Everyday, New York City Transit moves over seven million people around New York City, and the MTA’s commuter railroads bring 550,000 commuters into the city. It’s not stretch to say that, without the MTA’s transportation offerings, New York City would not exist as an economic force in the region, state or country. Yet, according to a panel of transit officials who spoke last night, politicians at all levels have no idea how to best appreciate or fund the MTA, and most have little sense of long-term transportation policy planning.
That message — one concerning politics and transportation — was on full display at the Museum of the City of New York last night. In a panel discussion led by Times transit reporter Michael Grynbaum, four transportation experts — Jeff Zupan of the RPA, Michael Horodniceanu of MTA Capital Construction, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association and Joan Byron from the Pratt Center — spoke about the challenges facing long-term transportation planning in the area. While the panelists disagreed on certain topics, they all agreed that politicians do not understand how transportations fits into the economic structure of New York City.
Zupan, who spoke at length about changes in transportation’s political climate over the last twenty years, spoke vehemently about the ways in which politicians approach transit. “We expect something for nothing,” he said, “and it doesn’t work that way.”
Grynbaum opened the discussion with a somber. “Where were you heard the ARC Tunnel was canceled?” he asked. “And what was your reaction?” To a group of panelists who each have a stake in seeing improved transportation in the region, it was a loaded question, and it elicited a strong reaction across the board.
At the RPA, Jeffrey Zupan has spent decades working with officials in New Jersey to realize the ARC Tunnel, and he was particularly dismayed to see the project cut. Calling it “the kind of short-sighted thinking” that has plagued the region’s transportation planning for decades, he worried about the future. “We’ve lost the opportunity,” he said, “and I don’t expect it to come back any time soon.”
Richardson, who represents the contractors, used the ARC to draw a comparison to private investment. The tunnel, she said, would have created 6000 construction jobs and 10,000 ancillary support jobs. If a private company announced plans to bring that level of economic activity to New Jersey, officials would be beside themselves with glee. “The governor would turn cartwheels to make sure this business would locate in New Jersey,” she said, citing potential tax breaks and real estate deals.
But Horodniceanu was willing to take this criticism to the next step. He called the move to cancel ARC a “totally political decision,” and he discussed how Gov. Chris Christie did not conceive of the project and would not be around to participate in the ribbon-cutting. Even though now is the best time to build, Christie had to show his fiscal conservativism, and the ARC Tunnel had to play the role of the victim.
Of course, it’s easy for people in New York to lob stones at Christie, and we’ve certainly debated the death of ARC over the last five months. But the panelists equated New Jersey’s sins to New York. Politicians aren’t willing to take that extra step to fund transit become it involves long-term thinking and planning with few short-term rewards for fickle constituents. As the panelists explained, what motivates a politician to fund a ten-year project that might not wrap until they’re long out of office? The chance to get a name or photo in the paper at a ribbon-cutting ceremony is too remote, and the rewards too slim.
We’re living through this problem right now as the MTA’s five-year capital plan has been funded for only two years. At the end of 2011, if the money isn’t there, Horodniceanu said the authority would have to prepare for a slow-down. Megaprojects would continue at a slower rate until the funds pick up, and regular maintenance may get deferred. Noting that he is “absolutely” concerned about the fate of big projects, he urged politicians to act. “We do need a concerted effort to push for this,” he said of a fully funded plan.
What transit planners and much-maligned bureaucrats can see are the pieces. We know how the 7 line extension will spur development at Hudson Yards and how the Second Ave. Subway will lead to an East Side renaissance. Politicians see complaints about construction disruption and money being spent far off into the future. Without the political commitment today, the city will suffer into the future. It will suffer without increased access, and it will suffer as construction costs begin to climb with a recovering economy.
Ultimately, as Joan Byron noted, the problem is one of media perception. “We,” she said of the transit community, “talk in an echo chamber and we talk amongst ourselves.” It is incumbent upon those setting the policies that require political support to explain how the benefits are broadly distributed to others, and in that sense, transit experts aren’t ready for a media campaign promoting their cause. Still, the area’s transit infrastructure grows not at all and suffers under the weight of age because politicians can’t see beyond their own self-interest. When foresight is en vogue, perhaps funding commitments and growth will follow.