New NY State Transpo Commissioner Draws Cheers, Groans

Photo: State of Connecticut

(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation)  The appointment by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday of Joan McDonald to be his new transportation commissioner is drawing mixed reaction from those familiar with her work in Connecticut, and, earlier, in New York.

First, the ecstatic:  Tom Wright, the Executive Director of the Regional Plan Association (a group that's done a lot of transit-oriented development planning in CT), emails  "Fantastic appointment.  She was great in CT. We're thrilled."

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a transit-advocacy group that also focuses on "smart growth,"  was also pretty happy.

"Since 2008, NYSDOT has lacked a commitment to progressive transportation policy and this choice marks a new era for the stagnant agency, " the group said in a statement.  "Ms. McDonald showed a clear commitment to promoting an economic investment strategy focused on transit oriented and smart growth development while Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. We expect Ms. McDonald’s solid experience to guide the way towards a more progressive transportation agenda and to further promote Governor Cuomo’s sustainability goals."

Now, the less-than ecstatic.   Sources in CT who've watched McDonald, who was appointed by former Republican Governor Jodi Rell,  note that she ran Connecticut's economic development department at a time when that state dropped to "dead last" in job growth.   And, as one source familiar with CT state government pointed out to me, CT's economic development website is literally static when you compare it to say, Virginia's .

There's also concern among some urban planners and environmentalists that McDonald, who served as Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Traffic Operations under former New York City DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, has views on traffic closer to Weinshall's, than to Janette Sadik-Khan's, the current commissioner.  Weinshall's  views on traffic were recently expressed in a letter to the editor of the New York Times opposing a bike lane on Prospect Park West.

"When new bike lanes force the same volume of cars and trucks into fewer and narrower traffic lanes, the potential for accidents between cars, trucks and pedestrians goes up rather than down," Weinshall, former Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel, and others wrote in the letter.

Assuming that traffic volume is fixed -- and that DOT commissioner's jobs entail making that fixed volume moves more quickly -- has been a hallmark of DOT thinking in the past, in pretty much every DOT in the country.   By contrast, Sadik-Khan and a new group of urban planners argue that traffic volume is mutable, and that good design can lower the amount of automobile traffic on a given by-way, without hindering people's ability to get from point A to point B.

There has been no NYS Transportation Commissioner since 2009, when Astrid Glynn departed after an unfortunately timed vacation in Borneo, just after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- the stimulus bill -- was signed.

McDonald requires confirmation by the NY State Senate.  A date for those hearings has yet to be set.

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