Nobody at the Wheel

Grim news awaits public projects and the professionals who want to contract for them. Even when New York gets its state government back, the state will be operating without permanent chiefs at its key transportation and development agencies. That impasse, while more bureaucratic in nature than the June 8 coup in the state senate, means little is likely to occur on major development initiatives until 2011

Governor David Paterson
FOrmer MTA Director Elliott Sander
Former Development Chief MArisa LavGo
Courtesy New York State; NY1; Tracy Collins

Well before Governor David Paterson lost control of the senate, many of his appointees had already fled their positions. Today, the heads of New York State’s Department of Transportation, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Empire State Development Corporation are all working under interim status. MTA executive director Elliott G. Sander quit hours after the state legislature narrowly approved a flawed bailout package on May 7. The ESDC’s chief, Marisa Lago, stepped down on June 6. Both agencies steer the fate of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards, two stalled development sites, and of broader transit spending.

The rush to the exits, said Regional Plan Association analyst Neysa Pranger, “is coming at a very bad time,” since Congress will draft a new appropriations plan for federal transportation grants this fall, and the state will vote on long-term capital plans around the same time. “For the MTA, there aren’t that many candidates out there who qualify, and it’s even harder because the governor is not attractive to work for right now.”

Assuming that the senate resumes its business by early July, it remains doubtful that any of these agencies will have a new head before the gubernatorial election in 2010. Longtime Albany-watchers hesitate even to toss out names. Howard Roberts, head of New York City Transit, scores high marks from advocates. (So did Sander.) Transit chiefs from San Francisco and Atlanta, also well-regarded, seem unlikely to accept a job that may end with Paterson’s in January 2011.

This means big projects will continue without the expertise or the leadership to make them quick or transparent. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Group and head of the Straphangers Campaign, said the refinancing of Atlantic Yards, approved at an MTA board meeting on June 24, will probably be as opaque as any deal the MTA cut before the reformist Sander arrived. Russianoff said interim head Helena Williams seems interested in transparency, but also lacks authority to impose it. “She has limited wiggle room,” Russianoff explained.

Taken further, this stasis hurts the region. When lawmakers vote on capital plans, they may privilege roads and bridges over transit. Deals like the East Side Access project to bring Long Island Railroad commuters to Grand Central Terminal have stalwart advocates and will survive. But the absence of persuasive managers will shrink the scope of transit and transit-focused development, say experts. “The federal dance that goes on requires somebody with the ability to look ahead,” said Pranger. That quality is lacking in Paterson’s Albany.

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

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