The deal to shift more control of Governors Island from the state to the city is a triumph of enlightened opportunism. If anything closely resembling the proposed combination of rolling hills, playing fields, and marshlands is built—with easy access from both Manhattan and Brooklyn—a statue of Mike Bloomberg should be erected right in the middle.
But the mayor is thinking even bigger. He also has his eye on the five-borough, 23-school, 516,000-student City University of New York system, and Battery Park City, the complex of commercial and residential buildings. Both are currently under the aegis of New York State, which is having a few budget problems at the moment, giving Bloomberg the same kind of opening he used to grab Governors Island for the city (though Richard Brodsky, the state assemblyman who last year rewrote the public authorities law, says “Bloomberg is trying to sell it as he’s in control, but that’s not the reality. Members of the board of a public authority can’t just do what they’re told”). All three moves make psychic sense: They’re here, so why should the state run them? And localizing operational command is more efficient. Whether the changes make financial sense, particularly as the city is on the verge of laying off teachers, is a much different matter. “There’s already some money in the city’s capital budget for rebuilding Governors Island, but the question comes down to future operating costs, and that’s very speculative,” says the Independent Budget Office’s Doug Turetsky. “As for CUNY, the state puts about $1.2 billion a year into it, and I don’t know where the city would get that money. Battery Park City is the soundest in budgetary terms—through 2013, they’re projecting a surplus of $114 million.” Negotiations over BPC are much further along than those regarding CUNY, though if the deal isn’t done before September’s political primaries it probably won’t happen.
The transfer of GI, CUNY, and BPC might be good for the city’s autonomy, and Bloomberg could no doubt manage them better. But if the mayor wants to give the city more control over its fate—and if he wants to be remembered as fondly as La Guardia—there’s a truly vital piece of city infrastructure worth acquiring. As long as the state is divesting, the mayor should make a bold play for the transit system. Bloomberg proposed a city takeover in his first campaign, only to become the latest in a long line of mayors who complain about their powerlessness to improve subway and bus service. Here’s a real chance to do something more than politically convenient carping. Certainly the city could never handle the $8 billion transit budget on its own. Yet Bloomberg should find a creative way to leverage the state’s weakness into a bigger city presence in MTA decision-making. In exchange for increasing the city’s contribution to MTA funding, Bloomberg could get more seats on its board, or a say in naming the MTA’s chief; then the city could help shape the long-term financial plan the MTA badly needs. That might not be the most monumental of mayoral legacies. But it comes down to what he’s always staked his career on: competence. And this city is going nowhere if we depend on Albany to keep the trains running on time.