Is “pothole repair” the most important contribution to the “general welfare” that local government can make?
Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” He may not have actually said these words, but they make a good opening to a larger point.
Should the words be taken for commentary on the futility of mankind’s planning in the face of the vagaries of nature? A pixyish poke at our propensity to complaint? Simple nonsense.
Of course, the obsessives striving to find evidence of climate change, errr… global warming, errr… the climatological worry of the moment or whatever will say; ‘No, Twain’s postulate is no longer true. We certainly do have control over that aspect of weather, which ultimately comprises ‘climate’. Humankind’s reliance on fossil fuels and its obsession with economic growth doom us to a future of malign climatological disruption and disaster… Or something like it.
But let us leave that morass of bilaterally tendentious science and political agitation and reaction aside for now and consider the question; Aside from the daily weather and the occasional geological or astronomical phenomenon, is there anything that occurs on “G-d’s green earth” that is not within the control of men, women, private corporations and public authorities that is not susceptible to constructive human intervention, amelioration and even correction?
I ask this question because of the continuing and incessant winter and spring outbreak of potholes, frost heaves and gravel plains. So, to rephrase the opening declaration. “Potholes. …everybody complains (or used to complain) about it. Nobody seems to do anything about it.”
Indeed. Anyone driving this week will be required to dodge, swerve or take heroic measures to avoid depositing one or more wheels into the numerous caverns, voids or pavement irregularities plaguing local streets (and to a lesser extent, county, state and interstate highways). The alternative is to ignore conditions and pray for the best. The best being your car not: bursting a tire, bending a wheel, fracturing an axle or tie rod. Also, not: losing control of the two-ton or so conveyance, sailing into any nearby pedestrians or inflicting insult or injury to yourself or any passengers, property or payload.
A pothole encounter of any kind is a shocking and sobering experience. It causes you to wonder whether your vehicle is still road worthy. While you are distracted by such existential concerns, you risk re-delivery of your wheel or wheels into additional potholes up ahead. After all, these mishaps of design, construction and upkeep do not appear in solo performance. They break out in patterns, proliferating upon the road scape as reliably and predictably as blackheads and blemishes on a teenager’s face.
I have never been fully incapacitated in this manner, but I can imagine the terror of “sitting duck” in the middle of the street, hobbled by a ruptured tire, a disjoined rear axle, or even one or more of the wheels slotted below road grade by nearly the full circumference of the tire, barred by simple geometry or your engine’s insufficiency of “brake horsepower torque” from escaping the asphaltic trap.
And the risks behind you? If you have commuted thoroughfares like Weaver Street or Pinebrook Boulevard, you will be familiar with the tailgating practices of road salesmen; harried hockey moms and eager, newly minted teenage frolickers. The risks of chain-reaction pileups can never be far from your mind.
But worse than the physical hazards is the disconcerting feeling that local government is not looking out for your well being. In a city of nearly 80,000 residents, or a county of 969,000, of course police patrols and road worker diligence can never be taken for granted. But whatever became of our local government’s commitment to the “general welfare?” It is written into the United States Constitution (in the preamble: “We the people… in Order to form a more perfect Union… promote the general Welfare,” and in the Article 1, Section 8 provision of the taxing power to Congress) and repeated or at least referenced in several state constitutions and many local charters of villages, town and cities around the nation.
After all, following border and national security and defense and public safety, a proper regard for the citizens’ “general welfare” is probably the highest purpose of the existence of government at all its levels.
That singular cringe-worthy thud of your front wheel making its descent into the crevice and then uneasily struggling to escape is indeed the most unpleasant part of the experience. The physical jolt, the worrying psychological reflection, and then the “little voice” murmuring inside you “someone in city hall is taking you for granted!’ And, “Westchester residents with the highest property tax bills in the nation shouldn’t be subjected to this! The embarrassment, the “ego bruise” of being the “chump” for a bunch of career politicians is usually worse than the physical jolt. Even my youngest son, who is generally immune to the blandishments of politics (unless his social life might somehow be affected) finds the neglect of sworn obligations to adequate and safe public works by politicians to be an “outrage!”
I know of upstate New Yorkers and Carolina and Florida residents who pay one-fifth our tab for local services and get shiny, spanking new public schools, spotless streets and sidewalks and well-maintained roadways. The revolting feeling is instantaneous, fleeting – but profound enough to take your attention off the obstacle course to risk injury by the next road peril. And therein is the compound, secondary hazard in driving. It is impossible to predict the adequacy of the approaching roadway and so one must drive with eyes glued 15 to 20 feet in front in anticipation of the next void. Definitely not good for traffic flow and not conducive to safe navigation of road hazards MORE than 15 to 20 feet ahead!
If citizens were subjected to: threats of gas line leaks; eruption of volcanoes raining down scorching poisonous dust and debris; climatological cataclysms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy; industrial mishaps like the grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989 and the BP Deepwater Horizon undersea petroleum leak in 2010 the clamor for corrective action would be deafening. More recent examples; a railroad crossing tragedy in Chappaqua taking the life of a young mother and five others in February; the airliner crashes in the Western Pacific in 2014 with hundreds killed or lost; and the Metro-North crash in the Bronx in 2013 which ended four lives and injured 63.
The broadcast, cable and social media press coverage has been universal, followed by thunderous orations by the nearest politicians; if this didn’t compel corrective measures, popular protest would certainly follow (in foreign nations even more drastic have been the consequences: in India and Central America, victims’ families have sacked government offices and attacked bureaucrats when official responses to natural or man-made tragedies seemed inadequate; other places have seen outright insurrection, leading to the fall of parliamentary governments!).
But in the more politically sophisticated and well-practiced systems of the United States, such outrages and anarchic outcomes are rare (even following some truly horrific natural and manmade disasters of our own). Assiduous media coverage, and prompt regulatory action and rule-making by the legal, medical and engineering professions, trade associations and governmental bodies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) function too regularly and reliably to allow it.
So, processes for the preservation of the citizenry’s “general welfare” following the most extraordinary catastrophes already are in place; what seems to be missing is a similar process covering the more mundane daily hazards that plague us on the local level.
Does it seem indulgent for one to complain about Westchester road conditions with so much poverty and oppression in the rest of the world? Or, is someone who pays his taxes, obeys the laws of the locality, county, state and nation of his residence not entitled to expect the accustomed system of modern transportation to perform as designed? Should not a long-established network of automobile and truck travel work as intended and not put at risk of harm one’s self, vehicles and personal property, as well as family and strangers? Is one supposed to accept without complaint the imposition of even minimal personal responsibility for thus endangering the welfare of neighbors and strangers perambulating or motoring in his path?
It does not require too much imagination to picture the potentially tragic outcomes of driving public safety vehicles over potholed, patchwork and “washboard,” and rubble-strewn thoroughfares. Would you want your sick or elderly relative to have to endure the swerves and dips down these paths? Do our police men and women, firefighters and EMT professionals not face enough perils to not have to endure such demolition-derby encounters in their ordinary travels?
What of the cost to individuals, businesses, local, state and federal governments in ruined equipment, injuries to personnel, inefficiency and waste of effort and time?
When in our technological and industrial “march of progress” did vehicular transportation become anything less than a necessity of cultural and commercial life? We may have much to learn from the paradigms of environmental progress and responsibility like Portland, Oregon, Bogota, Colombia and Copenhagen, Denmark concerning bicycle and pedestrian accommodation; but this is not the place to bemoan our reliance on petroleum-dependent transportation. We must confront current threats to the “general welfare” as presented. The dangers are real, and the polity must devote resources necessary to defeat them.
As the Europeans have much to teach us about ecological conservation and stewardship of natural resources; we can learn much from them about safe and enduring roadway construction also. The German federal system of high speed, high volume vehicular intercourse, the “Bundesautobahn,” certainly can be emulated; a customary 27-inch road thickness and a generally Teutonic attention to maintenance and order. “Crews inspect every square meter of the system periodically using vehicles with high-tech road scanning equipment. If a fissure or other defect is found, the entire road section is replaced,” according to www.German-Autobahn.eu.
The question must be asked, therefore; What defect in our local “civic character” has permitted so essential a matter of public safety to escape the attention (never mind the responsibility) of elected officials?
In his essential work, “Democracy in America,” 19th century French observer Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “The native of New England… takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms without which liberty can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.”
Few people would mistake the America of 1831 or so with 21st Century Westchester County, New York. De Tocqueville’s model communities teemed with civic involvement (of course, women and minorities excepted). Town hall meetings were well attended and voter participation high compared with the rough democratic equivalents of the Old World.
Today, it seems, local politics is a curiosity; notwithstanding unprecedented coverage of international and national affairs by cable transmission and new social media. Daily newspapers disappear at a geometric pace, leaving local radio and broadcast coverage confined almost exclusively to the bloodthirsty, garish and gaudy.
Constituent residents and property owners scantly attend city council and county legislative gatherings. Only the most dramatic instances of governmental waste and misconduct (such as the besotted Echo Bay development boondoggle on the New Rochelle Sound Shore last year) have attracted more than a modicum of voter attention and city council ‘citizens-be-heard’ complaint.
One misbegotten local radio host for years ignored chronic issues of municipal neglect, downtown decay and the sorry record of a nearly one-quarter billion-dollar school system in New Rochelle. One morning, without citing any evidence, he pronounced the pothole blight solved and left town!
And whence our local citizens’ representatives in all of this? Take yourself down to the next council meeting; listen closely to citizens’ reactions and comments. Wait in vain for official acknowledgments of the wretched state of public streets. Hold your breath for robo-calls by a titular, ceremonial mayor acknowledging the problem and offering a scheduled course of improvement.
The council Democratic majority is mum. That is to be expected; they are, after all, responsible for the mess. But the enfeebled Republican loyal opposition? Why is it silent? This should be a time for good old-fashioned partisan fisticuffs: demands for reallocation of funds and budgeting for capital improvements, personnel shifts, managerial initiative and improved maintenance and planning. But we hear nothing.
The local governmental Leviathan prefers a studied silence. If cornered, the local ward healer will wail about the nasty winter, a scarcity of road salt, DPW hiring freezes, global warming, climate change and Polar Vortices. But a comprehensive critique and action plan is nowhere to be found.
What are we facing here? A “Conspiracy of Silence” by the majority? Perhaps. Those in charge love taking responsibility for the good things that happen and never the bad; but what of the out-of-power Republicans. What is their excuse for silence and inaction? Have they nothing to offer?
Herein, the inherent weakness of the modern democratic model. Minority party legislators (and in New Rochelle, they are lucky to hold even one seat, never mind two) are obsessively concerned with retaining their precariously held offices. So nervous are they that the majority faction, or just an unprofessional civil servant in the normally professional city hall bureaucracy will be incensed at their criticisms of the city’s precarious state of health and condition of its physical plant, that they would rather be silent when constructive voices of protest are needed most!
How has the state of our democracy gotten so bad?
Little is reported on the issue and few seem to really care. As noted earlier, print coverage, has decreased with the proliferation of cable and social media. Westchester’s slenderized daily newspaper devoted a cover story to the deterioration of our roadways recently, but it focused mainly on the futility of seeking county and state compensation for related property damage; left unmentioned was the perversity of so much infrastructural squalor in the midst of so much private wealth and possible means of redress.
Ultimately, the fault lies with an electorate that accepts the status quo; party machine domination (usually Democratic party-based, but not exclusively so) and general and widespread public complaisance.
There are some ‘swells’ in my neighborhood who would refuse a sirloin steak served two degrees too cold at their favorite restaurant, but who have no opinion on the sorry state of governance and livability in their hometown. Few have a clue that they are paying double for the over-funded Department of Public Works collection of garbage and recyclables thanks to an unprecedented and sleazy (but so-far NYS Supreme Court sanctioned) three-year old garbage tax. Most couldn’t name their local councilperson, county legislator or state or federal representative (but likely know the identity of the self-important and self-esteemed symbolic mayor courtesy of city hall and public school press operations).
Until the local gentry become sensitized to the issues of municipal safety, living quality and governance, there seems to be little prospect for improvement on this year’s abominable driving landscape next winter. The DPW budget of some $22 million already strains New Rochelle’s ability to pay, and as-yet uncalculated millions more (certainly an appropriate future research project) will be required for the men, women and materials necessary for improved planning, maintenance and reconstruction.
But the public is not powerless and palliative measures are available. In government as well as in business, economic conditions change, “Acts of G-d” intrude and environmental conditions vary which might justify increased funding of one department, reduction or discontinuance of another, moving of personnel and material appropriations. Labor contracts generally allow such measures, which are referred to as “management prerogative.” (However, as even our most inattentive electorate recognizes, government-level management enjoys less overall freedom of action than its private-sector counterpart; local law, public sector union collective bargaining contracts and state constitutions being what they are.)
The last Republican Senator from New York, Alphonse D’Amato, was often dismissed by the fancy pants of the Democratic and (now extinct) Liberal parties as “Senator Pothole.” This was no compliment of course; the elitists were simply trying to portray this assuredly non-intellectual Long Island hayseed as a mere doer of deeds, instead of an advocate of airy rhetoric like the hallowed Governor Mario Cuomo. After this season’s disgraceful record of roadway maintenance and repair (and regardless of the accuracy of the imputation), however, what wouldn’t New York State voters “give” to find a modern day “Senator, Congresswoman, Assemblyman or councilor Pothole?”
Call the nearest elected representative; inform him of the parlous state of ‘the community’s “public works” (as if he weren’t aware of it himself!). Let him know how your locality’s “value proposition” stacks up against that of a neighboring town or village, and how this reflects upon his abilities as a public servant.
If he is flummoxed by your charge or if he does not comprehend potholes to be this year’s most serious threat to community safety and public health, commit yourself to voting the laggard out of office at the next opportunity.
Or, do what most of your colleagues continue to do daily; dodge responsibility to yourself and your community. Throw environmental and civic concerns to the wind and purchase yourself a shiny, new Cadillac Escalade or Land Rover SUV, the better to crush all manner of road obstruction in your way and ride off into your private version of Utopian apolitical obliviousness.