As many Mobilizing the Region readers know, I’m leaving TSTC this month to join the NYC Department of Transportation. Starting Monday June 25th, I’ll be an assistant commissioner for intergovernmental affairs serving as the agency’s liaison between the City Council, State Legislature and other government agencies.
I’ve been at TSTC nearly ten years. I was hired as communications coordinator by Jon Orcutt in 2002.
2002 feels both very far away and very familiar to me. It was shortly after 9/11 and that tragedy was still very raw and fresh in people’s minds, unlike now. But like now, the city’s economy was struggling. For some months after graduate school, I couldn’t find work, doing part time gigs as a babysitter (a position I see from a different perspective now that I have a young son at home- I can’t believe those people hired me!) and at a start-up wind energy company. I even drove a car down to Florida.
Eventually, after a recommendation from John Kaehny, then the director of Transportation Alternatives, I was put in touch with an organization called Tri-State Transportation Campaign located in a tiny office on 35th St. I was hired and instantly excited by the work. My first piece was about proposed bus service cuts on Westchester County’s Bee Line. In 2003, I was promoted to associate director when Jon took the reins from Janine Bauer. And when Jon left with three weeks’ notice in 2007 to join Janette Sadik-Khan, a former TSTC board member and newly appointed NYC transportation commissioner, I took over a few months later as executive director.
Many things have changed for the better in our tri-state region over the past ten years. Transportation policy in NYC is unrecognizable from a decade ago when TSTC and other groups heavily criticized the city administration for doing little to protect pedestrians or make the city more livable. Big road projects have been changed for the better or halted completely. All three states have passed complete streets legislation or policies, in New Jersey’s case, that ensure roads are designed for everyone, not just cars. Connecticut has seen the groundbreaking on its first transit project in decades- with another on the way- and started programs to encourage development near transit. There is an increasing consensus that we must invest in transit and sustainable communities and market forces and cultural tastes are increasingly driving development in walkable areas.
At the same time, the economic recession and political forces have intensified challenges, especially in recent years. For political reasons, Governors in two states have killed transit projects that would have made the region better and more economically competitive. (ARC was killed by Governor Christie to plug the state’s broader transportation deficit and plans for bus rapid transit were inexplicably derailed on the Tappan Zee Bridge by Governor Cuomo, though Cuomo still has a chance to remedy the latter). All three states are struggling to pay for transit service while ridership grows and grows. Communities in places like Long Island still have to fight transportation departments if they want more livable streets. Debt burdens have skyrocketed making these challenges even harder to address.
Technology has made life easier and more difficult. In 2002, we spent hours every Friday formatting Mobilizing the Region in Microsoft Publisher and faxing it out to thousands of people. Now we post blog stories with one click, but check our blackberries and twitter feeds late into the night to stay in tune with the 24 hour news cycle.
AT TSTC, we went from a staff of six with little presence in Albany and Connecticut to a staff of ten with a stronger voice in both places. We hired a federal advocate to coordinate with our national partners, opened an office in Camden and started new programs with our philanthropic friends at One Region Funders’ Group to encourage development near transit hubs. We’ve worked with our partners throughout the region to stop transit service cuts, secure better bus service, and create new biking and walking programs. In the past five years alone, we’ve posted 1,300 stories on Mobilizing the Region, sent out hundreds of press releases, and published 26 reports.
The board and staff here have taught me so much over the years and I’m very thankful to each of them. In particular, my predecessors, Jon Orcutt and Janine Bauer not only built the foundation of the organization, but also gave me an education in everything from transportation advocacy to juggling motherhood and work.
I expect great things from the organization in the years to come. Veronica Vanterpool, our current associate director, will take over for me. She has been here five years and is a well-respected, energetic, and intelligent advocate and friend. She has good support from the board and long time staff like Ryan Lynch and Steven Higashide, who are passionate advocates who have been staffers here for five years.
Overall, progress has been made over the past ten years toward a transportation network that is less car dependent and more balanced and equitable. Tri-State Transportation Campaign and its partner groups have played a key role in this change. It’s been wonderful to be involved and I look forward to continue work towards a more sustainable transportation network in my new role at NYC DOT. And in the years to come, I’m certain we’ll have the energy and creativity necessary to address the challenges ahead.