The Regional Plan Association (RPA)’s Assembly conference in New York City, which focuses on urban planning, infrastructure, and transportation, was marked by an acute sense of crises and challenge. “You need to start shouting about how bad things are, how irresponsible” we’ve been as a nation, former Vice President Joe Biden told the audience. He bellowed how the U.S.’s infrastructure released a D+ rating. Biden was on hand to receive the RPA’s John Zuccotti Award. In addition to being a longtime advocate for Amtrack, the noted train enthusiast Biden administered the infrastructure-heavy American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It’s an “easy message to deliver,” he said, “that our infrastructure is crumbling and making America less competitive.”
Challenges associated with major projects like the Gateway Program (which promises new rail tunnels under the Hudson, among other improvements), the Second Avenue Subway, and a new Port Authority Bus Terminal loomed large as the conference started off. In the Assembly’s large morning panel, Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT), highlighted how the region’s “accountability and governance model” needs to be reviewed. If government officials have clear ownership, it’s better, she said, citing Governor Cuomo’s intervention into the Second Avenue Subway.
Rohit Aggarwala, chief policy officer of Sidewalk Labs and co-chair of the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan, gave a preview of what the RPA would propose when the Plan comes out later this year. “What has happened to these institutions?” he asked, arguing that it wasn’t politics, ineptitude, nor lack of funding that was causing major regional transportation projects to falter and slow. It’s the “very shape and structure of these agencies” that were the cause, he said, adding that they’re “deeply flawed” in how they’re organized, funded, and how responsibilities are divided. He discussed how other global cities, such as London, Honk Kong, and Los Angeles, have all restructured their transportation agencies in the last 20 or so years, consolidating power on a more local level or finding new arrangements more reflective of their needs. “It is time for reinvention,” he concluded, saying the Fourth Plan would address these issues head-on. (He gave no concrete hints about the Plan itself, though in one example of dysfunction, he cited how commuter rail authorities are divided by the Hudson.)
There were major project updates at the “Crossing the Hudson” panel, which sought to address the fundamental challenge of improving transportation across (and under) the Hudson to connect New York and New Jersey. Tom Wright, president of the RPA, kicked off the panel by showing how New Jersey added 65,000 new cross-Hudson commuters from 1990 to 2010 and stood to add another 75,000 from 2010 to 2040. (By another estimate, it would be 110,000 by 2040 if you include New Jersey commuters going to all five boroughs.) Forty-three percent of current commutes happen via bus and a new Port Authority Bus Terminal (PABT) is desperately needed. Additionally, if one track is lost on the current 106-year-old rail tunnel under the Hudson, Penn Station can only handle six trains during a peak hour (as compared to 24 otherwise).
Put simply, “New Jersey transit systems are in a state of crises,” said panel member and New Jersey State Senator Robert Gordon. While PATH is in decent shape funding-wise (thanks to PANYNJ tolls), the rest of the state’s transit system is severely underfunded. John Porcari, interim executive director of the Gateway Program Development Corporation, framed the challenge a little differently: 10 percent of the country’s GDP is in the New York metro area, but crossing the Hudson via rail its “single point of failure.” A new rail bridge, dubbed the Portal Bridge and located over the Hackensack River, is ready for construction but is awaiting federal funding. The new rail tunnel’s environmental impact statement should be released in 60 days, Pocari added, and a financing plan is also in the works. Those two projects (the new bridge and tunnel) constitute phase one of the Gateway Program; phase two includes a new Penn Station. Biden called the tunnel “literally the single most important project in the country.”
“You need to start shouting about how bad things are, how irresponsible” we’ve been as a nation. – Joe Biden pic.twitter.com/eIcQScJwTX
— Architects Newspaper (@archpaper) April 21, 2017
A new PABT is also essential to the trans-Hudson transportation question; the current station will require replacement in 15 to 20 years due to structural deterioration, said Andrew Lynn, director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ)’s Planning and Regional Development Department. (Lynn sometimes holds meetings with local officials and stakeholders in the PABT, using the shaking walls to drive home his point.) The PANYNJ has about $3.5 billion set aside for the terminal, but despite numerous attempts to formulate a plan over the years, none have been successful. The PANYNJ is effectively “pushing the reset button” on the project, and while the group will learn from past failures, “we’re really starting over,” he said. (Gordon suggested expanding the current PABT upwards by building off the current structure. This would expand capacity while minimzing local impact.)
Andrew Lynn of PANYNJ: “We’re pushing a reset button” on the new PABT. pic.twitter.com/zQiMHvj0j2
— Architects Newspaper (@archpaper) April 21, 2017
However, Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation (NYC DOT), countered that “global cities are not building big bus terminals”; rail is much more efficient. “One enormous bus terminal” is not the solution, she said, citing the failings of Robert Moses and how “we don’t think that way now.”
Lastly, the panel touched on the replacement and expansion of Penn Station. Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of Practice for Architecture Urbanism, who has put forward a plan to adapt the existing structure, explained his plan to move Madison Square Garden to the back of the old Farley Building, allowing the adaptive reuse of the current Garden’s superstructure for a new train station that would make the neighborhood a “world-class address.” (ReThink Studio, who was also present at the Assembly, has critiqued aspects of this plan.)
Chakrabarti also sounded the alarm that office space might be built in the back of the Farley Building to fund Amtrack’s construction of a new Amtrack platforms on the rails that run under the Farley Building. Those platforms, he added, would only serve Amtrack and exclude regional rail. He also warned that the current Penn Station was a safety hazard awaiting disaster: with such low ceilings, for instance, a smoke event would be disastrous in the already-overcapacity space.
In sum, the panel portrayed a moment of crises but also a potential reconsideration of the current status quo. Once the current crises have been averted, panelists agreed it would make the most sense for New Jersey to emphasize trains over buses for a trans-Hudson commute, as rail is overall far more efficient (albeit also more expensive) a system for moving people.
After this, an afternoon panel, “Planning for the Transportation Revolution,” sought to address how ride sharing and autonomous vehicle could reshape the urban landscape. Bruce Schaller, principal at Schaller Consulting (which specializes in urban transportation policy), and Matt Wing, corporate communications lead at Uber, both highlighted how Transportation Network Companies (TNCs, such as Uber and Lyft) have filled in gaps created by public transportation. Forty percent of Uber’s New York City rides are in the outer boroughs and never touch Manhattan, which serves as little surprise given only one subway line (the G) doesn’t pass through Manhattan. TNCs, Wing explained, are also serving as critical links in the “last mile” problem of getting people to mass transit stations. (See AN’s transportation feature on Miami for more on this.)
Jessica Robinson, director of city solutions at Ford Smart Mobility, revealed that Ford aimed to have a production-ready Level 4 self-driving car by 2021. (Level 4 means no steering wheel, gas pedal, or anything else drivers must operate.) Given their cost, said Robinson, such cars will almost certainly be owned and operated by ride-sharing companies. Seeking to stay at the forefront of mobility solutions, Ford also bought Chariot, a TNC that operates 14-passenger ride-sharing vehicles and aims to reinvent mass transit.
It was Robin Chase, the co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, who gave the most impassioned presentation. “Cities are in a one-time position of power,” she said, to dictate the terms of how autonomous vehicles should operate before they’re legally allowed in major cities. She’s currently organizing a global coalition of mayor to negotiate with large companies. Her top priorities include: ensuring all vehicles are electric, creating a level playing field for competition among ride-sharing companies, and negotiating new forms of ride sharing taxation based on distance traveled, curb rights, fuel type, and other factors. Conventional taxation based on registration fees, gasoline tax, and tolls may not be an option when autonomous vehicles hit the road.
Overall, the panel argued that anything less than all-electronic fleets of competing ride share companies would be a major loss for cities. In that scenario, there are fewer and much cleaner cars on the road, and vast amounts of parking and curbside space would be made available for public use.
For more on major transportations plans, don’t miss the upcoming Plan 2050 at the Cooper Union, this May 9!