“There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage,” Depression-era Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said. In fact, there are lots of ways to pick up the garbage. Now, the City Council wants to fix one of the worst ways: fly-by-night carters backing up down one-way streets and blowing red lights to be the lowest bidder on commercial waste. But fixing it the wrong way could make a bigger mess.
There is a lot to fix. As Brooklyn Councilman Antonio Reynoso pointed out at a summer hearing, the current system — in which 90 companies collect 3 million tons of refuse and recycling each year, based on individual agreements with 100,000 businesses and buildings — encourages a “race to the bottom,” with “highly inefficient routes, some with 1,000 stops in a single night.”
Reynoso’s push to reform the industry was spurred by two deaths within six months under the wheels of one company, now-defunct Sanitation Salvage. “We know in the last decade commercial garbage trucks have been involved in dozens of fatal crashes, including pedestrians, cyclists and workers,” Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Robert Orlin told the council.
Business owners don’t pay the cost of bad driving and below-minimum-wage labor; they just pay the lowest price. Even with good driving, more miles driven adds more danger: 26 separate carters serve just six blocks on Midtown’s West 57th Street.
But Reynoso’s fix veers too far in the opposite direction: fixing a problem created by free-for-all competition by creating a single city-regulated monopoly. His bill, set for a vote this month, would have the Department of Sanitation divide the city into at least 20 zones and then invite companies to bid for each zone. A single company would win the exclusive right to operate in any one zone for 10 years.
Reynoso says that by picking one company per zone, the city could exert far more control over safety and labor standards, plus require more recycling. And zones, rather than zigzag routes, would cut hauling-truck traffic in half, by 18 million miles a year.
These are fine goals. But the city isn’t good at enforcing standards at transportation monopolies. Consider school buses. Carrying kids around is more important than carrying the garbage. But the city’s school bus contractors, also done by exclusive service areas, have never been able to bring children back and forth on time in an efficient manner. Plus, the city is now paying millions of dollars for emergency contract extensions.
Or consider how the city awards contracts based on political consideration: Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted on pricing the ferry ride at $2.75, so he could say he was reducing inequality. As a result, the five-borough ferry system is now losing more than $10 for every ride. This, even though most customers aren’t poor and could and likely would pay more for a more pleasant and faster ride than the subway.
As for enforcing new performance standards, it’s hard to see how a monopoly contract system would improve things, because the carters’ worst offenses, like breaking traffic and wage laws, are already illegal.
The city’s business integrity commission, which regulates the industry, could have long ago enacted rules to bar bad actors — with enforcement made easier thanks to speed and red light cameras. If the city wants more recycling, it can simply mandate it, just as it does with residents, and fine contractors that don’t comply.
Still, the city can improve things. The Department of Sanitation has a better counteroffer: Allow customers to choose from among three to five carters in each zone. The city could attempt to enforce new labor and environmental standards and still reduce truck traffic: One winding 100-stop route might be 30 miles long, rather than 117.
Having three to five haulers per zone, rather than one, isn’t going to solve the city’s chronic contracting problems. But it does allow for some competitive checks and balances. A commercial customer, such as a large office building, would have the power to switch to a new contractor if its existing one can’t take out the trash — and without waiting 10 years for a monopolist’s agreement in that particular zone to expire.
Otherwise, the only way New Yorkers know something has gone wrong is if the commercial trash starts piling up on the streets.
This piece originally appeared at the New York Post
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