Yesterday, New York's political class lined up to condemn the politically insulated MTA-whose members are in effect appointed by the governor-for the third rain-caused system-wide disruption of the nation's most heavily used subway system in the past seven months.
They were right to do so.
It's not clear how much the MTA can do to maintain train service in the century-old system during such exceptional weather, but it's certainly fair to ask how prepared we are for a terror attack or other catastrophic event after the agency's web site crashed, its workers were for the most as unpleasant and uninformative as ever (on many stations and trains failing to let riders know which trains were running until they were already in the midst of their commute) and half-empty buses passed by passengers waiting outside of train stops.
To call attention to the problem of the MTA's lack of preparedness – and to put pressure on the agency to perform better before the heavy rain predicted for last night and today — Governor Eliot Spitzer, Comptroller Bill Thompson, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and other elected officials spoke out.
"We're not satisfied," the governor declared. "There was a system failure, and any time there is a system failure, you're not satisfied."
The one exception? Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said, "The bottom line is the subway system is pretty reliable." (Today's Daily News headline: "CITY TO RIDERS: LIVE WITH IT!")
Mr. Bloomberg may not control the MTA, but as the self-fashioned education mayor who successfully fought to gain mayoral control of the city’s schools from the unelected Board of Education, he should know something about the power of his bully pulpit over outside agencies that service New Yorkers.
But on other issues, Mr. Bloomberg has taken a much quieter public stance, and in doing so has deprived himself of his ability to use public pressure, as his predecessors had, to influence decisions a mayor can't directly control.
Recall 2004, when a fire in a switch station led the Transit Authority president to announce, bizarrely, that A and C service would be suspended for three to fire years. Hundreds of thousands of commuters would have been effected daily, and politicians, citizens and the press fairly wondered how the system could respond to a greater problem if a fire in one switch room could shut down a key train line for half a decade. Mr. Bloomberg, an engineer, was conspicuously absent from the outcry, shrugging that if the shutdown was necessary, so be it.
Ten days later, service was largely restored, no thanks to the mayor, who seemed to view the initial complaints as political showmanship, and chose instead to defer to the MTA's technocrats-who'd until then been claiming that a week-and-a-half job would take at least three years.
Likewise, Mr. Bloomberg took a back seat during negotiations between the Transit Workers Union and the MTA in the contract negotiations that led to the 2002 strike that shut down the trains for three days just a few months after the mayor took office. A few days before the strike, he held a press conference to announce that he'd purchased a $663 bike to ride to work, and to suggest other New Yorkers do the same. The mayor signaled that he was ready to weather the strike instead of averting one by making clear that there would be dramatic consequences.
Compare this to Ed Koch's warnings prior to the 1980 transit strike when he bellowed out: "Stand up! Stand firm! Don't give away the city because of an illegal strike. Don't let these bastards bring the city to its knees by engaging in an illegal strike." (The union did strike nonetheless, correctly calculating that the raise they could get would be worth the price they’d pay in fines under the Taylor Law.)
A clearer contrast would be Mr. Giuliani's response to a threatened 1999 strike, when he declared that the TWU's demand for a 27 percent pay hike over three years was "way out of the ballpark." He sought and received a court injunction that prohibited transport workers from striking, voting to strike, "encouraging or condoning, or lending support or assistance of any nature to any strike." He threatened to pass all the city's expenses during a strike on to the union, and declared, ''They're going to really regret this after it happens.''
There was no strike that year, and the union waited for a weaker mayor and a better opportunity to press its case.
Mr. Bloomberg has extended the same public silence to his relations with Con Ed. During the 2006 Queens blackout that hit 100,000 residents and thousands of businesses for more than a week, he continued to offer public support to the utility, even as the power outage dragged on and it became clear that Con Ed had lied about how many residents were effected.
A week into the blackout, the mayor declared at a press conference with city and state legislators from the affected areas that "I think [Con Ed CEO] Kevin Burke deserves a thanks from this city. He's worked as hard as he can." The Queens officials who'd agreed to stand with the mayor were so stunned by this that they openly sneered and rolled their eyes, and publicly declared they didn't stand with the mayor, leading to a shouting match with Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler in full view of the press.
Mr. Bloomberg's hands-off approach has allowed Con Ed to continue operating in the same sloppy and unaccountable fashion. They're currently stonewalling a City Council inquiry into the cause of a July midtown steam pipe explosion that killed one person, shut down several of the city's busiest streets and conjured up the attacks of 9/11. The mayor has conspicuously kept silent.
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