Should the New York region make modest changes to the way transit systems are run, or overhaul them completely? How important is it to preserve existing neighborhoods when new housing is contemplated? And how will new technology such as self-driving cars alter the suburban landscape?
Policy makers, planners and other experts gathered at the RPA Assembly on May 6 to debate these issues and many others facing the metropolitan region. The debates were anchored by eight preliminary proposals of the Fourth Regional Plan, unveiled for the first time at the Assembly. The plan, due out in 2017 with many more recommendations, will be called A Region Transformed, RPA President Tom Wright announced at the event. The name reflects RPA’s belief that profound changes are needed to sustain and expand the region’s success.
RPA also was delighted to hear from three distinguished keynote speakers, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, all of whom underscored the need to invest for policy makers to work across borders and jurisdictions to make sure that the country’s infrastructure needs are met.
In addition, a plenary panel featuring Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka; Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and New Haven Mayor Toni Harp was led in a discussion by Sidewalk Labs’ Rit Aggarwala about how the region might find the will to tackle its biggest problems.
Just before that conversation got under way, RPA’s Wright and Juliette Michaelson conducted an informal text poll of the audience. Strikingly, 84% of the 300-odd respondents said that they expected the region would be no more affordable in 10 years than it is today. They were somewhat more optimistic about the economy, with the vast majority of respondents expecting either continued job growth in New York City alone or in the both the city and the suburbs over the next decade.
Off the main stage, panel discussions linked to Fourth Plan proposals also included recommendations for improving suburban transit networks, increasing affordable housing in the suburbs, making broadband more accessible and strategies for dealing with flood vulnerability.
At the session on broadband access, RPA Senior Planner Mandu Sen noted that while thinking about digital infrastructure isn’t a traditional focus of the planning community, there was a growing awareness that the digital divide had significant implications for expanding economic opportunity, improving public health and reducing vulnerability to disasters. Broadband needs to be thought of as a basic amenity, she said, in the same way as we think about access to water or public transportation.
The heads of the MTA and NJ Transit responded to RPA’s suggestion that new services such as through-running of commuter trains and lowering commuter rail fares for intra-city trips. MTA Chief Tom Prendergast said that while he was open to changes like these, he was focused on developing an integrated fare system for the region, starting by replacing the outmoded MetroCard.
And at the session on how to transform flood-zone policy, panelists were divided over an RPA proposal to create a regional commission to address the effects of climate change. Some argued that a new commission would only add a layer of government that would hinder progress made by municipalities, while other participants and some audience members said that a regional authority might be able to effectively coordinate risk reduction from storms and rising sea levels. Good examples of regional bodies exist, noted one panelist, including water boards in the Netherlands and levy districts in the U.S. South.
The discussions yielded valuable feedback for RPA as we continue to refine Fourth Plan proposals and shape the Fourth Plan.
Video of the keynote speakers and other main stage discussions, audio from the breakout sessions and photos from the entire day are available here. Thank you to all the day's participants for making the Assembly such a success. --Wendy Pollack
Photos: Nancy Borowick