Is New York City a transport heaven, or a transport hell?
When executing a perfect transfer, when that next subway train pulls up right as you’re ready to step on, when in half-an-hour you’ve crossed half the city, the subway system can seem like a marvel of the modern world.
But when you can’t catch a cab or find a parking space, when you just miss that late-night train and the station is cold and damp, when you calculate just how early you should get to the airport, it seems like it might be better to live anywhere else.
New Yorkers have some of the longest commutes in the country. The region’s three airports have the worst delays. The city’s buses “are not very reliable,” according to the New York state auditor. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority has a looming debt burden that could herald fare increases four times larger than the most recent bump.
Then again, how many other cities, in America, or anywhere, have a subway system that’s open all night? How many other mayors are as committed as Mayor Bloomberg to adding bike lanes and greenways? How many other places are the most logical starting point for high-speed rail investment?
The transportation in and around New York City is at a turning point. There are two problems to solve — how to get around and how to get away. And the decisions that policymakers are pursuing right now will determine how easy it will be to do both in the years the come.
Getting away has always been a particular problem in a city built on an island. Whatever Robert Moses’ flaws, one of his initial triumphs was smoothing the way for New Yorkers desperate to get themselves out of sweltering city streets and onto Long Island beaches. But the solutions that worked for Moses — bridges and highways — are no longer an option. As Mayor Bloomberg reported last week at a congressional hearing on high-speed rail, held in Grand Central Station, “The Northeast is approaching a transportation crisis.”
“Our airports are among the most clogged, our highways are among the most congested, and our train corridor is the most heavily used in the country,” he said. “All of that is only going to get worse with the region’s population expected to grow by 40 percent by 2050.”
High-speed rail, he argued, would relieve some of this pressure. Imagine making it from New York to Boston in under two hours, speeding through Connecticut at 220 miles per hour. If that were an option, it’d be so clearly superior to the four-hour car ride or to the hassle of getting to and from the airport, both airports and highways might catch a break. And anyone who wanted to get on a slower, regional train at, say, Providence, would have half a chance of getting a seat for the ride up to Beantown. (Of course, the relative appeal of this trip depends on the price of the ticket — see: Amtrak’s steeply priced Acela trains — a detail that’s not forthcoming at this heady stage of policymaking.)
Another fix, suggested this week by the Regional Plan Association, is expanding the amount of runway space at JFK and Newark airports, which, of all possible solutions to airport congestion, offer “the greatest potential for increasing capacity and reducing delays.”
Getting around New York is another question. The Bloomberg administration has supported bike lanes, but also cracked down on bikers for tiny infractions, like turning into a park on a red light. And while hailing a cab in the outer boroughs — a change the mayor touted in his State of the City — might be a welcome luxury, it’s still not clear how the Metropolitan Transit Authority will keep costs for transit riders down over the next decades, although rumblings of a renewed push in Albany for congestion pricing show one path forward.
In the end, the city needs to work to improve both regional and local transit. It’s all very well to arrive in Manhattan on a heaven-sent high-speed train, but using the subway system shouldn’t mean descending into the bowels of transport hell.
For a group of people generally considered realistic and hard-headed, New Yorkers remain surprisingly optimistic about the state’s politicians, or, at the very least, the state’s top politician, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The governor weighed in yesterday at 70% in favorability in the latest Siena Institute polls; a plurality of people thought he was doing a “good” or “excellent” job.
“After nearly one month in office, voters’ honeymoon with the new Democratic governor remains strong,” pollster Steve Greenberg said.
Er, scratch that. That’s what Greenberg had to say four years ago, about another Democratic governor who’d stoked the state’s hopes for a new kind of Albany.
And while “Cuomo’s honeymoon is in full swing,” according to Greenberg, the newest white knight of New York politics still can’t quite reach the heights of hope that Eliot Spitzer inspired. In the first January of his term, back in 2007, New Yorkers were even more bullish on their new governor: 75% had a favorable opinion of him.
Where did Spitzer get that extra edge? So far, it turns out, Cuomo’s carefully calibrated centrism has not proven more appealing to Republicans or independently-minded voters than Spitzer’s clean-up campaign did. In 2007, 59% of Republicans had a favorable view of Spitzer; 60% of Republicans feel similarly about Cuomo. Spitzer actually did better with independents, 71% of whom feel in the favorable column; Cuomo has only convinced 65% so far.
Spitzer’s real advantage, however, was with his own party. A whopping 87% of Democrats had a favorable opinion of him in January 2007; Cuomo only commands the same warm feelings from 78% of Dems.
Of course, New Yorkers soured on Spitzer soon enough. His numbers took a hit during the 2007 budget battle, but had begun climbing again, when Troopergate emerged as an issue. Spitzer ended 2007 with only 36% of New Yorkers thinking favorably of him.
Cuomo is unlikely to fall that hard, and as long as he keeps his nose squeaky clean, he can hope against hope that it’ll soon be less fun to compare him to Spitzer. Once his governorship survives more than 14 months, he can finally escape from the steamroller’s shadow.
Instead, Cuomo can start casting his own shadow over Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who, given that he now has the job of the state’s last two elected governors, is a new target for speculation. Schneiderman says he’s not interesting in running for governor, of course, but in the Wall Street Journal’s recent story on Schneiderman, the kicker was Alec Baldwin’s comment that “when Mr. Schneiderman visited the governor’s mansion he told a state employee to keep those towels with “E.S. on them,” a nod to the fact that Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Schneiderman share the same initials.”
If Schneiderman does harbor that genre of ambition, though, he’ll have to start making more splashy headlines somewhere along the way. Even though he’s now been elected AG, New Yorkers still don’t know much about him: in the most recent Siena poll, 60% of New Yorkers said they had no opinion of him, favorable or unfavorable.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his first State of the State address Wednesday, and although, as he insisted, it was not a budget proposal and although it included few dollar figures, it was a speech about money, or, more specifically, about the lack thereof.
“The state of New York spends too much money,” Cuomo said. “It is that blunt, and it is that simple.”
In the past three years, New York’s budget problems often have been lumped in with the general fiscal distress brought on by the recession across the country. But the state’s budget crisis, the first challenge that Cuomo must take on, cannot only be blamed on the recession. It is also a product of New York’s spending habits and the quick-fix ideas used to mask them.
In its most barebones formulation, New York’s budget crisis is simple. Averaged out over the past two and half decades, the state’s spending has grown faster than its inhabitants’ incomes. The end result is that the state’s revenues, which primarily come from taxing personal and corporate income, come in below its expenditures.
“The recession just made an underlying structural problem even more obvious and accelerated the trend,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the fiscal watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission. “This kind of the gradual multi-decade long build up of expenses exceeding revenues, I think, is unusual. And there’s a relatively widespread acknowledgement that we can’t tax our way our way out of it, which is what we’ve done in the past.”
The projected budget gap for next year is more than $9 billion, perhaps even $10 billion. That’s a lot of money, but for the past decade, New York has dealt with this same problem every single year. The issue now is, in part, that lawmakers have run out of options for closing the gap. In 2001, for instance, they tapped into the small surplus the state had accumulated during the cush years of the 1990s, spending nearly $3.7 billion of a $4.2 billion reserve. In 2003, they instituted a temporary, three-year tax that tapped the highest earners in the state. They began shuffling money around among the government’s myriad accounts, sweeping money raised through a specific fee for a specific program — cigarette taxes meant to fund health programs, for instance — into the general fund. They also relied, increasingly, on one-time fixes that patched up one year’s budget without addressing the underlying disparity.
This past year, for instance, federal stimulus dollars helped shore up the state’s Medicaid budget. But next year, those funds will have disappeared, and New York’s overall fiscal situation will not differ too much from its situation in 2008.
“We never actually cut spending in the past three years, unlike some states,” said the Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon.
Even before other states starting cutting programs to make ends meets, New York had one of the highest per capita spending rates in the entire country: In fiscal year 2007, for instance, it ranked 5th in the nation, at $7,846 per head, according to an analysis by the Tax Foundation.
This year, the state’s spending will total more than $137 billion. That total can be roughly divided into three categories. State and federal capital funds — funds intended primary for infrastructure projects — accounted for about 6% of the budget. About a third of the state’s operating funds ($47.6 billion) came from the federal government, in one form or another. The remainder of the budget is made up of state operating funds.
In the State of the State, Cuomo avoided saying explicitly that this year’s budget would require cutting programs; he focused instead on the more vague and purportedly inspiring idea that the solution to the state’s money trouble could be tackled by rethinking government programs more holistically.
But in order for the state’s revenue and expenditures to come in line with each other — without raising taxes — the governor will have to make cuts. And he will have to make cuts to the biggest and most fiscally irrational government programs: school aid, Medicaid, and the state workforce. These programs eat up the biggest chunks of the budget, and over the past ten years, they have also been the fastest growing. The Citizens Budget Commission calls them the “Big 3,” and this year, lawmakers will have to wrangle with them, according to Kellermann.
“There’s no way around that any more. You can’t get your arms around a $10 billion deficit by cutting discretionary programs that don’t have that much money in them,” she said.
For Medicaid, at least, Cuomo has a plan: His Medicaid redesign team will gather stakeholders together and identify Medicaid reforms that make sense for the program but also save money, he said Wednesday.
It’s still not clear, however, how Cuomo will close the deficit this year. “He has said repeatedly that he’s absolutely positively going to close a budget gap without tax increases and borrowing,” McMahon said Wednesday. “I don’t know any more about how he’s going to do that today than I did yesterday.”
The budget process will begin in earnest once Cuomo presents his plan to the legislature. The legislature will then have the opportunity to reduce funding for or eliminate each line of Cuomo’s proposed budget. The legislature can also add spending items. Cuomo has the power to veto any line of the legislature’s version of the budget; a two-thirds majority can override his veto.
New York’s fiscal year begins unusually early, on April 1. The state has a terrible track record for passing budgets on time, however. When in 2005 the budget bill made it across the governor’s desk before the new fiscal year began, it was the first time in 21 years the budget had been finished on schedule.
For many, many years, New York City politics have centered on ethnic identity. In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan published one of the most popular books of sociology, even, on ethnic groups in New York, Beyond the Melting Pot, and in it, they argued, “The ethnic groups in New York are also interest groups. This is perhaps the most important fact about ethnic groups in New York City.” In their introduction to the 1970 edition of the book, they reiterated: “Ethnic considerations have always been primary in New York City politics.”
The question then, which is also a question now, is how long this will hold true, and if it will hold true in the same ways it has in the past.
Data released this week by the Census Bureau, gathered from the American Community Survey since 2005, showed that in the New York metropolitan area, increasing numbers of immigrants are living outside of the city itself—in northern Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut.
In a way, these places are still part of New York City. In the past few decades, cities around the world have metastasized, and it’s only arbitrary political boundaries that exclude a place like, say, Hoboken, NJ, which has a relationship to Manhattan not unlike some place in Brooklyn, from being part of the city proper. These places are connected to New York City through public transportation, and their residents work in New York City, shop in New York City, eat in New York City.
But they don’t vote in New York City, and it’s unclear how New York politics will change if the city continues on its current path of increasing wealth and education. (Another tidbit from the Census data, as reported in The New York Times: more than half of Manhattanites over 25 have, at least, bachelor’s degree. It’s only one of 17 counties in America where that’s true.)
In the 1960s, when Glazer and Moynihan wrote their treatise, they could identify the five most important ethnic groups in the city: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish. Even that’s not so straightforward these days. Before this last round of elections, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs convened a panel discussion on the state of immigrant electoral power, and John Rudolph, the director of Feet in Two Worlds, noted there that immigrant communities in New York now include Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Brazilians, Russian, Poles, Chinese, and more.
This proliferation of interest groups means, for starters, that politicians can no longer always depend on a base in one ethnic community to vault them into office.
“In New York City, ethnic politics is already giving way to a new generation of young “politerati,” who are not running away from their ethnicity, but not necessarily running on it,” says Sayu Bhojwani, who heads The New American Leaders Project, which helps immigrants and their children run for office. “The new political way in New York City will have to emphasize coalition building with other ethnic groups and the ability to transcend ethnic politics to reflect a vision for New York’s neighborhoods and communities.”
There’s a sound you hear when political ideas take off. It’s a crescendo of applause that swells and lasts so long that the speaker has to quiet it down. It comes exactly at the lines in a speech that are intended to inspire, and sometimes at lines that weren’t.
That sound was absent yesterday at the launch of No Labels, the organization that advocates something like bipartisanship and that may or may not be building a base for Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 presidential run. The applause, when it came, was perfunctory, and often a beat late.
“I feel I need to do a Howard Dean yell to wake you all up,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker said to the audience, just after 2:30 in the afternoon.
Twenty minutes or so later, Rob McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, repeated Booker’s request to bring up the lights in the audience. “Maybe it’ll get people’s blood sugar up,” he said.
The idea behind No Labels is that politicians need to put country before party. In practice, that means they want more politicians to solicit cosponsors from opposing parties for legislation, to “use civil and respectful language,” and to vote against their party more often.
The organization claims not to be centrist and offers some information about issues like energy, election reform, and national security on its website. It does have at least one label: It’s organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, which means it’s an issue advocacy organization. (This is the same type of organization that attracted criticism this past election cycle for pumping money into electoral races without disclosing the source of the funding.) No Labels has been a little vague on what issues it will actually be advocating for, besides bipartisanship.
The problem is, good ideas aren’t necessarily the ones that everyone agrees on. Nor does a bipartisan piece of legislation necessarily contain agreed-upon ideas. Take the tax bill currently on tap in DC. It’s a bipartisan piece of legislation that cobbles together some ideas that Democrats like and some ideas that Republicans like — not a coherent set of policy provisions that everyone agrees are good.
The leaders of No Labels said yesterday they wanted to build a movement 1 million strong in the next year. If the level of enthusiasm at the launch event was any indication, it’ll be a tough slog.
If they do manage that feat, however, there is one politician who will be very interested: Mayor Bloomberg. No Labels’ campaign for members will serve, in a way, as a proof of concept for a Bloomberg for President campaign. I don’t think of Bloomberg supporters as the type of people willing to travel to Iowa, Ohio, and New Hampshire to spend hours door-knocking in the cold. I imagine that, like the No Labels audience, they’ll lose their enthusiasm around lunch time.
But if over time No Labels can gin up real support, so can Bloomberg. If the group actually gains momentum, if the applause at No Labels chapter meetings across the country starts reaching the fever pitch, the mayor could start being a little more forthcoming about his plans for the future.
A month after voting, Election 2010 in New York is almost finished. Over the weekend, the outcomes of the last outstanding races for state Senate seats rolled in, and it became certain that Republicans will control New York’s upper house. Now, the only New York race in which there is no official winner is a federal House race out on Long Island, in which Republican challenger Randy Altschuler has refused to concede to incumbent Tim Bishop. (UPDATE: Altschuler conceded the race Wednesday morning.)
The 2010 election cycle was a remarkable one, with tea parties and budget shortfalls and cantankerous candidates dominating headlines. But in New York, it has resulted, ultimately, in a return to the status quo.
On a state level, Republicans have dominated the Senate for decades. In the Assembly, Shelly Silver will remain a stumbling block for a centrist governor’s agenda. And on a federal level, New York has returned Republican representatives to traditionally Republican districts, and allowed Democrats to hold on, if narrowly, to traditionally Democratic districts.
Those slim margins matter, though. Some politicians are hubristic enough to govern radically even when only barest majority of voters have endorsed their platform. (Former President George W. Bush, circa 2000, is the poster boy for this attitude.) But most take a close win as a sign that they need to work harder to represent that large portion of their constituents who voted for their opponents.
Luckily for the Republican-led state Senate, that shouldn’t be too hard to do. In Albany, the politician with the clearest mandate to push forward his policy priorities is Governor-to-be Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s priorities — capping property taxes, cutting spending — line up with those of Senate Republicans. It’ll be easy for Republicans to latch onto his agenda, and claim some portion of the credit when the economy takes a turn for the better and the state budget starts making a little bit of sense, again. If their desires and Cuomo’s were more divergent, they’d have a hard time arguing they’d been sent to Albany to do anything but obstruct (or in political parlance, “balance”) Cuomo.
Out on Long Island, Rep. Tim Bishop is edging ahead in a dragged-out recount fight against businessman Randy Altschuler. It’s the last undecided House race in the entire country, and the result will have no impact on the balance of power in Washington. Either Altschuler will join an emboldened Republican caucus, or Bishop will return with his chastened colleagues in the Democratic Party.
Although Altschuler has refused to concede, he has indicated that if he did some, miraculously, make it to Washington, he’d take the close race to heart and represent a district that’s evenly split between the two parties. As a freshman in Washington, that’s a hard road to travel, though — to party leaders, another Republican vote would mean another Republican vote.
Bishop, however, could serve as a cautionary voice. In the last two years, Democrats tried to enact a slew of new policy ideas on issues like health care and energy. The lesson of Bishop’s narrow race seems to be: don’t push it. New Yorkers just would prefer if everything stayed, more or less, the way it was.
No one likes being scolded. It’s worse when it happens in front of your colleagues, and on C-SPAN, and when the event appears in the papers the next day. The House voted to censure Rep. Charlie Rangel yesterday, which meant he had to stand in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who sounded quite sad, and have a statement of his wrongdoing read out. It was like he had been called into the principal’s office, magnified by about a million.
So it’s not so surprising that Rangel spent a good chunk of the day yesterday trying to convince his colleagues to spare him. He did have some supporters. At yesterday’s House debate, a series of his colleagues argued that he deserved a lesser penalty, a reprimand. It felt like a group of kids protesting an unfair punishment of their fellow. His New York colleague Rep. Peter King said that if expulsion was like the death penalty, censure was like a life sentence. (A reprimand would be the same scolding as a censure, but in writing.)
To review, the main charges against Rangel focused on his misuse of House resources, mistakes on his financial disclosure forms, and failure to pay a portion of his taxes. Censure is used very rarely as a punishment in Congress; members who pledged loyalty to the Confederacy, in the 1800s, were censured, for instance.
The debate focused on precedent, and whether Mr. Rangel’s actions did or did not merit censure, the second-worst punishment the House imposes on one of its own, when he or she engages in “disorderly behavior.” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who led the argument against Mr. Rangel, pointed out that the House had promised to reach new heights of ethical standards. Mr. King, and others, argued that using censure as Mr. Rangel’s punishment were going overboard. The protests in support of Rangel had a sense of “there but the grace of god” about them.
The vote yesterday marks the end of a process that has dragged on for years. For a long time, the chatter about the investigations centered on the political gains Republicans could make from attention focused on misbehavior by Rangel and his colleague Maxine Waters (who ended up getting off scot-free). But it turns out, Republicans didn’t really need Rangel to make major gains in 2010; the political and economic climate were hurting the Democrats worse than the “overzealousness and sloppiness,” as it was put during the ethics process, of one of their longest tenured members.
The real referendum on Rangel happened already, anyway. His constituents voted him back into office. If he had stepped down or had not run for reelection, as many urged, this unseemly smear would be one of his last appearances in the Congressional Record. Instead, he has another two years — maybe more, if he wants! — to pile on new legacy-making work. As he said yesterday, “I’m going to be judged by my life, my activities, and my contributions to society.”
He certainly counts as an elder statesman. With the Democrats in the minority in the House, he has little to lose, too. The best thing he could do, at this point, is to draw on his experience and his panache to zing the Republicans every chance he gets, drawing himself as a liberal truth-teller, unmotivated by power or personal gain.
Michael Bloomberg is used to getting his way. It’s not clear that he has another candidate in mind to head the city’s school system, now that it’s becoming clear that Cathie Black doesn’t cut it for state education commissioner David Steiner.
Steiner said yesterday he would consider granting Black a waiver if Bloomberg would appoint an educator as her second-in-command. But that’s not the way the mayor tends to operate. As The New York Times wrote yesterday, “Mr. Bloomberg has said that if Ms. Black is not approved, he is not certain any other qualified candidate would want the job.”
It’s strange, really, that at a time when education is increasingly seen as a career path for the best and the brightest, that Mayor Bloomberg can find no one with both the managerial chops and a background in education available to head the largest school district in the country. The mayor has chafed at the idea that someone would need experience with schools to run a school district, but this spate of school leaders lacking experience in education is unprecedented in the city’s history.
The Chancellor’s position has existed since 1898, and in its early years it was one of the most plum jobs in the city, one that men at the peak of their careers took up and left only to retire, if they could manage it.
The school districts of New York, Brooklyn, and the surrounding municipalities were collected together in the Progressive Era fervor that followed decades of Tammany Rule. Its first few leaders — the position was then called City Superintendent of Schools — were men with deep educational experience. In 1896, the Times described the ideal candidate to head the system: “He should be able, broad-minded, and high-minded, trained in the principles and methods of education, in sympathy with its highest purposes, and capable of commanding the confidence and the loyalty of the teaching force” — an antidote to the “small intrigues and petty politics that infected the department in Tammany times.”
The first superintendent, William H. Maxwell, had started his career as a newspaper reporter, but by the time he was elected to the superintendent’s office, he had been a teacher and served on Brooklyn’s Board of Education. He led the school district for 20 years. His successor, Dr. William L. Ettinger lost his job when Mayor Mike Hylan was voted into the officer, but the third superintendent, Dr. William O’Shea, stayed in office for a decade, until he reached in 1933 the mandatory retirement age of 70. Time Magazine reported, “Dr. O’Shea has been a public schoolman for 46 years….[He] is kindly, gentle, petulant when criticized, sometimes in poor health and now poor in eyesight…. Superintendent O’Shea has publicly said: “I am no glutton for power.””
But from the 1960s on, leading New York’s school system was hardly a position to be coveted. Desegregation roiled the system; teachers went on strike; and communities took greater control over individual schools districts. Chancellors like Harvey Scribner and Irving Anker went on to quiet jobs in academia after leaving the city’s employ.
In the past decade, however, education reform has taken on a new prestige, drawing the interest of top students and ambitious politicians. And it is perhaps because of that new shimmer that non-educators like Black are interested in taking on schools. Working in education is no longer a self-contained career path, or a dead end. If a stint with Teach for America can land a twenty-something at Goldman Sachs, then it’s not unreasonable to think that a stint at the Department of Education can land a sixty-something in the mayor’s office.
Unfortunately for Cathie Black, that’s not how the people who’ve dedicated their careers to education—the people who have her fate in their hands—see it.
Starting this week, reporter Sarah Laskow will be THIRTEEN’s new State Room blogger. Sarah will write multiple posts per week in this space, covering New York state and local politics.
Sarah is a freelance writer and editor based in New York. Her work has appeared in Capital New York, Politico, The American Prospect, Newsweek.com, and other publications. Before coming to New York, she spent three years in DC reporting for the investigative journalism group The Center for Public Integrity.
Look for her first post tomorrow!