Sunday, January 30, 2011

Crappy snow removal does not a snowpocalypse make

When I said in my last post that the December 26-27 snowstorm wasn't all that bad, I didn't mean to suggest that it couldn't have been handled better. As I mentioned, some people died because emergency vehicles weren't able to get them to hospitals in time, and there were people stranded on trains for hours. From what I can tell, the city made two major mistakes, and the MTA made two major mistakes.

The first MTA mistake was not being adequately prepared far enough in advance, for example by suspending express service on underground lines so that trains could be stored on those tracks. The second was sending too many buses out without making sure that they would be able to move people around without getting stuck in the snow.

The first city mistake was not doing enough to prevent private drivers from blocking the roads. While I heard reports of streets blocked by buses and even the city's own cleanup vehicles, it sounds like there were many instances that happened like this: a private citizen decides to drive somewhere instead of walking or just staying home. Their car doesn't have snow tires, chains or four-wheel drive. They get it stuck in the snow in the middle of the street. They abandon the car and come back for it some time later. Meanwhile, the disabled car is blocking the street, sometimes for hours.

The city could have made it clear that there are harsh penalties for abandoning vehicles in the middle of the street, even in a snowstorm. Then they could have enforced those penalties. Instead, apparently, they allowed people to abandon their vehicles without any penalty, and sometimes even did them the favor of digging the cars out.

The second city mistake was described by Billy Wharton in the Bronx Examiner: "[Bloomberg] stated that the reason for the slow plow response was that the private plow owners were unresponsive to requests by the City. This point should not be cast aside as a mere attempt by Bloomberg to deflect blame. Whether we know it or not New Yorkers are now dependent on private companies in order to ensure clean streets. And for this Bloomberg is to blame."

According to Wharton, this was the result of a botched attempt to privatize the city's sanitation services. "Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty danced around this issue claiming, at first, that his Department had been too slow to reach out to private contractors. He later admitted that the pool of private companies willing to do business with the City had shrunk. There is just no money in it."

Hm, services cut and then replaced with a poorly structured privatization plan that doesn't provide enough compensation to the private service providers? Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, the livery van program.

Wharton is oversimplifying things by saying "privatization kills." It would be more accurate to say "incompetent privatization kills." A few days ago, Stephen Smith introduced us to the concept of cargo-cult urbanism, where people believe that by mimicking the superficial trappings of prosperous, efficient cities they can achieve that prosperity and efficiency themselves. Well, the livery van program and the sanitation program are some kind of faith-healing privatization. Like Christian Scientists who reject medical care and pray to their god for healing, the City stopped paying for transportation and sanitation services, and expected the private sector to step in. It doesn't work that way.

While Bloomberg is the Mayor and the buck stops with him, there's also a guy who's supposed to be a genius of privatization and efficiency, who has built his career on helping government to run leaner. His name is Stephen Goldsmith, and last year Bloomberg hired him as Deputy Mayor for Operations, overseeing the Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and yes, the Department of Sanitation. These privatization initiatives are what he was hired to do.

I was intrigued when Goldsmith came on board, and I would like to believe that he really does know a thing or two about privatization. I have to say I'm a little skeptical at this point, because it seems like faith healing to me. I hope Bloomberg is skeptical too.

But that's not why I'm seriously pissed about the political response to the storm. After all, the inconvenience was relatively minor. In the last post I told you that I would say why I'm pissed. I'm sorry, I just had to get this off my chest first. I'll get to that soon, but some of you have already figured it out.


Ben K. said...

If you're going where I think you're going with this, then I should say now that the city should be appalled at how the sidewalks are right now. For days, it's been impossible to cross most of the streets, and the snow plows keep dumping snow directly into crosswalks. It's as though the city has forgotten that the vast majority of New Yorkers actually walk around the city.

Cap'n Transit said...

That is indeed where I'm going with it, Ben. Feel free to write your own story about it in the meantime!

Ben K. said...

I'm very tempted to write my mind on this. I was complaining about it on Twitter yesterday and tried to get Andrew Siff's attention. In my life, I can't remember the streets being as bad as they were this week for pedestrians navigating the snow.

jazumah said...

I think that you are on the verge of connecting all the dots. The link through all of these issues is "savings". I put "savings" for a reason.

Everyone is trying to squeeze the federal government for money. By not putting enough money in the snow budget, the costs can be shifted to FEMA. FEMA tends to help out in major weather emergencies with cash. This might be the reason why the feds got involved in investigating the late December storm.

The name of the game is cost shifting. A botched livery van program to replace MTA buses. Holding back city and MTA resources to leverage more federal funding. Next up is "traffic pricing", which will zero out the city's contribution to the MTA and cut the regional mobility tax by up to half for the suburbs.