A Transportation Agenda for New York’s Next Governor

Kate Slevin is executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and this post was originally published on TSTC’s blog, Mobilizing the Region. If and when the candidates produce transportation platforms, we’ll see whether they acknowledge the truth inherent in many of these proposals: You don’t have to spend big on transportation to achieve big improvements in safety, sustainability, access to jobs and housing, and New Yorkers’ quality of life.

With a deepening budget crisis and continued chaos in Albany, New
York’s next governor will inherit no shortage of challenges.
Transportation is no exception: Transit systems across the state face
incredible deficits and the state lacks a 21st century transportation
agenda. How the governor chooses to deal with transportation issues in
2011 and beyond will dictate the future state of our transit and road
systems and shape our landscape for decades to come.

From top: Candidates Cuomo, Lazio, and Paladino. Photos via candidate websites.

So far, all the campaigns have been relatively quiet on transportation issues. Front-runner Andrew Cuomo
has said he will upgrade downstate airports and create a state
infrastructure bank, but his positions on broader policy and funding
questions remain a mystery. Republican candidates Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino
have offered even fewer details about their transportation priorities,
and neither has a transportation section on their campaign website.

What should the next governor’s transportation agenda look like? Below are a few places for the candidates to start:

Reform New York State DOT into a smart growth leader. Old-fashioned approaches
to projects, questionable spending decisions, and the collapse of the
Champlain Bridge are signs that NYSDOT is ripe for change. A strong,
reform-minded leader at the department could bring that change, as
Janette Sadik-Khan has done for NYCDOT and Joseph Marie did
for the Connecticut Department of Transportation until a few weeks ago.
Existing New York state programs could serve as launching points.
NYSDOT’s GreenLITES program, for example, views transportation projects through a lens of sustainability; the proposed Community Corridor and Land Use Planning Initiative would have the agency work with communities to develop comprehensive solutions to transportation problems; and the state is working with towns toward smart growth planning in the Lower Hudson Valley. New Jersey’s NJFIT program and Pennsylvania’s Smart Transportation program also offer ideas.

Replace the Sheridan Expressway with parks and housing. Few projects offer the smart growth, equity, and sustainability benefits of removing the underutilized Sheridan Expressway
in the South Bronx and replacing it with more appropriate development.
The next governor should back this proposal and make it a hallmark of a
broader sustainable redevelopment effort.

Fund transit and support new revenue streams. The
MTA’s operating deficit is $900 million, the capital program is
unfunded after 2011, and riders are paying more for less service.
Outside of NYC, non-MTA bus systems only have half the revenue they
need to maintain existing service.  The governor will have to make the
tough decisions to ensure the transit systems in our region are
protected from severe cutbacks that could cripple them for generations
to come. Setting up a commission, as Governor Paterson did in 2008, is
a good way to start the discussion.  East River Bridge tolls, allowing
solo drivers to pay a toll to use the HOV lanes on the Long Island
Expressway, a higher gas tax, and allowing Thruway tolls to fund
transit service are all possibilities worth consideration. On the
federal level, the governor should direct the MTA to support modest
federal aid for transit operations, something it has traditionally
opposed.

Improve suburban transit, especially for bus riders. Nassau County’s Long Island Bus is facing cuts that could destroy the system. Westchester’s Bee-Line Bus just cut service.
A new funding agreement between the counties, MTA and state and a new
administrative structure for the agency could offer cost savings and
protect service for riders. On the capital side, the next governor
should also support the LIRR third track project (key if Long Islanders
are to reap the benefits of East Side Access) and plans for bus rapid
transit in the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 corridor.

Improve cross-Hudson transit service. NYC and New
Jersey both benefit from strong transit connections across the Hudson.
With the groundbreaking of the ARC passenger rail tunnel last year,
there is finally hope for reduced congestion and improved transit
connections across the Hudson, not to mention economic benefits for homeowners.
The next governor should continue to support ARC, and ensure the Port
Authority also works for near-term improvements for cross-Hudson bus
riders. This includes prioritizing plans for a second Manhattan-bound
bus lane through the Lincoln Tunnel and building a bus garage on the
West Side of Manhattan, a key project that has been postponed by the
Port Authority due to budget deficits.

Make roads safer and adopt a complete streets policy.
Nearly 300 people die while walking in New York State each year.
Traffic calming offers tremendous safety enhancements on dangerous
roadways for limited capital investment. The next governor should use
federal dollars to fix the states’ most dangerous roads for walking,
expand affordable and effective programs like the Local Safe Streets and Traffic Calming Grant and SafeSeniors
programs, and start a new statewide Safe Routes to Transit program.
The governor should also support the complete streets policy that
passed the Senate earlier this year.

Keep innovative leaders. Port Authority Executive
Director Chris Ward and MTA Executive Director Jay Walder have brought
innovation and cost savings to their agencies during difficult
financial times. Maintaining both appointments could allow the agencies
to focus attention on the economic challenges ahead, rather than on
transitions to new directors.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Lets talk about what isn’t said.

    Completing ARC to improve access to Manhattan jobs from New Jersey communities is mentioned as important, but completing at least part of the Second Avenue subway is not.

    Keeping up with ongoing normal replacement on the subway system is also not mentioned, but shifting capital dollars to the operating budget is (but on your site, not here).

    Am I reading too much into this?

  • ann

    She mentions the MTA capital program which by default includes the 2nd Ave subway and normal replacement and repair of the MTA system.

  • JK

    This is an excellent policy framework. Key point per Ben Fried is that much progress can be made through new thinking and innovation even if big ticket items like the 2nd Ave Subway and TZ Bridge replacement continue to bedevil things. There is opportunity in fiscal crises, and the opportunity here is for low cost bike/ped and safety improvements, transit centered development and an end to wasteful subsidies for sprawl. (Which continue.) I’d like to see the next governor make as much progress as they can, where they can by making NY State a leader in transpo sustainability, and not expend 100% of their transpo political capacity on the mega-projects, MTA structural deficit and deterioration of state infrastructure. You can bet that the big ticket items and private financing (P3s) are going to be front and center. Important as they are, there is a world of good things the next governor can do without a huge amount of money.

  • These are pretty good suggestions that the next governor could consider in this upcoming term. However, one of the big obstacles will be convincing the State Assembly and State Senate (some who are very vocal opponents of any anti-car developments and improvements) to look at the benefits of smart growth developments (such as the teardown of the Sheridan Expressway).

  • Supporting ARC and supporting improved cross-Hudson transit are mutually exclusive.

    If you want an agenda that gets people to support transit, instead of just throw red meat to the Streetsblog crowd, you need more than those things listed. You need to,

    – Reform the contracting process, to make it less byzantine and make it easier to pick competent people. This alone should more than halve construction costs.

    – Work with inner-suburban cities to support denser zoning near Metro-North and LIRR stations.

    – Pressure the MTA to bag the existing ticket-punching system on commuter rail and replace it with proof of payment. Then use the reduced operating costs to run more off-peak trains. In similar vein, insist that ARC switch to Alternative G, instead of supporting any pork that provides construction jobs in Manhattan regardless of how useful it is.

    – Credibly threaten to pull the plug on projects that cost too much, defined by a benchmark of peer cities in other first-world countries. This means immediate defunding of MTA Capital Construction unless it cuts costs by a factor of at least 3-4. It also means zero money to intercity rail, so long as 110 mph single-track diesel service on an existing corridor costs as much as the greenfield, double-track TGV lines.

    – At the same time, work with other Northeastern states to fund upgrades reducing Acela runtimes, if Amtrak isn’t forthcoming. However, if it costs more than about $15-20 billion for full-fat high-speed rail, it’s a waste of money.

    – Work with local communities to slow down traffic not in New York, where it’s already slow and hectic, but in the suburbs. This would require, at a minimum, congestion pricing Upstate and in suburban edge cities, a program mandating sidewalks on every arterial, and a freeze on road building.

    – Put competent people in charge of the MTA. This means going outside the US and bringing in people from countries with good transit innovations, such as Switzerland and Japan.

    – Demand infrastructure construction agencies, including MTA Capital Construction, to have a long-term in-house staff; provide money for this in the budget, instead of outsourcing everything to consultants. It may cost a bit more, but it should drastically reduce construction costs. This is especially important in small cities, where the extra burden of having a consultant come up with specs can double costs.

  • JamesR

    Alon, those are a lot of nice ideas, and I agree with most of them. However, TSTC operates in the world of realpolitik. Ordering MTA Capital Construction to cut costs by a factor of 3 or 4 or face defunding is just pie in the sky.

    They touched upon this a bit in their agenda, but I would add getting Safe Routes to School up and running again to their second to last agenda item. The program has been inert for the last two years as State DOT awaits a federal transportation bill, but who even knows when that’ll happen.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Hey Alon, I agree with most of it.

    I’ve got my back up against those who would take the easy road — for wealthier older generations — of de-funding ongoing normal replacement and long promised improvements so they can have even more for even less right now. They’ve put my children in enough of a whole.

    But even so, if I were Governor I would freeze all (not just MTA) new capital construction projects and contract modifications funded all or in part by debt for two years until prices were cut. Not through bogus means such as cutting contingencies and setting up for future overruns. Perhaps after a couple of years of unemployment and having the contractors go Chapter 11, a better deal could be had.

    The savings agreements reach thus far by the MTA and City of New York have been inadequate compared with the prior cost inflation. I doubt the average wage of union workers went up as much as the costs. I’m certain everyone else’s wages have not.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Ordering MTA Capital Construction to cut costs by a factor of 3 or 4 or face defunding is just pie in the sky.”

    However, in some cases cutting in half may not be, as prices have doubled in real dollars for some types of projects. It may take some modifications. Sometimes lines may have to be shut down for a time rather than having contractors work four hours at a time on overtime. But maybe we can’t afford to maintain the system otherwise.

  • JamesR, a factor of 2 cut is fairly easy; it’s already in process, partly, because the recession has made it impossible for competent contractors to get private-sector jobs. Prior to the recession, even prior to the 2000s’ construction cost escalations, the professionals avoided the MTA’s overly complicated process, stranding it with the mafia and general-purpose idiots.

    Another way to cut costs is to relegalize build-operate contracts, which are banned under state rather than federal law, and then threaten to outsource things entirely to Spanish, French, German, or Belgian agencies.

    Regardless, I completely agree on safe routes to school. I’d add that walking home back from school together or riding the bus can be a social experience for kids. It would help create a walking- and transit-friendly environment, countering the class issues surrounding not using a car.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Threaten to outsource things entirely to Spanish, French, German, or Belgian agencies.”

    That’s worth doing for a capital project or two. Maybe they could cut costs. And maybe they couldn’t, but could explain WHY, which would be valuable in itself.

    Perhaps Siemens contracts are like prescription drugs research. They make money off the government in the U.S. to keep prices low in Europe. Or maybe somehow we’ve created a problem (for most of us and the future and a short term benefit for insiders) here.

  • No, the Siemens thing is not like the way Republicans think prescription drugs research works. In both Siemens’ case and the case of actual prescription drugs research, the prices abroad are lower even when the vendors have no US business. Usually the world leaders in cost reduction are not multinational corporations, but local government agencies, such as RATP and ADIF; the President of Metro Madrid has argues that outside consultants do not reduce costs at all, and specifically points out to Madrid’s expertise-oriented contracting process as a factor behind its remarkable construction costs.

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