Fourth RPA Report to Focus on Climate Change and Transportation Technology

sm logoRegional Plan Association event featured a variety of discussions on how the New York metropolitan region might face climate change, tackle transportation advancements. The Regional Plan Association, a non-profit urban research and advocacy organization, focuses on planning for economic competitiveness, quality of life, and long-term sustainability in the region that includes New York City, Long Island, Westchester and Orange counties, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey. On April 19, 2013, the Association held its 23rd Annual Assembly to discuss the challenges the region faces, and to plan a livable, sustainable, and economically strong future for the area. The Association recently commenced work on its regional plan, which will be the fourth since the organization’s inception in 1929. The plan will address climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, population increases in urban centers, and the lack of affordable housing, among other issues.

Association Executive Director Thomas K. Wright stressed that as we exit a recession, “we confront new threats to our prosperity and quality of life,” especially given the “capricious nature of climate change” exemplified by Hurricane Sandy. At a climate change panel discussion led by Rohit T. Aggarwala, former Director of Long Term Planning and Sustainability for the City of New York and current Stanford University professor, Aggarwala said that Hurricane Sandy proved climate change “is not just a problem for polar bears but something that directly impacts us all.” He noted that the region is becoming “denser and denser,” a trend that will continue in the future. Aggarwala said people in the region “rely utterly” on systems vulnerable to failure, including electric power, fuel distribution, and a “complex supply chain” for many goods. Aggarwala found hope in evidence that “we live in a region that is taking this seriously,” and that Hurricane Sandy served to “help us understand the broad concept of resilience.”

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand addressed the assembly, stating that it is a “moral responsibility … to be stewards of our environment and to be stewards of our community.” She said that the federal government needs to address climate change, calling the “status quo” unacceptable, and calling for “smarter, long-term regional planning.” She said the government lacks a “clear and integrated resiliency strategy.” She recommended the creation of a non-partisan national infrastructure investment authority that could work outside of campaign cycles, as part of an effort to “take politics out of the process.” She also advocated for the establishment of more “pocket parks” by reutilizing existing, unused spaces and structures as public amenities.

Association President Robert D. Yaro explained that the upcoming regional plan would emphasize recommendations for the “modernization and expansion of transit, aviation, port, road, and environmental systems.” Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy discussed the importance of transportation to the region, adding that any growth in the region must focus on “transit-oriented development.” Malloy identified infrastructure investment as a priority for the region, decrying a “political divide” on infrastructure spending, which he believed should not be a partisan issue. Malloy also stated that the impact of Hurricane Sandy should serve as a notice to local governments and residents “between the Potomac River and the Charles River that we are in this together.” Malloy said the area’s economic decline during the period following the Second World War to the 1990s was due to the fact that “we ignored the obvious dangers and we refused to confront them.” He argued that there was a good chance that future generations in the area would not be successful if the current lack of infrastructure investment continued.

In a panel on transit and technology, recently-appointed Chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Thomas F. Prendergast, said NYC’s Metrocard payment system is “reaching the end of its useful life.” He expects the MTA to move towards an open-architecture system that would offer more flexibility to customers. He added that, as one of the largest transportation systems in the world, it is difficult to implement new technology; the system is unique in that it was largely built at the turn of the 20th century. Peter Rogoff, of the Federal Transit Administration, noted that while new technology is important in improving reliability, it is not “a panacea.” He noted that during Hurricane Sandy, Eisenhower-era infrastructure fared better than newer, more technologically sophisticated equipment. Prendergast added that the MTA had to revert to older technology in the aftermaths of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and suggested the MTA develop a method to update the system while maintaining backup plans should new technology fail. A balance needs to be struck by implementing new technology and maintaining existing infrastructure in a state of good repair.

In a session on “Rethinking Penn Station,” moderator Marilyn Taylor, of the University of Pennsylvania, said that transportation “will be key” in the Association’s fourth regional plan. The “inhospitable” current station is an inadequate hub for the northeast corridor, which needs increases in capacity, speed, and reliability of rail service. She also said that the region merits a “world-class gateway.” Architect and Columbia professor Vishaan Chakrabarti said that the Farley Building, once rumored as a potential new home for Penn Station, is “physically impossible” as a wholesale station replacement. Chakrabarti also stressed that advocates must seek to cooperate with Madison Square Garden, rather than see them as an opponent in a “battle.” The Municipal Art Society’s Vin Cipolla added that were “remarkably obvious” alternative possibilities for siting a new arena. Panelists urged those who wished to see a new transportation hub to urge City Council not to give an open-ended special permit to Madison Square Garden for arena operations. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman stated that those who want a new and better station need to commence a “process of education and public engagement,” to convince people that a new station is “a possible thing.” During the panel, architect John McAslan discussed the restoration and renovation of London’s King’s Cross Station and its positive impact on the immediate neighborhood as well as on the country as a whole. He said that high-speed rail opened up opportunities in “regions that have been lost” in England.

During a panel on economic opportunity moderator Anthony E. Shorris, of NYU Langone Medical Center, said that the region “hasn’t grown equally” in the past two decades. He said that poverty is rising in the suburbs and is exacerbated by rising costs, particularly in housing. The Community Service Society’s David Jones called for “a major readjustment in how we think about education” with a “major focus on career and technical education.” The Empire State Development Corporation’s Kenneth Adams said input from community stakeholders is important in determining development policy and identifying priorities.

The meeting concluded with a plenary discussion on governance, in which moderator Julia Vitullo-Martin from the RPA discussed the regulatory, fiscal, and decision-making aspects of identifying the problems of implementing effective government in the region. Steven Bellone, County Executive for Suffolk County, said that local governments are not structurally and culturally set up to think and act on a regional basis and that a structure needs to be instituted to force them to do so. Executive Director of the Port Authority Patrick Foye stated that “governments are broke,” and that public-private partnerships offer the most effective way of realizing major projects. He noted that the new Goethals Bridge will be built primarily with private capital, which will bring “private-sector discipline” to infrastructure development. Maxine Griffith, of Columbia University, criticized ULURP’s pre-certification process during which projects can languish for months and years. She also bemoaned the lack of a real federal urban policy and a regional planning governance structure. Foye concurred that “having a more sophisticated level of land use process at a higher level of government would be a positive thing.”

Regional Plan Association, 23rd Annual Assembly (Apr. 19, 2013).

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