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Robert Moses, transportation, and the question of Atlantic Yards

So, what’s Robert Moses’s legacy regarding transportation in New York City? Worse than recently acknowledged, it seems.

Attendees at a forum last Wednesday at the Museum of the City of New York were provided with a pamphlet printed by former Theodore Kheel, president of Nurture New York’s Nature, who passionately believes that the current Moses revisionism disregards his disdain for public transportation.

The pamphlet, titled "The Road Not Taken," points out that the Robert Moses and the Modern City exhibits, as well as the accompanying book, downplays how Moses ignored investment in public transit. The pamphlet consists mainly of long quotes from Robert Caro’s scathing biography The Power Broker.

Kheel, a renowned labor mediator, on April 1 published an op-ed in the Times’s Sunday regional weekly sessions recounting how he once proposed "that tolls for the city's bridges and tunnels be doubled, and the proceeds used to subsidize mass transit." Today, he wrote similarly, funds from congestion pricing could be used to make subway ridership free.

Schwartz on Moses

Among the panelists, traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, aka “Gridlock Sam,” argued that Moses gets a little too much blame and credit.

New York actually has fewer highways coursing through it than other major American cities, Schwartz pointed out. The reason? Moses built highways in New York before other cities did, so when it came time to propose such highways through the center of Manhattan, the populace was already organized.

New York actually built much more transportation infrastructure—subways, bridges—before Moses's time, Schwartz pointed out. Schwartz suggested that Mayor John Lindsay and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller made a “big mistake” in letting Moses go, because he was “a fantastic manager—the amount of highways he built was pretty much the right amount.”

Today, Schwartz said, we “don’t need a Moses,” but we should be correcting some of his mistakes. For example, he said, every bridge in the city should have passageways for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge should include light rail or bus rapid transit. Limited access highways like the Belt Parkway should be reconstructed to allow trucks that otherwise traverse neighborhood streets.

And, Schwartz said, we should take away tolls from bridges between the boroughs and “adopt congestion pricing where it belongs, in the central business district.”

Russianoff reacts

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign observed that much of what he’s done in the past quarter-century has been “a reaction to the Moses era.” Moses, he said, prioritized autos over transit, working with a like-minded bureaucracy and catering to special interests, including the construction trades.

Russianoff and other activists helped block Westway, which he said some portray as “an example of getting nothing done.” By contrast, Russianoff said, he sees it as “the Davids fighting Goliath,” and transferring $1 billion in federal funds to the transit system in the end.

In recent years, he said, there have been some signs of progress, citing the magnificent new subway station in Coney Island and the restoration of the Franklin Avenue subway.

View from the MTA

Lee Sander, CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, offered some valuable context. In Moses’ time, there was strong support for urban centers, with a powerful contingent in Congress and in Albany boosting New York City. None of those obtain today. Moses had limited legal and institutional constraints, as well as enormous amounts of federal funds.

Today, there’s much less funding and more institutional fragmentation. However, Sander said the MTA is moving ahead on ambitious projects, including the Second Avenue Subway, East Side access for the Long Island Railroad, the extension of the #7 subway line, and more. Beyond that, non-MTA projects like Moynihan Station and the Santiago Calatrava PATH terminal are in motion.

His point: Moses’ accomplishments were assisted by favorable political, institutional, and financial dynamics. Today, the barriers are great, he said, offering a baseball metaphor, but “we’re on first base.”

Moses & Jacobs

Members of the audience expressed much skepticism about the MTA’s record, noting, for example, the incapacity to provide audible announcements or to identify when buses will arrive. Sander said the MTA first wanted to deal with infrastructure.

Russianoff acknowledged reasons for cynicism, citing the MTA’s cost overruns and former Sen. Al D’Amato’s infamous collection of a $500,000 fee to lobby the MTA in just one phone call.

Time ran out before audience members could ask all the questions they wanted, but the final questioner asked about the influence of Moses’ philosophical antagonist, Jane Jacobs.

The influence of Jacobs, declared moderator Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association, is “lying beneath all of this.” He noted that no one is proposing new highways.

Sander pointed out that the MTA is learning from New Jersey, trying to practice “smart growth” and transit-oriented development. Schwartz said that today there’s “greater sensitivity to neighborhoods.”

What about AY?

But what would Robert Moses think of the Atlantic Yards plan? Nobody got to ask that question., but it would've been interesting to hear the answer.

After all, Schwartz was hired by developer Forest City Ratner to develop the Atlantic Yards transportation plan, though his web site curiously does not mention Atlantic Yards in the list of projects.

Russianoff’s group has joined the lawsuit against the environmental impact statement, an implicit attack on Schwartz's transportation plan, and he has warned that the project’s density “would bring more havoc to drivers and transit riders.”

Yaro's RPA, for example, has offered conditional support for Atlantic Yards while warning that comprehensive changes, including congestion pricing, were necessary to make the transportation plan work.

Moses, architectural historian Francis Morrone has said, would’ve been appalled at the lack of a coordinated traffic plan. On the other hand, said participants at a symposium last month said Moses, as a product of his time, might today support subsidies for a sports facility.

That still doesn't mean that Moses, who warned of a "China Wall of traffic" should a baseball stadium be built near Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, would've supported this project. But it would have been interesting to hear Schwartz tackle the question.

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