Editor’s Note: In 2008, Mayor Michael Nutter established the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities–MOTU–and named former PennDOT chief Rina Cutler to lead it. Now, five years on, MOTU is celebrating its accomplishments, among them hundreds of miles of bike lanes, bike signage, improvements to water treatment, reengineering of traffic signals on key corridors, and a significant increase in the rate of recycling citywide. The office made substantial progress in energy efficiency across City owned buildings, helped pioneer the Green City, Clean Waters partnership with the Water Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and began to implement a “complete streets” policy, with an emphasis on diversity of transit options (for MOTU’s full five year report, click HERE). “There are so many things we’re proud of,” says Cutler. “Most are game-changers we’ve done without creating an uproar. We do our homework, look at consequences, partner with stakeholders (and mean it), and manage the politics of change.”
Last week, Hidden City’s Nathaniel Popkin sat down with Cutler and MOTU chief of staff Andrew Stober to talk about these accomplishments, the ongoing push to get the State House of Representatives to authorize transportation and infrastructure appropriations (and SEPTA’s necessary reduction in service if it doesn’t happen) and her office’s long-term vision for infrastructure investment. The conversation follows on one between Popkin and Cutler in December, 2011.
Nathaniel Popkin: With the transportation appropriations bill passed by the State Senate and stuck in the House for political reasons, SEPTA has presented a “doomsday budget.” What’s to say that isn’t going to come to fruition?
Rina Cutler: I guess I don’t view what SEPTA put forth as a doomsday budget. Most people think it was meant to scare people but I don’t think that’s true. SEPTA does a really good job managing its assets. You only have three choices when it comes to aging infrastructure: fix something, close something, or let it fall down. The question is–how much will be appropriated to keep infrastructure in working order and when does it happen? This goes back to what SEPTA put forth, which I took seriously. If there is no money to fix bridges to run lines on them, I can’t run them. How long we’ve starved infrastructure–it’s based on some notion we don’t have to pay to fix things.
Most people realize what would happen if the system shrank, went bus only, or stopped operating. You might see bridges and structures close–the system will have to shrink: if you have a bridge that can’t be repaired, you can’t use it. You have to pay to fix the system or you need to shut it down. The City will start to enforce weight restrictions on bridges. The situation will start impacting economics, and it’s not like the economy is that strong anyway. The level of poverty requires us to put people to work.
It’s short-sighted of officials not to recognize the economic benefit of transit. If you tell me I can’t use transit, I will find a way to move around. But you can’t manage an economic system that way, you can’t manage traffic, the flow of people. Every term we say we’ve got to keep transit out of the partisan ditch–it gets worse and worse. Transportation is not a Democratic or Republican issue!
NP: But you’ve proven to be resourceful.
RC: You beg, plead, you seek out leadership where you can find it. You seek out people to have a rational conversation. We’re hopeful to have a transportation funding bill, it’s difficult to believe it won’t happen in some form or fashion. I would say I am hopeful that enough people understand the problem and thus show some leadership to effect the outcome. Very clearly the SEPTA board, of which I am a proud member, is very engaged in this funding issue. The board–Democrat and Republican–is all running in the same direction; we all have relationships, we are very much engaging with those folks. It’s a united effort.
Transit is the biggest loser if this bill doesn’t go through, but I’ve got a lot of the pieces–roads, multi-modal transportation, airport, bridges. Transit is the most important because it’s the most partisan, but the entire bill matters very much to the city. Over 80 percent of SEPTA’s riders are city residents. There is enough money in the transit side of the bill to make sure there’s not an upheaval in the system.
NP: One of your accomplishments has been to pay stronger attention to other modes of transit, feet and bicycles most predominantly, but also air travel. Bike infrastructure is on the rise and next year at this time you’ll be unveiling Philly Bike Share. With 24 cities in the U.S. already operating bike share, we’re coming to this a few years later. So what will distinguish it?
Andrew Stober: What’s going to distinguish Philly is opportunity to have the most socially and economically inclusive system. [According to an article in DNAInfo New York published today, in New York, the poor aren’t using bike share.] Most cities don’t have poor people within three miles of the main economic hub (our planned system will go from the Navy Yard to Temple University, the Delaware out to 52nd Street); no group needs economical transportation options more than low-income folks. We’re going to start to identify what the barriers are to using a system like this–and we’ve learned [from other cities] that giving away free passes doesn’t work. Already, our transit system is very inexpensive. If cost is a barrier it can be looked at. But from our offices in the MSB we can’t assume what the barriers are.
RC: One day, we might be able to use our bike share payment system in NY, Boston, Baltimore–so that the corridor is integrated. I also have interest in the new SEPTA electronic fare system integrating with bike share and in the long term with parking. Folks shouldn’t have to carry multiple cards to access the transit network.
NP: Which of course brings us to the next big thing–SEPTA’s new electronic fare system. I have to admit I don’t understand any of it and I’m confused about why they want to keep charging for transfers and putting caps on the number of rides.
RC: Our transit system is highly complicated. We’re the only one with subway, bus, light rail, train, and trolley. And no agency ever does electronic payment on regional rail. How difficult it is to manage fare zones among five modes of transit! But we see electronic fare payment as a transit and a social justice issue. Getting as many people around for as little out of their pockets is the goal, but it is so complicated in terms of the payment network and how you make it easy for people. How do you manage transfers and all five modes? How do you judge zones? Is there a base fare for zone one? All these decisions are happening–it’s all still in flux. You don’t want to operate at a financial loss.
Because there is a tendency to beat SEPTA up, there’s some sense that we won’t get it as best we can. We very much have to do this in an evolution not revolution way. We very much decided to take a little at a time to prove the concept, ensure safety. Along the way we’re proving it to work, we have brought together constituencies to make it work.
AS: One of the challenges is that the existing fare structure gives very good value, especially for pass users, and that’s the majority of riders. If you have free transfers you have to raise the base fare. SEPTA is on the leading edge of next generation payment technology. They made the right choice not to buy into a proprietary system. Technology is always evolving. Some of the policy decisions involve trying to figure out what the technology will do. One of the reasons it’s not out–it’s not baked yet.
NP: In your five year report, you list five projects under “What’s Next?” Among them, in order: Amtrak service to PHL, high speed rail to New York in 45 minutes, light rail or Bus Rapid Transit along the Boulevard and/or to service the Parkway and Fairmount Park, subway to the Navy Yard, an “aerotropolis”–“a thriving regional center that capitalizes upon the airport’s capacity to move millions of people every year to expand the region’s economic engine.”
RC: They are all of them both immediate and ongoing. And yes, we are talking about all of them.
AS: They are all balls in the air. A whole variety of factors in the long run will influence what proposals go. There are economic and external factors beyond planners’ control. When the US Airways and American Airlines merger goes through, it could be a catalyst for aerotropolis. At the Navy Yard, if you see continual growth in combination with federal transit bill that looks at building on existing assets, that’s the kind of situation the kind of that could push something forward.
RC: There’s much to be done in the last two years of Nutter administration. We’ve been successful at linking agencies, coordinating a master plan for 30th Street with Amtrak, Drexel, and Penn. You have to get enough people of that stature pushing forward for a goal. It depends on those outside factors, but these things are mostly dependent on these strategic partnerships.
High speed rail: people say to me never in your lifetime. I say I’m not prepared to say that. I am an absolute believer that high speed rail will happen. I was in Budapest and I’m thinking to myself, I’m in Hungary and I’m riding high speed rail. How can it not happen here?