NACTO Wrap-Up: Cities Are Doing It For Themselves

Five city transportation chiefs -- Phildelphia's Rina Cutler, Chicago's Gabe Klein, NYC's Janette Sadik-Khan, San Francisco's Ed Reiskin, and Boston's Tom Tinlin -- shared their perspectives today on how cities have innovated by necessity.

The leaders of the nation’s big city transportation agencies have formed a tight-knit circle, brought together by the National Association of City Transportation Officials to share best practices, and yes, battle scars.

As NACTO’s first ever national conference drew to a close today, transportation chiefs from Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago and New York all talked about the progress their cities have made and shared their frustration at the lack of attention to cities and transportation in the state and national political arenas.

NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg set the tone by blasting the state government in his introductory remarks. “Our economy is dependent on transportation,” he said. “But our state refused to give us money for a new subway line, so we said ‘screw you’ and took city taxpayer money to extend a subway line.”

NYC Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan put it even more starkly. She said that instead of the old New Yorker cartoon, a New Yorker’s view of the world, in which the map falls off dramatically after the Hudson River, “Washington’s view of the world is made up of Iowa, Ohio and lots of highways. And some dollar signs on the map where New York and Los Angeles are.”

Despite the lack of attention from Congress and the presidential contenders, Sadik-Khan explained that transportation innovations at the city level can cumulatively affect the nation’s economy, echoing yesterday’s plenary speaker Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution. “You’ve got two-thirds of Americans living in top 100 metropolitans areas, where three-quarters of US GDP is generated,” Sadik-Khan said. “Yet there is no mention of cities in presidential debates.” Added San Francisco Municipal Transportation Commissioner Ed Reiskin, “There was no mention at all of transportation in any of the debates.”

Given the progress that cities across the country are making on transportation reform, the question arises: How much more can cities do without the active support of Washington and state governments?

In Boston, where Mayor Menino recently declared “the car is no longer king,” the regional transit agency, the MBTA, is drowning in debt. According to the city’s transportation commissioner, Tom Tinlin, Boston has decided that it can’t wait for the state to fix the transportation system. They are creating bike lanes and using bike-share to help supplement reduced transit service and ensure that their residents can keep moving. Reiskin agreed: “The most cost-effective investment we can make in moving people is in bicycle infrastructure.”

Many of the panelists discussed the increasing importance of public-private partnerships, particularly in terms of bike-share and car-share programs, to expand transportation options. They also voiced the need for cities to use their leverage in these partnerships to ensure equitable delivery of services to residents of all socio-economic classes.

Other panelists, like Philadelphia Deputy Mayor of Transportation and Utilities Rina Cutler, called on state and federal governments to wise up. “The deficit we have now is nothing compared to what it will be if we don’t make smart investments now to maintain what we have… We cannot afford to just kick this down the road.”

So why aren’t state governments and Congress keeping up with cities? Chicago DOT Commissioner Gabe Klein proposed that it’s because city residents — especially younger residents and entrepreneurs — expect their mayors and city governments to move at a much, much faster pace. City governments have to be much more creative and nimble to respond to these demands or else risk losing the residents and businesses that power their economies.

Philadelphia’s Cutler countered that cities need to make a better case for themselves. “We have still not made the sale in terms of what a dollar’s worth of investment gets us,” she said. She says we need to a better job of making this case to convince constituents and to put pressure on state and national leaders. “We need to get really loud,” she said. “We have two years before next federal transportation bill, and we need to focus on economic and livability messages around federal investment in infrastructure.”

  • Ian Dutton

    It’s worrisome that the major, major projects that we need – the sort of major changes that were evident in the early decades of the last century – are now looked upon with scorn by taxpayers and are easy targets for political swiping. How does this take us to a better future? It doesn’t.

  • mikesonn

    Did Ed get a chance to brag about the waste of money that is the Central Subway project?

  • voltairesmistress

    Local governments are better positioned to make concrete cost-benefit arguments to their citizens about investing in tangible local and regional transportation projects.  Instead, here in San Francisco we often find ourselves arguing over parking meter installation and other small ball topics.  Both the big picture and government accountability are missing.

    Our officials need to make the case for a fifty year plan of transportation and infrastructure investment, to educate the public and show the shortfall at this stage.  And they need to show results, rather than unpunished inefficiencies.  Only then can we hope to get voters to tax themselves at higher, constant rates that would support economic growth.  That growth would help the voters themselves and the next generation.  But right now, people think higher taxes and bond issues are going to feed an expanding government employee pool, one that appears to receive shrink-proof benefits and to work a lot less hard than the average working person.

  • Ben Kintisch

    Cities are great places for local governments to innovate, to move quickly and show how new transit and bike systems work well for the masses. When we live close together, we need to share things with our neighbors. Good transit and bike infrastructure is all about sharing space and investments which yield a collective good.

  • Great summary of a very inspiring conference. It is clear that the federal government is not leading on transportation funding, policy or innovation. It is very encouraging that cities are so clear in their vision and determination to build transportation systems that turn riding a bike, going by foot or taking transit a practical, rational and convenient choice. It will take courage and savvy by mayors and transportation chiefs to make it happen, but many of the cities are well on their way.  

  • Shin-pei Tsay

    One of the main reasons the government is unable to directly and/or adequately fund cities is because of the current structure of the federal transportation program. The structure is mostly a relic from the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, when interstate transportation was the main priority. As a result of that original intent, a good portion of federal funds goes directly to state DOTs which then decide on distribution throughout their state. The majority of the 50 states do not have metropolitan regions and transit needs like that of the major cities, nor are there many incentives for the states to plan for the future and consider alternatives to the car. With these vested interests to keep the old model, Congress also struggles to reform the program. 

    It’s time for a major transformation: cast away the old model and structure something that can accommodate the growth of cities and that acknowledges the significant contribution of cities to the national economy. Local governments do move faster, but they could use federal assistance. Transportation is never completely local – it’s a regional issue. Rural and natural areas will survive in tandem with cities. Transforming the federal transportation program is a win-win.


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