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?”

  • Vooch

    as long as JSK gets the most powerful job – I’m in favour

  • I’d kill for the transit agencies to be merged into a greater authority. (all while cutting out a lot of middle management that is not needed to run it)

  • Greg Costikyan

    We already have a problem with the MTA favoring suburban interests over the urban core. I fail to see how merging it with the Port Authority and NJ Transit would do anything but make the problem worse. Albeit, yes, the three agencies could afford to coordinate a lot better.

  • Joe R.

    Power in numbers. A merged agency would have transit which is used regularly by probably 10% of the nation’s population. That might give it a lot more pull getting much needed federal funding on a regular basis. The problem here isn’t the MTA favoring suburban over urban interests but rather the fact it gets so little money it has to choose between one or the other. A mega transit agency might change that. It might also make it a lot more feasible to do things like extend the #7 to Seacaucus, extend other NYC subways up to and even past city limits, have through running of commuter trains from NJ to LI, and so forth. Right now borders between agencies make that a lot more difficult.

  • ahwr

    >10% of the nation’s population

    That’s more than the population of the metro area.

    >A mega transit agency

    MTA ridership is ~8.66 million unlinked trips per weekday. PATH is 260k. NJTransit is It’ll also make it easier to do something like have one unified card good for everything

    The MTA hasn’t figured that out for the services it runs.

    All the gains you expect are based on good governance of the new agency. I’d think overhauling the MTA without involving NJ might be easier, especially while Christie is in office.

  • Joe R.

    By mega agency I mean merge everything from Boston to Washington in one entity responsible for mass transit on the entire eastern seaboard. That’s easily 10% of the nation’s population. The biggest problem with mass transit now is lots of little Napoleon’s in smaller agencies not cooperating.

    The MTA hasn’t figured that out for the services it runs.

    The MTA hasn’t figured out how to run subway trains on time and at reasonable scheduled speeds. It’s hopelessly incompetent, with a culture of cost overruns, bloated labor, substandard work practices, and so forth. Any overhaul is destined to failure. A mega agency would provide some uniformity of labor practices, construction costs, maximizing throughput on guideways, and so forth.

    Let’s take what is at present arguably the most successful transportation network in the US, namely the Interstate Highway System. I attribute a lot of that success to the fact that it’s controlled by one entity. While one transit agency for the entire US wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, I think one for the transit-rich eastern seaboard would.

  • Vooch

    a mega agency worked so well in the Robert Moses era

    this proposal is merely a crony capitalist wet dream.

  • Vooch

    the interstate highway system as a sucessful model ?

    you really want to emulate a system that spends $2 billion for a intersection upgrade ?

    it’s not about even more central planning.

  • Joe R.

    Successful at providing transportation, not at managing costs. Note though that I attribute a good part of the mismanaging costs part to being a virtual monopoly (and also not charging drivers enough for using the system). Now if the Interstate Highway System had to compete with a megatransit agency for “customers” both it and transit would have real incentives to cut costs.

    The same line of reasoning applies to the MTA in NYC. It has no real competition. Nor could it given that highways don’t work all that well in NYC. That’s why it’s so inept. It’s a virtual monopoly. However, if it were part of regional agency which had to compete with highways, the entire agency, and by extension the part of it responsible for NYC operations, would in theory be better run.

    I’ll admit I’m not always a big fan of mega agencies but sometimes it works better than the alternative. Take for example our health care system. I can’t help but think a Medicare equivalent for people under 65 would work better than the crazy quilt system of insurance companies we have now.

  • Vooch

    mega agencies are successful in first world societies not corrupt banana republics.

  • Joe R.

    Well, that part is certainly true. It’s worth a mention that too much local control results in stuff like community boards stopping bike lanes. That’s the other side of the coin. There has to be a sane balance somewhere in the middle.

  • Bernard Finucane
  • Vooch

    the root cause of our dysfunctional mobility is lavish subsidies for mass motoring. Until the subsidied are eliminated, no amount of planning will be successful.

  • ahwr

    The interstates were built by the states, with much of the funding coming from a national gas tax. By accepting the funding state DOTs agreed to build roads to certain standards. Most drivers spend a good chunk of their time on interstates and other roads funded by this tax, which maintained support for it for a long time. What’s the analogous setup in your proposed transit agency? A transit fare surcharge? The loudest opponents of regional taxes to support transit in the NYC area are the outer areas of the MTA region. Makes sense, since they use the system less. Why would further watering down the potential support base by mixing in a larger share of non transit users make it easier to get broad based taxes to support transit?

  • Larry Littlefield

    So the RPA wants more fare increases, tax increases and service cuts in the city to pay for New Jersey Transit too?

    “Give use the LIRR deal!”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Greg is right. NYC transit riders are treated as serfs by all and sundry. The more self-interested people have their hooks in them, the worse it will get.

  • bolwerk

    NJ and NY should be working together better before we worry about how agencies are organized. If multiple sovereign European countries can work together to finance transportation projects, NY and NJ should be able to.

  • bolwerk

    These things are both natural monopolies anyway. I also don’t see how highways and transit agencies could compete. You live in a way that makes you depend on the one or the other. You don’t take a trip and select your mode based on price.

  • Joe R.

    Maybe I’m being a little optimistic here. My thinking might be if you have a regional authority in charge of highways and one in charge of transit, when both ask for funding one of the questions which might be asked is how many trips per year will x dollars buy us. In denser areas transit will often win. You might also have the transit agency saying we could move the same amount of people for less in presently car dependent areas (think mostly inner ring suburbs).

    Now the situation is that we basically just accept the suburbs, upstate, and large swaths of the outer boroughs can only be served by cars because there is no mega agency with the pull to credibly put forth proposals to expand mass transit (or even cycling).

    Incidentally, I might well add cycling infrastructure to the things this mega transit agency would be in charge of. Certainly bike share counts as public transit. And bike share becomes a lot more attractive when good bike infrastructure exists.

  • Toddster

    He got a lot built quickly and for a reasonable cost. While in hindsight the projects might not have been ideal, he did run an efficient and functioning agency.

  • Vooch

    dictatorships always end badly

    this proposal is a crony capitalist wet dream

  • type_b

    Anyone who has read Ostrom’s /The Intellectual Crisis in American Public Administration/ knows that more and more centralization will not solve the problem.

    Tokyo has numerous public and private rail and subway companies, and yet they manage to have through services, a single payment system, and timeliness among other components of a well functioning transportation system.

  • bolwerk

    Well, for one, on our road system, only a fraction of any trip can take place on the “highway system.” There will always be egress to a street eventually. How do you contend with that? Should streets be part of the mega-agency too?

    Also, that presupposes all trips are created equal. In reality the trips peak trips where transit and highways theoretically could be competitive are the higher-value ones. Your low-value trips reflect your lifestyle selection: you use transit so much that you have a pass and every trip feels “free” or similarly the marginal cost of a car trip for a marginally useful car trip is tiny.

  • ahwr
  • Bernard Finucane

    Yeah, you’re right.

  • Jason

    We can’t even get the MTA to play nice with ITSELF. We’re wasting a ton of money digging out a new set of platforms for East Side Access because the Metro North head didn’t want to have to share “his” tracks with the LIRR.

  • Larry Littlefield

    That word dysfunction. It’s an optimistic word.

    It assumes that what is going on is a mistake, rather than exactly what those who control our public and private organizations want to see happen.

  • Joe R.

    My reasoning on highways is they’re the one thing which makes cars relatively fast and useful for lots of trips. Imagine doing a 50 mile trip on local streets. However, rail is even better for those longer trips than highways. That’s already potential competition for long commutes and recreational trips.

    The second issue is the local trips you allude to. Consider that many (most?) people only buy a car for those longer highway trips. They’ll use the car on local trips because it’s already a sunk cost but in the end they didn’t buy the car to go 1 mile to Trader Joe’s. They bought it to go on longer trips when they’re off. However, in the scenario where rail provides effective longer distance transport the main rationale for owning a car disappears. That in turn means a reduction in local car trips on streets. You can make those car trips even more pointless by adding bike infrastructure and/or improving transit.

    My main point is highways are the key to reducing car use. Arguably, without highways enabling nonstop travel cars never would have become as popular as they are. By offering real competition to these highways we can see a reduction in car ownership and local car use. However, without some means to coordinate rail across state borders the idea of doing this remains a pipe dream. In theory you shouldn’t need a mega transit agency to get state and localities to play nice with each. In practice all I ever see is petty turf wars, even among the separate branches of the MTA.

  • Joe R.

    Would you really be watering down the base of support if you could credibly build rail services which might actually be a viable alternative to highways? I think that’s the issue here. Lots of people who oppose these taxes see trains as something the other guy uses. Suppose that wasn’t the case?

    Note also we see a lot of the same thinking even in NYC. Look at the vehement opposition to the Woodhaven Boulevard SBS from drivers who see it as something not useful to them. Often this type of thinking prevails even when the factual evidence suggests otherwise. Right now the MTA is its own worst enemy in terms of self-promotion.

  • Vooch

    Remove the subsidies for mass motoring and VMT will plummet

  • Boris Suchkov

    People definitely select trip modes based on price, if options exist. And the NYC area provides more options than anywhere else in the country. Highways and transit agencies compete all the time.

    When I lived on Staten Island, I took the express bus to work in the morning, but returned via the ferry and local bus. A major part of my decision to do that was the express bus’s higher price. The express bus is a better value in the morning because of the HOV lane, which only exists in the inbound direction (in the afternoon it’s a general travel lane). So coming back home I was better off saving the premium fare.

    In general, Staten Island is a good example of what happens when you offer mode choice. The majority of SI white collar commuters to Manhattan take transit, but the majority of SI white collar commuters to NJ drive. Switching jobs implies switching commutes. Not all Staten Islanders are motorheads who “depend” on cars, they just pick from the choices given.

  • bolwerk

    You practically cite a case of non-competition. If you go to Manhattan from SI, you loosely choose between a free ferry trip or an expensive/indirect (but still heavily subsidizes) car trip, assuming you even have a car and can afford the trip. If you go to NJ from Staten Island, there are few if any public transit options.

    The choice between a trip to NJ or a trip to Manhattan is hardly a competitive one either. You have a reason to go to one or the other. They aren’t substitutes for each other.

  • bolwerk

    I think the key difference with non-car modes is they actually all do sort of complement each other. People who want to cycle a lot will happily take a subway if it’s raining or something, but taking a bike to a really car-riddled environment seriously degrades the quality of cycling.

    Insofar as non-car modes are complemented by cars, it’s because of taxis, not rationally discerned per-trip tradeoffs between cars and another mode.

  • ahwr

    Note also we see a lot of the same thinking even in NYC. Look at the vehement opposition to the Woodhaven Boulevard SBS from drivers who see it as something not useful to them.

    This is worse everywhere else.

    Would you really be watering down the base of support

    So yes, you would.

  • lanceplanner

    Try riding the LIRR and you will see how “well” suburban interests are favored!

  • shawnta calder

    Thought-provoking analysis ! I Appreciate the info – Does anyone know where my company might get ahold of a fillable a form form to use ?

  • Lindy Carbajal

    Useful analysis ! I am thankful for the insight – Does someone know if
    my assistant would be able to find a sample TX IACA UCC3 version to edit

  • neroden

    We can’t even get LIRR and Metro-North to merge. If we can’t do that, how can we merge them with PATH and NJT?

  • neroden

    Oh, the suburban interests aren’t the *riders*. No, no. LIRR unions and management have both been absolutely terrible about self-dealing, and I’m not sure how many of them even ride the trains when they’re not working.


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