Bloomberg’s Street Fighter

Her ability to implement seems to be founded in her ambitious drive—those who have worked with her describe the Columbia law grad as very strong-willed, and the mayor has credited her for the diverse array of ideas; the low cost of the projects (the creation of a plaza at the Madison Square Park intersection cost about $1 million, a relatively minor expense in a department that has $1.6 billion budgeted for bridge repairs in the latest capital budget); and the relatively hassle-free legal mechanisms for implementation.

If the DOT wants to close down a lane of traffic and hand it over to pedestrians, for instance, it is not required even to notify the community board (though it typically does). Compare that to the typical private development on city-owned land, which must first go through a months-long environmental review that can cost millions, followed by a seven-month public review process that requires favorable votes from the City Council and the City Planning Commission.

However, the DOT’s recently ramped-up pace has frustrated residents and elected officials, who feel they were let in on the decisions only after all the plans were made.

Case in point, they say, is the process that surrounded the Ninth Avenue bike lane, a lane partitioned from traffic for which the DOT first revealed its plans to the community board in September 2007. One week later, by the community board’s telling, installation began.

“The bike lane was a huge thing,” said the local state senator, Thomas Duane. “Everybody was kind of unhappy at how it went in, but we’ve all expressed that, and now we’ve all agreed to move on.”

The tension comes, Mr. Duane said, as the mayor’s office tries always to move something through quickly if it has the ability, and Ms. Sadik-Khan offers no exception. “Always, in the executive branch, no matter who they are, if they can avoid going through a lengthy public review process, they will … so I think that’s part of what the problem is.”

To the general criticism that she moves forward without listening, Ms. Sadik-Khan responded simply by saying that consulting with the community is an important part of the process. When asked about her fast pace, she merely gestured to the Bloomberg administration’s countdown clock installed in her office (it read 496 days).

Ms. Sadik-Khan is perhaps best known in Albany for her leading role in the attempt to push through a congestion pricing plan—a push that resulted in no vote in either the Assembly or the Senate due to lack of support. Some of the cool reception was in part a response to the aggressive approach by the Bloomberg administration—one that some legislators felt came off as arrogant. (It certainly didn’t help her cause that she got a speeding ticket on the way to Albany to lobby for the program.) 

With many of Ms. Sadik-Khan’s key initiatives, there is a potential lack of permanency. The same features that allow the DOT’s projects to get in the ground swiftly could also seal their fate in a future administration: The city has claimed lanes of Broadway as open space with some epoxy, sand, paint, plants and tables, yet a future administration could just as easily pack up those tables and put lane markers right back down on the roadway.

This prospect seemed almost incomprehensible to Ms. Sadik-Khan, who seemed to think that public resistance to it would prove too great, the ease of removal notwithstanding. “People are very protective about their public space,” she said. “I think it would be very hard to take these spaces back to the state that they were in before.”

ebrown@observer.com