To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, Rep. Brian Higgins put the whip
Friday to the waterfront.
There was nothing the congressman said, standing at Gallagher Beach in a chill wind, that is not obvious. But "obvious" does not usually break the inertia in a community that can make a glacier look like it's in a hurry.
Higgins, however, delivered a kick in the pants that ought to propel waterfront progress.
Everything he said made indisputable sense.
Yes, the waterfront should be taken out of the hands of our buses-and-trains transportation agency. That's only a half-century overdue.
Yes, the agency created seven years ago to run the waterfront should be given control of the miles-long stretch south of downtown. Yes, the $279 million that Higgins brokered from the Power Authority settlement seven years ago should be used –as intended –to create the waterfront we deserve.
Yes, it all should happen by year's end, instead of in the usual time frame–within our lifetimes. Too many of our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers have died while we wait for the outer harbor to be transformed from scrub brush and warehouses into a communal front yard.
Higgins, more than anyone, has the moral authority to set the waterfront course.
The waterfront might still be stuck in neutral had not Higgins, then a state assemblyman, pried $700,000 from Albany to revive Gallagher Beach a dozen years ago. He has since launched frontal assaults on the state Power Authority and the waterfront-controlling NFTA.
State authorities are chest-thumping gorillas that make most politicians run for cover. The fear of blowback threatens their comfort zones and outweighs, in their political calculations, any obligation to the public.
In contrast, Higgins has taken on the larger battles that we pay politicians to fight and without which nothing gets done. Unfortunately, that marks him as the exception, not the rule.
"What I'm trying to do is fight the inertia," he told me.
Higgins wants the NFTA to help itself by handing off the waterfront. He can be the Washington friend the dollar-scarce authority needs to buy natural-gas buses and to expand the Medical Campus rail station.
The Erie Canal Harbor board was created seven years ago to develop the waterfront. Its Bass Pro fixation wasted time and money. But it since has followed the community's "Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper" lead, and it seems ready for the waterfront handoff.
As usual, when dinner is served, everybody wants a seat at the table.
Byron Brown made noise last week about getting his hands on the waterfront wheel. Spare me.
Given its Mr. Magoo-like vision, ceding the waterfront to City Hall–which
signed away its waterfront rights eight years ago—would be like handing an investment portfolio to a toddler. The mayor should be thankful the city's waterfront is being developed on everybody else's dime.
If we are smart—admittedly, a big "if" around here— there will not be much resistance to Higgins's blueprint. For the first time in a long time, the pieces are seemingly in place to get something done.
Incoming NFTA board President Howard Zemsky has said the authority should get off the waterfront. Like Zemsky, the interim head of the Erie Canal Harbor board, Sam Hoyt, has a pipeline to the governor. Andrew Cuomo, by power of appointment, controls the NFTA and the Erie Canal Harbor board. Higgins is a fellow Democrat. The dots connect.
"Virtually everyone embraces this concept," Higgins told me. "The public won't tolerate any more delays."
Heck, a lot of people have waited a lifetime.