Precipitation flows into holes artificially bored in earth: a city recoils in horror.

I know that hed, or some version of it, has been written at least three or four times in the past two days. And it is certainly not to diminish the ill effects felt by the people that got hit by an actual weather “disaster”. Even so, that one photo of the black sedan with a branch on its roof seems be the sole signifier of ‘tornado’ we could muster.

I was reading one of those ‘what will happen to Manhattan in various catastrophes’ pieces (global warming, terrorist attack, one day closure of Magnolia, that sort of thing), and read this fascinating fact: aside from its inability to deal with a hard rain, the subway is incredibly porous — probably something about people needing oxygen — and the only thing stopping if from being completely inundated by the water that enrobes (makes it sound like a delicious éclair, no?) it are massive, continuous operating pumps. Not every tunnel, I’m sure, but if we lost power for an extended period of time (say, six to eight days), and diesel was hard to come by, most of our subway system would return to the water table from whence it was carved. This may be all hearsay, but isn’t it fascinating? They say the average American is two paychecks away from homelessness, but the MTA couldn’t even make it with a payday loan. The doom sayers then went on to say foundations would be undermined and buildings could collapse. Even I’m not that gullible. That would take a couple weeks or more.

The point being that ‘advanced’ culture, like the human body, is resilient yet terrifyingly delicate. Read the piece in this week’s New Yorker about how one wrong snippet of DNA (out of three billion) will make you chew off your fingers while yelling “No! Stop!” at yourself in horror if you want a more detailed explication on this point. The other problem is that Americans cling to a lottery/instant gratification culture. We invented it. As a consequence we think most everything can be fixed by an “all-nighter” montage accompanied by soft rock and interspersed with moments of levity though non-fatal accidents and the blossoming of at least one romance. Really, sneak in the EPA sometime. I bet John Hughes wrote our plan for global warming.

So people are bandying about ‘infrastructure’ a lot this week, and not just because it’s probably the biggest word they’ll use. And surely enough, the nominal powers-that-be — the ones, you know, who let things degrade into such a shoddy state — have demanded all nighters from the MTA and DOT’s nationwide. On the latter point, ours was refreshing direct and to the point: the Brooklyn Bridge rates very low on the extant safety scale. Sally forth tourists! Just don’t do anything terrorist-like. Given the recent pronouncements, this is likely to be expanded to include walking. Good times.

The MTA, a fascinating body at the center of two massive land use schemes that are going to forever blight big sections of our town, and likely to enshrine the name Peter Kalikow as the only New Yorker who manages to make Robert Moses look enlightened, was called on the carpet — an awfully damp one this week. Turns out the problems that befell the subway this week are exactly the same as the last “big” rain. Which was, um, three years ago. What happened in the interval? Well, they MTA didn’t upgrade their security, they didn’t develop a workable strategy for providing communications for rescue workers in the tunnels. Oh, and they didn’t get much money from anyone.

In the same vein as our get quick rich inanity, we Americans love to subscribe to lots of other contradictory and illogical myths: that we are a meritocracy, that we really can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that governmental control over essential services is bad, and oh, that New York isn’t the center of our culture, economy and net benefit to the region, state and feds. The upshot of all this is that while massive subsidies are afforded to every jerk who moves to Westchester or Montclair or Litchfield Country (in the form of highway bills, artificially low gas taxes, regional transit subsidies and exemption from city income tax), no one thinks that state or fed should fund our transit system — the circulatory system of an economy that keeps Joe Bruno from having to work at 7-Eleven. We’re talking billions of dollars in tax revenues lost to people who keep lecturing us on how we can’t run our city. When is the last time that Rochester was a profitable enterprise?

So the MTA has been forced to issuing crippling debt obligations to pay for maintenance that was deferred for decades, leaving it in no position to upgrade the system (though the city shrank for a short while after the 70’s debacle, unlike all other large American cities, has grown non-stop since its founding), let alone address the systemic problems that result in fiascoes like this week. Paris and London have added lines at least once a decade, and are still expanding. Britain and France recognize the cultural and economic rewards of continuing to provide services to their most crucial metropolitan areas.

Now, the MTA doesn’t do much to create sympathy for itself. Water inundating the system (did you know that when a tunnel gets flooded, they dry off the third rail by hand? Aside from the lunacy of that as a system, imagine that being your job: “Is it off? Are you sure?”) is certainly a decent excuse for shutting down lines, but a web site? Yeah, the web site goes down when it rains. I mean, they aren’t hiring taxi drivers to develop buildings for them anymore, but the same stench that pervades the air of New York whenever Giuliani claims he saved us from WWIII is kicked up when someone is forced to type “MTA Chair Peter Kalikow”. Really, just as a matter of symbolic form that guy has to go. Given that there is no future in private funding the subway, why not put someone everyone already suspects is a socialist in charge? It’s time to ask Gene Russianoff to put his money where is mouth is. What’s the worst that can happen — he will run the MTA with his special interest in mind? A special interest that is, um, the riders. Now that there is a crazy idea. One a New York politician could never understand.

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