Is Tri-State Transportation Too Big to Plan?


A new federal rule could unify the New York region’s jumble of official transportation plans into a single vision for the entire metropolitan area. But some planning advocates worry the Obama administration is moving too far, too fast during its final months to fix a problem that has vexed transportation experts for generations.

Any commuter will tell you it’s not easy to get around the New York area. Taking the train from Newark to White Plains requires two separate tickets, plus a schlep between Grand Central and Penn Station. Most East River bridges are free, while tunnels just blocks away charge a toll. Train and bus riders use different fare cards, depending on the system, instead of tapping a single card across the entire region.

Not surprisingly, there’s no one in charge of coordinating it all.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1920s, as New York began to mushroom into surrounding counties, our civic forebears created the Port Authority, to build infrastructure across two states, and the Regional Plan Association, a private nonprofit that acts as a regional roundtable and drafts long-term plans. (The fourth edition, in development since 2013, is due out next year.)

Over time, the Port Authority focused on maintaining its own port, bridge, and tunnel facilities, while RPA’s reports were visionary but unenforceable. Sensing a need for better coordination, state, city, and suburban leaders made several attempts at creating a regional planning body.

In 1956, Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. created the Metropolitan Regional Council, a conference of city and county officials from across the tri-state area. That group began to fall apart nearly a decade later as suburban officials came to see it as a vehicle for New York City to exert control over its neighbors, and it was eventually dissolved in 1979.

In 1965, the three state legislatures created the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, responding to federal mandates for coordinated transportation spending. It spanned an area reaching approximately 75 miles in each direction from Times Square. In 1971, the federal government expanded its duties to include housing and environmental programs.

“It was a good idea. It functioned for over a decade,” said Richard Barone, RPA’s vice president for transportation.

Among other things, Tri-State was in charge of reviewing the planning and environmental studies for Westway. It approved the project in 1981 and promoted the tunnel as a regional priority before a federal court blocked the controversial West Side Highway replacement the following year.

Prioritizing state and regional goals over local concerns meant the body “never won any popularity contests among local officials and state legislators,” the New York Times wrote in 1981. Connecticut stopped paying its dues during a budget crisis later that year, and suburban jurisdictions in New York and New Jersey were upset by Tri-State’s role in affordable housing policy. Reagan-era laws encouraged decentralization, and despite efforts to salvage it, the commission fell apart by 1982.

Since then, the region has splintered into, depending on how you count it, ten separate Metropolitan Planning Organizations, or MPOs. They model transportation trends and are required by Congress to update long-range and short-term funding plans at least every four years. If you see a new bike lane in Queens, a highway being widened in New Jersey, a new train station in Connecticut, or a subway extension in Manhattan, it was included in an MPO’s plan. In many cases, this process is little more than a rubber stamp for projects pushed by transportation departments. But because none of these MPOs cross state lines, there’s no official vision — not even a rubber-stamped list — of the entire region’s transportation priorities.

New York isn’t alone. There are “metropolitan” planning organizations around the country that cover only a fraction of their region. In North Carolina, the Charlotte area has at least four separate MPOs, as expanding suburbs created their own planning organizations instead of joining the existing one focused on the region’s core.

Anthony Foxx, who served as mayor of Charlotte, now heads the U.S. Department of Transportation. His agency says the proliferation of MPOs goes against the intent of the law and results in less-than-optimal planning. DOT has proposed a rule that would, among other things, require multiple MPOs in a single region to either merge or work together to draft a unified transportation plan.

While some longtime regional planning boosters have hailed the proposal, there’s a lot of skittishness among professional advocates.

“The intent might have been good. They’re trying to remove duplication; they’re trying to improve coordination,” said Nadine Lemmon, director of New York and federal policy at Tri-State Transportation Campaign. But, she said, her organization is mostly concerned “about trying to make sure we don’t put a wrench in the process.”

Today, it typically takes a few months to amend an MPO’s transportation plan to include a new project. Even the controversial Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo but staunchly opposed by transit and environmental advocates, quickly cleared the amendment process in 2012 after the Rockland, Westchester and Putnam county executives helped secure a unanimous vote.

Lemmon and others worry that involving all three states in decisions like this could turn what is today a relatively smooth process into a political quagmire as multiple MPOs, states, and politicians engage in horse-trading to get favorable votes for their projects.

They’re also worried that the feds are requiring too many MPOs to work together on a unified plan, particularly in the Northeast Corridor. “Depending on how you look at it, you could pretty much go Baltimore to Boston,” said Zoe Baldwin, government relations director for the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.

Five MPOs covering most of the New York region already have a memorandum of understanding that encourages information sharing and consultation, including an annual meeting. They’ve also worked closely together on Sandy recovery. But developing a single regional plan is a much more complex undertaking. “There’s very little guidance [from U.S. DOT], and there’s no financial support that acknowledges the complexity of doing planning in this region,” Baldwin said. “It’s not like these organizations have extra staff people laying around to start working on this.”

Another complaint: the proposed rule was released at the end of June, with comments due from the public two months later, catching many off guard during the summer months. Associations representing MPOs and state DOTs asked for more time. So did all four senators from New Jersey and Connecticut. The federal government denied their requests. Now, three associations representing regional planning organizations are asking for the proposed regulation to be withdrawn.

Asked if the agency had any response to this slate of concerns, U.S. DOT spokesperson Susan Lagana did not provide any answers. “This is an open and ongoing rulemaking, so I’m afraid we cannot comment on it,” she said.

Those who are part of the existing planning process, including many haunted by the failure of Tri-State, are worried Foxx’s last-minute push to reform the system will create more problems than it will solve. But without any changes, frustrated New York commuters will be stuck with states, cities, and transit operators that barely talk with one another across state lines.

“The idea of trying to create an MPO that is much more representative of what the region is, and not separated by state and administrative boundaries, is not a bad idea,” said Barone. “We don’t have a true, tri-state regional transportation planning body. I think it wouldn’t be bad to have another voice at the table.”