Guest on The Infra Blog: Elliot G. Sander, Former Executive Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York

Posted by Steve Anderson on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Elliot G. Sander is Managing Director of Strategic Global Initiatives at AECOM, and serves as a member of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission. He is a former Executive Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) of New York, and was previously Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.  InfrastructureUSA recently spoke with him in New York City.

Excerpts from that conversation:

*Dec 10 - 00:05*

Historically, people have not cared about infrastructure until the part of the infrastructure that they have been depending upon to get through their daily lives suffers some calamity. Then, their interest in the subject goes from very, very little to very, very high.  It’s the nature of human life in general that unless something is urgent and compelling and in front of them, there’s a tendency to take it for granted, and so I think that is the primary factor. Secondly, it’s a subject that has a little bit of complexity to it.  There are technical issues in terms of traffic and delivering water and power.  It’s a little bit less sexy and more complicated than things like police and fire. The other factor, too, is that in terms of paying for this stuff, unfortunately, people would prefer not to have to pay for what they’re consuming with infrastructure. So that’s also a barrier because part of that conversation is to have people pay up front for what they’re consuming in the infrastructure. [It’s] hard to explain to them that the cost to them and to society for not paying for it is much greater than what we’re asking for them to do in paying for it.

There’s no question that there can be a high level of intensity in these issues. I know that in August of 2007 when we had significant flooding in our subway system it impacted the morning rush hour and it generated enormous interest by the public and the media. I’m very proud of the response that we were then able to implement, and I think ensure that New York is less impacted by these kinds of events in the future. Climate change, too, can have an impact on our infrastructure and that may bring a heightened level of sensitivity to the issue of infrastructure in terms of modernizing, retrofitting infrastructure so we leave less of a carbon footprint. With AECOM I am now involved globally in transport and I think there are some concerns about America’s competitiveness in the long term.  It may well be that there is a combination of factors such as climate change, such as the decaying infrastructure and events like Katrina, as well as the impact in watching other nations such as India and China dramatically, and Europe, advance infrastructure.  Maybe it will change the conversation. The other piece to it is that, you know…it’s really in the last 10, 20 years that you’re seeing the fraying around the edges.

I think that the Obama administration wants to do more than it has done in the past.  Again, it’s now influenced by other factors in terms of the other items that he has on the agenda.  Other people are guardedly optimistic that for the next reauthorization there will be a push to provide more funding than exists because of the needs of the infrastructure.  It does look like the reauthorization will have to be postponed, delayed for some period of time.  I tend to be optimistic by nature and obviously that it is possible that…interest by President Obama, together with other factors…may lead to more interest in the United States.

I think, regardless, we have to seize the opportunity. I certainly think that we need to take advantage of the generational opportunity…and it may well be because of the issue of climate change and other factors, and also the fact that the general economy is now stabilized but we obviously want to get it going.  There was some disappointment about the level of infrastructure funding given by the stimulus.  We had the opportunity to spend 300 billion dollars, and I think because of the lack of appreciation for the importance of infrastructure in the economy a smaller amount, not insignificant, but a smaller amount in the range of 50 billion, was committed in the stimulus rather than the 300 billion that had been talked about before.  So I think for all those reasons…it does represent an opportunity and I’m hopeful that our political leaders and other leaders will take advantage of it.

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