Experts Call for Complete Overhaul of NY Region’s Transportation Agencies

At the Regional Plan Association Assembly today, a panel of experts with background in the U.S. and abroad offered a number of ideas on how the New York metro region could reform its ailing transport system. Most of the recommendations would mean a top-to-bottom overhaul of the way projects are planned, financed, and executed — and a shakeup of the entities that call the shots.

Politicians are major contributors to transportation dysfunction, but they’re not the only problem, experts said today. Photo: Brad Aaron
Politicians are major contributors to transportation dysfunction, but they’re not the only problem, experts said today. Photo: Brad Aaron

Speaking to a capacity crowd in a banquet room at the Waldorf Astoria in Midtown, panel moderator and RPA Executive Vice President Juliette Michaelson listed the primary causes of dysfunction in regional transportation planning: lack of investment; poor coordination among agencies; slow pace of innovation; costs that are out of line with other cities; and governing authorities that serve politicians, rather than the public.

“What we have here today is simply not going to cut it” if New York is to accommodate growth and remain competitive in the coming decades, Michaelson said.

Previewing the RPA’s fourth regional plan, to be released next year, Michaelson laid out some preliminary proposals for reforming regional transit. One of the RPA’s ideas is to merge the MTA, NJ Transit, and PATH into a “super agency” — though Michaelson noted that a merger likely wouldn’t fix problems caused by bureaucracy, high project costs, or political interference.

Another RPA proposal involves the creation of a financing and planning authority, similar to those in London and Stockholm, to contract out operations across the region. A third recommendation would consolidate existing agencies into a publicly-traded company, like Hong Kong’s MTR Corporation, with the government as the majority shareholder.

The latter two proposals would use public-private partnerships to build and operate projects, with the goal of generating a return on investment. This would help reduce costs and keep politics out of the mix, said Michaelson, though the challenge would be to “keep the ‘public’ in public transportation.”

New York should be thinking in terms of wiping the slate clean, said Rohit Aggarwala, a former Bloomberg administration official and one of the authors of the RPA’s new regional plan. “The current system can not be put back together again,” Aggarwala said. “You could put gods and angels [in charge], and you could flood the place with money. You would still have these problems.”

Aggarwala said involving the private sector in transportation management would open up the process. Unlike publicly-traded corporations, he said, the Port Authority is not subject to transparency regulations. “There are no laws to protect New York City and New Jersey from the Port Authority,” he said.

Greg Clark, of the London-based urban advisory firm The Business of Cities, said England’s capital has completely reworked its transport system in the last 25 years. Transport for London uses “business acumen for public purpose,” said Clark, setting up private companies that follow corporate transparency rules, with the government as the majority shareholder.

In London, said Clark, buses are operated through private concessions. Governing structures vary from corporation to corporation, which are on different balance sheets. All the companies are overseen by Transport for London, whose leadership is not comprised of “boards of cronies,” Clark said. “These are people appointed for their abilities.”

Panelist Jay Walder, who currently runs Motivate, which operates Citi Bike, served as CEO for both the MTA and Hong Kong’s MTR. The MTR was privatized in 2000, and is a private company that follows stock exchange rules. Walder said 99.9 percent of MTR trains run on time, and the company currently has five new lines under construction. “That’s public interest,” he said.

Walder pointed out that Citi Bike works with the city and has seen 110 percent growth this year — a small but replicable example, he said, of a public private partnership. “And it’s homegrown,” Walder said. “It’s sitting right in front of us.”

Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool offered a counterpoint to talk of rebuilding New York’s system from scratch. Instead, Vanterpool said, the region should be looking to reform existing agencies in the next three to five years. Vanterpool suggested “removing the executive [i.e. governors] from the equation,” and instituting term limits for authority board members. While in favor of public-private partnerships, Vanterpool said transportation entities have to close the credibility gap first.

Aggarwala disagreed. “The ship’s sinking,” he said. “How could it get much worse?”