I’ve been driving through the Holland Tunnel around Christmastime every year for a quarter-century or so to visit my grandparents in New Jersey, and for as long as I can remember, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bi-state fiefdom that runs everything from the region’s airports to the PATH subway to the trans-Hudson car crossings, has hoisted the same set of asinine Christmas decorations on the tunnel’s stately, po-mo Jersey City tollbooth.
By now I’m sure you’ve seen it: The frieze reads HOLLAND TUNNEL, and one wreath is properly positioned over the first “O.” But then a triangular Christmas tree sits atop the “N” in HOLLAND, and a second wreath over the “U” in TUNNEL. As a result, the whole things reads: HOLLAAD TONNEL, or to be more exact, H🌳LLA🎄D T🌳NNEL.
This year, Lower Manhattan resident Cory Windelspecht launched a petition on Change.org to fix the decorations, which he called an “OCD nightmare.” It was a perfect little viral story: A graphic design scandal that gave social media busybodies a chance to flaunt their spatial-thinking bona fides, a grassroots commission of concerned citizens that got the attention of local television and politicians, and a government agency willing to play ball and host a poll to reposition the decorations. Public engagement FTW!
On Monday, after 21,000 voters weighed in, the Port Authority announced it would move the tree beneath the A and drop the wreath from the U. And so might have concluded a goofy, Happy Holidays PR campaign for what might be the nation’s most powerful, corrupt, and incompetent public authority.
Naturally, the Port Authority tried to make the tannenbaum shuffle into a parable. “Some may call it a miracle that the traveling public has spoken and the Port Authority actually listened,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said, with a dash of self-deprecation, at a press conference on Monday. “But beyond the merriment and cheer with which we’ve accommodated this groundswell of holiday commentary, it illustrates that we take all customer feedback seriously.”
Yeah, right—this from the agency that went from building a $4 billion subway stop to constructing an airport train that runs the wrong way? The real parable is that New York politicians, unwilling to confront the deep, structural problems at the agencies they are supposed to oversee, have become obsessed with aesthetics and superficial problems. New Yorkers themselves, exasperated with the slow collapse of the region’s infrastructure but with little sense of its true causes, have found an outlet at the tollbooth that has looked just this dumb for decades.
So it is that Gov. Amazon Cuomo, the aesthetician-in-chief, has allowed the country’s most important metropolitan transit system to disintegrate under his thumb while boasting of achievements that include lights on bridges, Wi-Fi in subway stations, and new buses that, while largely not (like in many cities) electric, are painted the blue and yellow he has pushed as the state’s official color scheme. Meanwhile, his vaunted billion-dollar station renovation program doesn’t include so much as a new elevator to improve access for disabled New Yorkers.
It’s the same shallow thinking that permits the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to blame a budget shortfall on fare-beaters, when its service in January of this year was by one measure the worst of any major transit system in the world.
Or allows the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, to trumpet a glistening fleet of ferry boats as his contribution to solving the city’s transit crisis, though in reality all those boats in 2017 carried as many riders as the city’s 55th-busiest bus route.
In a way, the misplaced Christmas decorations over the Holland Tunnel were a true and honest representation of New York’s transportation woes—the dysfunctional fruits of a dysfunctional organization, the faithful convergence of appearance and reality. The Port Authority isn’t just an agency that can’t put up Christmas decorations right—it’s one that can’t figure out how to build a bus terminal for less than $10 billion.
Rearranging the Christmas decorations on the Holland Tunnel, then, is the story of what counts for reform and responsive governance in the nation’s largest metropolis, a deck-chairs metaphor for our age. Cute stuff. Now let’s have a vote on that backwards train to the airport.