Transit and Resiliency Topics of Focus at RPA’s Annual Meeting


Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Senator Chris Murphy addressed economic disparity and the necessity of a long-term vision and cooperation of local leadership in strengthening the New York Metropolitan region’s infrastructure and economy. The Regional Plan Association held its 24th Annual Assembly at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on April 25, 2014. The RPA is a non-profit that seeks to promote planning for economic competitiveness, quality of life, and long-term sustainability in the larger New York metropolitan region, comprising of northern New Jersey, southern New York State, and western Connecticut.  The RPA is currently working on its fourth regional plan since 1929, which will offer a guide for the area’s long-term responsible growth, sustainability, and infrastructure improvement. The last regional plan was published in 1996.

United States Senator Chris Murphy (CT) delivered the keynote address during the meeting’s morning program. Senator Murphy discussed the “lingering challenge” of working on multiple independently operated local governments on long-term regional planning, as well as the impact that disparities in transportation access had on the State’s wealth distribution and quality of life. Senator Murphy stated that the current system of autonomous local governments placed communities in the region in competition with one another, and led to regional “balkanization.” Senator Murphy also stated that inequities in transportation led to severe economic disparities, and identified the 30-minute difference in travelling between Manhattan and Stamford and Manhattan and Bridgeport by train as key factors in the vast gulf in income and economic development between the two cities. Senator Murphy said investment in transportation infrastructure that would speed the commute from Bridgeport to Grand Central Terminal would have a “transformational” effect on the community.  Senator Murphy said that competing autonomous governments and disparities in mass transit was has resulted in a concentration of wealth in small pockets in the state.

Senator Murphy called for “a dignified end” to the current system of governance and transportation. He called for the standardization of regional groups and the forging of a collective identity beyond town and city borders. He noted that rail service in the northeast corridor consistently generated a profit, and improvements in rail service could easily be self-sustaining. He said the “conduit by which neighborhoods travel from depression into affluence is transportation infrastructure,” and urged the audience to consider how private capital could be brought in to help finance “big-scale passenger rail projects.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed attendees in the afternoon. Mayor de Blasio’s speech also emphasized economic inequality and local coordination. Mayor de Blasio credited the Bloomberg administration for diversifying the City’s economy, but said more could be done to ensure the benefits of the City’s improving economy reached all strata of society. He said the divisions and lack of action on the Federal level in dealing with subjects like environmental sustainability, economic inequality, and infrastructure has placed more responsibility on local leaders. He said the region was well-situated as “one of the great intellectual and creative capitals of the Earth,” and had the potential to act as a national model for addressing these issues and planning for the future.  The mayor stated that while regional planning was a “necessity,” “coordination and unity of visions are hard to come by.” With population growth expected to continue, it is imperative to “regionalize the fight against inequality.” Mayor de Blasio praised the passage of the City Council’s paid-sick-leave legislation, and said his administration aimed to create 200,000 units of affordable housing in the City, and would continue to push for full-day pre-Kindergarten classes.

Talking about Hurricane Sandy, the mayor said it was inevitable that “another storm is coming someday.”  He argued that by working regionally, the greater New York area could provide a national model for grappling with climate change and environmental sustainability.

RPA Executive Director Thomas Wright and Co-Chair of the Fourth Regional Plan Committee, Paul Francis, made a presentation on the region’s strengths going forward and the challenges it faces. They noted that the region had seen a steep decline in crime, especially in urban areas, had an increase in life expectancy outpacing the nation, and transit ridership higher than it has been in decades.  The region continues to grow, attracting 2.3 million residents and 1.5 million jobs in the past 20 years. They noted, however, that the benefits of growth had been unequally distributed, with three-quarters of households having seen median incomes dropped, after adjusting for inflation. Other challenges included skyrocketing housing costs, and weaker job growth in the suburbs than in the City. They also argued that the area was highly vulnerable to natural disasters, with a great deal of infrastructure located within the flood zone. They urged the modification of tax structures, in land-policies to facilitate housing construction, and the streamlining of procurement practices. They condemned the failure to invest in “technological and physical infrastructure systems” that would enhance resiliency, competitiveness, and capacity.

A panel addressing the topic of resilience in the region included Henk Ovink, Dutch Liaison to the Federal Department of Housing and Development, and the Principal of Rebuild by Design.  He said the region is at risk, and the risk will get worse. Ovink said that rebuilding from Sandy in a “copy-paste” manner was not a viable option, and “a bold move” was required. He noted that 75 percent of the power supply and, 52 percent of the region’s fuel supply, were in the flood plain, as well as many opportunities for environmental contamination. He decried the lack of a concerted effort from private firms to match Federal funds in making the region resistant to future catastrophes. The Rebuild by Design competition was intended to bring diverse stakeholders together to creatively tackle the problems of design and rebuilding.

Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch said the way to engage citizens in addressing climate was not to talk about “polar bears,” but about “Grandma’s fuel bill.” Finch touted the use of hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, Robert Pirani, co-author of an extensive report on disaster resiliency in the region said Hurricane Sandy had been “a particularly rude wake-up call,” and said the region could not cease working towards disaster preparation once Federal funds from Sandy had been exhausted.  Pirani argued that the catastrophe offered an opportunity to “rebuild smarter, rebuild better,” and to consider ways to incentivize resiliency planning. Kellie Terry-Sepulveda, of the Point Community Development Corporation, said that lower-income communities were some of the most vulnerable, and argued for the importance of involving those communities in resiliency planning.

At an afternoon session on rail service, RPA President Robert Yaro claimed that the New York metro region was uniquely situated as an “extraordinary center of the nation’s economy,” whose quality of life, resiliency and economic goals were all enhanced by rail service. He also said the region was a “chokepoint” in the northeast corridor, where the system was most congested and most fragile, and the rush hours at Pennsylvania Station “a daily humiliation for half a million people.”  Yaro called for the region to expand and modernize its rail infrastructure, as other world capitals were doing, to double rail capacity in the northeast corridor in the 21st century by building new rail tunnels under the Hudson and replacing Penn Station, which would open up “a world of opportunities” for the region and the nation. President and CEO of Amtrak Joseph Boardman said the current system lacked resiliency, redundancy and flexibility, and was close to reaching its maximum capacity. According to the Boardman, Amtrak needed to change its way of operating to open to partnerships with outside entities like states, congressional delegations, the Port Authority the MTA, and the Long Island Railroad to find necessary infrastructure investment.

New York State Deputy Secretary of Transportation Karen Rae defended the Cuomo administration’s record on infrastructure investment and modernization, stating that New York spends five billion dollars a year on transit, more than 43 other states combined. She stated that Cuomo’s administration had fought to keep the Farley Post Office available for the future expansion or replacement of Penn Station and was working to extend Metro North into Penn Station. She pointed to the ongoing replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge as a successful complex project requiring the cooperation of multiple agencies. Rae lamented that New York is “sorely missing a Federal partner” in improving rail service. City Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg echoed Mayor de Blasio in saying that as the City grows, it is important to ensure that the growth broadly benefits all segments of the population. She said that congestion was symptom of the area’s growth and success, but that growth necessitates a “vision.” She expressed hope that the population and economic growth of the region could lead to “a governance and financing model that could get us to do some of the big things” that other world cities are currently undertaking.

 Regional Plan Association, 24th Annual Assembly (April 25, 2014).

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