Omens Overlooked

This July, the Manhattan Bridge had to be closed to subway traffic when the web of a steel beam supporting the tracks was found to be so badly eroded that it was pierced by a hole 1.25 inches in diameter. A repair team reinforced the beam, restoring its original strength. Subway trains were again traversing the bridge the next day.

Everything, in short, was fine. Or was it?

This occurrence suggests that there is a serious problem with the way the city monitors the condition of its bridges. The state Department of Transportation is responsible for inspecting bridges on a two-year cycle; it takes the inspectors, employed by engineering firms that contract for the job, almost that long to complete their examinations of the 1,300 bridges in the city.

Inspectors mark with a red tag conditions they judge so dangerous as to require repair immediately—that is, within six weeks. A yellow tag marks conditions that, while not immediately dangerous, are likely to become so if left until the next inspection team comes two years later.

When the problem beam on the Manhattan Bridge was last inspected two years ago, it was not tagged. It was classified as a "5," meaning that it showed signs of deterioration, but not enough to make it dangerous. That a structural beam could deteriorate in less than two years from a "5" to an emergency status—one in which "immediate" means "right away"—is alarming. It suggests that two years are too long to wait between inspections to assure the safety of a structure. Unless the deterioration of the problem beam can be explained by a unique intrinsic weakness, the city has a serious systemic problem on its hands.

The corroded Manhattan Bridge beam did not cause a catastrophic accident, but it could have. The state and city transportation departments should take the incident as seriously as if a disaster had occurred. The episode provided an early warning of trouble ahead; unfortunately, the record of the public and of officialdom shows that such early warnings are often disregarded.

Two of the writers in this issue of the City Journal show how New York’s economy suffered when city and state officials ignored early warnings.

Stephen Kagann shows how the fiscal crisis of 1975 was an early warning that the city’s economy was in serious long-term decline. Despite steady tax increases, the city’s revenues were not keeping up with the increasing costs of government. Instead of acknowledging that its high-tax policies had brought New York to the verge of economic collapse, the city government continued to raise taxes. Today, Kagann shows, the city is doing the same thing all over again—and the result is likely to be a protracted economic downturn, which could well be worse than that of the 1970s.

In another article, Peter Murphy explains how successive governors took money from the State Insurance Fund, a state-run supplier of workers’ compensation insurance, to balance their budgets in difficult years. The fund had been managed in a very businesslike way, amassing a considerable surplus which was invested in interest-bearing securities. But beginning in 1982, Governor Hugh Carey forced the insurance fund to "lend" the state millions of dollars without interest. Under Governor Cuomo, the $190 million taken by his predecessor ballooned to nearly $1.3 billion. The earning assets of the fund, accumulated over decades, disappeared forever into the state’s annual budgets, as though they were tax receipts.

The fact that the Governor had to resort to such trickery to balance the budget should have been taken as an early warning that the State of New York was running off balance. After all, if the state could not balance its budget without raiding the insurance fund, how did it expect to do so after the fund’s assets were drained? What was needed was not a quick fix, but a zero-based budget exercise that would force Albany to make unpleasant but necessary choices about how much can be spent within the limits of available revenues.

Political leaders often ignore early warnings because heeding them would be politically unpopular. It is easier, for example, for the city to raise taxes or the state to raid the insurance fund than for either to cut funding to programs backed by powerful interest groups. The consequence of elected officials striving to be popular may be disastrous for the city and state in the long run but good for the official in the short run. The trouble may not become noticeable until someone else is in office.

Former Sanitation Commissioner Steven Polan, also writing in this issue of the City Journal, sounds another early warning: about the city’s garbage crisis. With landfill space quickly running out and the potential of recycling limit ed, the city will have to build waste-to-energy incinerators to deal with a substantial portion of the city’s solid waste.

After much controversy and an all-night hearing, one new waste-to-energy incinerator has been approved by the City Council. But more hearings will be held before it is built, and city officials will remember that their offices and homes are easily reachable by chartered bus from anywhere in the city. The buses will come, filled with residents and their children, carrying placards, there to remind elected officials that only saints and incompetent politicians sacrifice their own careers for an unpopular but necessary public good. One can only hope that the future Council members will dare to risk their own popularity to advance the common good.

Democracy is a difficult process, one in which, unfortunately, the common good doesn’t always prevail over the politics of the moment. Some early warnings, of course, turn out to be wrong. The public and its leaders must carefully consider which ones to heed. It is clear, however, that New York needs leaders willing to take unpopular stands in order to make a better future.



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