10/07/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

New York City Opens a Water Tunnel While Washington D.C. Shuts Down a Government

While the U.S. national government is closed and incapable of even short-term decisions, it's worth remembering that this nation's founders created a federal system where states retain elements of sovereignty. The contrast can be startling. Here in New York City, the government is about to activate a key element of a half-century long capital project: New York City's third water tunnel. While many state and local programs are disrupted by the dysfunction in the federal government, New York's water tunnel continues to progress. On Wednesday, October 16, the Mayor will "cut the ribbon" as a new part of the water tunnel is activated.

I know a water tunnel doesn't sound like a big deal; but if you see this one, it really is. The project was first approved in 1954, and along with Tunnel No. 1 and 2, brings New York City its extraordinarily high quality water from well-protected reservoirs north of the City. According the City's Department of Environmental Conservation:

The City currently relies on City Water Tunnels No. 1 and 2 for the majority of its drinking water. These tunnels were first put into service in 1917 and 1936, respectively. Completing City Water Tunnel No. 3 will provide New York with critical redundancy, and will allow DEP to shut down and repair City Water Tunnels No. 1 and 2 for the first time in their history... [The status of] City Tunnel 3: Stage 1 is already in service; the Manhattan portion of Stage 2 will be in service in 2013, and shaft work is already underway to create the connections necessary to feed the distribution system that Tunnel 3 is being built to support. The Brooklyn-Queens section is scheduled for completion in 2018. Tunnel 3 has been under construction since 1970.

This project has proceeded through good times and bad, and has never been an item of political controversy. It has taken a very long time to design, finance and construct, but it was never subjected to an "anti-drinking-water lobby" or opposition groups funded by the Koch brothers. It has required leadership, and while all of our last six mayors tried to keep it moving, it was delayed due to lack of funding several times. In fact, in a 2006 article, Sewell Chan of the New York Times quoted Mayor Bloomberg who observed that:

Part of the reason that work on it has stretched through six administrations is that the city's funding for this project has sometimes dropped off during tough financial times," he said. "But not on our watch. Even in the first years of our administration, when we faced record multibillion-dollar, back-to-back budget shortfalls, we refused to shortchange this essential project." He said his administration had committed nearly $4 billion to the project, or "doubled what's been invested by the last five administrations combined.

While it is clear that Bloomberg's deep support was a critical component of the project's progress over the past decade, there is a broad consensus on the need for a reliable supply of water. The third water tunnel project was thoughtfully initiated six decades ago by many people who are long forgotten. It has been built at a high cost. I'm not just talking about the $5 billion price tag. To date, 23 workers and one child bystander have died during construction.

The importance of this project cannot be understated. The entire Island of Manhattan receives all of its drinking water through Water Tunnel Number 1, built about a century ago, and due to constant demand has never been inspected. It's been patched, but never renovated. The possibility of a catastrophic failure and a parched city has haunted city water managers for a generation.

Travelling around New York City I see the economic energy that is the trademark of the Bloomberg era, but I also see the struggle endured by many people seeking to survive and get ahead in this complicated, intense place. I am happy to see Bill de Blasio bring the tale of two cities into the political agenda. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the determined leadership of Mayor Bloomberg and his team as they sought to focus attention and resources on sometimes invisible sustainability issues such as combined sewage overflow, greenhouse gas emissions, and the third water tunnel.

Although I am certain that de Blasio and Bloomberg disagree on many issues, I am equally certain that these disagreements would never lead to the type of horror show and dysfunction we are seeing in Washington. Some of this is structural: Mayoral authority dominates New York City's government far more than Presidential authority dominates the federal government. Some of the push toward agreement is caused by the need by local governments to deliver basic essential services. If New York City's government shut down for even a day, the city could not function. How long would any of us last without water supply, toilets and garbage pick up? Not to mention traffic lights, police and fire response, emergency services and a school system. The federal government provides some direct services, but for the most part collects and distributes revenues, makes policies, and protects us from those who would like to harm us. That work that should never be allowed to stop, but is not quite as vital day-to-day as water supply and waste removal.

I would also like to think that New Yorkers have a BS detector that would keep the Tea Party zealots out of government. For many New Yorkers, America is a sanctuary from political crazies. Forty percent of the people who live in New York City were born in other countries. Many came here for economic opportunity, but some fled from tyrants. New Yorkers like politics that is competent, occasionally entertaining, but generally quiet and low key. We deal with enough unbalanced people in our daily lives and have no desire to be governed by any of them. This is a city of constant bargains, compromises and deals along with an unwritten but generally understood code of conduct. All these people in close proximity to each other wouldn't survive without it.

An example of our constant search for a deal was on display last week when New York City's business elite applauded Bill de Blasio's breakfast talk on income redistribution. Not the business community's favorite subject, but hey, "that Bill, what a guy!". And as de Blasio's poll numbers continued to rise, the presumptive Mayor went around the city collecting campaign cash from high rollers while making reassuring noises about the need for a business-friendly city government. The City's business community is getting ready to make a deal and accommodate themselves to the new political reality. And de Blasio is starting to make the move from an outsider, long shot insurgent, to a powerful and important part of New York's ruling elite.

In Washington, we see a different story. The president's reelection only hardened the position of his opponents, and focused their attention on the scorched earth strategy we now see. Unlike New York's business leaders, the Tea Party has not accepted the judgment of the voters or the legitimacy of the President. That makes it difficult for Obama to provide an even symbolic gesture to end the gridlock. Needless to say in the near term, there will be no federal accomplishment that is equivalent to New York's third water tunnel. There will be no fundamental, long-term, governmental accomplishment for a long time. There is lots of important, long-term governmental work to do if we are to compete in the global economy, but no one in Washington is going to do it.