Syracuse's Central Station once received trains and then buses, and is now a television studio.
Photo: Crazyale / Wikipedia
Politicians love to do this. In fact, the system is so set up for it that people thought I was nuts when I asked if governments ever save up for big infrastructure projects. And two former mayors of Huntington, West Virginia thought Chuck Marohn was nuts when he suggested that projects should even be judged on whether they can be expected to generate enough revenue to pay off their bonds. Everyone likes to make promises for the next generation, whether it's pensions, Medicaid, infrastructure, borrowing, low taxes or low inflation.
Eventually someone has to acknowledge that the previous generations overpromised and that at least one of these promises has to be broken. There's a smart way to do this, and a stupid way, and a dishonest way. The smart way to is to openly list the promises and prioritize them. The stupid way is to notice one or two promises that you'd like to break and focus on those while remaining blissfully oblivious to the fact that other commitments exist. The dishonest way is to pretend that you don't realize about the other commitments and hope nobody points them out.
Foroohar acknowledges this in the financial sector: in her Time column, she wrote, "My worry was always that, as in parts of Europe or Latin America or even California cities that have gone bankrupt, pensioners [in Detroit] would be left holding a disproportionate share of the burden of cuts, while other creditors took less of a haircut." But it's true beyond finance, in other promises made by these states, counties and cities.
The fact is that most American cities made a series of really stupid decisions in the late twentieth century. They relocated valuable infrastructure like canals and railroads out of their downtowns, so those downtowns were no longer "on the way." They built oppressive, noisy highways through those downtowns, allowing drivers to shoot through on their way to someplace else. They copied zoning codes that outlawed mixed-use neighborhoods, and gutted the mixed-use neighborhoods that existed with highways and "urban renewal." Then they built other highways to bypass the downtowns, and subsidized development in the suburbs. I happen to be particularly familiar with Syracuse's tragic flailings in this regard, but you can see the same pattern in Albany, Buffalo or Binghamton, and all over Rockland County.
The people who ran these municipal governments borrowed money to build these highways and other infrastructure. They promised to pay it back with interest (Nocera noted that this was missing from the pension discussions). They promised their residents that no matter how far they spread out, no matter how much they drove, they could still count on roads, bridges, power, water and sewers. They promised that the government would pay for all that indefinitely and somehow keep taxes and tolls low. Oh yeah, and they promised their city workers secure retirements, and their poor people healthcare.
Of all these promises, Cuomo focuses on taxes, Miner focuses on pensions, Aquario focuses on Medicaid and Carey focuses on tolls. We may actually wind up with cheap taxes and tolls while cutting pensions and Medicaid, and that may get these guys elected to powerful political offices for many years. But you and I know that it won't actually solve the real problem: we can't afford to maintain the sprawl that's sucking the revenues out of our hollowed-out cities and towns. And we can't afford to pay back the money our parents borrowed to build that sprawl.
These four are not handling these overpromises the smart way, so that means they're either handling them the stupid way or the dishonest way. Hanlon's razor says "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity," and I know of no evidence that Cuomo, Miner, Aquario and Carey are lying, power-hungry, heartless crooks. For now I have to assume that they're simply incompetent idiots with a particular blind spot for the ugly sprawl that is choking the life out of the many lovely towns of my home state.