No mayor can get a project this ambitious done on his own, and that's a huge problem for everyone.

New York City was ranked this week by the Economist Intelligence Unit as the number one most "competitive" city in the world. Competitive not in terms of its individual citizens (determining that would require a rather different kind of assessment), but in terms of the overall global economy.

The survey, commissioned by Citi, looked at 32 indicators in eight different categories, including economic strength, physical capital, social and cultural character, and global appeal. Out of all the selected metrics, New York was found lacking in just one area: "New York’s environmental governance still lags behind other cities, but its NYC 2030 plan sets out a credible blueprint for improvement," the report concluded.

The New York Times interviewed Leo Abruzzese, global forecasting director for the Economist Intelligence Unit, about the findings:

New York’s most glaring weakness has been in the management of the environment and preparation to cope with storms and other natural disasters, he said.

“New York doesn’t do well in environmental performance or natural hazards,” Mr. Abruzzese said. “Certainly that was reinforced last year with Sandy.”

It sure was. But the city didn't go into Sandy unaware of the threats posed by climate change and severe weather. It's been studying the problem for years. 

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $20 billion plan formulated by the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency earlier this week, its 438 pages were packed with data and loaded with hundreds of specific recommendations, including storm surge protection, an amended building code, beach replenishment, evacuation plans, and hardening of all varieties of infrastructure. Some of these came out of work that began way back in 2007, when the mayor’s office released the first iteration of its environmental agenda, “PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York,” which contained a whole section about the perils of climate change and rising sea levels. It included this somewhat prescient passage:

The sobering images of Hurricane Katrina still haunt us—a testament to our vulnerability in the face of nature’s ferocity.

For many New Yorkers, the idea of a similar catastrophe affecting our own city is unthinkable. But a 1995 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that a Category 3 hurricane in New York could create a surge of up to 16 feet at La Guardia Airport, 21 feet at the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, 24 feet at the Battery Tunnel, and 25 feet at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The impacts could be even greater as a result of waves following the surge or tides, both of which could increase the damage.

Sandy was by the strictest definition not a hurricane at all when it reached the city, merely a post-tropical cyclone of epic proportions. But the resulting storm surge, while not as high as the worst-case scenario, broke all previous records — 16 feet at Tottenville in Staten Island, 11.2 feet at Howard Beach in Queens, 10.4 feet at the World’s Fair Marina adjacent to LaGuardia, and the equivalent of 14 feet at the Battery in Manhattan.

Perhaps more than any other single event, Sandy made the consequences of climate change seem like reality rather than science fiction to the American people, and provided cover for politicians who may have been reluctant to talk frankly about the threat before.

It seemed, in the weeks and months after the storm, that a window had opened for putting some money into serious mitigation measures. The recovery funds allotted by Congress, won after a bitter battle, would theoretically account for about $10 billion of the price tags attached to the Bloomberg plan. The mayor says he thinks there's another $5 billion in federal funds that could be added on top of that. So even assuming his successor wants to carry out this exact vision, that person will have to come up with at least another $5 billion, likely more.

It's not just about money, though. Operating the political machinery necessary to implement such a sweeping set of recommendations would be difficult for any mayor, even Bloomberg, who has earned a reputation of being able to muscle through almost any policy he cares about. And Bloomberg is leaving the job at the end of this year. The 10-person scrum of candidates vying to replace him has not yet revealed any individual with the political chops or popular support that will be needed for a project of this scale, especially in the current political environment. 

Bloomberg's administration has succeeded in achieving many of the goals of PlaNYC 2030 that are within the scope of local control, such as building new bike infrastructure and increasing the amount of street space allocated to pedestrians rather than cars. But the way the system is set up, New York's mayor is dependent on state and federal approval to make the big stuff happen, and that was always going to be a problem. 

In Washington, spending proposals of any type are met with kneejerk resistance these days. Meanwhile in Albany, the state legislature is as sclerotic and riven with Machiavellian conflict as it has ever been, and Governor Andrew Cuomo is fumbling to regain the political mastery he demonstrated at the beginning of his term. Powerful private sector interests, like the real estate lobby, could get in the way if they see a threat to their bottom line. There are just so many barriers for a mayor to overcome.

Bloomberg ran up against those barriers in the recent past. The fate of his proposal for congestion pricing, part of the PlaNYC 2030 agenda that was first floated in 2007, is a classic example of how the convoluted political process can derail ambitious environmental initiatives.

The plan, modeled on systems in London and Singapore, would have charged drivers to enter the central business district of Manhattan during peak hours, reducing congestion and emissions. It had the support of the federal government, which pledged $354 million to fund the project and simultaneously improve the city's public transportation system, adding badly needed bus and ferry capacity (precisely the kind of transportation that functioned best post-Sandy). Congestion pricing also had the backing of the governor, the city council, the Manhattan borough president, and the leader of the state senate. Polls showed it was favored by 60 percent of the public. But in 2008, after closed-door conferences, Sheldon Silver, the powerful state assembly speaker, refused to bring the measure to the floor for a vote, citing lack of support among the Democratic conference in that body. After more than a year of multilateral effort, congestion pricing was dead.

Avoiding similar collapses in the future will be essential not just for New York, but for the United States as a whole. The recent Economist report is just one indication of how dominant and valuable the city remains in the global, let alone national, context. It is an undisputed asset of strategic importance. But if all levels of government aren't willing to work together to deal with New York’s environmental threats, it could all too quickly become a liability instead.

Top image: A largely powerless downtown Manhattan stands under a night sky due to a power blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

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