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August 13, 2006

The attached article from todayís West County Times indicates Richmondís top leadership is solidly behind forging ahead with a feasibility study for a major container port situated in what is now Wildcat Marsh. The article, written in a ďhe said, she saidĒ style is uncharacteristically bland for Times Staff Writer John Geluardi who is known for his often hard hitting and well-researched pieces.  The defining motive, according to the article quoting City Manager Bill Lindsay, is Richmondís overused and understudied mantra of money and jobs. Poor Richmond believes that if it just had enough tax revenue and local jobs, the City would get well.

In my opinion, there are many flaws in the reasoning that has brought us to this point. We all know that Richmond has a high unemployment rate, particularly among minorities and especially African Americans. Conventional wisdom has been that expansion of job opportunities in Richmond will address that challenge and make all our problems go away. I donít think this is necessarily the case. A shortage of jobs is not the problem. If a shortage of jobs were the problem, it would be affecting other people and other places, which it is not. The East Bay economy is healthy and has been expanding more than the State of California for several years. The challenge is in preparing unemployed, and often chronically unemployed, people to enter the workforce and compete successfully for jobs that are available. There are also elements of residual racial prejudice that make it more difficult for minorities to compete for jobs, which disproportionately affects Richmond residents.

Richmond has an unusually high population of low income families and English learners, which translates into below average educational achievement and above average number of school dropouts. The public schools have not been provided sufficient financing from the State of California to adequately prepare young people for the job market. Note that it was students from the WCCUSD who unsuccessfully sued the State of California to allow graduation without passing the exit exam, based on the premise that they were not properly prepared.

More jobs in Richmond do not necessarily translate into more jobs for Richmonders. Richmondís largest employer, Chevron, has plenty of jobs, but it is believed that fewer than 10 percent are held by Richmond residents. And Chevron is one of the principal proponents of the proposed container port.

All of the interests that are pimping for this port have something to gain from it. Chevron owns the land. JP Morgan Chase wants to finance it. The railroads and trucking companies would haul the stuff away. Richmond doesnít bring a thing to the table except the possibility of subverting the environmental review process, as it is accustomed, to make something undesirable happen here that no one else would allow in their home town.

The need for more container ports has been cited as a driver for this project, which is also a red herring. Existing container ports, like Oakland, could handle many times the volume they do now if they were redesigned to make maximum use of automation and technology and had infrastructure improvements to better handle land-side transportation. Have you ever been to Jack London Square and watched those freight trains trundling down a busy street, block after block, shared with automobiles and pedestrians? Give me a break! Take a look at the port of Hong Kong, which operates more efficiently in less space.

And then there is the whole idea that we must participate in expanding Pacific rim trade. The jobs Richmond is looking for are not in a container port that will go on line in 2021 (the project would take 15 years to complete). They are already gone to Asia, where almost everything we consume except food and oil is made. Did it ever occur to anyone that manufacturing stuff right here in America might be a better way to create jobs than paying someone from Richmondís Iron Triangle to unload a container of widgets from China and haul it to Lodi on an 18-wheeler burning $5.00 a gallon gasoline? If there is a shortage of container ports, maybe Chinese products wonít be competitive any more, and some of those jobs will come back here.

What wonít we in Richmond do for money and jobs? Would we sell our children? Would we sacrifice our health Ė whatever we have left of it? Would we pave over one of the largest and healthiest marshes and estuaries left on San Francisco Bay? Would we even think about it?

Well, most of your City Council, your city manager, your finance director, your Chamber of Commerce, your local oil refiner, Moffat & Nichol Engineers, JP Morgan Chase and some other folks are thinking real hard about it.

For me this is really scary. All this interest in a container port is not going to improve education here, reduce the homicide rate, create a single job or make anyoneís life better for at least a decade. It is a diversion from doing what we can and should do today to fix Richmond. Remember the Point Molate casino that was going to save Richmond by guaranteeing jobs for the Iron Triangle? Have you been out there lately? Seen any Richmond folks working and taking home those big paychecks?  This port proposal is the stupidest thing Iíve ever heard of. Does anyone else feel this way?