Politics & Policy

Where in the World Is Bill de Blasio?

(Reuters photo: Stephanie Keith)
Not where New York City needs him most.

If there is a left-wing equivalent to “At least he made the trains run on time,” it must be, “At least he had the right idea about global warming.” New York’s aloof mayor, Bill de Blasio, is happy to pontificate about climate change, Obamacare, national immigration policy, Donald Trump, or a thousand other subjects that have little or nothing to do with running the city of New York. But this week when a subway train derailed in Harlem, he was nowhere to be found. Not only can’t de Blasio make the trains run on time, he can’t even keep them running on their tracks.

Yet, still facing no serious opposition in his bid to be reelected this fall, he doesn’t much seem to care. At a press appearance in the Bronx on Tuesday, reports Politico, de Blasio ignored reporters who asked him whether the subways are safe, but the next day he announced he’d be discussing federal health-care legislation on the radio. Why fix anything in New York when you can just blast away at distant bogeymen? Anything Washington Republicans come up with re: Obamacare is bound to be about as popular in New York City as erecting a statue of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at Yankee Stadium.

The train situation in New York City is just shy of a crisis point. Earlier in June, a rush-hour subway train sat motionless in the dark with no air conditioning for over 40 minutes. A picture published online at the city-news site Gothamist showing hapless fingers clawing between two condensation-occluded windows was like something out of an urban horror picture. In recent days two other stalled trains sat in limbo for so long that passengers actually climbed off and started making their way through the tunnels at severe risk to themselves. The many frustrations and delays that have bedeviled the nation’s busiest rail hub, Penn Station, are about to get much worse when several tracks will have to be closed for extended periods for maintenance, kicking off what no less an authority than the governor of New York has dubbed the “summer of hell.”

That hell is of the political class’s own creation. The MTA and other metro-area agencies, notably the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, have been squandering absurd amounts of mass-transit money on decorative flourishes instead of functionality. As the New York Times’ most essential columnist, Jim Dwyer, related, the agencies keep producing what he called “underground Taj Mahals,” not to mention the dazzling new street-level transit station at the World Trade Center, which cost an even-more-gobsmacking $4 billion. A similar overindulgence in prettying up the stations at the newly opened Second Avenue subway, which runs barely two miles and extends the existing system by only three stations, is a major reason why the project blew through $4.5 billion. The London Underground’s much more ambitious Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s cost less than one-third as much per mile.

True, de Blasio is not the train master of New York City. If anyone is, it’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway system. Cuomo also appoints half of the Port Authority’s board. Cuomo’s own dereliction of duty on the matter has been spectacular — he didn’t show up at the derailment scene in Harlem either — but that’s a subject for a column of its own. It’s also true that appearing at the scene of a calamity is in large part political theater and mostly meaningless.

Mostly, but not entirely. Can anyone doubt that de Blasio’s predecessor Rudy Giuliani would have been on the scene in Harlem? And can anyone doubt that he would be making so much noise about the chaos on the subway and on the commuter trains that inaction wouldn’t be an option?

Can anyone doubt that de Blasio’s predecessor Rudy Giuliani would have been on the scene in Harlem?

In 1990, the year in which New York City set a new murder record that stands to this day, the New York Post ran an era-defining headline aimed at the sad-sack mayor, David N. Dinkins. “DAVE, DO SOMETHING,” the paper pleaded. De Blasio appears to be cruising to reelection at this point, and subway delays are not as horrific as a crime spree, but with a rising standard of living in the city come rising expectations. New York is feeling desperate for management. If it gets some, it seems likely to come not from de Blasio but, ironically, from the man he defeated in the 2013 mayoral race — Joseph Lhota. Lhota, a previous and successful MTA chairman, was reappointed to that post by Cuomo last week, accepting a salary of $1 per annum. If de Blasio is too busy offering punditry about health care or inequality or climate change to fix mass transit in New York City, maybe Lhota will roll up his sleeves. As if to announce what a true leader looks like, Lhota did what Cuomo and de Blasio didn’t — he showed up at the subway derailment site on Tuesday. He had not yet completed his first week on the job.

And if Lhota should succeed, what will happen politically? Why, Bill de Blasio will happily take the credit. Imagine Jimmy Carter somehow getting appointed economic czar and producing an economic boom during President Reagan’s first term and you’ll have some notion of how nutty New York City politics can be.

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