The slow crawl to move New York transit into the 21st century
It’s a change so massive you can see it from space – but here on Earth it’s hard to see the big picture because we’re always stuck in traffic.
In April 1921, when Congress approved the bi-state compact to create the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, New York City had 5.4 million people and the surrounding suburbs were a fraction of their current population.
For context, consider Bergen County, New Jersey, which now approaches a million people but had just 210,000 in 1921, around the size of today’s Ulster County. New York City, by density alone, was the center of this part of the universe.
Fast forward to 2015. The city’s population is over 8.4 million and the tri-state suburban and exurban communities that surround it are now home to over 13 million people.
After the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, new regional residential construction has been weighted towards multi-family rental units near rail hubs and away from the McMansion cul-de-sacs of another era. Young adults are opting away from car-centric suburbia toward carless urban living. Yet in the era of E-ZPass and the Fitbit, what they encounter is a costly transit system that still has train conductors collecting paper tickets, just as they did a century ago.
With technology rapidly making lives more efficient, tolerance is waning for outdated systems like the convoluted bureaucracy that governs tri-state transit, especially when there are numerous examples throughout the world of how to better move people where they want to go. Creating a more seamless model for moving across the region may have once seemed impossible, but that suggestion is unacceptable to a generation that eagerly embraces innovation. In order to move our transit system into the 21st century, an overhaul of the current structures that govern transit may be the only way forward.
OLD AND GETTING OLDER
Well into the 21st century, this massive megalopolis is served by a transportation system whose key components, like the trans-Hudson rail tunnels between New Jersey and New York, were built a hundred years ago and were badly damaged in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy flooded them with salt water. Amtrak says a catastrophic failure is a distinct possibility.
This past summer, some NJ Transit riders got a taste of what Hudson tunnel disruptions could mean when electrical problems turned their 15-mile commutes into Manhattan into three-hour nightmares.
Amtrak’s East River rail tunnels, also a hundred years old, which are used by the Long Island Rail Road, were also severely damaged by Sandy.
Last year, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released a report that indicated 90 percent of New York City’s subway stations had structural defects, like damaged platforms and broken stairs, yet subway ridership goes up by tens of millions of trips every year.
The region is served by multiple independent transit authorities, like NJ Transit, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority, with a collective annual operating budget of close to $23 billion. Their collective multi-year capital spending plans total over $57 billion, with the Port Authority and the MTA paying out $3.75 billion in debt service annually.
The Republican-controlled Congress has been increasingly hostile to helping fund the region’s transit system. “New local transit projects used to get an 80 percent federal-20 percent local support split,” Nadine Lemmon of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign told City & State. “Now it is a 50-50 split.”
The latest proposed House Republican cuts to Northeast transit projects still have to survive a conference committee process with the Senate. But the latest pending rollback is just another sign that the region is going to be increasingly left to its own devices. This is despite the fact that for decades the region has been shortchanged in terms of federal appropriations it receives compared with what it sends the federal government in tax revenue.
NEW CENTURY, NEW MODEL?
What are we getting for these vast sums – much of it borrowed – we are spending locally on transit? Almost a hundred years since the formation of the Port Authority, it might be time to have the courage to think outside of the box we’ve been in. What if the region’s transit agencies were to be merged and integrated in a way that transcended the political subdivisions that so often get in the way of regional cooperation and collaboration?
Ironically, it was just such an imperative that led to the creation of the Port Authority in the first place.
“In fact we have talked about it,” said Kathryn Wylde, the president and CEO of Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit civic group sponsored by some of the city’s major corporations and employers. “Our members have people who live and work on both sides of the Hudson who in total represent a million jobs.”
“People are no longer just going to work in New York City. We have people working in Jersey City from Manhattan and people from New York City working in White Plains,” Wylde told City & State.
Wylde says the biggest impediment to delivering a world-class 21st-century transit system for the region is the inability of the agencies involved to build their projects on budget and on time. “Most of our public infrastructure projects like East Side Access or the Fulton transit hub come in at one and half to twice the original cost estimate and take twice as long. The procurement process is just notoriously inefficient.”
In contrast, consider that in 1931 the Port Authority completed the George Washington Bridge, then the world’s longest spanning bridge, below cost estimates and ahead of schedule.
Last year Wylde served on the MTA’s Transportation Reinvention Commission, which issued a comprehensive blueprint for improving the agency’s performance. The commission’s report concluded there had to be a “new MTA” created “that gets the right work done faster and cheaper and that is more efficient, transparent and accountable to the public.” One way to do that, Wylde suggests, is to form public-private partnerships where “the private sector assumes the risk for potential cost overruns and delays.”
“Where we are now is just not working,” Wylde said. “There’s no incentive for entrepreneurial thinking.”
But the status quo exists because it has served entrenched interests for decades. The current system incentivises contractors to offer lower initial bids just to get in the door – and those lowball numbers find their way into official press releases and speeches at high-profile groundbreaking events.
As the actual costs climb once a project is underway, no one is held accountable for a process that keeps building trades unions and construction companies working. It doesn’t hurt that both groups are some of the biggest campaign donors in New York politics.
TOO MANY CHIEFS
Former NYPD Detective Nick Casale, who was the MTA’s first deputy director of security for counterterrorism, says the independent authorities like the MTA and the Port Authority should all be abolished. “Why do we have these? Because it serves the political crony system,” which Casale says rewards campaign donors with places on the authorities’ governing boards. “So you have layer upon layer of bureaucratic folly insulated from the Legislature and public accountability,” he said.
Casale says there’s no greater example of the wasteful redundancy built into our current alphabet soup of transit agencies than the multiple police forces that have sprung up to protect them. “What we have seen is these fiefdoms grow exponentially,” Casale said, and argues that these police forces should be absorbed into municipal departments.
He pointed to the merger under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s of New York City’s NYPD with the transit and housing police departments. “Now New Yorkers are safer today because the NYPD got total jurisdiction of the subway and housing police departments,” Casale said. “In an emergency there would be no need for notification between these multiple jurisdictions” in the same geographic territory, “which can cost precious response time.”
He says police forces run by independent authorities lack the kind of public accountability that municipal, county or state police have through a command structure that ultimately answers to an elected official. “It can be an elected sheriff, mayor or governor – it still means citizen accountability,” Casale said.
He cited the role of the Port Authority police in the Bridgegate scandal – the traffic-blocking 2013 “study” on the George Washington Bridge that federal prosecutors now allege was a political dirty trick executed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie loyalists against a mayor of the opposing political party – as an example of what happens when a police force is insulated from citizen accountability.
David Peter Alan is a semi-retired patent attorney who lives in South Orange, New Jersey. He depends on public transit because he is blind in one eye and nearsighted in the other.
Alan’s vision is “not bad enough to prevent me from being able to do my work or notice a beautiful woman,” he told a videographer who documented how his 17-mile train commute into New York City can take up to two hours.
Alan, who chairs the Lackawanna Coalition, a commuter advocacy group, has been a vocal transit advocate since 1985. The grass-roots Lackawanna Coalition regularly attends public NJ Transit meetings to monitor service cuts and fare hikes. “In 2009, NJ Transit was getting $320 million in state support,” Alan told City & State. “Now it’s down to $32 million and service has been decimated.”
Alan says the nature of his law practice means he uses NJ Transit’s trains at off-peak hours. His advocacy group recently won a victory when NJ Transit reinstituted late-night Morris and Essex Line trains it had cut. “My curfew had been made 45 minutes earlier without notice,” Alan said.
Alan says transit consumers need to be represented on the NJ Transit board. The MTA, in contrast, has three nonvoting delegates who represent riders from New York City and the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road service areas.
“Keep in mind that the last hike in New Jersey’s gasoline tax was in 1988 and at the same time NJ Transit fares have been raised nine times,” Alan said.
Alan has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s entire network as well as other U.S. transit corridors. He thinks one regionwide transit system would be a “great idea,” but is skeptical it could ever come to pass.
“The Port Authority makes too much money out of the automobile with tolls to do anything meaningful for mass transit,” Alan said.
HAVE SCANDALS PAVED THE WAY FOR A RESET?
The December 2013 Metro-North train derailment in the Bronx that killed four people and left dozens injured cast a spotlight on the MTA’s operations. The state comptroller documented a serious decline in the quality of service for MTA customers in 2013 and 2014, prompting him to suggest on a talk show that the city was “moving backwards.”
Meanwhile, thanks to the sprawling Bridgegate probe by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Port Authority continues to find itself enmeshed in an ongoing criminal investigation, which recently prompted the resignation of United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek.
Last year, graduate students fromColumbia University’s Earth Institute were commissioned by the Regional Plan Association to study both authorities. The students found that “easy access to huge revenue streams, lack of transparent oversight … and persistent debt” were “reducing the effectiveness and threatening the long-term financial sustainability” of the two critical transportation authorities.
The team conducted a global comparative analysis that looked at large public transit systems in Vancouver, Singapore, Tokyo, Stockholm, Hong Kong and London. In the London case study, the team learned that recent moves to vest broad authority over the operation of the transit system in the office of the city’s mayor produced “significant fiscal and management improvements.”
“We need a real regional approach between the states and the Port Authority … but the problem is the politicization of the Port Authority,” said Dick Dadey of the good-government group Citizens Union. “The Port Authority became a place where patronage dominates the sense of public interest which historically got lost to the turf war between the two governors of the two states.”
Jameson Doig, professor emeritus at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, agreed. “In the case of the Port Authority, you need to get it separated out from the short-term political demands of the two governors,” he said.
In his book, “Empire On the Hudson,” the definitive account to date on the history of the Port Authority, Doig wrote that for decades the commissioners appointed to the authority’s board were certainly “active in politics” but “in fact, the commissioners often entered the fray to defend the Port Authority’s independence from patronage and political opportunism.”
Over the last 20 years, that firewall between policy and politics became nonexistent, Doig says, which set the stage for Bridgegate.
In the wake of the scandal, both Govs. Christie and Andrew Cuomo commissioned a special panel to comprehensively review the Port Authority’s operations. In December the panel produced its report,“Keeping the Region Moving.” The 100-page document called for greater transparency and a move back to the agency’s “core mission of facilitating transit through the region for the millions of commuters, visitors, and cargo carriers who rely on its transportation infrastructure, ensuring that these facilities are worthy of the people and businesses they serve.”
Around the time they got the report, Cuomo and Christie dealt a blow to reformers in both New York and New Jersey by vetoing legislation that supporters said would have made the bi-state agency more transparent, accountable and independent.
Citizen Union’s Dadey says he had high hopes for the identical bills that made their way through the state Legislatures in Albany and Trenton. “Had those two bills passed we would have gone a long way to a new level of collaboration and re-establishing a regional vision of infrastructure planning and building.”
Doig, a longtime critic of the Port Authority’s commissioners, says he still has confidence that the Port Authority’s current Executive Director Pat Foye and its Chairman John Degnan are “a strong enough team” to turn the beleaguered agency around.
One thing that has changed, however, is that the commissioners, who historically never engaged in public debate with each other, are increasingly willing to go “off script,” which is the perquisite for true independence.
“We are so out of our league. We don’t know what we are doing,” proclaimed Port Authority Commissioner David Steiner at a September meeting addressing plans for replacing the bi-state agency’s aging 66-year-old bus terminal. “If the board does not seek ideas from others, we’re going to make the wrong decision, as we’ve done before.”
LIGHT AT THE END OF A NEW TUNNEL?
Thanks to the intercession of U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey a deal was reached last week between New Jersey, New York, the Port Authority and the federal government to pull together the tens of billions of dollars in financing necessary to build a new rail tunnel under the Hudson.
The powers that be plan to create yet another entity called the Gateway Development Corporation, which will be a subsidiary of the Port Authority and governed by a board of four members from the key stakeholders. The federal government and Amtrak have agreed to pay half of the cost of the project, which has been estimated to cost $20 billion. But there is tinge of “Groundhog Day” to their approach.
In 2010, citing the potential for cost overruns, Christie canceled similar plans finalized during the Corzine administration to build a trans-Hudson tunnel. That move freed up hundreds of millions of dollars, which the Christie administration redirected to transportation infrastructure work. The windfall took pressure off of Christie to find a way to replenish the state’s near-empty Transportation Trust Fund, which relies on gasoline tax revenues.
Will this time be different? Up until recently, Cuomo had been acting indifferent to the tunnel proposal, telling reporters in August “it’s not my tunnel,” indicating he had no skin in the game.
One thing that is different this time is that over the next several months the defendants in the Bridgegate scandal will be fighting in court to preserve their liberty. Last week, lawyers for former high-ranking Port Authority official and Christie confidant Bill Baroni and former Christie staffer Bridget Anne Kelly filed papers alleging that prosecutors and Christie’s lawyers were withholding relevant emails and other documents the pair needed to prepare their defense.
Some of the documents the defense wants are communications between former Port Authority official and Christie partisan David Wildstein and former Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak, who now works for NJ Transit. Wildstein has pleaded guilty to his role in the plot to create a massive traffic coronary in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
These trials are going to give us a behind-the-scenes look into the netherworld of political patronage and abuse of power that for far too long has corrupted the public agencies into whose hands we put our lives every day.
There hasn’t been an alignment to provide the opening for meaningful reform like this in our lifetimes. How ironic it would be if a cynically arranged traffic jam could lay the foundation for tri-state transit to finally get unstuck.