Projects Not Systems: Why New York Doesn’t Have a RIGO

By Cameron Gordon (Australian National University), Richard Flanagan (City University of New York), and Jonathan Peters (City University of New York)

Editor’s Note: This essay is part of the STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation colloquium.

The greater New York City region is both a substantial population and financial center in the United States, making it a highly contested political territory. Despite (and perhaps because of) its value in this regard, Cameron Gordon (Australian National University), Richard Flanagan (City University of New York), and Jonathan Peters (City University of New York) argue that intense fragmentation in the region creates hurdles to effective regionalism. Interestingly, and of particular interest to this colloquium, it is not that the New York region has failed to produce regional entities at all but that their geographical configuration and overlapping areas of influence often make coordination politically difficult. In this region, the challenge for transportation planning is less about the magnitude of jurisdictional fragmentation (which is, nonetheless, extensive) and power struggles between individual communities and more about the failure of established cross-boundary organizations to consistently perceive the region beyond their institutional boundaries. In this sense, in the New York metropolitan area, the constellation of regional actors exhibits a collective parochialism that inhibits this major hub’s ability to govern itself in sustainable, just, and prudent ways. This post highlights, using history and four case studies, how institutional legacies of partial regionalism have resulted in an inability to form a geographically broad, policy diverse, deliberative, and locally representative body (as RIGOs do) and the consequences for regional progress. This perspective provides a critical contrast to other work in this series, such as pieces by Ashcraft & Rosan and Anguelov, that emphasizes the power of informal and ad hoc approaches to complex regional problems. Taken as a group, these contributions open up the possibility that different types of regionalism may be appropriate to different types of regional problems. 

The New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-CT-PA Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area is an urban colossus. It is the largest and wealthiest metropolitan area in the nation with a population over 19 million residents and a GDP of $1.9 trillion in 2019, covering an expanse of four states, 31 counties, and 782 municipal governments (Regional Plan Association 2019; U.S. Census 2020; U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. 2020). But even a region as wealthy and storied as New York has problems. It is a territory with some of the worst commuting times in the nation. Its lengthy coastlines are vulnerable to climate change hardships, and housing and other basics are increasingly unaffordable. These facts have not escaped notice from policy influencers in the region. The leading authority in this space, the Regional Plan Association (RPA), has itemized many of Greater New York’s policy woes. RPA argues for a transformation of governance with the creation of new, regional institutions such as an infrastructure bank, a coastal commission, regional school districts, and a regional census (Regional Planning Association 2019).

The inertia and dithering stifling regional governance innovation in New York is a departure from an older tradition. In the Progressive Era, Greater New York was an early leader in regional approaches to governance. The rationale behind the creation of contemporary five-borough New York City in 1898 through the consolidation of territories around Manhattan was to improve infrastructure development and service delivery efficiency through economies of scale (Hammack 1982). Even today, the mayor of New York City has authority derived from the city’s massive budget and workforce, and the city’s regional centrality. The creation of a federally chartered bi-state entity twenty-three years after consolidation called the Port of New York Authority was a novel regional solution to manage port activities across state boundaries (Doig 2002). These two institutions in part frame regional realities today. In addition, the governors of New York and New Jersey exercise significant authority within their respective states (Benjamin and Nathan 2001). Indeed, these two governors are among the most state constitutionally empowered chief executives among the fifty states. While the Port Authority’s scope of concern in transportation, port management, and economic development crosses state borders, the New York and New Jersey governors dominate (and often spar) since they share appointment power for the Port Authority’s board members, board chairman, and executive director.

These Progressive-era innovations, combined with the unique role of the two governors, are part of a contemporary regional governance architecture that forecloses development of new institutions to tackle pressing problems. This often leads to delayed and suboptimal policy outcomes, as our case sketches will demonstrate in the remainder of the essay. These competing foci of power remained resistant to the modern regionalism movement of the 1960s and 70s documented in Rediscovering American Regionalism (Miller and Nelles 2018), and instead remained rooted to the strong governor-focused executive model that characterized the system in an earlier era. The governance problem facing the region is not only one related to institutional fragmentation married to the high costs and barriers to solving coordination problems documented by RPA, but also the policy gridlock and biased decision making resulting from the complexity of strong regional institutions of a different era operating without territorial and policy area integration with little governing capacity to tackle new problems. Countervailing power to reset relationships is unlikely, since the influence of local governments apart from the City of New York is muted. Outside of a handful of advocacy groups like RPA and other civic groups, there is little leadership to move toward regionally integrative governance and policy.

Nowhere is this competition for power clearer than in the transportation arena. The Port Authority operates some mass transit hubs, the regional airports, and many of the bridges and tunnels that connect New York with New Jersey. The Port Authority’s most famous executive director, Austin Tobin, aggressively positioned his agency to run the region’s airports and tackle economic development projects but did little to foster regional coordination outside of Port Authority projects, instead stoking rivalries with local actors. Not much has changed since then, and the lack of involvement of the region’s municipal governments, or other stakeholders, in the agency’s planning process beyond some pro forma community engagement work does not help matters (Doig 2002).

There have been attempts to provide for regional planning initiated by the federal government. State governments formed the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission in the 1960s. Its territorial scope was quite large, encompassing 24 of the region’s 31 counties. Like many regional institutions in Greater New York, state government appointees dominated the board. (The guiding hand behind its creation was Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s transportation czar William J. Ronan.) Counties and municipalities groused that it meddled in local affairs; regional proponents complained that it too readily avoided controversy, and the Tri-State dissolved in the 1980s (Barron 1982).

Federal insistence on planning as a requirement for transportation funding continued of course, and much of the region is served by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC) and the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA). These two entities do not meet the Regional Governmental Organization (RIGO) standard of multiple policy domain engagement and failed to capture the entire geography of this huge region. Like their Tri-State predecessor, NYMTC and NJTPA are creatures of the state governments. Yet another entity is the Metropolitan Area Planning Forum, a consortium of the region’s ten state-dominated metropolitan planning organizations. In transportation policy alone, there are an additional fifteen agencies in the region involved in transportation policy planning and this multiplicity only serves to fragment, not unify, regional policymaking (Derrick, Paaswell with Petretta, 2012).

Thus, the New York region carries on its long-standing tradition of adding institutions to deal with regional issues, complicating the already elaborate dance of two strong governors, the mayor of New York, powerful interest groups, and line agencies that this group of elected officials dominate. Other county and municipal governments are not active participants in the development of long-term planning systems but can often effectively exercise “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY) power by blocking regional initiatives. As a general proposition, there is little incentive to cooperate (much less coordinate) regionally, and the price of coordination is driven higher than it might be elsewhere because of institutional complexity.

The methodology under these conditions is the development of projects within the region often spearheaded by entrepreneurial public officials responding to their electoral calculations rather than the development of a comprehensive system of planning priorities. There is no doubt that projects move forward in the region, and solutions are devised after a crisis like 9/11 in 2001 or Superstorm Sandy in 2012, however imperfectly. The routine work of regional coordination that is not politically fraught like the administration of TRANSCOM, for example, the regional transportation alert and management system, continues. But the case sketches below demonstrate the great difficulty in getting things done in the New York region, and the inequitable outcomes that can result from this stagnation.

Critically Important Needs Delayed: Expanding Hudson River Tunnel Capacity

Traffic between New York City and New Jersey across the barrier of the Hudson River, both passenger and freight, has been a growing problem for the region for more than a century. In the late 1800s ferry traffic was already at a high enough level that planners saw the need for building tunnels. A decade later this traffic had grown by almost 15 percent giving impetus to build the earliest Hudson River tunnels, all of which had opened by 1910, including one into the new Pennsylvania Rail Station (Weiner and Greenberg 2018).

Traffic growth since then has been prodigious. But tunnel construction has not. As of this writing twin antiquated Hudson River rail tunnels carry 450 commuter trains a day between Manhattan to New Jersey, a chokepoint in the intercity rail system of the busy Northeast corridor (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey 2017). The tunnels are dilapidated from decades of deferred maintenance made worse from Hurricane Sandy flooding in 2012 (Yee 2015). Construction of an additional tunnel for freight and/or passenger traffic would greatly expand capacity and would allow for full restoration of the old ones. Despite decades-long support of planners and key politicians in the region, efforts to get it moving over the past generation have been unavailing, the most notable failure in 2010 when New Jersey governor Chris Christie unilaterally decided to withdraw from a deal that he claimed would leave the Garden State on the hook for cost overruns that the Federal government, and New York State, would not have to bear.

The project is expensive and complex to be sure, but it is widely recognized that failures in the current tunnels (such as a rail accident or terrorist incident) could prove catastrophic in terms of loss of life, travel, and economic disruption. Yet the project seems impossible to carry forward (Rubinstein 2013).

There are a variety of problems any project of this sort faces, cost and environmental remediation being the two largest obstacles (the bottom of the Hudson River is a Superfund site, for example) (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2021). So, this would have been a difficult project to start and finish in any case. But it also seems to be, as so often is the case in New York, that fragmentation and disagreement across various local and regional institutions, a lack of a permanent regionally integrated planning authority, and interminable clashes between interests have played a significant role in deepening the problems that an enterprise like this has.

The problems in the region actually go back centuries, all the way to the colonial period when a border between New York and New Jersey was drawn through the Hudson River in the first place. This created all sorts of political tussles and hampered early joint development and other efforts (O’Flaherty 2020). In the 20th century, these jurisdictional and institutional limitations continued in a variety of areas, expansion of Hudson River tunnel capacity not excepted. The Port Authority included a cross-harbor tunnel in its 1921 masterplan, but parochialism stymied its implementation from the outset. New York City and State officials did not trust the Authority to implement the project with the City’s best interests in mind and infighting between the State and Authority kept it from ever getting started (Rubinstein 2013).

In the 21st century, a lack of regional coordination and planning continues to bedevil the enterprise, and although there is some movement, a new tunnel is yet to be completed, and far from being done any time soon. Already mentioned was Christie’s torpedoing of what was referred to as the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project. A strong RIGO may not have prevented such a development, but a lack of it certainly allowed for more scope for such unilateralism. Indeed, the reliance of regional projects on state-government leaders and entities creates more of a “what’s in it for me” thinking.

Meanwhile, the bi-state Port Authority is more divided than regionally focused in many cases, stepping back from shepherding a tunnel project and allowing the New Jersey governor to step in precisely because of the unique dual structure of the agency. The lessons of 1921 showed the agency’s limits in regional matters, while the ARC failure showed the limits of state government action. The Port Authority itself is also not truly regional, but an independent entity whose interests sometimes accord with the region, and sometimes do not. As currently designed the Authority is far from an ideal regional champion (Schaller 2004).

Another complicating factor is that different implementation configurations of the project (e.g., exact placement of local tunnel exhaust fans) have very different types of local impacts on either side of the river, leaving many local communities offside. For example, when Michael Bloomberg ran for re-election as mayor in 2004, he opposed the project because of significant opposition in Queens, where one of the exhaust-generating intermodal terminals related to the project was proposed. Later he changed his position after being re-elected, although he didn’t do much to push the project forward either (Cargin 2005). 

The latest effort, the Gateway Program, is being led by yet another entity, neither regional nor local, namely AMTRAK (the national rail operator). This effort, focused on expanding and renovating the Northeast Corridor passenger rail service, has broad support and is making some traction. But progress is slow and most of the effort is at present focused on ancillary aspects such as the reconstruction of the Farley Post Office building as a new rail terminal. And a major regional project is once more being pushed by a special-purpose organization with relatively narrow interests (AMTRAK 2022). While these might be concordant with regional interests (as it happens), they are arguably not optimally designed for them.

Complex and expensive projects like these are always fraught with politics. But the New York City region appears to be especially handicapped by the lack of a framework or institution that can think and act regionally.

The Delayed New York City Congestion Charge

In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg launched a plan for a congestion pricing scheme for Manhattan. This cordon price was modelled on London’s scheme and would have imposed a charge for driving into Manhattan below 86th Street. The plan had a sweetener attached: a $354 million grant from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration. This plan could have significantly reduced traffic in Manhattan and raised a robust amount of revenue for the City. However, the plan died, without even a vote in the New York State Legislature (Gordon and Flanagan 2012).

Institutional fragmentation and poor coordination marked the planning stages. The City’s control over revenues raised would have been compromised, with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the Port Authority keeping revenue that they already collected on existing tolls on their respective bridges, with a big MTA windfall added from new tolls on its currently free East River connections. These public authorities are in no way controlled by any City entity, so while many drivers would find themselves paying substantial new tolls, they could not be confident that these monies would go for transportation system investments that might benefit them. This made it different from the London model, which was able to pour into its own congestion charge revenues into mass transit, guaranteed.

Additionally, the congestion charge itself could only be implemented and designed by New York government institutions even though traffic flows in from New Jersey and Connecticut. In theory, New Jersey interests were covered by the Port Authority as a major bridge and tunnel operator (and a significant transit operator as well, though proportionately less impactful). But, as noted above, in this case the Port Authority was not a useful interlocutor within the region outside the city (Peters and Gordon 2012; Schaller 2010).

Interest group politics were also difficult. Big businesses and real estate interests generally supported the plan. The Manhattan parking garage owners, on the other hand, fiercely opposed it. There were also strong splits across boroughs, especially in Queens where the residents and businesses would be paying tolls on currently free bridges. Together with institutional constraints, fragmented interests proved fatal to the scheme.

In his state of the state address announcing his legislative agenda for 2018, Governor Cuomo declared his support for a congestion pricing plan, coyly calling it an “exclusive zone in Manhattan where additional charges could be paid” (Editorial Board 2018). A gubernatorial task force quickly commenced work, but by the end of the legislative session the usual coalition of opponents mobilized to block the plan. It was not until 2019 that the plan passed. Elected in 2010, Cuomo had long ignored mass transit problems in New York City, often denying he had any influence in the matter when in fact he indirectly controlled the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) through his board appointment power. But as system performance metrics deteriorated, the press fingered Cuomo as the politician in charge. Realizing the City’s subways and buses needed revenue to fund the capital plan and keep the system in a state of good repair, Cuomo finally brought the weight of his office behind the congestion pricing plan, at least conceptually, as many practical details about charges and exemption rules have yet to be worked out. The MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) is responsible for implementation and the finer details of policy. The plan is now in a period of federal environmental review with a start date yet to be finalized.

The question is, will it really happen, or will congestion pricing once again be stymied? There is reason to think the latter. Cuomo arm-twisted legislators from New York’s suburbs and Queens with the promise that of the expected revenue generation ($1 billion year) 10% would go to the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North commuter trains with 80% of the revenue targeted to the city’s subways and buses. In the summer of 2022, the MTA empanelled a five member Traffic Mobility Review Board to hold public hearings to make recommendations to the MTA Board regarding pricing structures for congestion pricing. These significant bureaucratic steps have stiffened the resolve of many elected officials to oppose the MTA on the matter.

While the congestion pricing coalition may hold, there is strong opposition now coalescing from New Jersey. New Jersey’s mass transit systems were not included in the deal. The plan was formulated without regional participation, and an MTA entity will determine pricing and rules regarding exemptions. The Port Authority’s absence from deliberations over this plan as a mediator in this instance might prove costly. New Jersey business groups formed the Fair Congestion Pricing Alliance in 2021 arguing that the New York plan would cost Garden State residents commuting into the zone an additional $3,000 a year on top of the Hudson River tolls paid to the Port Authority. Northern New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottenheimer said at an MTA hearing that “unlike the shared Port Authority resources from the tolls that help both our states, every nickel of this new tax will go solely to the MTA” (Schaffler 2021). Gottenheimer and other members of the New Jersey congressional delegation introduced the Anti-Congestion Tax Act in 2021 in the House of Representatives. The bill would prohibit the federal Secretary of Transportation from awarding capital grants to the MTA unless New Jersey drivers were exempted from the congestion pricing charge. It also provides for tax credit relief for New Jersey drivers if the plan is enacted (Edwards 2021). New Jersey governor Phil Murphy has vowed to stop it unless New Jersey commuters get some relief. It is likely that New York governor Kathy Hochul will make the final decision about the decision to proceed and under what terms after her all but certain reelection in November 2022. She will decide either to absorb the blowback from the new fees, or figure out another way to finance mass transit in New York City.

Interest Group Power: The Number 7 Flushing Avenue Extension

In 2015, the Number 7 Flushing Avenue Line of the New York City Subway was extended west by 1.5 miles, providing service to a convention hall and a new 28 acre residential-commercial site in Manhattan Midtown West, at a cost of $2.5 billion. Leading real estate interests such as Oxford Properties and Related Companies joined up with Mayor Bloomberg’s initial ambition to build a sports stadium to host the Olympics (Fisher 2015). It was the first time the City led an effort to extend the subway track without state government help, and the mayor paid for much of it with an expensive and risky tax-increment financing plan on new development.

This is a story of a completed project, but one that favoured the interests of the mayor and developers over the equity and efficiency of an alternative extension that might have been built if more judicious regional governance regime were in place. An extension further east into the developed and dense communities east of Flushing would have made more regional sense. Only fifty-one percent of Queens residents have reasonable walking access to the subway. Flushing is much more economically and racially diverse than the new buildings at the core of the Hudson Yards project and improved service from there would have watered these “transit deserts.” Yet there was no discussion of what policy might have the most positive impact for the larger region or its transport-disadvantaged and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. An idea to extend the 7 train past West Midtown into New Jersey was discussed but never seriously considered. This would have required an unprecedented degree of collaboration among the region’s transportation agencies (McGeehan 2018). While the Port Authority would be the logical partner for a Hudson River project, there was no history of collaboration on this scale. This project was one of only four major subway system improvements in the last decade, but regional considerations were mostly ignored because of the lack of regional governance institutions, and the much louder voices of developers and their economic imperatives, and politicians and their electoral calculations. 

The Consequences of Fragmentation: The Superstorm Sandy Disaster Recovery

Superstorm Sandy devastated the region upon landfall in October 2012. The metropolitan area suffered damages totalling $63 billion with 651,000 homes damaged or destroyed (O’Neill, et. al. 2016). Recovery from one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history predictably reflected the fraught intergovernmental politics of the region, though not its best interests.

The Community Development Block Program delivered the bulk of federal aid for recovery, and it went directly to the state governors and the New York City mayor. It flowed in nearly equal amounts to New Jersey ($4.2 billion), New York State ($4.4 billion) and New York City ($4.2 billion) (Finn, Chandrasekhar and Xiao 2019).

On the ground, the “big three” — the two governors and mayor– went their own way. There was no effort to regionalize the recovery in terms of need or priorities. Governor Cuomo of New York used most of his pot of money outside of New York City emphasizing strategic retreat from the coast in areas where that proved to be cost effective. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg’s “Build It Back” program took a more aggressive approach working with displaced homeowners to rebuild or replace structures. In New Jersey, Governor Christie focused exclusively on rebuilding without a sustainability plan at all (O’Neill, Van Abs and Gramling 2016; Finn, Chandrasekhar and Xiao 2019). Each politician worked independently formulating policies reflecting their political goals and ideological commitments. While there were some bright spots in the massive recovery effort, particularly the federal government’s effort to sponsor innovative design approaches as part of the recovery effort, the “big three” governments were criticized for being unresponsive and inefficient in the allocation of funds (Honan 2019; Nurin 2014).

As grassroots planning and environmental organizations argued in the recovery period after the storm, the region needs a layered system of protection against storm surge and sea rise that would include offshore and localized barrier protection, and additional strategic retreat from the coast within a social justice framework. One planning not-for-profit active on the issue, the New Jersey Future, took note of their state government’s “official priority” to “rebuild as quickly as possible, irrespective of  future consequences,” and lamented the failure of the state government to support municipal cost/benefit analysis of climate change risk, and FEMA’s (Federal Emergency Management Agency) failure to encourage regional cooperation to achieve “sufficiently comprehensive protections” of the coastline (New Jersey Future 2015: 15-17).

The approaches of the three chief executives are debatable. But what is notable is the lack of a regional perspective in the three disparate responses as well the lack of a uniform effort to engage at the grassroots level with communities on questions related to recovery and future sustainability. New Jersey failed to provide smaller municipalities with administrative and planning support (Finn, Chandrasekhar and Xiao 2019). New York State failed to fund half of the grassroots planning and action projects they initiated with civic groups and local governments (Mehta 2021). Indeed, only a handful of affluent or resource rich municipalities in the region, like New York City and Hoboken, had the capacity to develop comprehensive protection plans, even as the harms of the storm fell disproportionately on the poor (Bailin 2014; Bowman, et. al. 2018). Class bias was at work as well. New York City’s piecemeal public works resiliency projects focused on Manhattan’s affluent commercial and residential neighbourhoods, rather than their less affluent outer-borough counterparts, and in New Jersey, coastline municipalities with small budgets and staffs could not compete in the game of competitive grantsmanship for state government grants against better resourced peers (Finn, Chandrasekhar and Xiao 2019; Sandy Regional Agenda 2013).

Inaction and Decision-Bias: The Consequences of Regional Fragmentation

In this essay we set out to explain why the nation’s largest metropolitan area does not have a RIGO. The New York metropolitan area was an early player in the regionalism movement, but its institutions remained frozen in amber even as other metropolitan areas modernized in accord with new norms and practices.

We also set out to document some of the costs associated with this fragmentation. When the region does act, as the case of the Flushing 7 subway line demonstrates, it makes a “turn” toward the interests of developers closely aligned with politicians in a tight subgovernment devoted to electoral concerns and the advantages of class rather than the concerns of economic efficiency and citizen equity. The region is not managing its risks well with inaction and delays on coastal protection, congestion pricing and infrastructure improvements, and in much of this, the most vulnerable are most likely to be harmed.

This is not to say that the region is entirely dysfunctional. There is responsiveness when long-neglected problems erupt to capture public attention and politicians move their bureaucracies into action, but this is (mostly) crisis management. There is institutional collaboration across the region in some of the routine management of government including transportation, tax collection and renewable energy development. But the region would profit from an institution that could advocate on behalf of regional efficiencies and equities. It would also profit from an institution that could provide a forum for articulating the concerns and interests within the region (such as small and mid-sized municipalities and county governments) beyond the electoral calculations of the two governors and the mayor to overcome the tendency toward a defensive NIMBYism that is characteristic of planning in the region.


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