What Happened To Big Ideas?

Lost in the self-congratulatory media frenzy focusing on the “calmness” of New Yorkers during the blackout is the more immediate threat to our safety: We got lucky for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the Bloomberg administration being prepared for another terrorist attack.

When the lights went out, bumper-to-bumper traffic on major arteries and bridges created havoc all over the city. “Calm” motorists, usually one to a car, had one simple philosophy that the Mayor’s police force was all too willing to enable: “Me first.”

There were no emergency lanes cleared for fire trucks or police cars or ambulances; outer-borough express-bus drivers took two hours to reach Manhattan and were unable to make their two rush-hour trips, leaving many stranded. Police officers on lower Broadway had no idea whether the ferries, which carry 6,000 passengers every 15 minutes, were running. (They were. It would have been nice to know.) Traffic was at a standstill while cops-some guarding the New York Stock Exchange with machine guns-looked and sounded as bewildered as the “I gotta get out of Manhattan right this minute!” populace.

As was true on 9/11 and during the World Trade Center bombing a decade ago, the city lacks a workable evacuation plan and an emergency traffic plan.

The post-blackout talk about the need for more transmission lines, more deregulation and more juice (which means new power plants, but don’t worry-they won’t be built where you live) misses the point for weary New Yorkers. It’s time to become more self-reliant, practice some real energy conservation and give mega–tax breaks for alternative energy. More importantly, it’s time that we started dreaming big again, something we have ceased to do since Sept. 11 two years ago.

What passes for news now is the announcement of yet another study to build (maybe) a Second Avenue subway, another legal squabble downtown between a builder and the Port Authority, or the creation of a new subcommittee to yak about City Hall’s dream of bringing a bunch of endorsement-hungry Olympic athletes to New York in 2012.

When anybody talks about New York’s need to dream bigger dreams, the name of master builder Robert Moses inevitably is invoked, accompanied by some well-earned derision. But the guy had a vision for the city and state, not all of it bad. One of his projects was the St. Lawrence Seaway dam, with the novel thought that you could produce electricity by harnessing the power of water! In the 1920’s, Moses had an idea, however tawdry, of how the city would look in the 1960’s, and he made most of it happen.

At City Hall we have Michael Bloomberg, who built a $4 billion company based on his dream, but who seems to be lacking in any grander purpose for our town. Of course, that’s if you don’t count his support for projects like the rail link to John F. Kennedy International Airport, a boondoggle supported by downtown tycoons and destined to benefit only well-heeled tourists and businesspeople-not the average New Yorker.

The unfolding rail-link fiasco serves to remind us of the difference between self-styled reformers like the Mayor and the hacks of Tammany Hall: The last major subway project-the IND line-was finished during the corrupt administration of Jimmy Walker in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The line was built in seven years for the millions of workers who actually lived and worked in the city.

Instead of tinkering around the edges with one daily distraction after another, Mr. Bloomberg needs to issue a clarion call to his constituents for new ideas. And he can start by studying ways to make the subways energy self-sufficient-whichthey were until 1959, when the power system was sold to Con Edison. We have forgotten a time when we generated our own power and even made our own asphalt a few blocks from Gracie Mansion. Union leaders once used dues money not forconsultants,focus groups and television ads, but to build housing for their members. With hundreds of billions of dollars in pension funds that could be leveraged, the unions and the Mayor should figure out ways to bring industrial jobs back to New York for things we need: bus and subway factories, ferry construction,and container ports on our waterfront.

We rely on Cleveland for power and Saudi Arabia for oil and Texas for natural gas and the corporate giants of America to help reduce our waste stream. We’ve forsaken our self-proclaimed image as a self-reliant city that is needed rather than needy. New York was once the capital of ideas, and it should be again.

This is the challenge worth pursuing for the next 10 years. This is what we should be talking about-not whether to recycle glass on Tuesdays and aluminum cans on Wednesdays.

What Happened To Big Ideas?