Effective Collaboration in an Unlikely Place

A 16-agency coalition in the New York City area offers lessons for other regions.
December 21, 2017
Highway traffic leaving New York City.
Traffic leaving New York City. (Shutterstock)
By Philip Mark Plotch  |  Contributor
Director of the master of public administration program at Saint Peter's University
By Jen Nelles  |  Contributor
A visiting associate professor in the Department Urban Public Policy at Hunter College

The New York City metropolitan area has achieved something that has been often sought, but rarely found, in American metropolitan politics: effective and sustained cooperation between local agencies across state lines.

The region's 16 largest transportation and public-safety agencies are members of the three-decade-old Transportation Operations Coordinating Committee, known as TRANSCOM. Its achievements offer important lessons, because if a such coalition can succeed in one of the world's most politically complex environments -- one encompassing three states, 31 counties and 783 municipalities -- it can work anywhere.

Although the New York region's highways are congested up to 14 hours a day, its transportation system performs remarkably well considering that on a typical weekday 3.8 million people -- more than the population of 21 states -- travel into a 9-square-mile central business district.

TRANSCOM was created in 1987 to coordinate responses to crippling traffic and mitigate transportation incidents. It serves as a clearinghouse for transportation information, so that when an incident occurs on one facility other public agencies can take appropriate actions and not be blindsided by sudden shifts in demand.

A remarkable feature of TRANSCOM is that its members can withdraw from the coalition at any time. For three decades, though, its members have continued paying their annual dues, sharing travel information and adjusting their construction activities to meet regional needs. They have done so on a purely voluntary basis, in accordance with TRANSCOM's bylaws which require that all key policy decisions be approved by unanimous consent.

After spending a year studying TRANSCOM, we have come away with five valuable lessons that can help other regions develop sustainable coalitions:

Lesson 1: A coalition should stick to a clear and focused mission. TRANSCOM focuses on information and coordination initiatives that are most efficiently and effectively done collectively. TRANSCOM's leaders have a very keen sense of the boundaries of the organization's mission and value; they play the role of facilitators rather than leaders or actors.

Lesson 2: It must provide clear benefits to its members. The coalition has stayed together because one transportation agency's success depends on the services of other agencies. As former TRANSCOM's executive director Matt Edelman says, "No matter how high minded the goals of a coalition, and no matter how much lip service its leadership may pay to these goals, no coalition can stay together if it is just built on a sense of obligation."

Lesson 3: It shouldn't impinge on its members' autonomy. TRANSCOM's members own and maintain control over their own transportation-management centers and the equipment they use to collect and disseminate information. TRANSCOM makes suggestions about how an agency should notify travelers about delays, but the agencies themselves decide what information they will share, how they will share it and when they will do so. TRANSCOM's policy is to distribute information that agencies request to be distributed, even if TRANSCOM thinks the information might not be completely accurate.

Lesson 4: No one has to be "in charge" for a regional coalition to function effectively. Often it is this very lack of centralized authority that creates an environment in which different jurisdictions are willing to cooperate. TRANSCOM has been able to coordinate construction projects because the member agencies accommodate each other -- not because the agency has any authority to compel coordination but because it has demonstrated the benefits and facilitated the process. Agencies know that their own future activities will require the cooperation of others, and they act accordingly to minimize impacts.

Lesson 5: The coalition should let others get the credit. The TRANSCOM staff has successfully promoted its achievements to the agencies that pay its bills while keeping an unusually low public profile. TRANSCOM's website posts very little information about the coalition's work, and its members appreciate that TRANSCOM's staff encourages the individual agencies to take credit for the coalition's accomplishments.

These lessons are timely. While many citizens and local officials appreciate the advantages of consolidating and merging local-government services, they are resistant to giving up local control. A coalition like TRANSCOM can successfully offer widespread benefits at a modest cost without impinging upon the autonomy of jurisdictions and agencies.