The Real Root of Broken Infrastructure: Broken Governance

It’s time to rethink how we manage transit systems.
December 2014
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

When a pothole snags your car or a broken rail halts your morning train, it’s natural to blame the crumbly asphalt or twisted steel. But as I’ve said for many years, physical infrastructure reflects political infrastructure. And fractured infrastructure usually reflects fractured political infrastructure.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

That point was driven home anew by the recent report Getting to the Route of It. Co-published by the nonpartisan Eno Transportation Center and the TransitCenter, the report concludes that in order to have better transportation in all sectors, but particularly mass transit, we need to look more at the institutional arrangements that underlie our transportation arrangements. “The root of a problem is actually often governance, and not whatever is initially viewed as the problem,” said Eno President Joshua Schank during the report’s unveiling in New York City.

The study looks at six metropolitan areas: Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York and San Francisco. The case studies are about transit, but the analysis and diagnoses also could easily be applied to roads, water systems, power grids and any other large infrastructure systems.

They provide a revealing look into the challenges metropolitan regions face. The case studies also expose some common threads when it comes to specific fixes.

The San Francisco Bay Area, to begin, has a whopping 26 different transit systems operators, including Bay Area Rapid Transit, Caltrain and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. This is a recipe for fragmentation and disaster. It’s easy to lose count of the number of different trains and buses required to get from, say, the city of Mountain View to the San Francisco airport. But on the plus side, the Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission has in recent years been given some legal authority over funding and, therefore, some ability to help coordinate and harmonize the different agencies’ services.

With 90 miles of track, Dallas has the longest light rail network in the U.S. But its performance is suboptimal, because the various agencies in charge of Dallas Area Rapid Transit and related systems have little control over land use around stations. The state is largely uninvolved, except as an overzealous regulator.

With Chicago, Schank showed an outrageously complex chart of funding flows among transportation institutions, counties, cities, state regulators and various transit operators. “You don’t have a funding problem here, you have a governance problem,” said Schank, in a remark that I bet applies to many cities and institutions.

On a more positive note, Minneapolis and St. Paul have historically had transit systems that worked relatively well because of the coordinating power of the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning body, which has direct authority over the primary transit systems and their operations. This was going rather smoothly until the state elected a governor (Tim Pawlenty) who didn’t like transit. As it happens, the governor appoints all the Metropolitan Council’s board members. When that group turned hostile to transit, the Minnesota Legislature engineered a workaround by creating a regional board, which can fund transit on its own. But this workaround, said Schank, actually creates new institutional silos and could lead to future planning problems.

To improve these fractured structures, there are a couple of key principles. The first is that regional transportation organizations usually work better than fragmented entities -- even fragmented entities trying to cooperate. And usually some level of state involvement is necessary to create regional organizations and allow them to function effectively.

Second, those boring things called transportation boards actually matter. Boards guide the long-term direction for everything from metropolitan planning organizations to the transit operators themselves. So who serves on boards -- and who appoints those people -- matters.

The bigger point here, for me, is that once a certain type of governance has been established, it should never then be left on autopilot. In a changing world, yesterday’s solutions create today’s and tomorrow’s problems. In New York City, big independent organizations like the Port Authority, created close to a century ago to operate beyond the reach of politics, have now become a problem because they are, well, outside of politics. They’re unresponsive to the electorate.

My simple principle is that users of important systems should have direct lines to elected officials who have primary authority over essential systems. In the long run, this will keep those systems running more efficiently and effectively because there will be a single point of coordination and accountability.

Of course that’s a big challenge -- and perhaps an impossibility -- for large metro infrastructure systems. Take one example that’s not covered by the report: The perennial dream of a high-speed rail network linking Boston and Washington, D.C. The reason we don’t have it isn’t because of the physical challenges (although those are not minor). It’s because trying to coordinate a president, Congress, multiple governors, and numerous big cities and small localities is very difficult.

Governance issues are more difficult in this country because of the way government was set up here. We have layers -- federal, state, county and local. Each of those is also layered -- executive, legislative and judicial.

Mix into that all the public authorities and other transit planning organizations, whose lines to each layer of government are often very hard to trace, and you can see why things are a mess. Sorting and coordinating among all these layers needs to be a top priority. That goes for transit systems across the U.S. and, really, for any system that provides key goods and services to taxpayers.