Mayor Bloomberg at the Crossroads: Who Will Run DOT?

With DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall set to depart city government in three weeks, sources say that Mayor Michael Bloomberg is close to announcing her replacement. The Mayor’s choice will have a profound impact on day-to-day neighborhood life as well as the City of New York’s long-term future. Though the DOT commissioner job search has barely been covered by the local press, this may very well be one of the most important decisions of the last 1,000 days of the Bloomberg Administration.

Last week, Annie Karni of the New York Sun reported that Janette Sadik-Khan and Michael Horodniceanu are the top two candidates for the job. Sources quoted in Karni’s article described Sadik-Khan as the "people-first" candidate and Horodniceanu as "cars-first." While that characterization is, clearly, an oversimplification, there is no question that the two candidates present Mayor Bloomberg and the City of New York with two very different options.

JanetteSadikKhan.jpg
On the one hand, there is Sadik-Khan, 46, a senior vice president at the planning and engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. During the Dinkins Administration, Sadik-Khan (left) was the director of a now-defunct New York City department called the Mayor’s Office of Transportation, which was responsible for long-term transportation planning and the coordination of the various agencies and authorities with power over New York City transportation policy and infrastructure. (Rudy Giuliani disbanded the office.)

In her municipal capacity, Sadik-Khan was the liaison to the MTA and the overseer of the Port Authority’s Airport Access Plan, the development of the Farley Post Office Rail Station and a 42nd Street light rail plan that nearly came to fruition. With the Second Avenue subway, Bus Rapid Transit, the Fulton Street transportation hub and a number of other mega-projects planned, underway or envisioned, New York City government is once again in need of an individual with the ability to coordinate the work of disparate agencies and, as Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said last week, think in "bold and creative" terms about what is possible for New York City transportation policy.

Sadik-Khan, who declined to be interviewed for this article, brings expertise in transit and land use, finance, and communications. She is intellectually curious and in touch with her field’s global innovators. An editorial board member of NYU Rudin Center’s New York Transportation Journal, Sadik-Khan recently published interviews with Bogota’s Enrique Penalosa and Copenhagen’s Jan Gehl. She was a driving force behind the Partnership for New York City’s congestion pricing study, Growth or Gridlock. Mayor Bloomberg knows that she is qualified for the job. According to "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, in 2001 Sadik-Khan was the Bloomberg administration search committee’s top choice for DOT commissioner — before the Mayor decided to stay with Giuliani’s transportation chief, Iris Weinshall.

Sadik-Khan has professional transportation experience on the federal, state and local levels and a law degree from Columbia University. But her biggest and most important qualification for the DOT Commissioner’s job is what is not on her resume. Sadik-Khan is not a traffic engineer.


Horodniceanu, on the other hand, is.

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Horodniceanu (right) is the Chairman and CEO of Urbitran, a planning, engineering and architecture firm. With a Ph.D. in civil engineering, the 62-year-old is credited for helping to grow the small, New York-area consulting company into a national presence. He is, according to one former employee, known not for his management abilities but rather his entrepreneurship and political savvy.

Described by a few different sources as "an old-school traffic engineer," Horodniceanu, who also declined interview requests, served as DOT’s Deputy Commissioner for Traffic Operations from 1986 to 1990. That’s the "keep-the-traffic-moving" position today filled by Michael Primeggia, mastermind of the recent one-way Park Slope plan.

Sam Schwartz, Horodniceanu’s old boss at DOT, thinks the "old school" characterization is off the mark. "He is a first-rate, innovative engineer. He has a good sense of cities and lots of experience in Europe. I’m absolutely confident that he would follow through on plans to reduce congestion and push good initiatives for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users," Schwartz said. Schwartz also thinks that it could be advantageous to have a traffic engineer in the top position at DOT: "There were other commissioners who wanted to do good things but were stymied by the old-line engineers in the traffic operations bureaucracy."

That being said, Schwartz is close to both candidates and believes that either one of them would make an excellent commissioner. "Janette would be terrific too. New York City has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to filling this job," he said.

Mayor Bloomberg rarely has anything to say about transportation policy, so it is hard to know what he thinks about all of this. It is likely that he’s looking for a transportation commissioner who can keep the potholes filled, get Bus Rapid Transit up and running, forge connections to the city’s revitalizing waterfront, and begin to push the agency towards the broader goals of the 2030 Long-Term Planning and Sustainability project.

To the Mayor, Horodniceanu, the business man, traffic engineer and DOT insider may offer the promise of hitting the ground running — an appealing prospect to an administration that prominently features a digital clock counting down the dwindling number of days it has left in office. Sadik-Khan, however, appears to be best positioned to uncork the considerable talent bubbling up within the middle ranks of the agency and get the city on track to meet the ambitious goals of PlaNYC 2030.

Last Thursday night, more than 650 Brooklyn residents showed up at a Community Board transportation committee meeting — a meeting that typically draws 25 participants — to reject a plan developed behind closed doors by the city’s top traffic engineer. It would be easy to write the whole thing off as a typical NIMBY reaction but there was clearly more to it than that. The meeting should also be interpreted as a resounding rejection of traffic engineer-driven planning and a call for a more creative, holistic and community-oriented planning approach.

We will know if Mayor Bloomberg heard that call by the choice he makes for DOT. 

As a wise New York City traffic engineer once told me:

"Traffic engineers have failed," Sam Schwartz says. "If you compare the accomplishments of our profession over the last 50 years to the medical profession, our performance is equivalent to millions of people still dying of polio, influenza and other minor bacterial diseases that have been cured."

While London, Paris, and cities and towns all across Northern Europe are, with great success, developing ways to make their dense central districts less convenient, accessible and free to automobiles, American traffic engineers are still focused on figuring out how to shove more motor vehicles through our nation’s roadways. The traffic engineers’ solution for congestion is to add a lane or build a new road. In Schwartz’s words, that’s like "telling an obese person that the way to get healthy is to buy a bigger pair of pants and a longer belt."

  • JK

    Nice piece.

    Some perspective, for all the power the DOT Commissioner has to do good things— which is substantial— it is the mayor and other agencies, who make final decisions about:
    >Land use, zoning, density.
    >Freight movement and truck use.
    >Off-street parking.
    >Capital investment in transit and streets.
    >Street design and reconstruction.
    >Car-free parks.
    >Street closings/pedestrianizations.
    >Enforcement of traffic and parking.

    Even if Aaron Naparstek is the next DOT Commissioner, there is not going to be a London or Paris style revolution in the public realm unless it is led by the mayor.

    Lastly, I think it was Bloomberg, not Giuliani, who dissolved the Mayor’s Office of Transportation— which is still needed.

  • ddartley

    I believe Ken Coughlin of T.A.’s Car-free Central Park campaign was the first person I ever saw write that car traffic is NOT an immutable physical force like falling water, and that will simply go elsewhere if its first path is cut off.

    Although not a scientist or engineer, I tend to agree. I am curious whether the profession of traffic engineering is “engineering” because it assumes things like what Mr. Coughlin calls into question. If I’m right about why it’s called “engineering,” and if Mr. Coughlin’s doubts are right, then perhaps traffic engineers HAVE failed, and perhaps this is why.

    Oh no, I sound like some anti-science religious zealot. I take it all back.

  • So can I ask the obvious question of why Schwartz isn’t under consideration?

  • mike

    How can I nominate the Honker as DOT Commissioner?

  • Happy Camper

    Right on JK !
    first the comish needs a clear direction which translates in spending choices.
    if you read the DOT budget you will find the word sidewalk and pedestrina only once.

    Second the comish needs political support to get rid of the old guard who clearly has maffia-like stronghold on every level of the DOT . Needs a lot a early retirement plans .

    and yes this office of transportation is sorely needed provided it has teeth.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Science is about finding the best model that relates your data to your goals. In the 1950s the “falling water” model was the best one that people had to work with, but now that we have lots of observations of induced-demand type phenomena, the “falling water” model no longer serves the goal of street safety adequately.

    People who hold to the “falling water” model in the face of this evidence are the true anti-science religious zealots, kind of like Urban VIII.

  • I get the feeling that Bloomberg and Doctoroff know what the right thing to do is, but they simply lack the gumption to deal with the intertia that has built up over the years.

  • Ace

    What we need are more trains more often. Especially late at night.

  • Nightmare for NYC

    I wouldn’t assume that Bloomberg and Doctoroff are necessarily on the same page, people.

  • Clarence

    I second the Honker nomination.

  • Karni neglected to mention that Horodniceanu is not merely a “traffic” engineer but a “transportation” engineer by trade, and he and his firm, Urbitran, are big in both public transit planning and engineering, and urban planning. In fact, Urbitran has done a lot of work for Metro-North Rail, and produces dozens of public transit studies/recommendations in New York and across the nation, each year. And while Karni was busy painting Mr. Horodniceanu with a “Traffic-only” brush, she neglected to mention that Ms. Sadik-Khan is an attorney by trade.

    Perhaps even more to the point, her assertion that Mr. Horodniceanu would generally ignore public transit is baseless and not far from a smear. No one in such a position could reasonably do so, and it defies logic and common sense to even suggest it. It’s also absurd to suggest that one could ignore traffic and its effect and every New Yorker’s life…as well as those of us “Bridge-and-tunnelers”. And since Ms. Karni pointed out that neither party was interviewed for her piece, how in the world does she know his “vision” – or hers, for that matter?

    The candidates are both very intelligent and experienced people. They should be asked what their positions are on the issues, rather than have baseless assumptions drawn by a so-called “journalist.”

  • Boerum

    David,

    Does Horodniceanu know anything about bikes and pedestrians? Are the sources above who describe him as an “old school” traffic engineer mischaracterizing his work? What kind of work is Urbitran doing in NYC anyway?

  • Boerum – As far as I know, Urbitran actually has a fulltime employee who works solely on bicycle-related (path) engagements, to give you an example of their diversity. And while Urbitran was launched as a traffic engineering firm, I believe that its combined work in transit planning, urban planning, and architecture (including architecture of commuter rail facilities) far outweighs pure traffic engineering. It’s just too convenient to call Michael Horodniceanu a traffic engineer, as it would be equally unfair to call Ms. Sadik-Khan a “lawyer.” I am just saying, play fair, and don’t make assumptions when you have no evidence. Neither candidate spoke to the writer of the SUN piece…so how does she know their “vision?” And I believe that Mr. Horodniceanu visited the London Transport ommissioner to discuss congestion pricing, 2 or 3 years ago.

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