New York has had 15 governors and 16 mayors since 1920. There’ve been since that year 17 recessions, 22 summer Olympics, 9 popes, 18 presidents, 24 James Bond movies (25 if you count Never Say Never Again, which was really just a bad remake of Thunderball), and more than 18,000 episodes of Guiding Light. But in the New York City area, there have only been four regional plans. That’s because each plan—years in the making—is intended to shape policy for decades.
The most recent regional plan, released last year, certainly cuts out years’ worth of work for policymakers in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. It calls for the creation of a regional rail system and updated zoning, suggests developing Bridgeport and Paterson as regional economic hubs and job pipelines involving hospitals and universities, and endorses a Meadowlands National Park.
It’s telling, however, that in looking back on the first year of the Fourth Plan, Thomas Wright, president & CEO of the Regional Plan Association projects a sense of urgency on two issues: the transit funding crisis and the threat of climate change.
“Climate change is a completely new set of issues. It is something fundamentally different, an existential threat to the entire region, to a much larger population,” Wright tells City Limits. “We still thought of it even a year ago as more of a marathon that an immediate threat. In some ways, you could argue that’s the thing we didn’t foresee the most. The bad news on climate has come much faster than we expected. Recent events and new science is proving that we maybe missed something.” November saw a report by the National Climate Assessment predicting serious economic impacts from climate change and in early December came an update from the Global Carbon Project reporting that carbon emissions were accelerating. “If we said that stuff a year ago, we were afraid people would have dismissed us as doomsayers,” Wright says. “Now, it’s looking overly optimistic.”
On funding for the MTA, Wright sees 2019 as a critical year. “Congestion pricing has to pass. It has to be in the budget. We need it to reduce traffic and to fund the MTA,” he argues. “Six months from now either we’ll be moving forward on that or our legislative and elected leaders will have failed us and we’ll be caught tighter in a downward spiral.” When future generations look back on the next year, they’ll either say, “‘Here was a moment they either made the right choice and things improved’ or ‘They made the wrong choice and we all suffered,” Wright says. “I really do think it’s that important.”
The fact that congestion pricing is near the top of the agenda in Albany as Democrats prepare to take full control of state government, and that both Gov. Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon backed it during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign, represents a partial victory. It’s unclear whether the fourth regional plan drove that conversation, helped shape it or was merely in step with the zeitgeist. Whatever linkage, Wright says that overall, “We’ve been really pleased at how many of the ideas seem to be catching currency.” The fact that some of the ideas in the plan—like the notion of closing the subway system at night to permit regular maintenance—generated controversy is seen as a good thing: negative buzz is better than no buzz at all.
There’s been concrete progress, too, according to RPA. The MTA’s Fast Forward Plan embraced elements of the regional plan’s transit to-do list, and JFK airport is getting the kind of revamp and expansion RPA wanted to see. New Jersey’s governor moved the Garden State toward rejoining the
Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), while Connecticut adopted a greenhouse-gas reduction target and New York took big steps toward more aggressive offshore wind development, while the Army Corps of Engineers started studying whether surge barriers could help protect the region and there was progress toward a bigger network of bike trails. In the area of housing affordability, the city is testing the viability of “accessory dwelling units” and considering revising its property-tax system, while a handful of municipalities revised zoning rules to favor affordable housing.
“I think there is kind of region-wide recognition that housing production really never recovered from the recession,” Wright says, “and that it’s a different kind of housing we need.” Wright says he recognizes that development of any kind arouses suspicions about displacement, and notes, “More important than building new housing in the short term is making sure affordable-housing is maintained.”
The lack of federal commitment to the Gateway project is troubling, but the fact that New York Gov. Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Murphy are working together on Gateway—and that incoming Connecticut Gov. Lamont seems open to cross-border collaboration, is promising. “I think that there’s a better understanding of regional connectivity and how growth needs to be balanced,” Wright says.
Needless to say, challenges abound. The federal issues can’t be ignored. Its pros and cons aside, the planned Amazon move to Queens makes it even more important to incorporate Newark into the region’s growing tech-industry map. The MTA has to maintain a balance between addressing massive repair needs and investing to expand the system because, Wright says, the lack of new capacity is “why our system is so strained today and why we don’t have any give in it.”
Even if the transit system and climate change need attention, like, yesterday, the plan is a 25-year document. “This is really meant to be something that has a generational lifespan,” he says. ” If we’d have checked off all our boxes [by now], we’d have failed.”