When Robert Moses, then commissioner of New York State’s Parks Department, started work on what would eventually become Jones Beach on Long Island’s South Shore, he used a tactic that would become his common practice — he vastly understated the cost of the project, knowing that once it was started, it would be nearly impossible politically to roll it back.
He likely wasn’t the first political appointee to discover this ploy, and he most certainly wasn’t the last.
In this vein, it was not so shocking to read about the escalating costs of the New Haven-to-Springfield rail line, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promptly blamed on Amtrak.
The state has already budgeted $1 billion for the line, including the cost of building new stations, although Malloy’s administration likes to call it a “$365-million job.”
In response to the cost overruns, Malloy asked the federal Department of Transportation to turn the rail lines — currently owned by Amtrak — over to the state. Or, really, over to him.
In the Power Broker, biographer Robert Caro paints a vivid portrait of a Robert Moses as a government bureaucrat who built an empire. Moses was largely responsible for completely re-shaping the face of New York City, and New York State, through public works projects, in ways that were both awe-inspiring and incredibly destructive.
One of the things Moses learned early on was that he needed to amass as much power to himself as possible if he wanted to get things done.
Sound familiar? It should. I have a feeling Malloy also read the Power Broker, although instead of a cautionary tale, he must have seen it as a user’s manual.
In a 2010 profile of Malloy in the Connecticut Post, Malloy cited Moses as an influence in his approach to urban planning. More recently, state DOT Commissioner James Redeker invoked Moses’ name when describing Malloy’s transportation “vision” to a Stamford Advocate columnist.
Now, Dan Malloy is clearly no Bob Moses. Those who knew Moses described him as “charming.” The self-described “porcupine” wouldn’t — and couldn’t — claim that moniker for himself. Charm is certainly a political asset — it’s one of the reasons Moses was so effective in his quest for power.
But Malloy appears to have adopted many of Moses’ tactics, and through his actions shows that he, like Moses, believes in centralizing power to a strong executive branch.
During this past legislative session, Malloy used several of those tactics to try to enhance his position, including changing the classification of 32 state employees from civil service to political appointees, giving him more authority over who gets those plum positions.
We’ve already seen, with the unceremonious firing of labor chief Linda Yelmini, that Malloy is willing to use that power for his own purposes.
Another Moses-like move was Malloy’s attempt to create a harmless-sounding “Transit Corridor Development Authority.”
Moses often used the quasi-public structure of the “authority” to hide his projects, and especially the cost of the projects.
Malloy’s Transit Authority would have had the power to condemn land, and then to borrow money to build on that land. The Transit Authority would also have had the power to manage the property after it had been developed, collecting rents and other revenues. All of this could have been done with little to no local oversight.
Even now, Malloy’s defenders say the Transit Authority was only created to leverage federal dollars for “transit oriented development.” That’s interesting, but not true, since the DOT and local governments already can apply for that money.
Malloy’s transportation “vision,” aka the “laundry list,” is clearly his effort to build a legacy. His quest for power and money to further his goals need to be closely scrutinized at every juncture.
State lawmakers do need to invest in our infrastructure. Just in the last few months, there have been more Metro-North delays because of bridge problems.
Which brings us round again to the Springfield line. Why, oh why, are we investing in a new rail line when our most vital asset — the Metro-North line — is crumbling?
It may be that Malloy learned another lesson from Moses, who cloaked many of his projects under the heading of “parks.” Because who can be against more parks?
Rail — or really, mass transit — is the “parks” of the 21st century in progressive Connecticut. As long as a project is connected to mass transit, it cannot be wrong.
The Democrats use this to their advantage in the bond commission as well.
Every time there is a bond commission meeting, and the Republicans complain about state debt — which is truly out of control — the governor’s office always retorts with, ‘Well, then vote against the bond package,” knowing full well that voting against transportation projects, schools, parks, and various other civic improvements is politically unwise.
A strong executive isn’t all bad — having the ability to move things forward in the face of bureaucratic inertia is a gift. But are we sure that Malloy will use the power he is amassing for good?
No, of course not. A bright spotlight is in order — even when things are as “apple pie” as parks and rail.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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