Mayor de Blasio swept into office six years ago with sweeping promises to end the “Tale of Two Cities.” Despite $20 billion in new spending, however, surprisingly little has changed in New York City.
De Blasio’s revolution never arrived, unless one counts universal pre-K and ferry subsidies as a revolution.
In a new report from the Manhattan Institute, I review the mayor’s mixed record on a number of promises and key policy initiatives. Income inequality was never within the mayor’s direct control, admittedly. But city services are.
Amidst gradually falling crime citywide and some promising public safety pilots like the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, public housing residents continue to suffer the city’s highest violent crime rates.
Universal pre-K has proven popular, but English and math proficiency rates remain staggeringly low in traditional public schools, especially among poor and minority students.
Vision Zero, de Blasio’s upgraded version of Bloomberg’s traffic-death reduction plan, achieved several years of progress until this year’s tragic spike in cyclist fatalities.
More recently, the mayor has squandered the opportunity to upgrade buses citywide since Gov. Cuomo’s subway system went into crisis. The mayor has claimed there were “no quick fixes” to the transit crisis. That’s true of the subways, but not the city-controlled streets and bus lanes. Stricter bus lane enforcement could begin tomorrow; High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes on city-owned bridges could begin next week; and Select Bus Service routes can be planned and implemented jointly with Cuomo’s MTA in two to five years.
Relief for our overburdened East River subway crossings wouldn’t even take radical vision: The Queensboro Bridge used to have lanes for streetcars, and the Brooklyn Bridge once carried Myrtle Avenue El trains to Manhattan. Today, lower-capacity buses sit in traffic near and on the Queensboro, and the Brooklyn Bridge doesn’t even carry a single bus route.
Our “Green New Deal” mayor oversees a city that unapologetically continues to privilege the automobile over climate-friendly high capacity transit. Meantime, for any traffic relief we must wait for Gov. Cuomo’s game-changing congestion pricing plan to begin.
The mayor’s rejoinder to all this? A heavily subsidized ferry system with six routes that, combined, still carry fewer daily riders than the B15 bus alone.
The most surprising missed opportunity, however, has been the mayor’s housing effort. In a presidential primary where many Democrats are pitching housing plans to support cities that relax exclusionary zoning regulations, de Blasio could have been a front-runner.
Yet of 15 planned neighborhood upzonings originally promised, fewer than half have been approved. New building permits, though up over earlier years, remain far below the minimum 1% annual growth needed to keep pace with job growth.
More tragically, the city’s Housing Authority has fallen into such disrepair that Donald Trump and Ben Carson had to intervene with a rare federal consent decree which mandates emergency repairs to ensure the safety of New York’s most vulnerable residents.
Worryingly for the future, my colleague Nicole Gelinas has noted the city is technically insolvent in an accounting sense; current liabilities exceed current assets. The city’s budget is more than a fifth larger than it was under Bloomberg after adjusting for inflation, after hiring sprees and generous labor negotiations triggering billions in new unfunded retiree obligations that now total some $150 billion.
This transformative spending increase has not resulted in transformative change in our daily lives. Nor was it mostly used to catch up on our unfunded retirement promises to city workers to make budget room for future investment.
This mayoralty hasn’t been a disaster, but it does feel like a $20 billion-per-year wasted opportunity. Again, in his defense, Mayor de Blasio does not directly control income inequality or private wages, nor should he.
But the next mayor can more meaningfully improve the lives of New York’s most vulnerable people if he or she refocuses on the zoning constraints under city control, on upgrading our streets for transit and active road users, and more generally on the equitable provision of better public services.
Armlovich is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.