Stephen Smith on the Maddening Failure of Public Transit Agencies to Cooperate

by Reihan Salam

Transportation Nation’s Jim O’Grady has a new report on the MTA chief’s plan to accommodate rising commuter demand: 

New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota told a conference of transportation professionals that the only hope for moving more people under the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey is for the area’s commuter railroads to set aside their traditional enmity and work better together.

His remarks came after a presentation showing rapid growth in New Jersey’s commuter population has maxed out rush hour crossings — both transit and vehicular — and that relief in the form of a proposed Gateway Rail Tunnel won’t arrive until 2025. If it arrives.

As Stephen Smith points out, the remarkable thing about Lhota’s call for increased cooperation is that it wasn’t pursued before plans were made to expand transit capacity by building an expensive new trans-Hudson tunnel:

This is very, very basic stuff – stuff that was promised decades ago when the government nationalized commuter rail, and stuff that even the most hardcore libertarians probably would have conceded was one upside of nationalization. And yet, somehow it never happened. Some cities integrated more than others, but even the more successful cities in the US still don’t coordinate schedules and fares between their mainline and rapid transit railways.

Anyway, this’ll be great if it happens in New York, but the bigger problem is that officials are only considering this after their plans to spend billions of dollars on new tunnels were shot down. This runs completely counter to the German transportation planning principle, introduced to me by Alon Levy, of Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton – organization before electronics before concrete. In other words, you should make sure you’re using your existing infrastructure efficiently, either by streamlining operations or paying for relatively inexpensive signal upgrades, before digging (very!) expensive new tunnels.

Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton would make a good planning principle for any organization, whether in the private sector or the public sector. But the power of incumbent interests, including employee organizations with considerable influence over work rules and staffing levels, has led us to emphasize concrete first, as it is more pliable than the byzantine organizational structure of these depressingly inefficient agencies. 

Alon Levy cited another example of this kind of perversity last spring:

The same could be said about the LIRR/Amtrak grade separation. From a technical perspective, it is unnecessary. From a political one, it requires Amtrak trains to use the Penn Station’s lower concourse, currently monopolized by the LIRR; said concourse has better passenger flow and has station staff and ticket vending machines, but because of artificial separation into LIRR and Amtrak turf, New York State has to fork over $300 million for concrete.

This reminds me of an idea my friend Steve Teles has raised in the past: domains in which there is a “stand-off” between key actors often experience extreme cost growth. Conventional hospitals, for example, are governed by doctors, trustees, and administrators, and this co-administration makes it difficult for any one set of actors to “screw” the others, i.e., to impose its will on the others. Conventional universities are, in a similar vein, defined by co-administration between parties (faculty, trustees, and administrators, for example) that have enough power to check each other. One way to resolve these struggles for power would be to put one faction decisively in charge. But of course it is unclear how we would get from here to there, particularly since the cost pressures can be shunted off to taxpayers or insurance companies or fee-paying students. 

The transit agencies are, in a similar vein, semi-autonomous and co-administered by a number of contending interests. This makes forcing cooperation extremely difficult. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.