The City’s main transportation office has a new name and a new leader. But are things any different from before?

Ryan Briggs Features, Issue 5 0 Comments

Mayor Jim Kenney rode into City Hall as a champion of the straphanger and the urban bicyclist. During the papal visit, when many downtown streets were shut to car traffic, he quipped that Philly “should do this even when the pope’s not here.” To some, Kenney’s words seemed like the shape of things to come, a glimpse of a golden era for transportation and urbanist planning under a mayor who rides SEPTA and talks up Vision Zero goals.

But how much will really change in City Hall? While the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities (MOTU) was renamed the “Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Systems” (OTIS), insiders worry that the new acronym is merely window dressing. Current and former staffers have expressed concern that the department hasn’t had a strong voice guiding city planning efforts since Rina Cutler, the esteemed transit czar under former mayor Michael Nutter, left for Amtrak last year.

To be fair, OTIS recently drafted an aggressive plan for new bike lanes and Kenney has promised to appoint a “complete streets commissioner” to act as mobility-advocate-in-chief. But for the most part, when asked about outwardly visible moves like the name change, officials at OTIS stress “continuity.”

“Really the only thing that changed is our relationship with the airport,” says Michael Zaccagni, OTIS chief of staff, in reference to oversight of PHL shifting to the Commerce Department. “We’ll still be involved in any other transportation matters. OTIS really hasn’t changed much.”

Zaccagni stresses that much of MOTU’s core staff and planners will remain in place. “We haven’t really made major changes to the staff as transitions occur,” he says. “The main change has been the appointment of Deputy Managing Director Clarena Tolson.”

He adds that the name change is simply intended to reflect a change in management at City Hall. Under Nutter, different departments reported to a collection of semi-autonomous “deputy mayors,” like Cutler. The Kenney administration reverted to an organizational system where departments are led by “deputy managing directors.” They report to Managing Director Mike DiBerardinis, who in turn reports directly to the Mayor’s Office.

Brian Abernathy, the City’s first deputy managing director under DiBerardinis, says the shift back to a centralized management structure “creates more likelihood of working across silos.” That means the various departments may have the opportunity to work together more often, but it also implies that they will have less independence. Are the proactive, mover-and-shaker days of Cutler coming to an end?

“The big concern is that none of the top people at OTIS have any significant transportation background.”

Tolson, indeed, has a tough act to follow. In addition to serving as transportation secretary under former governor Ed Rendell, Cutler used to head the Philadelphia Parking Authority and worked as a transit commissioner for Boston and San Francisco. She is credited with pulling the South Street Bridge redesign out of political limbo, expanding the airport, implementing bike share, and pushing a nationally acclaimed stormwater management plan. In 2011, American City & County magazine named her “Public Works Leader of the Year.” Nutter called her tenure at MOTU “revolutionary.”

“She is someone who changes culture,” Rendell told American City & County. “Rina takes no prisoners. She is a very direct and forceful administrator and leader. She’s entirely honest and blunt. She gets things done.”

Tolson also has a decades-long resume and several awards for municipal service, but much of it isn’t for transportation work. She most recently served as head of the City’s Revenue Department, which handles tax collection. She had previously led the Streets Department, which despite its transit-y sounding name puts much of its focus and funding into trash pickup. Her signature accomplishment there was aggressively enacting single-stream recycling.

Further, Tolson’s top deputies — Zaccagni and Matthew Fisher — migrated with her from Revenue and have backgrounds in finance and law, respectively.

Sources familiar with the department praise Tolson’s management ability and political relationships with City Council, but complain about Philadelphia’s chief planning and transportation department being helmed by administrators with little background in planning or transportation.

“The big concern is that none of the top people at OTIS have any significant transportation background… It would be one thing if you were bringing in smart, new people, but that’s not what’s happening,” one source says, speaking anonymously to protect relationships within the department. “The big unanswered question is, will they have a vision or just pay lip service?”

Sources at OTIS did not reply to queries about Tolson’s vision for the department.

The rumors about the “complete streets commissioner” position might indicate where OTIS is headed. In February, Kenney staffers described the job to Philadelphia magazine as that of a powerful commissioner who would make sure “our streets are as multimodal as possible.” By the time the job posting went up in March, however, the role had already been scaled back to that of a “program director” largely tasked with the “coordination” and “support” of existing pedestrian safety efforts.

The position remains unfilled, leading some to worry that the City abandoned the idea altogether. Abernathy says the administration is trying to “get it right, [rather] than fast,” but offers no possible contenders for the job.

Graphic by Ann Dinh

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