Herald Tribune, among other jobs.