Remarks on ReThinkNYC Plan 2050

The following remarks were made by RPA Senior Vice President and Chief Planner Christopher Jones at ReThinkNYC's Plan 2050 conference on May 10, 2017. 

Regional Plan Association will be releasing its fourth plan for the New York region in the fall. Just like our three previous plans, this one will be more than a transportation plan. While transportation will be a central part of the plan, it will be integrated into a larger set of proposals for the economy, the environment, housing and land use.

And just as the ReThink proposal does, this plan will draw shamelessly on prior plans and ideas, many of which have been around for some time.

Also, like each of the prior plans, this one will try to address the major challenges of our time. These are obviously a lot different from the mid-1990s when RPA released its last plan. Twenty years ago, there were doubts as to whether New York was going to maintain its place as a premier global city, and we hadn’t expanded our transit infrastructure in 50 years. New York has clearly come back in many ways since then, and at least two of the major projects we called for—the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access—are being built.

But now we have a very different set of problems to solve.

One is that we’ve had more than two decades of economic growth accompanied by rising inequality and stagnant incomes. Much of that is due to changes in the global economy, but inequality has risen faster here and we have a particularly high level of both racial and economic segregation. Supporting a growing economy is still fundamental, and we think that there is potential to add another 2 million jobs in the region over the next twenty years on top of the 11 million that we have now. But the transportation plan will also put a focus on improving access and promoting job growth in places where they are needed most.

So our plan will put more emphasis on expanding all modes—subway, commuter rail, bus, bike—and using new technologies to serve places that don’t have good access now.  And there will be less emphasis than the ReThink plan on creating new hubs, and more on supporting job growth in existing centers with large low-income populations like Jamaica and Newark.

Climate changes is also a much more urgent threat than it was 20 years ago. It’s here, and we have to plan for a region that will have a different coastline 50 years from now and learn to live with more disruptive storms and heat waves. One of the concerns that we have about the ReThink proposal is that some of the hubs and facilities that it promotes are in places that are most threatened by sea level rise. For example, by the end of this century, LaGuardia Airport and much of the New Jersey Meadowlands will be under water without some very difficult and expensive interventions. At a minimum, these costs need to be taken into account. And strategically, it makes sense to focus new development where both people and infrastructure are less vulnerable.

And the last big challenge that I want to mention is how we can modernize our aging infrastructure in a region that is as dense and complex as this one. Twenty years ago we were saying that our transportation system was old and deteriorating, and that it was hard to build in a dense region. Well, our infrastructure is even older now and we’re even more crowded than we were then.  Besides the cost, the biggest implementation challenge is to keep the current system running while we are creating facilities and services around it. Our plans have to address complex questions of operations and feasibility, and the continuous process of upgrades and maintenance. 

That’s a big part of the reason why, while we completely share the belief that through-running service is needed in the core, and particularly at Penn Station, we’re proposing a different way to do it. There will always be some disruption from new service, but trains will still have to operate in and out of Penn Station while we are creating more through-running service. We would keep Penn South but reconfigure it to allow through-running service, and we are convinced that there need to be two new East River tunnels to handle all of the new and existing service that would go through it.

It’s also why we’re looking at ways to reduce the cost of construction and change some of our governance models so we can actually build all this expensive infrastructure that we’re calling for.

In spite of these differences, there are several principles that we share with the ReThink proposal.

  • Increasing rail ridership is the only way to grow sustainably in a region with New York’s density,
  • our transit network needs to become far more flexible to serve nontraditional commutes and centers outside of Manhattan,
  • and through-running service creates more capacity and flexibility.

And I think that we also share the conviction that if there was ever a time for a transformative vision for the region’s transportation system, this is it.  The daily drama at Penn Station isn’t just from lack of maintenance. It’s also because we’ve reached the limits of what our biggest transit hub can deliver. And that story plays out on any number of subway lines, and could soon start to put a brake on the city’s economy. Meanwhile, our international peers either already have or are building more robust and efficient systems, and we could once again start calling ourselves A Region at Risk, the title of RPA’s third plan.