City council cooks up rules for D.C. food trucks: Storify

  1. Share

    Reporting works up an appetite! Trying the DC food trucks today. What’s your favorite lunch-on-the-go?
    Thu, Apr 26 2012 13:00:44
  2. Share
    Current forecast is 70’s & sunny for Trucko De Mayo! Over 40 food trucks beer, music & more. #perfect #curbsidecookoff
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 16:25:32
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    We love DC’s food trucks and @dcfta, but @buritosontherun setting up outside @tortillacoast seems in poor taste.
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 12:30:44
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    DC parking enforcement parked in the crosswalk to ticket legally parked food trucks.
    Wed, Apr 25 2012 13:30:22
  5. Share
    RT @DorseyMc: DC Food Trucks Association (DCFTA) just announced ‘Curbside Cookoff: Trucko De Mayo’ with 40 trucks, two bars, live music, prizes & more!
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 11:32:27
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    Thu, Dec 22 2011 19:00:00
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    DC Food Trucks threatened by establishment
    Fri, Nov 18 2011 18:20:59
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    Mon, Apr 16 2012 20:00:00
  9. Share
    Happy #FarragutFriday, DC food truck fans! Here is today’s guide: Have a great weekend!
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 11:37:03
  10. Share
    MT @dcra: All 3,200 comments to proposed vending regulations have been posted on our website. Makes for great reading!
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 15:55:50
  11. Share
    Comments period for proposed vending regulations has closed. We’re uploading the flood of comments rec’d yesterday:
    Fri, Mar 02 2012 10:17:39
  12. Share

    Food truck heaven in dc
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 13:47:03
  13. Share
    i really like the food truck craze that has come over DC…so many more food options.
    Fri, Apr 27 2012 14:31:38

City council cooks up new rules for D.C. food trucks

Proposed regulations would level the playing field between food trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. 

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Brian Arnoff, 24, knew he wanted to serve good food to hungry people, and a food truck seemed like the best way to do it in Washington, D.C. The start-up costs were lower than those of a traditional brick-and-mortar establishment–between $50,000 and $100,000 for a food truck, as compared to at least a million for a restaurant–and he would get the chance to put his bachelor’s degree in hospitality management, earned at Boston University, to good use.

“I saw the whole food truck thing blossoming in New York and down here. It’s a lot more reasonable to get into than a restaurant, and I always really wanted to start my own business,” he says.

Brian’s truck, CapMac, has been in operation for almost two years, serving gourmet macaroni and cheese in downtown locales during busy lunchtime hours. The truck serves dishes such as the classic CapMac n’ Cheese, which features elbow macaroni topped with cheddar and pimento cheeses. Crumbled Cheez-it crackers are the pièce de rèsistance on top.

From kabobs to cupcakes

Arnoff’s truck is one of approximately 100 in the greater D.C. area, serving everything from chicken kabobs to cupcakes. Food trucks have become a booming industry in Washington in the last four years, ever since the Fojol Bros. of Merlindia, a “traveling culinary carnival,” began serving its signature curry on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Most trucks use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to keep their customers abreast of their location on a given day.

The regulations in place for these meals-on-wheels establishments, however, are outdated—left over from the days when the only mobile food vehicles were ice cream trucks and hot dog stands.

In January, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray proposed new rules to update these 30-year-old regulations. Under the old rules, trucks could only stop when someone “hailed” them (like an ice cream truck,) and had to pack up and leave if no one was waiting in line for their fare. Food trucks have not necessarily been following these guidelines, parking in downtown parking spaces during lunchtime hours without being “hailed” and drawing scrutiny from parking enforcement officials. Arnoff says that tickets are usually around $25, but if a food truck receives one every time it parks to do business in a given week, this number can quickly add up.

The proposed regulations dispel both of these outdated rules, but they also contain some stipulations that the D.C. Food Truck Association, a consortium of mobile food vehicles, fears might harm their business. Trucks selling desserts, such as cupcakes and other baked goods, will only be able to idle in one spot for 10 minutes with no waiting customers, and they must close at 10 p.m. on weeknights and 1 p.m. on weekends, which is earlier than brick-and-mortar restaurants are required to close.

Using public space for profit 

The city is also proposing “Vending Development Zones,” which would we designated areas in which food trucks can operate. The D.C. Food Truck Association, however, is worried that restaurateurs might invert this rule to create “Food Truck-Free Zones.”

Edward Grandis, a lawyer who has served as legal council to the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association for the last 20 years, thinks it’s unacceptable that food trucks currently don’t need to get site permits from the city to operate within a certain area.

“Anyone who uses public space in the city has to get a permit in the city,” he says. “They’re just being childish in saying that it’s going to be a burden and slow them down to get these permits.”

“DC MAP is very much in support of a vendor having the same obligations as an in-line business,” he continued.

 Tim Noonan, who is in charge of the Sweetflow truck, owned by the locally owned and operated Sweetgreen chain of salad and frozen yogurt stores, has noted a shift in the mentality of police officers in the three years since the Sweetflow truck started operation.

“We’ve seen an increase in getting parking tickets,” especially around the downtown business district of L’Enfant Plaza, he says, noting that police officers are getting more bold about approaching trucks with long lines of customers and asking to see things like health inspection documents, which disrupts business.

Another major factor contributing to the dispute are the concerns of brick-and-mortar restaurants, which are afraid they may not be able to compete with the ease and quick service of a food truck. “There have been a lot more restaurants filing complaints on food trucks,” Noonan says.

“Restaurants cannot pick up and move to a better spot” 

This growing concern is reflected in the 3,000-plus comments that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs received on its February release of the proposed new vending regulations. Many business associations advocated for food trucks only being allowed to vend at a specific location, within a specific block. This, they argue, would prevent any one block from being mobbed with too many food trucks at any one time.

Betsy Allman, of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, one of the interest groups that submitted comments on the proposed regulations, thinks that the proposed constraints are fair, and completely necessary.

“It’s not specifically about the competition, it’s about the unfair competition,” she says. “Restaurants cannot pick up and move to a better spot if a food truck parks in front of their door.”

As of right now, food trucks also aren’t required to charge the 10 percent sales tax that is required of non-mobile restaurants. The D.C. City Council has also proposed to make this tax mandatory.

Noonan sees this as fair, noting that when the Sweetflow truck first got its start, he and his colleagues assumed that the rules were the same as for their Sweetgreen stores and treated the operations similarly—sales tax and all.

“The scale of food trucks is no longer just a hot dog vendor,” he says. “It’s upscale cuisine. It certainly is harder felt by smaller companies, but you should account for that and plan accordingly.”

Full transcript of live 2012 Oscar coverage

Starting the liveblog in a short half an hour! Wall Street Journal is doing a great job of blogging the red carpet:
Watching the CW’s red carpet coverage. Stay tuned for what happens after these commercials.
Viola Davis, looking smoking in a green dress
Maya Rudolph on “Bridesmaids:” “That’s all I do now, is go to work and have fun.” The life of an actress.
Maya Rudolph meeting James Earl Jones on camera!
Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann: apparently they love American Idol, Dateline
Tony Bennett’s most-loved artist: “George Clooney. He’s my favorite.”
Bennett says George Clooney is “doing it the right way”
Technical difficulties. This is what happens when you buy an antenna the day of the Oscars.
Aaaand we’re back!
To commercials.
Switched to ABC. Rooney Mara, lead actress nominee for “Girl With a Dragon Tattoo”…beautiful white Givenchy dress.
Jessica Chastain in Alexander McQueen. It’s her first Oscar nomination.
Winner predictions: IndieWire is saying “The Artist” for Best Picture. Read them all here:
TIM GUNN with Milla Jovovich. This is her first time at the Oscars, period!
Is someone liveblogging the Oscar commercials?
Correction: Timm Gunn with Milla Jovovich.*
Emma Stone, in a dress with a big bow. Says The Help is a “story that everyone can relate to.”
Great live coverage from the Washington Post, with pictures! (Which I unfortunately can’t provide.)
Viola Davis and husband Julius, who is wearing Armani. Davis is wearing Vera Wang and some gorgeous statement earrings. Said “The Help” cast was like a family.
Christopher Plummer of “Beginners” would be the oldest to win in the category of Best Supporting Actor.
“Mominees!” Mothers comment on their Oscar-nominated children. Fairly adorable.
George Clooney’s mother looks 45, tops. Very impressive.
For a red carpet livestream, check out Oscar’s official website:
Tim Gunn and Tina Fey: Fey in Carolina Herrera, talking about the peplum trend. Michelle Williams is wearing a similar gown.
Frequent, frequent commercial breaks.
Jennifer Lopez “enjoys playing dress-up.” Says that Oscars are celebration of everybody’s hard work. I think Tim Gunn left the snark at home tonight.
Nick Nolte, in some intense shades and a checkered bowtie. Currently speaking about his pet crow.
500-foot long red carpet, 33 feet wide. I wonder if that’s normal. Will look into this.
Penelope Cruz looking very Old Hollywood, talking about her new clothing line with her sister.
The countdown to the actual event has begun.
Cameron Diaz is still around, wearing a very fetching neutral-colored gown.
Jason Segel’s first time at the Oscars! He says he’s “honored to be here.”
Also, “starstruck”
Bradley Cooper, sporting a moustache. This will be his first time presenting at the Oscars.
There’s going to be a “Hangover 3?”
Gwyneth, in Tom Ford. She’s presenting tonight, and has British street cred, according to the (British) ABC host. Wish I’d caught her name, but she has really big teeth.
Glenn Close in Zac Posen.
The men in suits carrying the envelopes have arrived!
Mr. Clooney, getting some cheers. His favorite thing about Oscar night: the people, of course.
Brad Pitt, sporting the long hair look. Going up against BFF George Clooney in the Best Actor category tonight.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Rooney Mara, Angelina Jolie, and Michelle Williams all top best-dressed list.
NY Times’ Real-Time Red Carpet:
This Muppets-covering-Queen commercial is so great. I still don’t think I’m going to sign up for Google+, but that’s okay.
The big show is about to begin!
Here comes Morgan Freeman, talking about the magic of the movies.
George Clooney kissing Billy Crystal. Yep. That happened.
Of course, an appearance from the Biebs, locking down that 18-24 demographic.
The Billy-Crystal-in-the-Best-Pictures montage has ended.
This is Billy Crystal’s ninth time hosting the Oscars? That’s an impressive span of time to go without saying anything offensive.
A musical number is always a good idea, right? Right?
Tom Hanks presenting the first award of the night.
Correction: This is Billy Crystal’s tenth time hosting the Oscars.
“Hugo” wins Best Cinematography.
Achievement in Art Direction: “Hugo” wins again.
What does everyone at the Kodak Theater do during the commercials?
Apparently “The Tree of Life” was the critics’ pick for Art Direction and Cinematography. More unexpected wins ahead?
Best Costume Design: first win for “The Artist.”
“The Iron Lady” wins for Achievement in Makeup. Apparently it was difficult to make Meryl Streep look like Margaret Thatcher?
Agree with WSJ: Billy Crystal is really laying these bankrupt-Kodak jokes on thick.
Best Foreign-Language Film: “A Separation,” the Iranian film that everyone is talking about.
Updated list of winners thus far:
Completely forgot that Christian Bale was British. Presenting Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Octavia Spencer wins her first Academy Award for “The Help.”
“The Aritst” is the first silent film to be nominated for Best Picture since 1928.
Achievement in Film Editing: “The Artist,” “The Descendants,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Hugo,” “Moneyball”
Winner: “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Same team won last year for “The Social Network.”
Sound editing: the only category to contain Transformers 3.
I spoke too soon. “Transformers” was nominated for another sound category. Should have verified.
“Hugo” wins sound mixing, as well.
Miss Piggy and Kermit make an appearance.
…to introduce some Cirque du Soleil action.
So much “magic of the movies” hoopla!
Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. here to introduce Best Documentary with some “witty” banter. Also, Downey Jr. is shorter than he seems (when he’s not standing next to Gwyneth Paltrow.)
“Undefeated,” the story of the underdog football team the Manassas Tigers, wins Best Documentary.
Chris Rock talks about how easy it is to record the voice tracks for an animated film, before presenting the best animated feature award.
“Rango” wins. This is Gore Verbinski’s first Academy Award.
Some Twitter aggregation:!/search/%23oscars
Box Office Mojo reports that “Rango” made over $245 million worldwide last spring.
Ben Stiller and Emma Stone present another technical award: Achievement in Visual Effects
I’m hearing the tinniness that WSJ was talking about. What IS that?
Yet another win for “Hugo.” I need to double-check this, but that might be five?
Melissa Leo, in a very sparkly dress, presenting Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Christopher Plummer has his first Academy Award win, for “Beginners”
That may have been the best Oscar speech yet.
Billy Crystal does some comic mind-reading, with mixed results.
“…That special experience of going to the theater.” The Academy would prefer not to acknowledge the existence of DVD players, or Netflix.
Penelope Cruz and Owen Wilson announcing Best Original Score.
“The Artist” picks up another win.
From the boyfriend: “I didn’t understand all of that, but it sounded very nice.”
Will Ferrel and Zach Galifianakis in white tuxedos, presenting Best Original Song: “Man or Muppet” from “The Muppets” and “Real in Rio” from “Rio”
Bret McKenzie accepts his award, He wrote the entire original soundtrack to “The Muppets.”
“Like many stars here tonight, he’s shorter in person.” (McKenzie on Kermit the Frog)
His award.* (I keep hitting the comma instead of the period. Sorry, followers.)
Best Adapted Screenplay: “The Descendants”
Yet another award winner thanks his mom. Commentary from my boyfriend: “That’s nice.”
Best Original Screenplay: “The Artist,” “Bridesmaids,” “Margin Call,” “Midnight in Paris,” “A Separation”
Woody Allen wins for “Midnight in Paris.” He’s not there to accept.
All of the “Bridesmaids” presenting three awards, for the short film categories.
Best Live-Action Short: “The Shore.” Preceded by some off-color jokes about the length of “films,” of course.
Some Grey Goose chugging on the part of Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy while presenting Documentary Feature. (At the mention of the name “Scorcese.”)
Correction: Documentary Short Feature.
“Saving Face” wins Documentary Short Feature, per IndieWire’s predictions:
“Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” wins Best Short Film (Animated)
Leading role Oscars are next. Indiewire predicts Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
But first, Best Director.
Michel Hazanavicius wins Best Director for “The Artist.”
Actor, Actress, Film awards are left.
Honorary Oscars, sealed with a lot of emotional tears and swelling music: Dick Smith, Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones.
Remembrance of motion picture greats is up next.
From WSJ: “You saw it coming. @angiesrightleg is now a Twitter account.” Referring to the saucy pose that Angelina Jolie struck with her leg hanging out of a very long slit in her gown.
Esperanza Spalding was the artist who sung “It’s a Wonderful World” during the Honorary Oscars.
Natalie Portman presents Best Actor in a Leading Role, giving heartfelt praise to each nominee.
Jean Dujardin wins Best Actor in a Leading Role for “The Artist.” It’s his first nomination.
Best Picture! Any minute now!
But first, Best Actress in a Leading Role, presented by Colin Firth.
Meryl Streep: “unreasonably good.” She’s been nominated 17 times, total. She’s up this year for “The Iron Lady.”
Meryl Streep wins for “The Iron Lady.” This is her third win, and first since “Sophie’s Choice.”
Best Picture, the last award of the night. Lotta buildup.
“The Artist” sweeps the Oscars and wins Best Picture.
And the Uggie the dog is onstage!
Correction: And Uggie the dog*

Aaaand that’s a wrap, folks!

Keystone XL pipeline project gasping for breath, but not dead yet

Loud dissent and an environmental revival may not be enough to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

1,252 total arrests were made during the Tar Sands Action protests in late August and early September. Photo by Kate Flynn

It was the third day in September and the last day of the Tar Sands Action protest. Dark clouds hung heavy in the sky, but nevertheless, a few hundred people had gathered in Lafayette Park that morning, across the street from the White House. They talked excitedly among themselves and held boldly lettered signs, and when a young woman with a bullhorn and a clipboard told them to line up, they loosely organized themselves into rows and made their way across the road.
On every day of the two-week long demonstration, protesters had lined up in the same place, at the same time, many of them hoping to be arrested by U.S. Park Police. Bill McKibben, environmental writer, journalist and activist, spoke words of daily encouragement to them through a megaphone before sending them out onto the sidewalk with their banners and signs.
“What you’re doing today is really hard, and requires a lot of courage. For normal, law-abiding people—it’s not natural and not easy to do something that the police tell you not to do,” he told them on Sept. 3. McKibben is a balding and serious man, and the collective concern of the hundreds of protesters seemed to have settled itself into the wrinkles on his forehead.

Listen to a clip of Bill McKibben speaking to assembled protesters during the Tar Sands Action protest.


The protesters, of all ages and from all parts of the country and Canada, had come to Washington to object to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. By the end of the two-week long protest, the non-profit group Tar Sands Action, which had organized the sit-ins, was calling it the largest environmental civil disobedience act in decades.
Canadian corporation TransCanada, which builds and maintains energy pipelines, proposed the $13 billion project in 2009. The 1,661-mile long Keystone XL would expand on existing pipeline infrastructure and funnel tar sands crude oil, comprised of bitumen, a thick, sticky substance, and diluents from Alberta, Canada to terminals in Texas. At the time of the Tar Sands protests, the State Department was scheduled to hold a final hearing on October 7th to decide whether or not TransCanada’s proposal was in the national interest. The decision ultimately rested with President Obama, who was supposed to come to a resolution before the end of the year.
The protests ultimately resulted in 1,252 arrests. The media didn’t extensively cover them at the time—instead, their effects were more indirect and insidious. In November, President Obama and the State Department announced that they would delay the final decision on the pipeline until after the 2012 election, while exploring a new route for the pipeline in the U.S.
Since August, the issue has become an intensely polarized one. Those who oppose the pipeline say that it will cause a large-scale environmental disaster if it ruptures; that corporations should be investing resources in clean energy, not dirty sources of petroleum like tar sands; and that the jobs the pipeline will create aren’t sustainable.
Elizabeth Shope, a spokesperson for the National Resources Defense Council, thinks that the protests in August and September, and a more recent one at the beginning of November, have most certainly had an impact on President Obama’s delay of the final verdict.
While Shope views the delay as a promising development, she doesn’t think that the project has been killed outright.

Bill McKibben, sporting a wristband from his arrest at a sit-in, addresses assembled protesters.

“I think that there’s not a definite conclusion of what decision they will come to, but this fight is not over. We definitely had a major victory with the administration deciding to do a review,” she says.
Shope also sees the U.S. government’s hospitality towards the pipeline and TransCanada as a result of the poor economy, and the promise of what the corporation is referring to as “shovel-ready” jobs. She, like many others who oppose the pipeline, doesn’t think that more and more unconventional methods of producing petroleum are the answer to boosting the floundering economy.
“We need to turn towards a clean energy future. We can have jobs and the environment,” she said.
The process of extracting tar sands from the ground is a dirty one, and highly water-intensive. James Hansen, a prominent NASA scientist who has done extensive research on climate change, has been quoted as saying that this pipeline would be “game over” for the planet—that the carbon produced from converting tar sands crude oil into usable fuel would negatively impact global climate change, especially if the pipeline were there to facilitate global demand for such a thing. He was one of the 1,252 arrested in the Tar Sands Action protests.
“The tar sands pipeline would be the first big step into unconventional fossil fuels, which would make it hard to stop greater and greater expansion of tar sands use,” he said in an emailed statement. He thinks that it is still possible, just barely, to stabilize the climate in this century, but that it will require a move away from coal, tar sands and tar shale, and towards clean energy.
The reality, however, as John Monaghan of the Heartland Institute sees it, is that most newer and cleaner energy technologies are not ready to compete in the marketplace, and consumers need fossil fuels now. The Heartland Institute states its mission as “promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problems.”
Monaghan, like many proponents of the pipeline, argues that decreasing the U.S.’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil can only be a good thing.
“We can have more credibility in certain foreign policy negotiations if we aren’t as beholden to these states for resources,” Monaghan said.
Monaghan also thinks the pipeline protesters and other environmentalists have set up a false dichotomy—jobs versus the environment—and that delaying the decision was a loss for the U.S. economy. TransCanada has claimed that the project will create upwards of 13,000 jobs. According to a study by the Cornell Labor Institute, however, the real number of permanent jobs created by the pipeline would be more like 50.
“I think the number itself isn’t all that important,” Monaghan said. “In a sluggish recovery, we should be doing everything we can to unleash private capital to create projects that add value to the American economy. Without question, Keystone XL does that.” Monaghan and others also see Obama’s decision, or lack thereof, as an attempt to pander to an environmental voter base that he might need to depend on in the upcoming election.
The proposed pipeline would snake through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma before terminating in the Gulf Coast. While those in favor of the pipeline have argued that it will lower gas prices in the U.S., this is yet another disputed claim.
One thing that seems to get lost, at times, in policy debates is the issue of how the Keystone XL will affect the lives and livelihoods of those who live and own land around the proposed pipeline route. Marty Cobenais, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, based out of Bemidji, Minn., made a trip to Washington in late November with a number of other Native American representatives. Their purpose was to discuss the impact that the pipeline would have on tribal life with the State Department and members of Congress.
Cobenais has been in conversation with tribes and tribal leaders from all over the U.S. and Canada. He has seen the ways in which pre-existing oil infrastructure has affected the way of life of the First Nation in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, and downstream, at Fort Chippewa. Rare cancers in humans and abnormalities in fish and other animals are just a few of the phenomena in those areas that he sees as resulting from the initial, messy process of extracting the tar sands.
“It’s ruining their entire way of life, their culture,” he said.

Listen to a clip of Marty Cobenais describing how tar sands extraction has affected the way of life of the First Nation in Alberta, Canada.


Tribes in the U.S., particularly in South Dakota, are also concerned that the pipeline will contaminate their water supply. A singular water pipeline supplies clean and drinkable water to 52,000 people in South Dakota because uranium mining has contaminated the groundwater. The oil pipeline would cross it twice.
Cobenais also sees a disconnect between the politicized forces in Washington fighting for and against the pipeline, and the actual realities of life for people in places like Nebraska and South Dakota.
“They can bring people in, but they still don’t get to see how those people live, and how it’s actually going to affect them personally. They don’t see their ranches, they don’t see their water, they don’t see their cattle out in the middle of the pasture where this pipeline’s going to go through,” he said. He sees the role that he plays as essential to making those in Washington see why it’s so important to block the pipeline.
Despite the efforts of people like Cobenais, lobbyists have continued to fight hard to get the pipeline built. According to an article published in online news source The Hill on Dec. 11, at least 42 lobbying firms, associations and companies have voiced their support of the pipeline since it was first proposed in 2009.
The National Association of Manufacturers is one such company. They’ve been urging the State Department to move ahead with its approval. Spokesman Jeff Ostermayer says his company’s main concern is job creation.
“This will benefit manufacturers and this will help Americans get back to work. This will help manufacturers be able to hire,” he said. Ostermayer and his pro-pipeline colleagues seem to be working under a desire for short-term gratification— environmental concerns are too intangible, too far-fetched, and too removed from their own interests.
On Dec. 17, the Senate passed a bill that requires an expedited 60-day approval process for the pipeline in return for a payroll tax cut. President Obama has said he will sign it, but he still has the power to kill the project. Montana recently granted permission to TransCanada to construct that segment of the pipeline on state soil. Things are moving forward, and not necessarily in the way that the Tar Sands protesters had hoped.
“These things can work,” Bill McKibben told the throngs of protesters in early September, before the issue had exploded as a major source of political and industry tension in Washington. “One of the things we’ve managed to do is reinvent what this kind of protest looks like in this country.” Whether or not this pipeline is built, those images of protest might be its lasting legacy.

MAP-21 would improve roads, employ millions

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted unanimously to pass MAP 21 Wednesday.

On Wednesday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed a bill that attempts to help America’s highway system meet the demands of 21st century travelers. Passage of the bill was driven by two pressing needs—the urgency to create jobs, and the necessity of improving the transportation system.

“Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” or MAP 21, passed unanimously, receiving unusual bipartisan support. Senator Baucus, R-Mont., stressed the vitality of highways in transporting goods and people and contributing to the smooth operation of the entire country in a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.

“Roads can make or break a nation,” Baucus said, quoting former New York senator Patrick Moynihan. Baucus serves as the ranking member of the committee. He drew on the example of Interstate 15, the fourth-longest interstate highway in the nation, which winds through six states before entering Alberta, Canada.

“Montana can’t fund roads like I-15 by themselves, and other states along I-15 clearly can’t either,” he said, calling Montana a “highway state” due to its landlocked position and lack of large international airports.  He argued that all states would benefit from the federal government’s investment in this infrastructure.

He called the bill “a good compromise,” stating that the additional construction jobs that the bill would provide would be invaluable to the American economy.

One area of partisan contention in the bill were Transportation Enhancements, or TEs, which provide federal money for bike- and footpaths, as well as highway beautification. Senator Inhofe, R-Okla., stated that he did not believe that that these activities reduce congestion, or “improve the condition of our crumbling infrastructure.” However, in the current iteration of the bill, states wouldn’t necessarily have to spend this money on TE activities, but could use the funds for purposes such as preventing stormwater damage and preserving historic sites.

Members of both political parties have been attempting to improve this infrastructure for a number of years. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (H. R. 1) was signed into law, providing a total of $48 billion for transportation improvements. Out of that $48 billion, about $27.5 billion was set aside for the highway program.

The committee’s unanimous passage of the bill was unusual in Congress’s current sharply divided political climate.  Senator Whitehouse, D-RI, called the bill a “commonsense measure” that would benefit each senator’s constituents.

Special interest groups, such as the National Asphalt Pavement Association, are poised to gain from the passage of this bill, mostly because it gives them a degree of certainty that their services will be needed for at least 2 more years.

“We can hire employees and buy equipment,” said Jay Hansen, of the NAPA. “Without the bill, there’s a lack of clarity in the future.” The current funding ends Nov. 18, making the passage of new legislation somewhat urgent.

Hansen also added that the bipartisan nature of the bill was “nice to see,” since the committee voted unanimously to pass the bill. “There’s not a lot of legislation being considered in Congress in this way,” he said.

Record number of Americans depend on food stamps as farm bill faces cuts

The USDA is spending a large part of their budget feeding hungry Americans, but they might not be able to provide the same level of support in 2012.

With roughly 45 million Americans on food stamps—the highest number ever, according to former USDA secretary Dan Glickman—the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been spending a large part of their budget on feeding people through a variety of programs.

Glickman stressed the “short-term emergencies” that many Americans face in feeding their families and themselves, and noted that the current driving issue in food and agriculture is feeding hungry Americans during a time of recession.

“Food security and feeding people is just as important as energy security or health security. It’s a major national security issue,” he said.

Glickman’s statements were made at a summit focusing on food security and sustainable agriculture, hosted by the Newseum, come at a time when the updated 2012 version of the Farm Bill is facing a potential $23 billion in cuts. Approximately $2 billion would come from nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunch. What remains to be seen is where the final cuts will come from, which won’t be set in stone until Nov. 1.

“Right now the different proposals are flying in fast and furious. What’s relevant today may not be what it looks like when it finishes up,” Rusty Rumley, a staff attorney at the National Agriculture Law Center, said.

He stated that cutting funding to food stamps and SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is not a politically attractive option to lawmakers.

While some cuts to nutrition programs may be inevitable, groups such as the Environmental Working Group are attempting to increase Americans’ access to SNAP programs, and children’s access to nutritious food at school.

Listen to Dylan Kesti, of the Environmental Working Group, talk about EWG’s priorities for work with the farm bill:


“The food stamp program is the Environmental Working Group’s top priority in the Farm Bill, especially now during times of hunger,” said Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the organization, citing the fact that half of the 45 million people on food stamps are children, and that a household of three that earns $24,000 or more doesn’t qualify for the most minimal food stamp benefits.

Cook also expressed concerns that major decisions about the 2012 Farm Bill will be made by “ag[riculture bosses in the subsidy lobby,” and that they may push for a new entitlement guaranteeing income for the largest commercial producers.

“That, to me, is the antithesis to the way farm bills have been done in recent history, where it has been open and we’ve realized there’s more at stake here than production agriculture,” he said.

Along with food-stamp programs, the USDA also recently revised the long-standing “food pyramid” to attempt to change the way Americans purchase and consume food. The newer version, My Plate, shows a plate half-filled with grains and protein and half with fruits and vegetables, with a glass of milk on the side.

“One-third of our children at risk of being obese are, in fact, obese,” said Tom Vilsack, the current USDA secretary. “The focus that we have at USDA is, first and foremost, educating people about what a healthy, balanced meal should look like.”

Listen to Vilsack’s full statement here:


Occupy D.C. settles in to Freedom Plaza

Listen to an audio version of the story below:


Protesters displayed banners on Oct. 9, a few days after they had moved into Freedom Plaza.

Occupy D.C. protesters set up camp a week and a half ago on Freedom Plaza, not far from the White House. The local movement has been in full swing since October 6, one of over 900 so-called “Occupy” protests that have been taking place globally over the past month to protest economic disparity and corporate greed.

The tent city on Freedom Plaza resembles a small, self-sufficient village, complete with a first-aid center, a kitchen where volunteers serve food, and a row of portable toilets.

Freda Miller, previously of Costa Rica and Portland, Ore., said she felt it was important to take a stand against a government that she feels has let her and many other Americans down.

“I came here because it seems to me that the way our government functions has just gone completely crazy,” she said. “It seems like the government is only serving the corporations, and that it’s not doing anything to help the ordinary citizen. I felt like it was time that the government heard our voices.”

Washington Park Police have agreed to let the protesters camp out on the plaza for four more months, meaning the activists’ lease will be up sometime around early February. Eric Sheptock, an advocate for the homeless who lives in Washington and comes down to visit the protest every day, is hopeful that the drawn-out action will have an impact.

“Hopefully we can stay here until we get the systemic change that we want,” he said.

The original Occupy Wall Street protest that launched the worldwide movement has been criticized for making vague demands and lacking focus, but for some at Freedom Plaza, the Occupy D.C. protest is a way of channelling their boredom and frustration with unemployment into something positive.

“I can’t find any work, anywhere,” says Jonathan Nowlin, a recent college graduate who has been living out of his car for the past two months. Nowlin double-majored in French and political science with a minor in chemistry, hoping that it would land him a job in government contracting. He hasn’t had much luck so far.

“Even McDonald’s won’t take me, because they say I’m overqualified,” he said.