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Mitigating Gridlock: Lessons on Regional Governance from the Organization that Keeps New York Moving

Philip Mark Plotch and Jen Nelles

Abstract

The literature on metropolitan governance is replete with examples of collaborative efforts that have fallen short of expectations and grim prognoses of the potential for voluntary forms of regional governance. This article analyzes something often sought, and rarely found, in American metropolitan politics: successful, effective, and sustained interjurisdictional and interagency cooperation. TRANSCOM, a non-profit transportation organization, stands out as an instance of successful collective cooperation. Operating behind the scenes in one of the world’s most politically fragmented metropolitan areas, its secret has been (a) engaging and building upon a clear and focused mission; (b) demonstrating organizational legitimacy by providing tangible benefits to members; (c) executing its mission without impinging on members’ organizational autonomy; (d) creatively tapping into available resources; (e) sustaining buy-in by developing strong relationships with members; and (f) seeking out champions and empowering decisive and strategic leadership.

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Introduction

1The literature on metropolitan governance is replete with examples of collaborative efforts that have fallen short of expectations and grim prognoses of the potential for voluntary forms of regional governance (Norris 2001b, Hamilton 2014, Weir et al. 2009). As such, an analysis of successful cooperation in one of the world’s most politically fragmented metropolitan areas has the potential to add a good deal to our understanding of how to seed and sustain regional collaboration.

2The New York City metropolitan area is not exactly known for the smooth flow of its vehicular traffic. In fact, most residents complain about jammed arterials, backups at its tunnel and bridge crossings, and crowded public transportation services. But the region moves. What few New Yorkers are aware of is the complex, but coordinated, network of actors that work quietly behind the scenes to keep people and goods in motion, rain or shine, day in and day out.

3The region has three of the nation’s busiest airports, the largest seaport on the east coast, and more than 2/3 of the nation’s rail riders. Remarkably, 1.4 million vehicles cross its waterways on a typical weekday and over 3.9 million people – more than the population of 21 states – travel into New York City’s nine-square mile central business district on a typical business day (NYMTC 2015).

4New York, home to four of the nation’s most congested highways, does not just have a rush hour problem – it battles congestion 12 to 14 hours each weekday (Partnership for New York City 2006). Its roadways do not just serve cars; a single lane approaching the Lincoln Tunnel carries more than 1,800 buses on weekday mornings.

5Since most New Yorkers live or work on an island, its river crossings act as choke points where numerous approach roads converge. One incident can ripple across the region because the crossings operate at capacity during peak periods. Before traffic coordination was institutionalized, an August 1980 traffic jam – caused by a breakdown on one of Manhattan’s bridges –caused massive tie-ups from New Jersey to New York’s Hudson Valley, more than 80 miles away (Andelman 1980).

6Traffic does not just affect commuters. It also delays the delivery of products to airports, ambulances to nursing homes, equipment to movie sets, and concrete to work sites. Backups in the region affect trucks traveling from Buffalo to Long Island, Pennsylvania to Connecticut, and Maine to Florida. Providing a reliable transportation network is a critical economic issue because it allows the metropolitan area to attract and retain firms, workers, residents, and visitors.

7With traffic extremely sensitive to inclement weather, construction, accidents, and large events – the consequences of poor coordination between the multiple agencies that manage transportation in the region can be dire. During incidents, the transportation system can only function effectively when its transportation agencies and travelers are aware of real-time conditions. Vehicles heading towards closed or severely congested roadways can overwhelm local roads and create unsafe conditions. Given the network’s sensitivity and relatively few alternatives, the transportation agencies need to notify travelers so they can avoid certain crossings or even the entire region.

8In 1986, an organization called the Transportation Operations Coordinating Committee, TRANSCOM, was created with the central aim to enable regionally coordinated responses to crippling traffic and to enact solutions to mitigate these incidents as much as possible. The agency, which currently unites sixteen transportation agencies from three states, is still active today and is regarded by many transportation experts around the world as a model for metropolitan transportation management.

9An analysis of TRANSCOM reveals something sought, and rarely found, in American metropolitan politics: successful, effective, and sustained interjurisdictional and interagency cooperation.

10This article asks: what lessons can we learn from an instance of successful organizational coordination in a metropolitan area, and how transferrable are these lessons to other jurisdictions, and other policy areas? We argue that TRANSCOM’s experience provides some useful guidance to other organizations seeking to establish cooperation across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. TRANSCOM has been able to sustain effective cooperation by: (a) engaging and building upon a clear and focused mission; (b) demonstrating organizational legitimacy by providing tangible benefits to members; (c) executing its mission without impinging on members’ organizational autonomy; (d) creatively tapping into available resources; (e) sustaining buy-in by developing strong relationships with members; and (f) seeking out champions and empowering decisive and strategic leadership.

11In outlining the foundations of TRANSCOM’s success to date, this analysis makes an obvious contribution to the literature on transportation operations and coordination organizations (Sytematics 2005, Briggs and Jasper 2001, DeBlasio 2000, Gifford and Stalebrink 2002, Lam and Miller 2002, Federal Highway Administration 2003, 2000). However, we argue that these lessons are generalizable enough to enrich discussions of broader inter-jurisdictional and interagency collaboration in metropolitan areas – particularly, to the extent that perceived challenges to local autonomy and reluctance to devoting scarce local resources to collective action are often barriers to metropolitan partnerships (Nelles 2012a, Hulst and van Montfort 2007).

12This article outlines the emergence of TRANSCOM, and how it stands out as an instance of successful collective action. We then list the core lessons we gleaned from extensive interviews with TRANSCOM’s institutional members, individuals that have at various points been involved in the partnership, and of public sources. Significantly, the organization has overcome important challenges and is currently in the throes of a critical phase of adjustment and reinvention. In the section following the lessons, we reflect on these challenges and what they might mean for the future of the partnership. Finally, the article critically elaborates on the potential for, and limits, of applying these lessons beyond the narrow confines of traffic and transportation coordination in the New York metropolitan area.

13What is successful, effective, and sustained cooperation?

14Two general indicators are used to assess coalition effectiveness. Internal coalition functioning measures how well coalition building actions have been executed, while external community-level changes measure results from strategic actions implemented by coalitions (Zakocs and Edwards 2006). TRANSCOM has succeeded in both of these indicators.

15Internally, TRANSCOM’s membership has been remarkably steady and has recorded only one departure since its inception. Its members have affirmed their support for more than three decades by paying their annual dues and the U.S. Department of Transportation continues to provide federal grants for TRANSCOM’s ongoing efforts. Moreover, TRANSCOM has evolved to meet changing markets and new technologies. Externally, numerous interviews and articles confirm that TRANSCOM has succeeded in sharing real-time transportation information, reducing traffic impacts, and pre-empting traffic delays (Briggs and Jasper 2001, Lam and Miller 2002, Bermanet al. 2004, USDOT 2017). TRANSCOM has allowed its members – some more than others – to reduce their costs, enhance their productivity, and provide better information to their customers.

Literature Review: Why is successful, effective, and sustained cooperation so elusive (in theory and in practice)?

16Cross-boundary, inter-municipal, and inter-organizational cooperation can be extremely difficult to implement for a whole host of reasons. As a result, the search for “best practices” and for insights into how to overcome barriers to cooperation occupies a large swath of regional governance and organizational theory literature. One framework argues that while the specific factors that influence the evolution of partnerships are varied they can be arrayed, in any given instance, on a spectrum of whether they principally influence the capacity of actors to engage in cooperation or their willingness to partner (Alcantara and Nelles 2016, Nelles 2012a).

17At heart of the discussion of why partnerships emerge and are sustainable is the question of what conditions compel actors to sacrifice some degree of their own operational autonomy and, usually, resources to a collective endeavor. Most of the barriers to collective action discussed within this literature fit into one of the following categories: institutions, resources, external intervention, history; and civic capital. These first two are more likely to affect capacity and the last three are more likely to affect the willingness of actors. The following is a brief summary of these five factors.

Institutions

18Institutions are the rules that govern the ways in which actors can collaborate. In the United States, local authorities prefer self-organizing arrangements that maximize their own freedom to act – including entering or exiting partnerships – while retaining access to collective benefits (for a selection, see: Norris 2001b, a, Feiock 2009, Ostrom et al. 1961, Savitch and Vogel 2000, Howell-Moroney 2008, Weir et al. 2005). Norris (2001a: 561) even goes so far as to state that “nowhere do local governments in American metropolitan areas, or their constituencies, show a willingness to forgo their independence or autonomy, even on the margins, to produce governance capable of addressing area wide issues authoritatively.” Actors come to the table with different incentive structures and abilities, each of which can affect the effectiveness of an organization to build consensus and implement agendas. For example, elected officials tend to be risk averse, act in protection of their incumbency, and are more prone to parochialism than administrators (Frederickson 1999, Agranoff and McGuire 2003, Miller 2000, Feiock 2007, 2009, Matkin and Frederickson 2009). Furthermore, as Olson (1965) and others point out, the larger the group the more difficult collective action is likely to be to establish and sustain.

Resources

19Financial, personnel, and time resources of participants constrain the actors’ capacity and willingness to partner. Generally speaking, partnerships that impinge the least on member resources, especially initially, are easier to establish (Kwon and Feiock 2010, Hawkins and Carr 2015, Basolo 2003). Relatedly, members are often more likely to cooperate if they perceive that resources are being fairly demanded from all members and benefits proportionally shared (Bel and Warner 2015, Leroux and Carr 2007) and when the costs of monitoring the partnership are lower (Feiock 2007). Actors must perceive that by entering into a coalition, they are able to gain access to resources, outcomes, or opportunities that they might not otherwise access, or mitigate costs that would otherwise be incurred (Hoornbeek et al. 2016, Feiock 2007).

External Intervention

20External factors – such as a natural disaster or changes in policy at different levels of government – affect the likelihood of the emergence of cross-boundary partnerships by either affecting the incentives of actors to participate (e.g. a disaster may prompt actors to pool resources for recovery) or by imposing requirements for partnership (e.g. government funding only accessible to regional partnerships may encourage actors to collaborate) (Nelles 2012b). These factors ultimately affect the consequences that actors face if they choose to act collectively or not.

History

21The nature of relationships between regional actors shapes their willingness to work together. A history of antagonism between actors can obviously hamper collaboration, while a history of success in previous partnerships can encourage the development and deepening of future cooperation. Public administration scholarship highlights the characteristics of the relationships between individual managers in addition to organizational histories (LeRoux 2013, Hawkins 2009).

Civic Capital

22Civic capital is the degree to which members of a region share a perception of what that region is, consider themselves to be a part of that community, and have an interest in the well-being of that community (Nelles 2012a, Potapchuk and Crocker Jr 1999, Wagner 2004). In places where members share a cohesive vision of the region, there is a greater likelihood that collaboration will occur. This intangible resource can be leveraged by leadership and civic entrepreneurs (Henton and Melville 1997) and is usually characterized by strong civic networks and deep reservoirs of trust (Thibert 2015, Nelles 2012a). Crucially, strong leaders championing partnerships can be instrumental in initiating cooperation and keeping it on track.

23These five factors derived from the literature on regional governance, organizational theory and public administration literature helps to explain why cooperation has been so difficult to achieve in the New York metropolitan region. From the large number of actors (Wood 1961), to power asymmetries between actors (Danielson and Doig 1982), to the politically fragmented nature of the bi-state region (Doig 2001), the institutional environment alone is extraordinarily complex. The field of public transportation and regional transportation management has also been particularly politically fraught in the region (Plotch 2015, Doig 1966). As such, any partnership that has managed to survive and thrive in this environment is worth studying in more detail. The remainder of this paper delves into TRANSCOM’s experience and pulls out lessons for other regions.

Research Methodology

24Our aim in this article is to profile a successful regional partnership and draw lessons that might be applicable to existing and nascent collaborative initiatives. The regional partnership’s success was gauged by whether it has achieved its mission and the stability of its membership.

25This article required a qualitative research case study approach because it explains the complex relationship between people and the institutions they represent. When complex social behavior is involved in a persistently problematic research area, in-depth case studies can reveal new aspects of potential solutions (Punch 1998). The major strength of case studies is their ability to take advantage of multiple sources of evidence such as interviews, documents, and observations (Yin 2003). Here we employ the case study of TRANSCOM to provide a deep description of the structure and experiences of a notable instance of inter-organizational cooperation from its creation to the present day. We attempt to mitigate the drawbacks of this approach by aligning our findings with existing literature in the final analytical section.

26We chose TRANSCOM because it stands out in a region with a high degree of both functional and geographical fragmentation. The New York metropolitan area, with a population of more than 20 million people covers three states, 31 counties and almost 800 towns, villages, and cities (Yaro and Hiss 1996). There are few areas of formal ongoing cooperation between the three states. In his book 1400 Governments, Robert Coldwell Wood calls the region “one of the great unnatural wonders of the world”; an interrelationship of governments “perhaps more complicated than any other that mankind has yet contrived or allowed to happen” (Wood 1961: 1). Several attempts to develop tri-state public entities have failed (Plotch 2015), and aside from TRANSCOM, the three states do not operate any services together nor do they jointly develop regional transportation plans. Besides TRANSCOM’s unique role in a challenging environment, we also chose TRANSCOM because our previous professional experience gave us access and insight that we would not have had at other institutions.

27Between June 2016 and December 2016, we conducted 19 in-depth interviews with a wide range of people who could provide insight into TRANSCOM’s work. The interviewees included members of TRANSCOM’s board of trustees, its technology and operations committee, and its construction coordination committee. We talked to current and former TRANSCOM staff including the executive director, former executive director, engineers, project managers, planners, chief financial officer, as well as consultants retained by TRANSCOM. Table 1 lists 12 cited interviewees who also agreed to be identified.

Table 1: List of selected interviewees

Name of the interview partner

Date of interview

Batz, Tom

Interview November 22, 2016

Bruce, Jacqueline

Phone interview, June 13, 2016

Dwyer, Peter

Phone interview, June 9, 2016

Edelman, Matt

Phone interview, June 14, 2016

Edwards, Don

Phone interview, June 16, 2016

Morecock Eddy, Martha

Phone interview, June 2, 2016

Motiani, Dhanesh

Phone interview, June 28, 2016

Philmus, Ken

Phone interview, June 29, 2016

Szeglin, Chris

Phone interview, November 28, 2016

Wagenblast, Bernie

Phone interview, June 6, 2016

Weinstein, Michael

Phone interview, June 16, 2016

Yermack, Larry

Phone interview, June 7, 2016

Source: authors.

28We interviewed a cross-section of TRANSCOM coalition members from highway, toll roads and public transportation agencies representing small and large transportation agencies in both urban and suburban areas. The interviewees had roles at various organizational levels including staff, managerial and executive. To ensure that we approached our subject critically, we sought the perspectives of those we knew to be supporters of TRANSCOM, and those who have been privately critical of the organization. To understand how TRANSCOM has evolved and the challenges it is currently facing, we interviewed people who currently work with TRANSCOM as well those who worked with TRANSCOM in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000, and 2010s.

29In each interview, we asked about TRANSCOM’s successes, failures, and weaknesses. We also asked about TRANSCOM’s benefits to individual agencies and the region, how traveler information was shared and used, sources of tension, and instances when members threatened to leave the coalition. When talking to individuals with insight into TRANSCOM’s finances, we asked about issues relating to membership dues, federal grants, and efforts to sell information and services.

30We triangulated qualitative data by integrating interviews with several types of documents. The first focused on TRANSCOM and transportation in the New York area. These documents included academic, government and news articles about TRANSCOM’s traveler information, coordination efforts, strategic plans, finances, and technology initiatives. Many of the findings in these documents were based upon information obtained from dozens of interviews with TRANSCOM staff and its coalition members. The second type of document consisted of academic and government reports relating to TRANSCOM’s mission including traffic management, construction coordination, traveler information services, and intelligent transportation systems. We also consulted the broader academic literature on inter-local partnerships, metropolitan governance, and traffic management systems.

Coordination in a fragmented metropolis

31The New York metropolitan area’s complex transportation system is operated and maintained by state, county, and municipalities as well as large quasi- governmental institutions including the New York State Thruway Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and the New Jersey Transit Corporation. According to one former senior state transportation official, with all the transportation agencies and institutional problems “you couldn’t design a worse scenario” (Plotch 2015). The region does not have a single agency that considers transportation policies for the region as a whole. Rather than asking what the region needs to remain globally competitive, its powerful transportation agencies pursue strategies to advance their own missions (Paaswell and Berechman 2007). This situation is one of the most complex environments in the country in which to establish cooperation. The existence of a durable and successful partnership is, therefore, remarkable and worth digging into.

32Although the states and municipalities fiercely compete with each other, cooperation is possible and does happen on occasions. TRANSCOM stands out for its ongoing interagency cooperation on region-wide issues. It is a coalition of 16 transportation operations and public safety agencies in the New York metropolitan region whose members include highway and transit agencies, state police, as well as city and state transportation departments (see Figure 1). More than 100 other entities including local governments, fire and police departments, and emergency service organizations participate in TRANSCOM’s activities (Briggs and Jasper 2001).

Figure 1: TRANSCOM members (current to September 2017)

Figure 1: TRANSCOM members (current to September 2017)

Source: TRANSCOM

33TRANSCOM’s history dates back to 1984, when the region’s disparate transportation agencies were criticized for high-profile traffic jams. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey brought the region’s transportation agencies together to discuss coordinating information. As a bi-state agency with vast resources, the Port Authority was well-positioned to lead a regional effort. It also understood the advantages of inter-agency cooperation. Just one of its river crossings, the George Washington Bridge, carries approximately 300,000 vehicles per day and sits at the intersection of 15 major roadways operated by six different jurisdictions (Briggs and Jasper 2001).

34After decades of highway expansion, the transportation agencies had become constrained from adding additional capacity by the 1980s. To improve the quality and efficiency of their services, they had to turn to operational improvements. The Port Authority agreed to establish an operations information center and in 1986, the agencies signed a formal agreement delineating TRANSCOM’s responsibilities and financial agreements. Funding to operate the center came from each of TRANSCOM’s members, who agreed to pay dues based roughly on their size.

35TRANSCOM serves the traveling public in three important ways: by sharing traffic and transit incident information across agencies; by facilitating construction schedule coordination; and by facilitating interagency communication in advance of events that could potentially impact travel (e.g. weather, major sporting events, etc.).

36TRANSCOM’s day-to-day information sharing role provides relevant data to every agency potentially affected by an incident. When a transportation problem occurs, an agency contacts TRANSCOM which then notifies the media as well as other transit, highway, and law enforcement agencies. Once TRANSCOM notifies transportation and law enforcement officials of traffic and transit delays, the relevant agencies can take the following types of actions: adjust traffic signal timing, curtail ongoing construction, add facility staff at toll plazas, deploy traffic officers, and modify transit services. Transportation agencies can disseminate travel information via their electronic signs, automated phone systems and highway advisory radio stations. In addition, the media can use TRANSCOM data to notify drivers via web sites, mobile phone apps, and broadcast radio.

37TRANSCOM also shares transportation data in non-emergency situations through a data and video network that allows member agencies access to each other’s real-time information. Moreover, TRANSCOM monitors highway sensors to determine real-time average speeds on roadways, and operates a “Data Fusion Engine” that aggregates real-time and historical information from agency and private data sources (Batz et al. 2015). Sharing information ensures that partner agencies are not blindsided by sudden shifts in demand.

38TRANSCOM’s second most important job is to pre-empt traffic delays by coordinating construction projects. The transportation agencies regularly meet at TRANSCOM’s Jersey City office where they discuss planned construction projects. This helps the agencies avoid simultaneous construction work on parallel roads and minimize the traffic impacts of their own work. Michael Weinstein, who has worked with TRANSCOM in various capacities, explained another benefit of TRANSCOM’s construction coordination. Originally, the meetings were set up to avoid simultaneous construction, but agencies have found simultaneous work sometimes has its benefits. For example, when one agency needs to close a lane for construction, another agency can take advantage of that opportunity by repairing a lane that approaches the construction. The two agencies can save resources by putting down and picking up traffic safety cones at the same time, while only closing a lane once.

39Finally, TRANSCOM helps facilitate coordination between its member agencies and, if necessary, outside agencies ahead of foreseeable transportation-related events. For instance, as Superstorm Sandy approached in October of 2012 TRANSCOM was involved in extensive conference calls, connecting its members with neighboring agencies up and down the east coast to coordinate emergency responses and prioritize the clearing of key routes. Similar calls also take place prior to major public events that are likely to be disruptive to regular traffic and transit flows.

40The chief executive officer of each member agency serves on TRANSCOM’s Board of Trustees, which meets three times per year to approve all policies, procedures and plans. These decisions are taken by consensus. In addition, a technology and operations committee, consisting of top management personnel from the member agencies, provides recommendations to the Executive Committee on budget, operating, and technology issues.

41TRANSCOM has been remarkably durable. Its decades of service, the stability of its membership, and its members’ overall satisfaction with its effectiveness (see figure 2) are testaments to the organization’s ability to coordinate across jurisdictional and political boundaries. Thus, TRANSCOM’s experience navigating the complexities of regional transportation coordination yields important lessons for similar organizations, and for other forms of regional partnership.

Figure 2: TRANSCOM benefits as described by stakeholders

Figure 2: TRANSCOM benefits as described by stakeholders

Source: authors.

Lessons for regional governance

42The following sections detail six broad lessons that emerged from our research (see Table 2). It is followed by a description of the major obstacles that TRANSCOM has faced and the challenges to its existence that are now looming.

Table 2: TRANSCOM's lessons for regional governance

Lesson

Summary

Lesson 1

Engage and build upon a clear and focused mission: Keep core functions consistent and ensure that organizational evolution serves those goals.

Lesson 2

Provide tangible benefits to members: Make sure that members experience clear value from the partnership and continuously “sell” those benefits.

Lesson 3

Execute the mission without impinging on members' autonomy: Organizations can be effective without centralized authority. Persuasive leadership can build consensus.

Lesson 4

Creatively tap into available resources: This enables consistency in value delivery to members, enables an organization to obtain resources that its members might not otherwise obtain, and can help organizations absorb the loss of members.

Lesson 5

Sustain buy-in by developing strong relationships: Inter-personal relationships build trust in the organization and between members.

Lesson 6

Seek out champions and groom strategic leaders: Leadership that can execute on lessons and champions who can fight for external legitimacy strengthen partnerships.

Source: authors.

Lesson #1: Build Upon a Clear and Focused Mission

43The coalition has focused on information and coordination initiatives that are most efficiently and effectively done collectively. Since its inception, TRANSCOM has maintained focus on its three core missions: disseminating information about incidents, facilitating construction coordination, and coordinating agencies prior to major events. All of its activities and initiatives seek to serve one, or all, of these functions. It is significant that in executing these functions TRANSCOM’s leadership has a very keen sense of the boundaries of the organization’s regional role. It is perceived internally as convener, coordinator, and facilitator rather than as a leader, advocate, or actor. This deliberate and consistent organizational culture has prevented TRANSCOM from telling agencies what to do, or from otherwise infringing on the jurisdictions of its members. It has also, by and large, prevented the mission creep that can crop up in organizations as they evolve. While TRANSCOM has certainly changed since the 1980s it has been with great discipline and in service to, not departure from, its core functions. This dependable consistency was one key trait that has enabled the organization to gain, and maintain, the trust and support of its members.

Lesson #2: Provide Tangible Benefits to Members

44A coalition must provide clear benefits to its members. TRANSCOM’s former executive director Matt Edelman has said: “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” (Edelman 1995).

45The deputy executive director, Tom Batz, notes that the coalition has stayed together because one transportation agency’s success depends on the services of other agencies. A backup on one highway affects traffic on other roadways. Drivers do not care who operates the various roads, but they do get frustrated when agencies are not working together to provide drivers with up-to-date information or when they do not coordinate their construction efforts (Batz, interview, 2016). Batz says, “what’s good for the region is good for the agencies and vice versa” (Batz, interview, 2016), a sentiment that is echoed by its members.

46TRANSCOM’s programs allow agencies to reduce their costs and enhance their productivity. For example, member organizations can minimize their off-peak hour staffs because TRANSCOM operates a 24/7 operations. TRANSCOM also allows agencies to concentrate on field operations during major incidents rather than responding to multiple information requests and coordinating with numerous agencies. Ken Philmus, a former Port Authority executive, says, “When I had a major incident, turning it over to TRANSCOM for the media and public was a godsend. Particularly in a region with so many agencies, TRANSCOM is essential. I don’t know what we would have done without it” (Philmus, interview, 2016). Batz explains, “TRANSCOM acts regionally while the agencies act locally” (Batz, interview, 2016).

47TRANSCOM additionally provides its members with travel data aggregated from various public and private sources. The agencies use this information in various ways such as providing free automated travel information via telephone and posting expected travel time to various destinations on electronic signs. Agencies can also tap into the TRANSCOM network to access camera images, so they can take appropriate action more promptly (Degrane 2006).

48TRANSCOM needs to satisfy every one of its members since its by-laws mandate that participating agencies must unanimously approve key policy decisions. One of TRANSCOM’s earliest chairmen expected that some agencies would drop out temporarily due to changes in leadership, politics or available resources (Gifford and Stalebrink 2002). It has grown from two states to three, but has only lost one agency – the Palisades Interstate Park Commission decided that its annual dues outweighed the benefits of membership (Szeglin 2016).

49Batz says the benefits are not always so obvious to new agency managers, so TRANSCOM staff are “constantly selling themselves.” With 16 members, there is continuous turnover of senior management because of retirements, promotions, elections, and reorganizations. Batz says they explain to the agencies, how “we’ll make your job easier” (Batz, interview, 2016). Educating members about the benefits of the organization is key to their continued support.

Lesson #3: Execute the Mission Without Impinging on Members’ Autonomy

50A coalition can thrive even when it has no authority over its members. TRANSCOM’s members own and maintain control over their own traffic 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.

51Each agency has its own rules and procedures for distributing information. These operating procedures vary not only between agencies, but even at different facilities operated by a single agency. One former TRANSCOM staffer explained that TRANSCOM’s policy is to distribute information that agencies request to be distributed, even if TRANSCOM thinks the information might not be completely accurate. TRANSCOM’s priority, he said, is keeping its members happy. Batz expresses this concept somewhat differently when he says, “TRANSCOM is responsive to its members’ needs” (Batz, interview, 2016).

52Since TRANSCOM’s by-laws require all policy decisions to be approved unanimously, decisions are much harder to make, but it does ensure that agencies fully support the coalition’s initiatives. Before its meetings, the TRANSCOM staff contacts all of its members to gauge and win their support for all the agenda items (Morecock Eddy, interview, 2016). TRANSCOM staff tries to show that all of its requests, from hiring new employees to purchasing new equipment, will benefit everyone (Dwyer, interview, 2016). One former TRANSCOM official said “there is lots of work behind the scenes, greasing the skids” (Dwyer, interview, 2016). Consensus, he said, can be frustrating, since an agency that pays less than $70,000 per year in dues can hold up the efforts championed by an agency paying more than $500,000 per year.

53Peer pressure plays an important role in generating consensus. Policies are decided at its board of trustees and its technology and operations committee meetings. When commissioners and their representatives meet, they often find it hard to object to a TRANSCOM initiative when they see their peers supporting them. As one former MTA senior official put it: “I’d get upset when other agencies gave TRANSCOM staff a hard time. I’d tell them ‘don’t be a schmuck’” (Yermack, interview, 2016). A New York Department of Transportation official says when his agency refuses to endorse a TRANSCOM initiative “it’s a major earthquake” and his commissioner will quickly get a phone call asking what is going on. Batz says, “the unanimous voting does make people stop before they vote against something that could shut down a project.” That said, an initiative needs a strong supporter to move forward: “If everyone at the table is quiet, it’s much easier to say ‘no’” (Batz, interview, 2016).

54Before TRANSCOM was established, each agency was accustomed to operating independently. Now when they coordinate construction projects, they need to accommodate other agencies, sometimes agreeing to delay projects, pay penalties, and even risk forfeiting grant money to avoid certain roadway closings (Briggs and Jasper 2001). TRANSCOM’s former director notes:

55A lack of authority should not deter a coalition from pursuing its mission with confidence. No one has to be ‘in charge’ for a regional coalition to function effectively. Often it is this very lack of centralized authority, which creates an environment in which different jurisdictions are willing to cooperate (Edelman 1995).

56TRANSCOM has been able to coordinate construction projects because the member agencies accommodate each other, not because TRANSCOM 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 (Luttrell and Duffy 2006). Dennis Motiani, a former assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, says there is a sense of “you’ll help give us some breathing room and we’ll give you some room when you need it” (Motiani, interview, 2016). He said, “We try to work things out. If lower level staff can’t work it out, then it goes to the assistant commissioner level. Normally it doesn’t go to the commissioners, unless it’s a crucial job.”

57Ultimately, the lack of authority over members has not been a detriment to the organization. The deliberate decision to respect the autonomy and jurisdiction of members was instrumental to bringing them to the table in the first place, and has been critical to maintaining members’ support.

Lesson #4: Creatively Obtaining an Ongoing Sources of Revenue

58A viable coalition needs both an initial and dependable ongoing revenue source. The Port Authority of New York was an ideal organization to start a regional coalition because it generates revenue from highway and transit facilities across two states. TRANSCOM’s $7 million operating budget and its capital projects rely upon a combination of member dues and federal funds (Batz, interview, 2016).

59When TRANSCOM was founded, the largest transportation agencies agreed to pay the highest dues with a second tier paying half of the first tier’s dues and a third tier paying half of the second tier’s dues. In lieu of providing a cash contribution, transportation agencies in the 1980 and 1990s often sent some of their staff to work at TRANSCOM’s offices. This helped members who had difficulty obtaining funds and it helped TRANSCOM in another way. When agency staff returned to their agencies, they were often more sensitive to regional needs and willing to work closely with TRANSCOM and its other members.

60After more than a decade of providing legal, human resources and other administrative services for TRANSCOM, the Port Authority decided in the late 1990s that they did not want to hold TRANSCOM’s purse strings any longer. In January 2000, TRANSCOM was transformed into a non-profit organization that would remain eligible for federal grants. The TRANSCOM members had hoped that TRANSCOM could offset its dues by selling real-time travel information directly to consumers; however, TRANSCOM was unsuccessful because it was neither as nimble nor as innovative as technology companies (Bruce, interview, 2016).

61TRANSCOM has received federal grants for a wide range of its initiatives since 1989 (Bruce, interview, 2016). These funds have helped pay for traffic monitoring equipment, electronic signs, and an integrated data network. TRANSCOM staff have cultivated relationships with tri-state area congressmen, senators, and their staffs by keeping them abreast of TRANSCOM’s successes (Batz, interview, 2016). These relationships paid off with earmarks in federal transportation laws. TRANSCOM’s ability to obtain external funds has helped TRANSCOM maintain consistent service and support from its dues-paying members.

Lesson #5: Sustain Buy-In by Developing Strong Relationships

62The development of inter-personal relationships can be the key to a coalition’s success. Initially, many of the agencies involved in TRANSCOM were concerned about ceding their authority to a multi-state coalition. Fostering ongoing communication between personnel at various organizational levels has helped the region maintain the TRANSCOM coalition despite changes in governors, mayors, commissioners, and chairmen. The board of trustees consists of agency heads while the technology and operations committee includes senior operating and engineering officials who provide technical guidance and advice to the board. Operational staff at the member agencies coordinate real-time information and construction scheduling with both TRANSCOM staff and their agency counterparts.

63Regular meetings of top officials have helped build trust among member agencies, allowing them to address problems quicker and more effectively, as well as learn from each other (Briggs and Jasper 2001). Researchers assessing TRANSCOM’s response after the largest power outage in U.S. history found that “informal relationships established and nurtured during normal times can pay enormous dividends during emergencies” (Marygrace Parker, cited in DeBlasio et al. 2004, 32). One former TRANSCOM official says “if you know each other’s resources and understand each other’s needs you start to develop a comfort level” (Marygrace Parker, cited in DeBlasio et al. 2004, 32).

64Despite the breadth and the depth of transportation data that is collected and shared, the agencies and TRANSCOM still rely upon the telephone to communicate with each other. Weinstein notes that interpersonal relationships are invaluable (Weinstein, interview, 2016). Bernie Wagenblast, a former operations manager at TRANSCOM says, “what TRANSCOM brings to the table is relationships at different levels.” He explains, “it’s not TRANSCOM talking with the Thruway Authority, but rather Bernie talking to Jim” (Wagenblast, interview, 2016). Because of these relationships, the coalition can do things it otherwise could not or would not.

65Ken Philmus said, “Relationships developed when we coordinated construction. You needed someone’s help then a couple of weeks later, they needed your help.” He said his counterpart at MTA Bridges and Tunnels called him late in the day on September 11 after the World Trade Center attacks and told him: I can’t tell you why, but you have to shut down a bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey. Philmus said the Port Authority agreed to do so because of the relationship they had fostered through TRANSCOM. He explained “If you’re working closely together, you get to know somebody, and you can do things in different ways” (Philmus, interview, 2016).

Lesson #6: Seeking Out Champions and Grooming Strategic Leaders

66Coalitions need effective champions who can generate support, obtain resources, and keep the coalition together. TRANSCOM’s champions have come from Washington, its member agencies and its Jersey City office. TRANSCOM’s most important champions have been the chairmen of its board of trustees and its technology and operations committee who have rallied the other members to expand TRANSCOM’s role.

67TRANSCOM had a vocal and effective champion in Washington D.C. for many years. U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, who served five terms until he died in 2013, had a keen interest in both transportation and technology. The New Jersey senator helped bring federal funds to TRANSCOM that were used across the New York metropolitan area.

68The 35-person staff has had a remarkably stable senior management team including Matt Edelman who served as executive director for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2016. Two of its senior staff members have been at TRANSCOM since the late 1980s. Their institutional knowledge allows them to work effectively with all the transportation agencies.

69Interviews with current and former transportation officials revealed how Edelman and his senior team have kept TRANSCOM focused on its mission and its members’ needs over three decades. The TRANSCOM staff has successfully promoted its achievements while keeping a remarkably low profile. For example, TRANSCOM’s web site posts very little information about the coalition’s work. TRANSCOM’s members appreciate how the staff encourages the individual agencies to take credit for the coalition’s accomplishments. Edelman points out that members don’t pay TRANSCOM staff to beat their own drum; they pay TRANSCOM to serve the public, indirectly (Edelman, interview, 2016).

70As executive director, Edelman led by generating consensus. Don Edwards, a former New York State Thruway Authority operations director said Edelman could “maneuver around egos and personalities better than anyone I ever met.” He also said Edelman is “knowledgeable, gracious and accommodating. He could harden up when had to, but he does so in way that is gracious and deferential that makes people want to please him […] Going against him is like boxing smoke” (Edwards, interview, 2016). Edelman also received kudos for serving great sandwiches at its lunchtime meetings. Apparently, food can help keep members happy and a coalition together.

71TRANSCOM seeks out people at transportation agencies who can help serve TRANSCOM’s interests. One former staff member said that Edelman identifies “Friends of TRANSCOM” – people who can lead its board, serve on the technology and operations committee, and help promote TRANSCOM’s mission.

72These six lessons offer important insights into the inner workings, and long-term success, of TRANSCOM as an organization operating in a highly complex region. It is also important to acknowledge that it now faces difficult challenges and organizational uncertainty. The following sections detail some of those challenges and how TRANSCOM confronts them.

Governance is never without obstacles

73Partnerships never run perfectly smoothly and TRANSCOM is no exception. TRANSCOM has overcome numerous obstacles relating to sharing information, obtaining resources, and interagency conflict. However, the organization has either overcome or worked around these issues to persevere in its mission.

74TRANSCOM continuously confronts the reluctance of certain agencies and people to share real-time information. One former TRANSCOM staffer said some agency staff often do not want to notify TRANSCOM of an incident because it can be time-consuming or because they see information as a source of power. Some union members at agencies have claimed that sharing information with TRANSCOM was not a part of their job description. Police agencies have often been reluctant to share information and transit agencies do not always understand why non-transit agencies need to know what is going on with their services.

75TRANSCOM’s staff has been able to win over some skeptical agency officials by helping them deal with incidents and having other agencies intervene on their behalf (Wagenblast, interview, 2016). Expanding the TRANSCOM’s operations center to 24 hours also helped because it took away the excuse used by agency officials who said they had not contacted TRANSCOM about travel incidents because they thought TRANSCOM’s center was closed (Batz, interview, 2016).

76TRANSCOM also has also had to overcome conflicts between agencies and sometimes even between representatives of the same agency. Balancing the conflicting needs of its members can sometimes be frustrating for TRANSCOM staff. At times, when they have wanted to take advantage of opportunities or revise their procedures, Edelman would say that “you can only go as fast as your slowest agency” (Bruce, interview, 2016).

77Although obtaining sufficient resources has been a constant battle, TRANSCOM has always been able to collect annual dues from its agencies, despite changes in political philosophy and leadership. TRANSCOM’s staff must continuously explain its benefits to budget officials and executives from its member agencies. Sometimes, other agencies need to be brought in to help explain why they need to support TRANSCOM (Philmus, interview, 2016; Yermack, interview, 2016). Some of the larger TRANSCOM members complain that they are paying much more than a small agency, yet they both have the same power at TRANSCOM. The member agencies have periodically undertaken exercises to recalculate their share of the dues, but they have maintained the original tier system because they could not agree on a better one (Batz, interview, 2016; Bruce, interview, 2016).

Looming challenges

78Although TRANSCOM has continuously faced challenges, it now faces a critical turning point because some of its work may be rendered obsolete by rapidly changing technologies. Likewise, the collaborative efforts to share real-time information and coordinate construction that TRANSCOM so successively fostered, now routinely takes place without TRANSCOM’s involvement. While the lessons that we have drawn from TRANSCOM’s experience to date are relevant to its future, it is important to acknowledge that the coalition is not impervious to failure.

79When TRANSCOM set up its operations center, the various agencies were not regularly updating the public, the media and each other. Now, agencies disseminate information easily, quickly, and frequently via Twitter, Facebook, emails, web sites, and other tools. In addition, TRANSCOM is no longer the only center where agencies coordinate responses to transportation conditions. The New York City and New York State transportation departments opened a consolidated traffic management center in Queens. New Jersey now has its own center staffed with representatives from numerous agencies, and the Port Authority recently consolidated its operations into one centralized location.

80TRANSCOM’s initiative to install dozens of electronic transponders on the region’s highways significantly improved the region’s ability to measure actual highway speed. Now, private companies are collecting and monetizing vastly more data that they collect from cell phones acting as probes and from smart phone users who input information about incidents. Today, travelers can obtain real-time information about traffic and transit conditions from numerous apps and web sites.

81Some of TRANSCOM’s initiatives are no longer important in an age of ubiquitous smart phones. Relatively few travelers use automated telephone systems or tune into Highway Advisory Radio stations. Moreover, some of TRANSCOM’s successes have become institutionalized within the agencies themselves. For example, in addition to working with TRANSCOM, many of the transportation agencies have incorporated the coordination of construction with other agencies into their standard operating procedures.

82One indicator that TRANSCOM’s role has diminished is the fact that most agencies do not send their chief executive officers to the board of trustees meetings. This is a troubling trend for TRANSCOM since ongoing cooperation and support from commissioners and executive directors have been critical to its success.

83TRANSCOM’s efforts to obtain more federal funding have been hurt by the loss of its champion and by political changes. Thanks to Senator Lautenberg, the federal law that authorized transportation funding from fiscal years 2005 through 2009 had three separate line items for TRANSCOM totaling $3.2 million. Not only did TRANSCOM lose its Congressional champion when Lautenberg died, but a backlash against Congressional earmarking since 2011 has made it harder for TRANSCOM to obtain funds directly from the federal government. It now relies upon federal funds that flow through the three state departments of transportation.

84Despite high hopes in the 1990s and early 2000s, TRANSCOM has not figured out how to generate revenue from the travel data that it collects. It gave up trying to sell traveler information and deploying a network of interactive kiosks at highway rest stops and transit stations. TRANSCOM’s efforts to provide information directly to travelers have been crude and clumsy compared to websites and apps developed by Silicon Valley firms. Likewise, TRANSCOM has disbanded relationships it had selling its services to other public entities.

85TRANSCOM may be well positioned, however, to take on new roles. TRANSCOM could help implement procedures that would automatically be deployed in response to fluctuations in travel demand, such as changing traffic signal timing and updating the information displayed on electronic signs. TRANSCOM can also mine its data to help the transportation agencies better understand the causes and extent of traffic delays, and then minimize future ones (Batz 2016).

86Despite the technological revolution that has occurred since TRANSCOM’s founding, it still offers an invaluable service. No other entity brings together the region’s transportation and public safety agencies during regional incidents and in preparation for major events. Its computer network is known for its accuracy because the incidents in its database have been verified by agencies. Automated systems may be able to provide vast amounts of data, but people are still needed to interpret that information. When a driver is sitting in traffic because of an accident, a computer cannot accurately predict when a roadway will be cleared.

Conclusion

87Whatever challenges it faces in the future, TRANSCOM remains an important, if largely unseen, actor coordinating regional transportation in the New York metropolitan region. As a traffic operations and coordination organization it has been very successful and is a model for regions seeking to set up similar partnership around the world. Any organization that can keep this complex region moving is remarkable indeed. How TRANSCOM is able to accomplish that is worthy of study on its own, but we argue that its experiences are relevant to the much broader practice of regional cooperation. New York region’s position as an outlier in governmental complexity is especially relevant because it indicates that the right approach can work in even the most complex environment.

88Operating behind the scenes in one of the world’s most politically fragmented metropolitan areas, its secret has been (a) engaging and building upon a clear and focused mission; (b) demonstrating organizational legitimacy by providing tangible benefits to members; (c) executing its mission without impinging on members’ organizational autonomy; (d) creatively tapping into available resources; (e) sustaining buy-in by developing strong relationships with members; and (f) seeking out champions and empowering decisive and strategic leadership. Given the challenges arrayed against TRANSCOM it seems likely that its very survival depends on whether it can continue to do the things it has successfully done to date. Its viability is threatened if it does not provide tangible benefits to its members, creatively tap into resources, maintain strong relationships with its members, and find champions.

89These findings mostly buttress, but also add new insight, to the canon of literature on sparking and sustaining regional governance that we elaborated as part of our theoretical frame, particularly in the areas of local autonomy, resource dependency, and leadership (lessons c, d, e, and f, above, respectively).

90Ultimately, it is clear that impact on local autonomy is a key factor in the decision of local officials to enter into regional partnerships. Recognizing this, TRANSCOM’s governance structures were very deliberately designed to ensure that autonomy remained vested with its members. Decisions are made by consensus and the organization itself has no explicit authority to act without its members’ consent. Many of those interviewed for this research cited this arrangement as decisive to building their trust and sustaining their participation in the partnership. Interestingly, retaining autonomy and flexibility in governance arrangements is not without pitfalls: critics point to the proliferation of “lowest common denominator” solutions (Norris 2016) and argues that privileging autonomy entails a necessary sacrifice of effectiveness. The TRANSCOM case, however, suggests that organizations do not require centralized authority to be effective regional actors. Whether TRANSCOM could have accomplished more in the realm of regional transportation coordination had it been invested with a stronger organizational mandate is very much open for debate. The fact that many of its members assert that it has been an enormously successful organization stands as a powerful testament to its effectiveness, despite this institutional weakness. This is a significant finding for scholars of metropolitan cooperation: regional initiatives may be best served by focusing on building, and securing, a coalition of actors by adopting a weaker institutional structure than by insisting that there is no point unless the organization has “teeth” (Hamilton et al. 2008).

91TRANSCOM has been able to sustain effectiveness despite its lack of centralized authority in part because of its deliberate strategy of focusing on delivering value to its members, coupled with strong policy leadership that makes it able to broker consensus. The concept of producing value for members is also discussed in depth in the broader literature on resource exchange in metropolitan collaboration. Members in a partnership must perceive that, by doing so, they are able to gain access to resources, outcomes, or opportunities that they might not otherwise have access to or mitigate costs that would otherwise be incurred (Hoornbeek et al. 2016, Feiock 2007). By initially focusing on, and delivering, “wins” that made its members look good, TRANSCOM, and specifically its executive director, was able to build the credibility to persuade actors that might have otherwise been reluctant into the consensus. This strategy, and its execution, are also consistent with observations in the scholarship on regional governance about the importance of building brokerage capacity and policy entrepreneurship (Hoornbeek et al. 2016, Henton and Melville 1997, Kwon and Feiock 2010). Leaders that effectively understand the interests and constraints of their members and work to identify realistic collective opportunities and build organizational capacities through consensus building to achieve them are instrumental to creating value to members and further enhancing organizational legitimacy.

92The closed nature of TRANSCOM’s decision-making process is a crucial aspect of its ability to build consensus. Once an initiative is identified by the board, TRANSCOM’s leadership undertakes bilateral discussions with each of its members in order to determine whether consensus is possible and to secure buy in. This process is not public – the organization maintains no records of these discussions – and, consequently, members regard it as a safe space in which to discuss their concerns. Wins are possible because of leader engagement and a detailed understanding of the different constraints that face members that has kept ambitions realistic, enabled by member confidence in the decision-making process. Wins are all the more valuable to members because TRANSCOM shies away from the limelight, instead letting the participating agencies own the upside of ensuing service improvements. In short, it is possible to conceptualize TRANSCOM’s strategy as brokering its way to a degree of de facto authority wherein its members are more willing to accept its leadership with a reasonable expectation of collective benefit. Additionally, by instituting flexibility in how its members have been required to contribute to the partnership – through dues, or in kind – costs have not become prohibitive to members that were not completely convinced of TRANSCOM’s policy value.

93TRANSCOM members are, additionally, more amenable to seeing the policy value of the collective endeavor because their representatives balance knowledge of agency agendas with the ability to act. The representatives on the board of trustees are not elected officials, but rather leaders at the agencies capable of making and implementing decisions. An important caveat, however, is the observation by several TRANSCOM members that it was important that the actors at the table be empowered to make decisions on behalf of their agencies. This suggests that decision making within collaborative organizations is likely to be most effective when representatives are more technocratic than political and when those representatives have the authority – either by virtue of their offices or delegation – to make binding commitments on behalf of those organizations. In sum, TRANSCOM’s experiences tend to confirm and reinforce many of the observations about the dynamics of regional collaboration discussed disparately in the literature and demonstrate how many of these barriers can be overcome. This suggests that many of the insights here may have value to theorists and practitioners seeking to seed partnerships beyond the narrow confines of transportation operations and coordination. These lessons should resonate with similar cross-boundary partnerships to the extent that they have helped TRANSCOM members live with (if not completely overcome) concerns about impacts on autonomy and resource pooling issues – factors that are often cited as barriers to collective action. Perhaps most significant is the finding that an organization with consensus decision-making and no centralized authority, can still be very effective with strong leadership that can deliver on carefully circumscribed organizational functions. This approach to organizational design is not without drawbacks, as has been adeptly pointed out in governance literature, but our findings here suggest that voluntary partnerships with what might be described as “weak” governance structures should not be dismissed out of hand.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: TRANSCOM members (current to September 2017)
Credits Source: TRANSCOM
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Title Figure 2: TRANSCOM benefits as described by stakeholders
Credits Source: authors.
URL http://articulo.revues.org/docannexe/image/3290/img-2.jpg
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References

Electronic reference

Philip Mark Plotch and Jen Nelles, « Mitigating Gridlock: Lessons on Regional Governance from the Organization that Keeps New York Moving », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 2017, Online since 14 September 2017, connection on 22 November 2017. URL : http://articulo.revues.org/3290

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About the authors

Philip Mark Plotch

Philp Mark Plotch is an assistant professor of political science and the director of the master of public administration program at Saint Peter's University (2641 John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Jersey City, NJ 07306 USA). He is the author of the book Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject and numerous articles on planning transportation megaprojects. Plotch was manager of planning and policy at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and the director of World Trade Center Redevelopment and Special Projects at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Jen Nelles

Jen Nelles is a visiting associate professor in the Urban Public Policy and Planning Department at Hunter College, CUNY in New York City. She is the author of Comparative Metropolitan Policy: Governing Beyond Local Boundaries in the Imagined Metropolis (Routledge, 2012), and co-author of A Quiet Evolution: The Emergence of Indigenous Local Government Partnerships in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2016). Her current work focuses on regional transportation governance and the politics of regional governance organizations in the United States.

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