Transit as a Stepping Stone to Prosperity

Christmas came early to the tri-state region this year. In the span of a week, two high-profile, competitive awards landed on Long Island and in Stamford, Conn. While they have different objectives and scopes, both should help further the twin goals of revitalizing the metropolitan economy and supporting more sustainable, transit-oriented development.

By coincidence, each was announced within a day of town hall meetings convened in Mineola on Long Island and in Stamford by the New York-Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium, a federally funded effort co-led by Regional Plan Association to create more livable, economically prosperous communities by leveraging the region's robust transit network. Together, these events show that years of efforts by civic, business and political leaders across the region are bearing fruit.

On Dec. 8, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Long Island had won a $101.6 million economic-development grant, part of a $785 million pool of funding awarded state-wide that day. In Long Island, an umbrella group representing business, education and civic interests from across Nassau and Suffolk counties has proposed a wide-ranging program to foster job creation, improve infrastructure and protect natural resources. Much of the funding is slated to support transit-oriented development projects on Long Island, including the Ronkonkoma LIRR-MacArthur Airport transportation hub, where plans are underway to foster a vibrant residential and business community around Long Island's busiest train station.

A week later, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that Stamford would receive a $10.5 million federal grant to improve the city's combined rail and bus station, already one of the most heavily used hubs in the Metro-North Railroad system. As Stamford has evolved from a commuter suburb of New York City into the commercial and entertainment center of lower Fairfield County, the station's customer base has expanded and diversified. The grant will help fund pedestrian access bridges and improvements to waiting areas, including new lighting and signage, that will move the transportation center closer to meeting growing regional demand.

In both instances, these grants reflect the growing recognition that regional prosperity, better transportation choices and more livable communities are inextricably linked and require coordinated strategies. That recognition is also at the heart of the federal Sustainable Communities Partnership, a joint effort of the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The partnership is funding more than 70 regional initiatives across the country to implement coordinated economic, housing, transportation and environmental strategies, including a grant to Regional Plan Association on behalf of a consortium of 17 cities, counties and metropolitan planning organizations in New York and Connecticut. A full description of the consortium's partners and activities can be found at www.sustainablenyct.org.

The awards to Long Island and Stamford brought an added dimension to the agenda of the New York-Connecticut consortium that RPA is co-leading. The consortium has just launched a series of public forums across the region to gather input on the program's goals and launch a set of projects that are designed to create equitable, energy-efficient housing and jobs at key transit hubs. At the recent town hall in Mineola, for example, participants debated how to balance denser office and residential development around train stations while providing enough parking for commuters.

The group's efforts to identify new transit-oriented development projects in Nassau County and to encourage the transfer of development rights away from environmentally sensitive locations in Suffolk County complement Long Island's efforts to generate new economic activity and protect open space. Similarly, plans for transit-oriented development projects in Stamford, Bridgeport, Norwalk, New Haven, New Rochelle and the Bronx, all linked to the Stamford Transportation Center, will receive added impetus from the federal grant.

Additional town halls are planned for early 2012 in New York City; Bridgeport, Conn.; Hauppauge in Long Island; and Mount Vernon in Westchester.

The trick, as always, will be to coordinate efforts and maintain momentum, particularly in economically treacherous times. But for a moment, let's give thanks for the holiday gifts and the efforts of all who made them possible.