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U.S. DOT’s Polly Trottenberg on Congestion Pricing and Transit-Oriented Development

The nation's number 2 transit official discusses the country's planes, trains and automobiles and buses

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Two years after Congress passed President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan, the results are beginning to emerge.

This fall, after several hiccups, groundbreakings occurred in New York and New Jersey for the Gateway Project that will expand rail access under the Hudson River. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority approved toll prices for its congestion pricing plan for Manhattan, which has been in development for more than a decade. And the Port Authority’s three major airports have continued with their multibillion-dollar overhauls to transform the country’s worst air hub into a more welcoming international beacon.

SEE ALSO: Honk If You Love Congestion Pricing

Polly Trottenberg has been in the thick of the country’s megaprojects as the U.S. deputy secretary of transportation since early 2021. Her work as head of New York City’s Department of Transportation for nearly seven years under Mayor Bill de Blasio prepared her for working with diverse constituencies and multiple levels of government. She even pitched in recently to run the Federal Aviation Administration for five months. 

But she’ll never lose her affection for New York’s transportation agenda, even the parts that be-deviled her during her tenure. Commercial Observer found that out during an interview in Lower Manhattan at the end of November.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Commercial Observer: You attended the Nov. 30 New Jersey groundbreaking for the Hudson River tunnel, almost six months after Sen. Chuck Schumer announced $6.9 billion for the construction of the Gateway Project. When will the tunnel be fully operational and how will you keep the project on schedule?

Polly Trottenberg: Let’s take a minute to celebrate the progress that we’ve made. We did a groundbreaking with Gov. Phil Murphy on the New Jersey side for the Tonnelle Avenue project, which is a piece that is needed to get the tunnel work done and, a few weeks ago, the New York officials gathered on the concrete casing part of the project. 

Shovels are hitting the ground. The project has started, and, in addition to the $6.9 billion in transit funding that Sen. Schumer announced, the president announced another $3.8 billion of rail funding. So, all in, the federal government has close to $12 billion invested in this project, which is tremendously significant.

The completion date for the tunnels is set to be about 2035. We’re talking with the Gateway Corporation, and we’re going to look to see if there are ways to accelerate the project. It’s certainly something my secretary [Pete Buttigieg] is interested in. He’s very focused on project delivery. We have an incredible team in place to get the project done, funding lined up, and great leadership on both sides of the river. 

Polly Trottenberg
Polly Trottenberg. PHOTO: Chris Sorensen/for Commercial Observer

Why do you think it has taken so long to convince some public officials of its importance?

It’s a very big and challenging project. I’ll brag a minute on my president, affectionately known as Amtrak Joe. It’s a bit of a corny nickname but it’s really true. It took this president, who has been for his entire career a rider on this corridor and who keenly appreciates the value of passenger rail and what it means for this part of the country and the national economy. 

He was able with a number of colleagues in Congress to get the biggest bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in a couple of generations. That paved the way to make this project happen when perhaps in years past people didn’t see a path forward. The kind of dollars and political cooperation that was needed, it seemed hard to see how we were going to get there. But the bipartisan infrastructure law was the moment everybody said, “We could do this.” We also have two great governors who work well together. We haven’t always had such good political relations in this region, and that’s another powerful piece here.

Do you worry that a change in administration will delay the project further?

I don’t think so. We are well on the way with dollars awarded and a great team put together — the Gateway Development Corporation, governors, leadership at Amtrak and the Port Authority. It’s a cliche, but the stars have aligned.

You’ve spent your entire career in transportation policy. Where did your interest in transportation come from? 

I went to college here, I went to Barnard back in the ’80s, a time when the city was really struggling and the subway system was at its low point, but just making the first tentative steps toward its renaissance. It was an incredibly interesting time to be involved in urban affairs — transportation, housing and criminal justice. 

What drew you to joining the de Blasio administration? 

I had started my transportation career at the Port Authority back in the mid-’90s, and then made my way to Washington, worked for Sen. Daniel Moynihan as his transportation legislative assistant, and for Sen. Schumer as his legislative director. I got the chance to go to USDOT in the Obama administration. There were two groups of political appointees. 

There were a lot of us who came from Capitol Hill. We knew a lot about transportation policy and had relationships, but there were also people who knew how to run stuff. In my time there, I loved spending time with the people who knew how to run stuff, and I had always said that is what I wanted to do next. I was fortunate to have done so much work on New York transportation issues over my career to have the opportunity to serve as commissioner. And I wanted to be the longest-serving transportation commissioner in New York City history. 

What are some projects you would have liked to see through that you weren’t able to finish because you ran out of time or ran into opposition?

On big ones: What can we do about the Robert Moses legacy highways — the BQE and the Cross Bronx in particular? We’re excited to help the city and state think through what are the next phases there, how do we right those historical wrongs?

Another one I didn’t get to see through was adding a bike lane to the Brooklyn Bridge. That had long been on my wish list. That one I didn’t get to do, but it is a terrific project. It has made it better for cyclists and pedestrians on that beautiful, iconic structure.

When I was commissioner, I used to bike across the Brooklyn Bridge, and when I was on the MTA board I would bike to 2 Broadway. One of the projects that happened at the very end of my time was finally a bike lane down lower Broadway, so when you got off the bridge you had a safe connection that got you down here. It’s terrific. And the other one I love is the little one at City Hall. Sometimes the smallest additions to the bike network can have the biggest impact.

One of the projects you worked on was the reconstruction of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE). Mayor Eric Adams has considered reopening the highway to six lanes of traffic. What’s the best way to move forward? 

I had a very challenging time with that project myself, it’s no secret. I have a national perspective and sometimes even an international perspective. I don’t think there is a more complicated patch than that one. With the triple cantilever, with all the subway lines that run underneath, all the other utilities, the park, a very complex jurisdictional question, state, city, Parks Department, Brooklyn Bridge Park. The sheer physical governance complexities of that project are unique. 

The best solution is going to be one where all those parties are working together. One of the challenges I had as commissioner was that it was really the city trying to do it on their own, and it’s not something the city can do without partnership from the state and other players. I definitely see a very strong partnership forming and that will bring the right solutions.

How did running New York’s DOT prepare you for this position, and how is it different?

I had come from Capitol Hill and gone to USDOT, but one thing I loved about my time in the Obama administration was that as political appointees we all had the opportunity to run and manage things in USDOT.

When I got to NYC I had a lot to learn, but I actually had a strong foundation on how to run a big agency. When you’re running a city transportation agency, it’s very operational, on the ground, very 24/7. But you continue to learn some of the management things we all know how to do in big public sector agencies. 

I got to do a five-month stint as FAA administrator — the real operational side of USDOT, more akin to New York City DOT. It is the largest, most complex 24/7 operation in the federal government. The breadth and scope of what the FAA does every day includes thousands of flights, hundreds of thousands of people in the air, facilities all over the country, not even a national reach but even a global reach. In an operational agency, you’re always ready for whatever is going to come your way.

How often do you meet with Secretary Buttigieg, President Biden, and New York’s congressional leaders, and what concerns do they have?

When we’re in Washington I see [Buttigieg] all day long. When he’s on the road we’ll connect on Zoom. I see and talk with the secretary quite a bit. 

I’m certainly in touch with a lot of folks here, but I’m a national official so I’m talking with mayors and governors and members of Congress from all over the country. I always have a special place for New York but it’s fun to have that national perspective. Incredible things are happening here but there are a lot of visionary folks all over the country. 

Whose call do you dread?

I’m not answering that question. I don’t dread anyone’s call. I love this work. If emotions are running high that’s because you’re working on something important. If nobody wants to yell at you, maybe you’re not having much of an impact. Nobody ever yells at me, for the record.

Earlier this year, you were named acting head of the FAA. What changes have you made to ensure there will be fewer service disruptions this holiday season?

The FAA is the regulator, so it’s focused on safety and air traffic control. The consumer piece is run out of DOTs general counsel’s office. I would say this is something that the secretary has been very focused on, beefing up a lot of our work on consumer advocacy and consumer protection with the airlines.

Rulemaking can be a long and complicated process, but we had a great brainstorm to put up a dashboard for the airlines, where they would commit to what kinds of refunds they would give if there’s a delay or how they’re handling different issues. It moved a lot of airlines to change their policies almost overnight. It showed the power of our regulatory side and the bully pulpit side of the house, too.

The big meltdown we had with Southwest is something we’re working on. There may be more to hear on that one soon, but we picked up the pace in looking at consumer protections and airlines and holding them accountable when we need to.

Polly Trottenberg
Polly Trottenberg. PHOTO: Chris Sorensen/for Commercial Observer

The Port Authority’s airports have undergone multibillion-dollar renovations. Do you think we’ll see a PATH extension to Newark Airport and an AirTrain to LaGuardia in our lifetimes? 

I’m an optimist. Let’s look at Gateway. Big, complicated projects can take a lot of years for the right people to be in the room, for the dollars to be on the table. I’d like to think that they would come. There are a lot of exciting projects underway, not only Gateway. We just announced awards for the further extension of the Second Avenue Subway farther into Harlem, Penn Access which brings Metro North into Penn Station, and building those new stations in the Bronx. And doing the repairs on the East River tunnels — some pretty big projects on deck at the moment.

The state DOT is implementing a $1.2 billion project to widen the Van Wyck Expressway. Would you consider putting conditions on state DOTs to use infrastructure money to reduce carbon emissions?

We are an administration that is very much committed to tackling climate change. We’re working to build out a national EV charging network. We have grant dollars for decarbonization. We’re pushing every lever we can. Something we announced with some controversy attached to it was a requirement that states start to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from their transportation systems. 

In the infrastructure bill, we have discretionary dollars where we have a lot of say and formula funds that go to the state, and the state has most of the say on how dollars get spent. That is the system that exists that brought us the compromise that brought us the infrastructure bill, but that means that different states are going to tackle different projects.

Another project that could reduce greenhouse gasses is congestion pricing, which is on track to begin this spring. The MTA released its pricing structure for Manhattan tolls last month. Are those fair prices?

This is their opening foray. At the federal level, I’m not going to opine on whether they got it right. That is for the folks of this region to deliberate among themselves. We obviously worked closely with them on the environmental process to make sure they did good analysis and considered environmental justice and economic impacts. In the end, New York will have to come together to calibrate how congestion pricing is going to work. They have a mandate from the legislature that a certain amount of revenue gets generated every year.

How can you get New Jersey and Staten Island motorists to buy into the benefits of congestion pricing? 

The federal government is not the manager of this. I can say this: During my time as New York City commissioner, where I was involved in congestion pricing, I had the opportunity to go to both London and Stockholm and spend quality time with people who implemented congestion pacing. In both of those cities there was a lot of opposition and concern, but, when it got implemented, it got a lot of support.

Part of what you get with congestion pricing is you get a much faster and predictable ride when you are a motorist. The Stockholm program was implemented temporarily, then they took it down and took a vote, and the citizens voted to reinstate it. When you look at big, global cities that have done this, there has been a lot of support from those behind the wheel.

If it works well in New York, would you consider rolling this out in other congested cities?

It’s not for the federal government to roll out, but there’s no question other cities are looking to New York. Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles, to some degree, are certainly looking to see what happens here. If other cities like what they see, that may give them impetus to move forward.

President Biden wants federal workers to come back to the office, but that could put more people on the road. How do you incentivize them to take mass transit instead?

We do want people to take transit. We have been talking about the investments in rail, but the infrastructure bill put the largest infusion into the transit system in our country’s history. We’re investing in transit projects all over the country, including spending $115 million helping transit systems around the country invest in buses, particularly low-emission buses. And we’re focused on working with transit systems to think through what the new normal is in this post-pandemic period — how commuting patterns have changed, how they’re continuing to evolve, what potential future economic models will look like.

Thanks to the leadership of Gov. Hochul, they’ve taken great steps to help the MTA be fiscally solvent. We still have some systems around the country, like New Jersey Transit and WMATA down in Washington, that are facing some big deficits. Each city will have its own solution to that. The federal workforce in Washington is a large part of WMATA’s ridership and it is starting to return to the office. That will help WMATA get on firmer financial footing.

Why is President Biden’s bet on EV expansion a good thing? And in what ways will you be working with commercial real estate owners to install charging stations in urban areas?

Here’s why it’s a good thing. Light-duty vehicles are one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. Decarbonizing that sector is going to help tackle climate change. Part of that is also mode shifting, which is getting more folks into mass transit, walking and biking. I don’t want to say it’s just about electric vehicles, but that’s a piece of the puzzle.

A place where I think public sector intervention is needed and where there is a market disconnect is installing level 3 chargers on highways, where you can charge a car very quickly. Those are expensive and complex to install, and that’s a good use of federal dollars.

We have a discretionary grant program where we are working on the ground with cities and their partners to come up with creative solutions. In New York, a lot of creative stuff has happened in private buildings and commercial spaces. When I was commissioner, we started putting charging infrastructure in city-owned parking lots and parking garages. There are a lot of opportunities for partnership there.

What could the state do to foster more residential development near regional rail stations?

We have a couple of levers. It can be very local and involve local zoning, and that’s not an area where the federal government intervenes. We’re more on the carrot side. We have made location efficiency important and we’re looking to co-locate housing with transit investment. 

We have extraordinary loan programs under TIFIA [the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act] and RRIF [Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing], which is billions of dollars of loan capacity. This is something pretty new for us but we’re starting to get in the business of working with transit-oriented development projects to see if our loan programs, which have extremely favorable terms and very long payout rates, work for them. These projects often involve multiple funding sources, but those are a couple ways we can be helpful at the federal level. 

We are also coordinating very closely with our partners at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Obviously, they’re the housing experts and we’re the transportation experts, and it makes sense for us to coordinate these types of projects. 

CLARIFICATION: Due to an editing error, this interview has been updated to reflect that Trottenberg served nearly seven years as New York transportation commissioner, not nearly six.