ROME – Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year for Rome, and the first of as many as 30 million people may start pouring into Rome.
But the Eternal City will need a miracle to find anything to feel jubilant about.
Just when Rome needs to be at its best, the city is being shamed by corruption scandals and a breakdown in public services — especially in the mass transit that many of the pilgrim masses will use.
Amid a relentless heat wave, bus drivers have been yanking buses out of service, forcing passengers off, often between stops. Others deliberately drive their spine-rattling buses so slowly that it's faster to walk.
The actions are part of a protest against Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino's order for bus drivers to punch in the clock like other city employees. The transport breakdown is one of the biggest headaches in a summer of chaos extraordinary even for a city that sees chaos as a way of life.
Meanwhile, Marino has taken the drastic step of getting help from a prosecutor famed for combatting Sicilian mobsters to help root out City Hall corruption. The Mafia-fighter was enlisted following dozens of arrests since late last year of city politicians and businessmen with links to the political right and left.
The scandal's best-known suspect is none other than Marino's predecessor as mayor: former neo-fascist street fighter Gianni Alemanno, who denies wrongdoing. He is being investigated for allegedly colluding with businessmen using mafia-like methods to win municipal contracts. Alemanno's tenure allegedly involved rampant nepotistic hiring, including a go-go dancer as a manager's assistant.
Corruption and cronyism have direct links to Rome's current transport woes: Patronage scandals are blamed for helping to bankrupt the municipal transit company ATAC, which might be forced to stop service due to lack of funds. Free-wheeling hiring of friends and other improper practices have also put other municipal agencies like trash pickup in terrible financial condition.
Under Alemanno, bonuses were generously doled out to city workers to reward them for diligently showing up for work at least 110 days a year.
Marino, a liver transplant surgeon who became a politician a decade ago, says he is determined to keep Rome from collapsing in dysfunction. The problem is he's desperately trying to save the patient while seeing his own operating team disappear. Several commissioners have quit in despair.
On Tuesday, replacing his second budget czar, Marino drily recalled the shock that greeted him shortly after being elected in 2013: "I never imagined I'd find the coffers empty," he said. "Nearly a billion (euros) in the red, organized crime, corruption."
"About all that was lacking along the way were land mines," the mayor told reporters.
Marino fired his transport commissioner after a video surfaced on the Internet showing a crammed subway car filled with commuters hurtling through the underground with doors wide open.
"The trains are old, they aren't maintained, they are dirty. It seems like there isn't even anyone who cleans them," said Claudio Laudi, waiting at a stop near the Piazza del Popolo. "I just don't think you can compare (Rome) to other European capitals. Madrid is different. Paris is different, we have been left behind."
Premier Matteo Renzi, whose Democratic Party backed Marino for mayor, is keeping a cautious distance. At a recent political event, Renzi told Marino critics: "Take an opinion survey of Romans and let me know how it turns out."
Opinion polls have already shown Marino's losing the popularity he enjoyed after he was elected two years ago. On Tuesday, he promised fed-up Romans they would get 200 new buses by year's end, see roads repaved and have 60,000 new garbage bins for trash, which chronically piles up along the streets.
With ATAC running out of cash, Marino announced he is seeking a private partner to pump in funds. About 300 bus, tram and subway car drivers protested those plans Wednesday outside City Hall, worried that private investors might demand private sector levels of productivity.
The protesters yelled Marino's name in hopes the mayor would appear, and draped protest banners fashioned from sheets over the elegant buildings on a Renaissance-era square.
Meanwhile, Italy's interior minister must soon decide whether to pull the plug on Marino's administration, and put the city in the hands of a special commission. That's the same humiliating treatment meted out to southern Italian towns whose governments are infiltrated by crime syndicates like Cosa Nostra.
The prosecutor leading the probe has stressed that Marino is himself completely free of suspicions of corruption.
Rome's corruption has long thrived on the connivance of city politicians, administrators and local gangsters, who have no formal ties to the traditional southern crime syndicates. Lucrative city contracts, prosecutors say, are divvied up, skirting public bidding procedures as the wrongdoers pocket kickbacks or bribes.
But these largely went undetected until probes intensified under Marino's watch.
Trisha Thomas contributed to this report
Frances D'Emilio can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com