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Mark Aesch Moves To Consolidate Upstate Transit Authorities

November 14th, 2010

Aesch wants to consolidate the big four upstate transit authorities. He points to the Rochester transit system which, over the past 5 years, has addressed I just read an article in Sunday’s Albany Times Union that has me scratching my head. Mark Aesch, CEO of the Rochester Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, wants to consolidateexternal link the four big transit authorities of upstate New York—Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. On the surface it seems to make sense. They each do the same thing in relatively similar cities in a single state. But does Aesch really believe consolidating operations across a 250 mile wide region will lead to better public transit service for all four regions? Or are we witnessing the beginning of a power grab?

Aesch seems to be using Andrew Cuomo’s New NY Agendaexternal link as a springboard. Cuomo’s plan states:

Andrew Cuomo's New NY Action PlanWith the multitude of State agencies that have authority over environment-related issues, conflicts often arise over jurisdiction and responsibility. Furthermore, agencies often issue inconsistent recommendations that make it difficult for the State to consistently administer its environmental policy. As Governor, Andrew Cuomo will examine how the State’s various agencies can effectively be streamlined and consolidated to eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and overlap in order to maximize environmental protection. Andrew Cuomo will also task the Spending and Government Efficiency Commission (“SAGE Commission”) to conduct a comprehensive review of the existing environmental bureaucracy and make recommendations for reorganization and better coordination where such coordination would provide for significant cost savings, better management or more efficient operations.

It appears Aesch is making his own recommendation before the Spending & Government Efficiency Commission has a chance to study anything.

Mark Aesch, CEO of RGRTAHis main argument is cost savings. “One payroll and purchasing staff. One voice in leveraging vendors for better pricing. No more duplication of services. No more bureaucratic redundancies. No more overly generous benefits programs. No more feather-beddingexternal link.”

Aesch points to the Rochester transit system over the past 5 years where “inefficiencies” have been addressed and fares have actually been lowered thanks to multimillion-dollar surpluses. During the same time fares in Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo have increased.

But Aesch doesn’t go into any details about how huge surpluses have improved service. Or what improvements we could expect to see across upstate under one agency.

Another important question is what would happen to the Genesee Transportation Council (GTC)external link, our Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO)external link. All cities with a population over 50,000 are required by the U.S. Department of Transportation to have a designated MPO in order to qualify for federal highway and transit funds. RGRTAexternal link serves as the host agency to GTC—and Albany, Syracuse, and Buffalo each receive federal funding for their transportation projects via their own MPOs. So will a consolidated upstate transit authority mean a consolidated MPO for all of upstate and a redistribution of Federal transit funds?

We know Aesch prides himself on running RGRTA more like a private corporation. And we know this new RGRTA loves to show off its bottom line. But we also know what can happen to the little guy (you and me) when corporations grow too large. Someone will profit. Someone will lose out.

To Aesch’s credit, he continues to bring new ideas to the table. But it’s up to all of us to ask the important questions. I just learned of this story today along with the people of Albany. I don’t have any answers to the questions I’ve just asked. But if you have thoughts/questions/concerns, I urge you to write to RGRTA or GTC. And let us know what you find out using the comments below.

More About RGRTA…
Until the late 1960’s, Rochester’s public transportation needs were met by the profit-driven private sector. Mass transit in Rochester began in 1825 when the Rochester and Canal Railroad Company was established to provide passenger and freight service along the Genesee River. Large horse-drawn vehicles were in operation by the 1850’s and in 1889 electric streetcars began service. The first buses operated as early as 1905. Rochester City Lines started service in 1923 but soon went bankrupt. A mass transportation system was re-established in 1938 by Rochester Transit Corporation. Ridership had increased to 10 million before financial difficulties led the City of Rochester to take over the company, renaming it Rochester Transit Service or RTS, which would later be known as Regional Transit Service.

In 1969, sweeping state-wide legislation created 4 regional transportation authorities: The Capital District Transportation Authority was founded in Albany, Central New York Regional Transportation Authority in Syracuse, The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in Buffalo, and the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transportation Authority, known as RGRTA, was created in our community.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 14th, 2010 at 5:23 pm and is filed under Rochester News, Transit + Infrastructure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

5 Responses to “Mark Aesch Moves To Consolidate Upstate Transit Authorities”

  1. Mr. Aesch needs to recall that the RGRTA, and other transit agencies, are there to provide the best service possible. Not just service to Main and Clinton, or any other singular downtown node in any other city like Albany, Utica, or Syracuse, but true regional service for transit users.

    Especially now, when we have succeeded in sprawling all over the countryside, we need a substantially revised operating system, one that takes the region’s citizens where they are going. Forcing every transit rider downtown is not helping downtown, is not helping mobility in our region by means other than cars, and is not helping those who must rely on public transit.

    Providing public transit is not the same as making widgets. I certainly applaud any system that provides transit profitably, but I am certain that the profitability that Mr. Aesch so loves to tout has come at the expense of those who need excellence in public transit the most.

    What will it take to get real transit options in our city and region? As someone who has lived in some American cities with truly excellent transit systems, ones that allow citizens to thrive without cars, I observe that Rochester’s transit system is a cruel joke, Mr. Aesch’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    Rochesterians can go anywhere in our region by car in 20 minutes. Mr. Aesch, what will it take to get the transit system to compete with cars? Can you take me somewhere other than Main and Clinton?

  2. admin says:

    Howard, I’m looking for examples of other transit authorities that have merged (in the modern transportation era) so we might be able to draw comparisons to this in upstate NY. I’m at a loss.

    The geographic size of the region from Albany to Buffalo could be compared to many other metro regions like NY’s MTA. But these are heavily populated metro regions with wall-to-wall development. There are huge gaps between the 4 upstate cities and the socio-political gaps may be even wider.

    I suppose RGRTA would say they already cover an extremely diverse population/region within their 7 or 9 county Finger Lakes jurisdiction.

    But is there a precedent for a merger of this magnitude?

  3. Well let’s see. Albany to Buffalo is about 300 miles. Let’s say that we have a system that is 300 miles long and 100 miles wide. That would mean that the upstate NY system that Mr. Aesch is proposing would encompass 30,000 square miles.

    At the moment, the urban system with the most miles of route is, I believe, London. About 250 miles of routing (415km). You can do the math.

    There are a few very large transit systems in this country. An example might be New Jersey Transit, the third largest overall system in the US. They operate a multiple of modes, and experience something like 275 million trips a year.

    But note this: NJT has a service area of 5,325 square miles. Mr. Aesch’s system is roughly 6 times that size.

    There are heavy-rail providers that have corridors longer than this – Amtrak’s northeast corridor for example – but the corridor is very narrow, and restricted to one mode.

    So no, there is no comparably sized system in the US, if my service area calculations are even close to accurate. Even if the service area is only 300 miles long and 50 miles wide – 15,000 square miles – there is nothing of a comparable size.

    Would it be good to have transit service in the corridor between Albany and Buffalo? It would be terrific. We had it once.

    But can some form of RGRTA really operate a multi-modal transit system that serves the transit needs of the corridor plus each urban center and its neighborhoods? Using our current transit service as a benchmark, I would say resoundingly no.

  4. Kevin Yost says:

    I can argue for consolidating other authorities in NYS and to combine the MPO’s and transit authorities in each metro area and to allow the NFTA, which covers only Erie and Niagara counties, to have bus routes between Buffalo-Niagara to Batavia, in R-GRTA’s turf, but not for combining the transit authorities and MPO’s across different metro areas.

  5. Greg says:

    Here’s an idea for RGRTA consolidation: Take over operation of Ontario County transportation (http://www.co.ontario.ny.us/transit/CATS.html). Victor and Canandaigua aren’t far apart, why not make Eastview a hub for Ontario County transit?

    Livingston, Wayne, Wyoming, Orleans, and Seneca Counties are already affiliated with RGRTA.

    Get on board Ontario!


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