When Michael Bloomberg ran in 2009 for his third term as mayor, he launched his campaign with 33 changes for the MTA. These ranged from the obvious, with more countdown clocks and a new farecard leading the way, to an impossible plan to implement F express service during the Culver Viaduct rehab to a strange call for free crosstown bus service. Just days after winning reelection, Bloomberg seemed to rollback his promises, calling them mere suggestions instead, and if any have seen the light of day over the past four years, Bloomberg certainly shouldn’t receive the credit.
In 2009, Bloomberg’s problem wasn’t one of underthinking. He had ideas, but they came out of left field. Much as his drawing-on-a-cocktail napkin plan to send the 7 to Secaucus materialized out of thin air, his transit proposals too were developed seemingly with no input for anyone actively engaged in the space. The had their Big Ideas, but those Big Ideas had little to no chance of becoming reality. I still, after all, have to pay for my crosstown bus.
Four years later, we have a mayoral campaign one week away from the party primaries, and there are no Big Ideas. The leading candidates have talked vaguely about more subway service for outer borough residents, increasing the reach of Select Bus Service and expanding the city’s network of ferries. The former MTA head has discussed building a subway to Staten Island (though good luck finding any mention of it on his website), and the guy polling a distant second wants to build a monorail down the center of the Long Island Expressway. Transformative Big Ideas are missing from the discussion, and I’ve been thinking about why.
As my thinking goes, I’ve come up with a few reasons why there are no Big Ideas. The first is a practical one that doesn’t hold up. As the state controls the MTA, most transit expansion is allegedly out of the hands of the mayor. It’s easy for a candidate to wash his or her hands of transit planning if responsibility for funding and operations lies elsewhere, but that’s the easy way out. Mayor Bloomberg wanted the 7 line extension built; he delivered the money; and in less than 10 months, the 7 will terminate at 34th St. and 11th Ave. A mayoral candidate with the right Big Idea could easily see it through.
The second reason dovetails with the first: It’s easy to come up with Big Ideas; it’s less easy to convince voters to pay for them. The 7 line extension cost over $2 billion, and someone had to pay for it. The Second Ave. Subway costs over $4 billion, and the money has to come from somewhere. Paying for Big Ideas often involves convincing voters to fork over more money in the form of taxes or user fees (that is, East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing), and increased taxes or user fees doesn’t win primary voters. Without a way to pay for Big Ideas, any Big Ideas put forward become empty promises.
The third reason concerns timing. The 7 line extension was first proposed during Mayor Bloomberg’s first term; the groundbreaking was in his second term; and the start of revenue service will be during the next mayor’s first term. Even with three terms, Bloomberg will not be in office long enough to see his pet project open up. There will be no ribbon cutting with the mayor and no photo op. As ribbon cuttings and photo ops are the lifeblood of local politics, candidates are more than hesitant to argue for something that won’t see the light of day well after their terms are up. Why should someone else steal the limelight?
Finally, the last reason focuses around the key rule of primaries and, to a larger extent, electoral politics in general: Do not upset your voters. Although New Yorkers support congestion pricing plans that fund transit, primary voters do not. Although New Yorkers want more subway routes, people bemoan the impact of construction to no end. Although New Yorkers recognize the inadequacy of the bus network, removing space for cars and handing it over to buses instead seems to be tantamount to signing your own death sentence. In all cases, too, the people who care the most and have the most to lose, as they see it, turn out to vote in primaries.
All in all, these factors lead to safe and uninspiring campaign promises that candidates won’t try too hard to keep anyway. The problem is partially structural and partially due to the lack of a frontrunner. But here we are, a week away from primary day with no Big Ideas in sight.