After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, critics rightly focused on a compelling image of the city’s leadership breakdown: hundreds of idle yellow school buses, underwater and useless. Today, New York City has its own idle buses—more than 4,000 of them, rendered equally useless by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki as the economy struggles to stay afloat with each day of a transit strike. It’s time for New York’s leaders to show some practical leadership during our own economic disaster and put some of those idle buses to work.

New York’s December transit strike is just like New Orleans’s August hurricane in another key way: Bloomberg and Pataki knew that the big one was coming and had plenty of time to prepare. Pataki and Bloomberg had plenty of warning that the transit workers’ employer, the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), would stick to its guns and demand a concession on overly generous employee pensions from the Transport Workers Union as part of any contract settlement. They also knew that the TWU’s leadership likely wouldn’t accept this demand. The stage was set for a strike. The only question was when.

Local TWU chief Roger Toussaint gave the answer last Thursday: The illegal strike would start Tuesday morning at midnight. So this was a slow-motion, planned disaster, not a sudden attack on the city’s transit system. The city’s failure to provide its citizens with an alternative, if imperfect, method of mass transportation is unacceptable—and the seeming inability of Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki to think a way out of the box that the TWU has locked them in falls far short of what New Yorkers expect and deserve from their elected leaders.

New Yorkers need Bloomberg and Pataki now to save them from an increasingly grinchy holiday. Make no mistake: New Yorkers are suffering. New York retailers lost up to $200 million in sales Monday, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is no small matter for the mom-and-pop shop-owners who depend on holiday sales for their annual profits. New York shouldn’t be surprised to see an uptick in personal and small-business bankruptcies early next year.

Low- and middle-income workers are losing big, too, for this time around, the TWU strike disproportionately hits them. In 1980, during the last transit strike, everyone was in it together; nobody had a home computer to telecommute with. Today, many white-collar workers can work at home if they wish—and judging from pedestrian traffic levels on this week’s streets, many are doing so. Restaurant, hotel, retail, and construction workers don’t have that option. When they can’t get to work, they lose their pay.

The economic suffering won’t ease soon without decisive leadership. But none appears to be forthcoming. The MTA, directly responsible for its employees, seems clueless about how it will end the strike. The authority hasn’t taken steps to fire its absent workers for breaking the law, for example, as it has the right to do under normal disciplinary channels. Nor has it taken steps to hire temporary replacement workers.

Meanwhile, the city’s buses sit. The mayor and the governor could take a stand for New Yorkers by hiring some private-sector drivers to steer some of those buses.

New York has plenty of licensed school bus drivers, tour-bus drivers, regional commuter-bus drivers, and more. Might not some or most of them want a few hundred dollars in extra pay during the week before Christmas for working some city shifts? Double-decker tour buses, to take one easy example, look to be traversing Manhattan half-empty this week due to the strike. The mayor could quietly speak with the managers of the companies that own those buses to see about borrowing some drivers for the duration of the strike. The city and state could pay qualified drivers twice the going daily rate on a temporary basis just to get some buses up and running quickly. Since violence is a risk in breaking any strike, the mayor should equip each bus with a pair of NYPD officers.

New York won’t find 4,000 qualified bus drivers (at least not right away), but even a few hundred are better than nothing. The mayor could run buses on two of Manhattan’s main avenues from early morning until late evening for the duration of the strike, and could run some routes on the main thoroughfares of the outer boroughs leading into downtown and midtown Manhattan. The buses couldn’t transport everyone, but a few thousand people getting to work or to shop on city transit are better than none.

Bloomberg and Pataki need to realize that impotent wailing about how the transit strike is against the law won’t cut it with New Yorkers. They don’t need words; they need a way to get around, and they need to see that their elected representatives understand that their first duty is to protect and serve the public. And what’s the alternative to trying? Empty buses, empty stores, and empty wallets for many people who just want to get to work.


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