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Restoring The Spirit

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We may learn, soon, whether The Spirit of Ontario will be back in operation, and if so, whether it'll be in service this fall.

Critics and the media are still speculating on the causes of the ferry fiasco --- and, despite its terrific start-up bookings, on whether Spirit is viable. Sellouts in August aren't a predictor of passenger load for February, and some of the early traffic may have been due to deep mid-week discounts. Still, this thing is brand new. Start-up problems were heavily publicized. Our neighbors across the border seemed to be sneering at us, and at the ferry's owner, Canadian American Transportation Systems.

But many Canadians quickly became enthusiastic ferry fans. And on this side, I have friends who tried to book passage to Toronto to see the Yankees game --- a week in advance --- and the ship was already sold out. That's impressive this early in Spirit's life. So is the public support that followed CATS' shutdown announcement.

As Chad Oliveiri's extensive coverage in City last week showed, the circumstances that resulted in the shutdown are complicated. Maybe somebody knows for a certainty where to place the blame (CATS? Customs? The Toronto Port Authority?), but I don't.

The shutdown inflicted great damage on Spirit. It won't be easy to overcome, but it can be done. That will require strong marketing, to be sure. But it'll require more than that. It will require restoration of public trust --- including the trust of elected officials.

Hanging over Spirit right now are not only the questions of whether service can be restored and whether the ferry is viable in the winter, but also whether the CATS management is capable management. It may be that the only way to answer that third question is to see how things are handled once Spirit resumes operation. But there's also the very serious concern of financing.

First, of course, there's the problem of getting money released from a CATS lender. That escrow account isn't bottomless. If CATS starts drawing it down now, will there be enough left to help CATS through the winter?

Just as important is the issue of CATS' own investment. The owners have said that they have invested millions of their own money in Spirit. But they have refused to show public officials their financial records. The owners insist that they're not required to, because they're a private business. They may be able to make that case, legally, for the moment. But the public --- city government, state government --- has invested money, too. Lots of money. CATS has an ethical responsibility to open its books. Frankly, city and state officials should have insisted on seeing those records before they committed one dime of taxpayers' money.

Those officials went out on a limb for CATS. Mayor Bill Johnson and Deputy Mayor Jeff Carlson in particular fought an exhausting battle to get state funding, while then-County Executive Jack Doyle sat on his hands and Doyle henchman Bill Nojay fought the ferry, tooth and nail. Significantly, Nojay contended at the time that CATS' financial plan wasn't solid.

It's hard to see how CATS' principals can regain public confidence unless they prove to officials that they have the funds for long-term service, are investing adequate funds of their own, and have been honest about their financing in the past.

Through this dramatic start-up, the ferry's name --- the formal one, not the breezy nickname --- has developed substantial significance. The ferry had inspired hope and joyous, almost childlike, public enthusiasm in a region plagued with a poor economy.

The ferry seemed to be a can-do venture in a community littered with unrealized plans for big projects. It focused Upstate New Yorkers' attention on a natural resource on which they had previously turned their back. It had begun to reach across our Great Lake and create a community out of two important, diverse regions.

In the days since Spirit was idled, public officials on both sides of the lake have expressed support for it. So have Rochester business leaders. Spirit's future now rests with CATS' lenders. And their commitment apparently hinges on their confidence that Spirit's obstacles --- the Toronto terminal, trucking, the pilots' fees --- will be solved.

But even if the lenders release the funds, CATS will have to regain trust. And only CATS' principals can do that. In the past, those principals have been secretive. That has hurt the ferry, and it has to stop. Right now.

There's too much riding on Spirit for them to let us down, and I don't mean the financial success of CATS and its principals.

What a week!

I don't know how much more damning the news can get about George Bush and his war.

As the casualties in Iraq continued to mount, mid-week last week the New York Times carried yet another troubling bit of news: The CIA warned President Bush this summer that things in Iraq are very, very bad --- much worse than the administration has portrayed them.

The same day, Republicans --- including Arizona Senator John McCain, one of Bush's strongest supporters --- launched a scathing attack on the administration's handling of reconstruction in Iraq, including the failure to release more than a pittance of the money Congress has approved.

Referring to the administration's prediction that the US would be welcomed with open arms in Iraq, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska fired off this critique: "The nonsense of all that is apparent. The lack of planning is apparent."

As the week wore on, the concern just poured out as Republicans spoke to print journalists and on television news programs:

Here's Hagel on CBS: "The fact is, we're in deep trouble in Iraq.... It's beyond pitiful. It's beyond embarrassing. It's now in the zone of dangerous."

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar on ABC's This Week: "This is the incompetence in the administration."

John McCain on Fox News Sunday: "We made serious mistakes right after the initial successes by not having enough troops on the ground, by allowing the looting, by not securing the borders."

But the Bush campaign kept up its attempt to drown out the facts with hype and rhetoric. And John Kerry is still struggling in the polls.

What a president. What a country.

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