Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Former Port Authority head warns about deferring infrastructure decisions to private entities (and what about AY?)

Last night's panel discussion at the Municipal Art Society, The City in the Age of Obama, was notably thought-provoking, applying some reasonable skepticism to the daunting challenges facing the region.

Anthony Shorris, director of the NYU Wagner Rudin Center for Transportation Policy, and former executive director of the Port Authority of NY/NJ, had the most resonant lines, warning that questions of infrastructure face major and various roadblocks.

The oldest infrastracture in America, he warned, is "the political system. It's the most out of date, and it's the biggest barrier we have." (Later, he elaborated that, without a change in campaign finance, there'd be no way to change the system.)

He noted that major infrastructure projects in the area also face boundary challenges, given that "we have 800-some jurisdictions in the New York metropolitan area."

It takes a long time to plan and to build major projects like tunnels or rail systems, even as "we live in a cycle of increasingly shorter-term political attention spans." Costs are up front, while benefits are delayed.

And, given the multiple jurisdictions, it's not easy to make decisions and trade-off across various sectors. Shorris observed that other countries were much better at making decisions like emphasizing rail for relatively short long-distance trips.

Deference to the private sector

He then made comments that, while not directly about Atlantic Yards, certainly had some resonance, especially given Forest City Enterprises' claim that "we control the pace" even as as the developer is reportedly looking to build a less expensive replacement railyard than it promised.

"The fourth challenge that requires rethinking... is the boundary between public and private," Shorris said. "Increasingly we've deferred much of the [infrastructure] decisionmaking to the private sector"--his tone turned sardonic--"and we know by definition the public sector is incompetent and corrupt, unable to make decisions wisely; the only people who can make decisions wisely are clearly bankers."

The crowd laughed.

So, Shorris said, that means we'll let infrastructure decisions be made "essentially by private investors." The future of Moynihan Station, he suggested, would thus be determined by "what's good for [developer] Related's investors. Now, we can continue to do that, and a kind of infrastructure will emerge, but whether those are public goods in the way we'd like them to be public goods, as a result of decisions made by private entities, is not clear, to me, the way we want to go."

Forces for change

Changes could emerge out of transformational leadership at the top, or from reformist civic groups, as has happened in the first half of the 20th century, leading to new overlay organizations that could fund infrastructure and shape regional decisionmaking.

Though it didn't come up in the discussion, one example might be connecting the PATH system to the subway system. Do that, and parts of Newark and Jersey City would become far better linked to NYC.

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