Friday, July 29, 2011

RPA's Marshall on MTA deals: "Why should the private sector reap most of the benefits from track and station improvements?"

In What Jay Walder's new city, Hong Kong, can teach us about transit: Make money, don't just spend it, journalist Alex Marshall, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association (RPA), observes that the outgoing Metropolitan Transportation Authority chief is going to a city-state where the transit agency works as a developer.

Writes Marshall:
While it may seem extraordinary to have a transit company operating like a profit-making company, it's not novel. Private streetcar lines made money more on real estate deals than the nickel fares they received.

...Today, governments can facilitate new versions of these old arrangements. What if the MTA had chosen to develop the land around the Hudson Yards in Manhattan instead of effectively selling it off to a developer? Or take Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn: Why should the private sector reap most of the benefits from track and station improvements?

In cases such as these, which are bound to come up again, the MTA must be both aggressive and creative in how it imagines its profit margin.
In the case of the deal to sell rights to the Vanderbilt Yard, in exchange for cash and a new railyard/station entrance, the MTA's political patrons held sway.

Had organizations like the RPA, which offered an awkward mix of support and criticism for the Atlantic Yards plan, pressed state officials on the fundamental issues, the private sector would not "reap most of the benefits."

(I'm not blaming Marshall for this.)

A caution on Hong Kong envy

Hong Kong offers some attractive examples of efficiency, but it's not an unmitigated good.

As I wrote last August in Urban Omnibus, A Caution on Hong Kong Envy, New Yorkers at a conference on Hong Kong enthused about the city-state's advances, but many from Hong Kong worried about the cost of progress, seeing their home as a place of enforced uniformity, with too little public participation.

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