Regional Plan Association President & CEO Tom Wright Remarks at RPA Assembly 2019

Good morning!

Thank you for joining us at Regional Plan Association’s 29th Assembly!

Each year the RPA Assembly brings together a diverse group of policy experts from the public, private and civic sectors. I want to thank all of our terrific sponsors and speakers.

Today is Good Friday and tonight is the beginning of Passover. Whether you will be observing the holidays this afternoon or not, thank youfor joining us this morning.

This is a special day at RPA, because for the first time we have printed copies of the Fourth Regional Plan to share and sell! Please be sure to get a copy in the lobby during the day.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank once again Rit Aggarwala for Chairing the Committee on the Fourth Plan, and Chris Jones and Juliette Michaelson and the entire team at RPA that did such an amazing job putting it together.

And in case you’re wondering, No, the Attorney General has not redacted any portions of the Fourth Regional Plan. You get to read the whole thing!

When we started working on the Fourth Plan seven years ago, we started by listening to people. They told us that they loved their communities, but they were worried that they were going to be priced out of them. Taxes, travel times, medical expenses, the cost of housing -- everything seemed to be going up.

RPA’s Fourth Plan proposed 61 recommendations for generating more housing choices, improving mobility options, supporting healthy lifestyles, addressing climate change, and improving public agencies. Many of them required new funding sources and they all identified ways to grow that wouldn’t dislocate current residents for new arrivals or put the burden on communities that could least afford them.

We projected that the region had the potential grow by as many as 2 million jobs and 4 million people by 2040 – IFwe had the capacity in our communities and infrastructure systems. Otherwise we would be headed for the worst of both worlds: a future in which growth slows to half of what we experienced over the past generation while the gap between rich and poor grows even wider; racial segregation becomes even more entrenched; and climate change puts more people’s lives and homes at risk.

That’s why we chose the theme “Investing in People and Places” for this year’s Assembly -- to recognize that we need to keep investing to provide a better future for our children.

These kinds of investments used to get broad bipartisan support, but over the past year we’ve seen opposition to growth become a potent force in our communities and our politics -- from both sides of the political spectrum. 

It can be tempting to look at our congested streets and packed subways; public schools with kids trying to learn in trailers or temporary spaces; and neighborhoods where long-term residents have been priced out, and say “Sorry, we’re full.”

That isn’t the right answer for our region -- or our nation.

One of the root causes of this opposition is a feeling that only the wealthiest are benefiting from this growth. It feeds resentment and cynicism and opposition to the kinds of investments and policies that we’re pushing at RPA.

So we need policies and investments that will provide that kind of broad-based growth that is shared by everyone.

We’ve made some important progress over the past year.

Last summer the New York City Transit Authority released its Fast Forward plan to rebuild the subways and fix our bus system.

Governor Murphy is investing in NJTransit and bringing New Jersey back into RGGI.

Governor Lamont has proposed tolling highways.

Next week, New York City will release the update of OneNYC and just yesterday the City Council passed historic climate legislation. We’re very pleased to have Dan Zarrilli, New York City’s Chief Climate Policy Advisor, participating in one of the panel discussions this morning, and I want to congratulate him and his team on their terrific work.

And, we made history this month when New York became the first state in the country to approve congestion pricing!

For all these successes, we still have big challenges ahead of us.

The region has added almost a million and a half jobs since the Great Recession. But because our housing production never recovered along with our economy, many families are finding hard-earned gains simply eaten up by ever-escalating rents.

While some neighborhoods have built housing, many more are saying “no thanks.” Today, New York City is building new homes at half the rate of high-cost cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, DC, and many suburbs are hardly permitting anything. We could build 250,000 new homes, complete with schools, shops, parks, and other neighborhood amenities, just by utilizing surface parking lots near commuter rail stations, and another 500,000 just by reforming rules that outlaw things like dividing large houses or adding apartments above garages.

We also need to protect our neighbors living in public housing that is falling into disrepair. 

The effect of losing just 10% of our public housing would be devastating: 100,000 people experiencing homelessness, more than a billion dollars in costs each year, and the loss of critical parts of our workforce.

We want to see half of the region’s job growth in downtowns and commercial centers outside of Manhattan -- place like Port Morris, Newark, Bridgeport and Jamaica. But Manhattan will continue to be the engine of our economy, and our transit system will need to accommodate more than 300,000 additional daily commuters.

The single most important investment is Gateway. As I’m sure you already know, the 110-year old tunnels under the Hudson River flooded during SuperStorm Sandy. If Amtrak shuts down one of the tunnels for repairs before Gateway is built, nearly 40,000 commuters will be forced to find a new way to cross the Hudson River every morning and night.  More than half would cram onto the PATH, buses, or ferries. Most of the rest would drive -- adding more traffic congestion and increasing the commutes of 250,000 people who currently drive. In all, more than 100,000 people would see their daily commutes worsen by an hour or more and the nation would lose $16 billion in economic activity.

And yet this clear need -- and commitments from New York and New Jersey to pay for half of the project -- still haven’t been enough to convince the White House to build the tunnels before catastrophe strikes.

This is madness!

While Gateway is the most essential infrastructure project in the nation, it won’t provide enough capacity for our region’s growing economy. We need to extend Gateway to Sunnyside; expand subways and buses to transit deserts; connect MetroNorth to Penn Station; build light rail systems in Brooklyn and Queens; and use technology to get more capacity out of our road network -- even as we create more spaces for pedestrians, bicycles, scooters and whatever else the geniuses in Williamsburg think up next.

We also need to think about how we connect to the rest of the world. As a global gateway, we are making important investments in new terminals and upgrades at all three major airports, starting with LaGuardia. But without new runways at Kennedy and Newark airports, we will not be able to handle the demand for air travel. The numbers of passengers moving through our airports increased from 104 million in 2010 to 139 million last year, an increase of 33% in just eight years. We’re headed to 150 million annual passengers within the next decade. While better technology and larger planes will help, we need to start planning today for expanded airports the region will need tomorrow.

Perhaps the most complicated challenge of all is that of climate change. Recent reports by the IPCC and National Climate Assessment sound the alarm that we need to cut our emissions of greenhouse gases to ZERO by 2050 to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of a warming planet. That means by 2050 every single electron that flows into our homes and businesses needs to be generated from a (CLICK) clean energy source; every (CLICK)  vehicle on the road needs to be powered by fossil fuel alternatives; and every (CLICK)  building needs to be heated and cooled by something other than oil or gas.

We still haven’t figured out the path forward. Con Edison recently announced a moratorium on new gas connections in Westchester County because they can’t reliably supply the gas, and similar warnings have been issued for New York City and Long Island. This could hurt our efforts to provide housing or jobs -- or produce a backslide to dirtier fuels.

And we remain vulnerable to coastal storms, heavy downpours, extreme heat and permanent flooding from sea level rise. The Army Corps recently released an initial analysis of strategies to protect New York Harbor. They range from doing nothing to building a $120 billion surge barrier. This is the challenge of our time, but we have neither the government institutions nor the funds to pay for it. 

I wanted to share these challenges with you this morning to spark a conversation about what it will really take to solve these issues. Your participation today shows your own commitment to this work.

So, before I turn the podium over to Hope Knight to introduce our morning keynote speaker, we’re

teeing up three questions on Twitter for you to answer. The poll will close at noon, and at lunch we will share the results. If you head to our twitter page, you’ll see the three separate twitter polls pinned to the top.  

Here are three questions we would appreciate your feedback on:

No matter what we do with reform efforts, we are going to need to invest billions of dollars in New York’s public housing to repair dilapidated units.

CLICK How should we fund NYCHA repairs?

Second question:

Penn Station was designed to handle 200,000 passengers a day, but handles three times that now. When Moynihan Station opens in two years, Amtrak and Long Island Railroad passengers will have a more attractive option, and when East Side Access opens two years later, we will have a once-in-many-generations opportunity to increase capacity, improve access, and perhaps even find a new home for Madison Square Garden and create a grand new civic space.

This will take leadership, so the question is,CLICK whose responsibility is it to fix this mess?

And finally: CLICK What policy gives you the most hope that we are actually going to be able to address the challenge of climate change?

You can answer these questions at your leisure this morning, but please let us know what you think.

It is now my great pleasure to introduce Hope Knight, President & CEO of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, a community-building organization that plans, promotes, coordinates and advances responsible real estate development to revitalize Jamaica, Queens.

Please join me in welcoming her to the stage.