(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 385: Thinking Regionally About New York

June 2, 2022

This week we’re joined by Regional Plan Association President and CEO Tom Wright. Tom looks back at the history of the RPA, the current process for congestion pricing in New York City, and how the Triborough transit line got traction. We also talk about the organization’s thinking on climate change and more!

You can listen to the episode at Streetsblog USA or on our hosting site.

Below is a full unedited episode transcript:

Jeff Wood (1m 32s):
Tom Wright. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Tom Wright (1m 45s):
Hey, thanks for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 46s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Tom Wright (1m 49s):
Sure. I’ve been with regional plan association, how for over 20 years, which is kind of shocking coming up in college. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be an architect and I studied a lot of that and worked for an architect for summer or do public policy. And it wasn’t until I was graduating that I heard there was this whole other field called urban planning, which was just exactly what I wanted to do because I’ve always been very focused on the built environment. I consider myself a physical planner, but I wasn’t going to hack it as an architect. And so this was, I kind of went upstream as it were to try and work on the public policy and shape the built environment before people get down to actually designing it. I got my master’s at Columbia.

Tom Wright (2m 31s):
I came out and started working at RPA, actually on our third regional plan in the mid nineties, and then was running RPAs, New Jersey office. When I got an opportunity to go move to New Jersey, to work for governor Whitman who had just become a big proponent of smart growth and the New Jersey state plan. And so I became deputy director of the office of state planning there and had an opportunity to do the New Jersey state development redevelopment plan, which came out in 2001. And then kind of in the summer of a one, she went off to EPA, the president of RPA at the time a guy named Claude Shasta was going to retire. And Bob yarrow, who was the number two, it was going to move up and they both kind of reached out and asked me if I’d come on to work for Bob.

Tom Wright (3m 15s):
And on September 3rd, 2001, I gave notice at the state I was gonna, I gave a month’s notice. I was gonna take a month off and just ease into a thing. And then obviously the next week nine 11 happened. And so I started, I came back to RPA on September 13th, 2001. And the first couple of years, it was of course, very focused in lower Manhattan. And about eight years ago, Bob retired and I became president and I’ve had a chance and then got the opportunity to move work on the fourth regional plan, which was pretty great. And it’s been, you know, it’s remarkable because over the last 20 years, kind of between nine 11 Superstorm, Sandy, we’ve seen New York go through these ups and downs.

Tom Wright (3m 55s):
And one of the things that’s nice about having that kind of longevity is that ideas that we put out that people thought were just totally, half-baked crazy lunacy kind of things have become mainstream. And it become, you know, things like congestion pricing or vertical mixed use or bike lanes and other things. And so it, it’s nice to have been around long enough to actually see some of the crazy ideas that we were espousing the adopted. And I think it gives me some confidence that maybe some of the more lunatic stuff that we’re trying to push right now, like the inner borough express in Brooklyn and Queens or other things could actually happen because they do happen. They take a long time though, they take a long time.

Jeff Wood (4m 38s):
Yeah. That’s surprising thing about planning it. And as somebody who’s worked kind of in the field for over 20 years now, it’s interesting to think about how, how you might work on stuff maybe in your first couple of years, and then it doesn’t actually happen until like 15 to 20 years later. Yeah. It’s validating when it happens, but it’s also a little bit frustrating about this, the speed of things that happen in this field.

Tom Wright (4m 58s):
Yeah. You really have to be patient and believe that you’re on the right path and moving forward. The other thing I will say though, about urban planning and kind of going back to my studies. I mean, I remember when I would study architects and just be amazed at the ideas they had and you look at the Guggenheim museum or Rockefeller center, other things, and I would think I could never do that. And then of course you study the history of urban planning and urban renewal or, you know, building highways and things, and you think, what the hell were they thinking? You know, and one of my takeaways from it has been really just to not fall into the trap of hubris as a planner, to recognize that what we think might be absolutely right today could be wrong in certain ways.

Tom Wright (5m 42s):
Now, you know, I’m passionate about congestion practicing, and I think it’s really the right thing to do. And I’m, I’m all in on it. But I try to go about advocating or learning about these issues or working with other groups, recognizing that again, I worked in a field where, you know, historically we’ve probably been wrong more often than we’ve been right. And so let’s just have some humility and, you know, try to take seriously other points of view and also recognize that things that might be appropriate and right to do today could be wrong tomorrow. And it might be that tomorrow they were wrong because they weren’t ambitious enough or it might be that they’re wrong because they were just headed in the wrong direction.

Tom Wright (6m 24s):
And I just think, especially, you know, what was so attractive about cities is the organic dynamic nature of working in them. But that also means that, you know, an idea and may need 20 years before its time has come. It may also just be the wrong idea and we ought to be open to those things. And I really do try to be humble when I approach these issues.

Jeff Wood (6m 45s):
Well, it feels like you’ve had a lot of good ideas at RPA. I mean, you have gestion pricing, there’s spike planning. There’s the regional plan. There’s the Interborough express, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, but you know, over the a hundred years or so, you know what actually got RPA on its way to coming up with these at the time, maybe radical ideas, but that have come into the popular consciousness.

Tom Wright (7m 5s):
Well, there’s some that, you know, it’s funny, I’ll travel around the world and I’ll go to Madrid or Paris or Seoul or something, and I’ll explain RPA and somebody will say, oh, I run the RPA of, of Madrid. You know, just like you. And then we kind of dig into it. And it turns out usually they’re funded by the local metropolitan government or the city government or the federal government or something like that. And I always say like, RPA is a private, nonprofit, independent group. We have zero weight of law, but the flip side of it is that we have that independence. We can think long-term, we work with political leaders when they’re doing the right thing, but we have the ability to actually contradict them and give out and oppose them when we think they’re doing the wrong thing.

Tom Wright (7m 47s):
And I think that that is one of the enduring values of RPA is that independence. And in particular, it’s vital when you’re thinking about a metropolitan region and working on that scale because by its nature, metropolitan planning means that you’re going to be thinking across political boundaries and there is no public sector entity that thinks about the entire tri-state region. Of course the MTA, you know, has a big portion of it, but it’s, you know, it’s only New York and some of Connecticut, there’s no New Jersey component to it. The port authority is really important to us, but that’s New York and New Jersey and not Connecticut.

Tom Wright (8m 28s):
And they do transportation and economic development, but not housing or, or landscape preservation. And so when you’re thinking about a metropolitan region, we’re thinking long term, we’re thinking of cross political boundaries. And we’re thinking outside the silos, we’re looking at transportation and community development and climate change and housing and equity and everything together. And I think only an independent organization like RPA can actually really do that. We rely on the port authority, the MTA, the state agencies, New York city, government, and others to implement the ideas, but they have to start from a place that is neutral. That is thinking long-term that isn’t kind of wedded to one political viewpoint or anything like that.

Tom Wright (9m 13s):
And so I think that’s kind of the original concept around RPA. I mean, it comes out in the 1920s that the city and region was growing so fast and moving beyond, you know, greater New York city was only a quarter of a century old and it was this kind of new regional government invention at the time. And I think it had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the people who would go to get up. And so now we were starting to see development out into long island and across the Hudson river up into Connecticut. And so there was an understanding that somebody needed to think on that larger geographic scale and with that ambition. And I think just the value of that idea, that power of that idea has really endured for a hundred years.

Jeff Wood (9m 56s):
I guess they didn’t really think when they created the states that regions would get so big because there’s a few places in the United States where I think, you know, the states boundaries have been frustrating from an urban perspective, from a metropolitan perspective. And I think New York is probably one of the biggest examples of that because of the three states that you’re kind of putting the tentacles of transportation into. I’m wondering how frustrating that is from that political standpoint, because you’re trying to, to produce a regional vision, but you also have to get buy in from all of the localities and states that the metropolitan region actually economically operates in.

Tom Wright (10m 29s):
Yeah. And I’ve seen the ups and downs of that at times when we felt like we’re working very closely with political leaders in a very wind and other times when we really disagreed with them sharply about, about some of their policies and priorities and just to not to put too fine a point on it, but to realize that even at the federal government level, the cabinet agencies kind of put Connecticut in, in region one up with new England and New York and New Jersey or with region two alongside Puerto Rico, you know? And so even at the federal government level, they never really think about the tri-state metropolitan region as a single unified unit of measurement or policy.

Tom Wright (11m 9s):
And so again, that’s, that’s, what’s kind of so unique about us, you know, over the years, what I’ve come to realize again, I worked in the public sector for, for governor Whitman. I thought that was a really terrific administration. And I’ve worked very closely with, you know, many mayoral administrations and governor’s offices. And I think one of the important things is always to kind of try to put yourself in their shoes and recognize what are the challenges and the inputs and the things that they’re dealing with, but then also to take a step back at the same time and say, where should they be going? And they might be focused on this because of the short short-term issues or something, but what do you think really is the priority?

Tom Wright (11m 49s):
I bore my poor staff with this analogy, but the way kind of think of it for us at RPA is that, you know, they’re kind of two forms of navigation for a submarine. There’s the internal gyroscope that spins around and it just kind of tells it what direction and what speed it’s going. And then it has sonar where it sends out beams of sound or they bounce off things and come back. And I think at RPA, we have to have both the gyroscope and the sonar and the gyroscope is us doing our own independent research search and saying, look, nobody’s talking about this issue, but we think that this is what’s going to really become a priority in the next 5, 10, 15, 25 years. It might be around climate. It might be around capacity and the transit system, it might be around housing.

Tom Wright (12m 32s):
You know, this is what our research is telling us, people should worry about. And so let’s do what we can to, to get them to pay attention to it. But at the same time, we have to have the sonar and recognize, you know, nine 11 obviously is a cataclysmic event. And so you respond to that, but then the Bloomberg administration comes in and they prioritize, you know, planning and development on the west side of Manhattan. And so, okay, well, well then they’ve put that on the table. We better think about what our response to that is going to be and how can we add value to the plans that they’re making and where do we think that they’re moving in the right direction and where do we think they’re mistaken? And so that’s kind of the way that we manage to deal with, you know, what could otherwise be frustrating in terms of the relationship

Jeff Wood (13m 14s):
Along those same lines? I feel like early, even early on RPA work has been pretty data-driven I think about push grab and work on transportation, land use policy and looking at the book, actually I’m on my bookcase right now, as well as many of the other parking and traffic studies you all have done. How did that way of, of going deeper into the analysis, get embedded into how you all operate at RPA?

Tom Wright (13m 34s):
You know, we’ve been going through the archives and just pulling out reports literally from 1920 to 19 23, 19 24. And it started out that way. I mean, I’ll give credit the kind of founders of the organization and in particular, Charles Dyer Norton, who was the man who kind of had the vision of doing the regional plan and convene the group and got the funding from the Russell Sage foundation. And Norton was also the driving force behind the Burnham plan for Chicago. And not many people realize that RPA and the commercial clubs plan for Chicago in 1909 are really came from the same place. And I think that that Norton kind of in the intervening years after that plan had been put out and published and was being followed, I think he had this epiphany that it should have been, it was kind of too architectural as opposed to empirical and thinking about the economy and thinking about technology and all of those other pieces.

Tom Wright (14m 30s):
So when they conceived of the first regional plan, which then came out in 1929 and sadly Norton hadn’t passed away before then. And so he actually never even got a chance to see the fruits of his labor, but from the very beginning, the plan, the work at RPA was seated with that kind of independent research in the back. Of course, just like getting, you know, population and employment data was really hard to do and figuring out traffic counts or other things, you know, it took a lot of work in the last 20 years with GIS and technology and other things. Now, all of that kind of information is available to just about every anybody and for a small organization with, you know, two or three dozen people on the staff, we can now kind of compete with the port authorities and the MTAs and the New York city planning departments and others, because we all have the same data available to us, but we still work really hard.

Tom Wright (15m 26s):
I mean, right now our research team is working on a really kind of multidisciplinary effort to figure out what do we think are going to be the very longterm trends post COVID and by long-term trends. I mean, 25, 50 years out, what does work from home? What are the possibilities in terms of PI work from home local work from home, I grow with low growth kind of scenarios. And what might they mean for, you know, housing, commercial development, transit, usage, energy usage, all of the things that we look at and, you know, while, while all of these agencies might be thinking about, you know, the capacity of the New York city subway, or the port authority trainings, Hudson system, or the NJ transit system or something, we’re going to look at all of them together collectively.

Tom Wright (16m 9s):
And again, that, that kind of unique perspective I think, is what’s our value added, but I’m, I’m proud that we’ve maintained that research capacity RPA, because I think that that’s, that’s really vital and important for us to have a nice kind of tradition, which is we’re never looking to embarrass our friends in the public sector. And so, you know, when we do research, we share it with them and say, you know, are we right or wrong? You know, w what, what is your assessment say? You know, right now we’ve done a lot of research. We’re very focused on congestion pricing. And the success of that is extraordinarily important, not just to New York and the region, but I mean, I, I hope and expect that we do it successfully in that other metropolitan regions and cities around the country follow our lead.

Tom Wright (16m 52s):
So we’ve been doing our own planning and analysis and, and our own modeling in-house and working with other transit advocates to try and figure out what we think, you know, how the policy should be implemented and what are the potential pitfalls and, and how do we address them and stuff. And the MTA of course, is doing their own analysis and they have to, you know, follow their federal guidelines and things, but I fully expect when they make their analysis publicly available, that we’ll be able to have a very open and honest dialogue about it. And it may be that, well, we probably won’t completely agree, and we’ll be able to have an honest conversation with them about why we concluded a and why they conclude the B and talk about that. And I, I think that that’s part of the way decision making and planning gets done in New York.

Jeff Wood (17m 37s):
I think that’s why I like the more, non-profit almost think tanky slash public entities like spur and, and RPA and an organization I used to work for. We connect to America and the center for Tod

Tom Wright (17m 47s):

Jeff Wood (17m 48s):
We think about things, you write them down, you share them with everybody. And one of the things that when I started my newsletter back in 2006 at reconnecting America, it was something where it was all about sharing information and trying to get as much information out there as possible so that everybody could have the same information and talk about these things openly. And I think that sometimes when you have a lot of, you know, the, of the for-profit engineering firms or whoever else, and there’s a lot of like kind of secret keeping and a lot of information that could be useful to a lot of other people is kept in house. And so I think that’s the benefit of say like a, like I said, an RPA or a spur or any of the other organizations. And I think that’s a big benefit.

Tom Wright (18m 25s):
That’s absolutely right. And even let me go a step further. I mean, cause spur in the bay area and the metropolitan planning council in Chicago were probably the two organizations, most like RPA and the leadership there has been wonderful. And our dear friends going back a long time and our three organizations share information with each other and we’ve even done kind of funded out of our own pocket. And trust me, nonprofits, if we don’t have a dedicated grant for something and we do it anyway, it means we really think it’s important, but all three of us we’ve done over the last couple of years before for COVID hit, we did kind of exchanges and retreats where all three groups met in New York and they met in Chicago and they met in the bay area.

Tom Wright (19m 6s):
We bringing together our senior staff and talking about, you know, how did you do that report? What was the methodology you used? How did it, did it, did it influence the policymakers? What was the success? What was the failure? And we are all completely open and candid with each other. And of course, you know, three consulting firms would probably never do that because they would be looking for a leg up. And instead we really, I have learned so much from the folks at spur and MPC and have just enormous admiration for their staff and their teams. And we have literally, I mean, I had, you know, that the head of spur gave Metcalf, came once to speak at one of our board meetings. And he heard about our regional offices and he said, I went back and I opened offices in Oakland at San Jose because I thought that was the right thing for us to do.

Tom Wright (19m 53s):
And I have learned enormous amounts from, from them

Jeff Wood (19m 57s):
Right now. The big topic is congestion pricing and there’s always an article coming out about why it’s not coming out. It seems like what’s the process for that actually happening. I know that it seems further along than it ever has, but it also seems so far away.

Tom Wright (20m 10s):
Yeah, it’s not that far away, but it’s still kind of in the technical research phase is what I’d say first off, you know, the Trump administration really, really screwed us here. They just didn’t want to be partners with anything. And so after New York state, after, after the legislature and the governor agreed in the budget and it was part of a budget agreement now about two years ago in New York and they decided to do that. It was going to need to go through federal approvals in the NEPA process. And so the MTA, the state agency charged with implementing it kind of did its homework and sent its reports to the feds and said, okay, what kind of review do we need?

Tom Wright (20m 52s):
What kind of guidelines are you going to give us? How can we go and implement this? And then they just got no response for two years. And it was, you know, it was, it was just the gateway project was caught up in this and everything else. And I don’t blame the staff at the U S department of transportation, right. It was right from the top. It was all, you know, this was all tied up in the kind of screwed up passionate politics. And so that slowed it down sadly, because we really could use it. Now. We knew when COVID hit, we all knew exactly what was going to happen, which was what we needed people to stay away from transit. Everyone talks about well, transit, ridership, you know, cratered. Well, it had to greater, we were telling people to stay away because, because we wanted them to stay safe.

Tom Wright (21m 35s):
And then we need to, to really allow the, the first responders and the front line people to be on transit. Now they’re coming back. But just as we predicted, and it’s not just New York and Boston and Washington, but all over the world, we’re seeing it play out. Similarly transit ridership is still depressed, but driving into the city is up, is over where it was pre COVID. So I wish we’d had congestion pricing, you know, starting a year and a half ago or so, where it stands now is that, you know, with secretary Buddha judge and the team he’s brought in and in New York, we were thrilled of course, because the deputy secretary Polly Trottenberg is the former deputy commissioner for New York.

Tom Wright (22m 15s):
And she’s just absolutely a pro and an expert and somebody who knows how to get things done. And so Polly and her team and secretary booty judge have all been very responsive, but it is also, I had kind of, you know, discussions with my friends who were frustrated that it was taking so long to go through the environmental review because of course we know that it’s good for the environment to do congestion pricing and absolutely, you know, we want to charge people. We want everybody to have to pay, to drive into Manhattan. And what we want to do is we want to reduce slightly the number of people driving in, and we want to try and incentivize people to drive off peak instead of during the peak hour. And the thing about traffic congestion, we all know, and we’ve seen this in London and Stockholm and Singapore and places is that just a small reduction in the number of vehicles can have a very large benefit in terms of traffic flows and reducing congestion.

Tom Wright (23m 6s):
It’s the last couple of cars into that closed system that essentially create the grid law patterns that suddenly the whole thing breaks down. And so we’re going to use pricing to make sure that we don’t get to that breakdown phase and it’s going to be, and obviously it’ll improve our quality and be good for the environment and fund past trends and all those things. But that said, it’s a complicated policy. And in particular, here in New York, we don’t have any one agency that’s kind of, that’s doing tolling right now, because of course from New York, depending where you drive from you might be driving in from long island or Brooklyn or Queens or the, and paying nothing or from Northern Manhattan, pay nothing to drive into Manhattan.

Tom Wright (23m 50s):
South of 60th street from New Jersey, you’re paying the port authority, but if you’re coming through other toll crossings built by Robert Moses, you’re paying the MTA. So some of the crossings are free. Some are told in one direction, some are pulled in two directions, some have large peak off peak differentials, others don’t. So there’s no rhyme or reason by this. And so congestion pricing has really got to take a look at the entire metropolitan highway road network and think about, you know, it has two goals. One is to raise funding for mass transit, but the other is to reduce traffic congestion. But if done badly, it might screw up that second one.

Tom Wright (24m 33s):
We know that drivers are very price sensitive, that if there are two ways to get from point a to point B, and one of them costs, you know, $15 and the other doesn’t cost anything or costs $5 drivers drive out of their way. And they wait and traffic congestion because they don’t want to pay the toll. It’s kind of, I think psychologically, they don’t know whether they’ll be stuck in traffic or not, but they know they’ll have to pay the toll. So they drive out of the way w I was on the mayor’s office, the last mayor set up a taskforce to actually Polly Trottenberg convened to look at the BQE, the old Robert Moses era highway in Brooklyn Heights. That’s, you know, in danger of falling down and at RPA, we did some independent analysis to think about solutions to it.

Tom Wright (25m 17s):
And we estimated that as many as 25% of the drivers on the BQE on a typical weekday morning, and this was pre COVID, of course, but as many as one in four of the single occupancy vehicles, there were people who were starting their trip in south Brooklyn and going to somewhere in Manhattan where the most direct route for them was not to be on the BQE at all, but to be taking the Brooklyn battery tunnel, the Hugh Carey tunnel. But of course the tunnel is told and the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges are free. And so people drove out of their way, stuck in traffic, extra hours on the road, extra, you know, air pollution and all that, but we were paying them to do it.

Tom Wright (25m 57s):
So we shouldn’t be surprised. So congestion pricing is really, I think, a powerful tool. The good news is people are sensitive to price, but it means that we’ve got to get it right. And we have to make sure that we have done the modeling and thought through unintended consequences. And, you know, in some ways I’ll go back to what I said earlier about like the history of urban planning and policies that were put in place with, you know, I think mostly good intentions, maybe some of the, you know, the zoning and land use laws had some pretty specific racist basis to them too. But a lot of planning was done with good intentions and had unintended consequences. And I want to make sure that when we implement congestion pricing, we’re thinking through all of the possibilities so that we don’t fall into that trap.

Jeff Wood (26m 42s):
What about the Triborough line that you all have been planning for for a long time, but it just got, I guess, rebranded to the Interborough express.

Tom Wright (26m 49s):
Yeah. Well, that’s another of these and again, the long-term aspect, you know, you like to stay at RP. Eventually we think we’ve got a thousand on everything. There’s some things you can take more than a hundred years to get done, you know, but the second avenue, subway is another one of those in the 1990s, our transportation and research team for the third regional plan looked at this right of way, lightly used rail freight, right of way, kind of circling through Brooklyn and Queens and then connecting into the Amtrak right of way, going up through the Bronx and thought, you know, this is a wildly underutilized asset. We ought to be able to put some transit here. At one point, we thought that maybe a subway should go underneath it later.

Tom Wright (27m 31s):
We kind of thought, no, we don’t even need to take a subway tunnel. Just kind of carve up the right of way and make sure that you’re segregating freight and passenger use and you can, and you can do something there. So we’ve been talking about that for 20 plus years. And, you know, again, sometimes it’s just really important not to let it go to idea die. And we’ve been doing kind of the grassroots organizing around it. Every time a new borough president would come in in the Bronx or Brooklyn or Queens, we’d go meet with them and talk about it. They always love the idea of we talked to communities, but it also was something that over those decades, what was happening in the communities that, that went through, they were changing in ways that made the project even more powerful, more job growth is now happening in Brooklyn and Queens than in Manhattan.

Tom Wright (28m 19s):
More travel is happening within, in between those two boroughs than all going into Manhattan. And sometimes you have an idea and you know, it sounded good at one point, but you know, 20 years later maybe re the reality on the ground has changed. And so it doesn’t make as much sense. This was one where as time went on the argument in favor of it just got stronger and stronger and stronger. I give a lot of credit. I’ll say this publicly here a couple years ago, our office here at RPA is in lower Manhattan next door to the MTA. And one day as I was coming in, I bumped into Janel Lieber, who at the time was the head of construction and development for the MTA kind of doing the long-term capital planning.

Tom Wright (28m 59s):
He’s now the CEO and chairman of said, I just saw this report or this old RPA idea that Triborough, I think it’s brilliant. Like, how come it’s never going anywhere? I said, well, we’ve been trying to get people’s attention. And there’ve been concerns about how you would do the freight and the passenger stuff, you know, but nobody’s really nobody at your level has ever really looked at it closely. He said, oh, well, you know, let’s, let’s take a look and he’s been, you know, kind of quietly doing the research and making sure. And the first thing was to make sure that there weren’t fatal flaws, you know, we proposed it, but maybe there was something we missed while they did an analysis with consultants and no fatal flaws. Now they’re kind of looking at the mode. What do you, what do you want on it? Is this a BRT system, a light rail system, heavy rail system?

Tom Wright (29m 42s):
The truth is, that’s a tough question. And I don’t think that they’ve sorted that out yet at RPA. We don’t have, you know, we’re not all in, on one of the, as opposed to the others. The other thing that I will really say is that Jenna and I then last fall, we were, I found myself in the green room, backstage and event with Jana and governor and he said, Hey, governor asked Tom about this Triborough proposal that RPA has. She said, what is that? And I, I explained it briefly to her. Then I followed up with our chief of staff and things, and she really went in on it. And that’s kind of, sometimes it just takes that it takes a chief executive willing to get out on a limb. The analogy in my mind is if I’m going to ask, you know, a public official to kind of climb out onto a tree branch first, I have to go out there and swing on it a few times and show them that it’ll hold.

Tom Wright (30m 29s):
And so we’d been trying to do that, but she has really, governor Hopeville has really committed to this idea, the response to it has been incredibly positive. And I think it’s moving forward now. I’ll I’ll guess your next question. You know, we called it the Triborough and we would have it go up to the Bronx. And I still hope someday of will, but just, you know, in full disclosure, we knew from our back of the envelope analysis that building the Bronx piece of it would be both the most expensive and have the lightest ridership. And one of the things that’s changed in the twenty-five years, since we originally proposed the Triborough, was that a project called Penn access.

Tom Wright (31m 10s):
And this is essentially a recognition that right now, people who, you know, live and commute on the new Haven line, which runs from, you know, from new Haven, Connecticut, through Fairfield county, through Westchester and through the Bronx, they currently that that’s the Metro north service that runs to grand central, but those same train tracks are also Amtrak’s Northeast corridor line. At a point they diverge and Amtrak trains go over into Sunnyside Queens, and then underneath the east river and come to Penn station. And, and there was a kind of recognition that, and this is the knock-on effect that happens on a regional scale. And that people might say, why doesn’t this happen more often, but it’s different jurisdictions in different agencies.

Tom Wright (31m 52s):
But for the last 15, 20 years, the MTA has been building a project called east side access, which is going to provide a one-seat ride for long island railroad riders to go to grand central. And the day east side access opens, which will be later this year, by the way about half of the long island railroad riders going to Penn station are suddenly going to shift to going to grand central, because that’s where their jobs are located. That will then open up capacity and space at Penn station, which has been above capacity. And so very smartly folks at the MTA said, well, then we could make a few improvements on the Northeast quarter line on the end track right of way. And we could give Metro north commuters on the new Haven line, the option of taking a train to grand central or the Penn station to.

Tom Wright (32m 36s):
And so Penn access is moving forward. And specifically they’re doing is some improvements to the right of way, but also building new stations in the Bronx that will provide good commuter rail service for folks living in, in the Eastern Bronx and an opportunity to get a one seat ride over to Penn station and the west side where new jobs are being located and things. So the thing with Triborough and an inner grow is that right now the MTA is making improvements to that right of way that we had also identified for the Triborough, they’re building out four stations and, you know, the state argued. And we agreed with them that rather than just kind of stick to a vision from 25 years from now build the first phase of this thing, which is the Brooklyn and Queens portion of it.

Tom Wright (33m 22s):
But hold off on the Bronx, because we ought to Penn access will be in the ground and just a couple of years, and then we can take a step back and think about, so what is the Bronx need now in terms of transit priorities? And it may be that we still want the inner borough to someday stand up to the Bronx. It may be that a higher priority should be extending the second avenue subway to the Bronx. It may be that it’s bus rapid transit. It could be other things too, but that’s kind of recognizing that things have changed since we first promoted the tribal idea. And in particular, the very right of way that we were looking at is getting, is being repurposed for something else. And that’s why I think that they’re right to focus on Brooklyn and Queens right now,

Jeff Wood (34m 2s):
I think from outside, at least from, from my perspective as somebody who poured over new starts reports for a long time, you know, I hear that you side access project, and I think dollar signs, I think it was like, I think the numbers in my head is like 9.6 billion, but it’s probably, Yeah, maybe that was probably an early report. It early starts report where it was 9.6, but I mean, that’s a lot of money to spend. And it’s actually something that you try to address a little bit in the fourth regional plan, as well as thinking about those capital costs. And so it’s actually good to hear that, you know, there’s evolutionary thinking about these projects and how they come to be and, you know, eventually hopefully we’ll get these costs problems to no, they’re never going to disappear, but kind of under control a little bit. So we can do more than, you know, spend so much money on a couple of individual lines versus maybe more of the network planning.

Tom Wright (34m 48s):
We see that as a real threat to the long-term viability of the region, these projects just cost too much and take too long, even compared to, you know, other places in the world or even other places in the United States, they just cost more in New York for various reasons. And we did, yeah, we, you know, the number one recommendation in the fourth week dental plan was figure out how to build rail projects for less. And we’ve done, we did a kind of forensic analysis of the three mega projects phase one of second avenue, subway, the number seven extension out to the west side to Hudson yards and east side access. And we had a team a couple of years ago that really looked at the projects and said, so why do they cost so much?

Tom Wright (35m 30s):
What are the delays happening? And the, the scary answer is there’s no single reason, every single step in the process, it needs to be reformed from the planning and budgeting originally to the procurement process, to the liability, to, and some of these are things that everybody’s known about, and it’s just a classic kind of, there’s an entrenched interest that doesn’t want to see, won’t give up on that one little thing that benefits them, but the cost to the public is just too high. And I really do worry that right now we have a number of incredible projects on the table, obviously the gateway project, but also rebuilding the port authority bus terminal in second phase of second avenue, subway finishing east side access, and then the inner borough and Penn access.

Tom Wright (36m 14s):
And from RPAs perspective, and we look out 25, 50 years, those projects, they get us maybe to 25 years where the capacity, they don’t get us to 50 years worth of capacity. We’re going to need even more capacity under the Hudson river. We’re going to be, you know, we hope to be moving away from the automobile for most people getting around, which means we’re going to need more capacity in our transit system, which means we got to figure out ways to build these systems faster and cheaper and, you know, for, because the public won’t support it, if they think they’re getting ripped off and when the exact same tunnel, boring machine in New York, for some reason needs three times as many people working on it as that machine did in Western Europe, which isn’t exactly, you know, which is a place that has good labor protections and benefits to, you know, there’s no, there’s no real way to justify those plus differentials.

Jeff Wood (37m 4s):
So last question, I think one of the big things that stood out to me from the fourth regional plan when I was looking through, it was probably a different from maybe the first three was the rising importance of climate change. And I think that that’s kind of a big thing, obviously, that we need to address and get under control as well as costs. But I’m curious, you know, how does that get addressed from a regional context? When, as we mentioned before, there’s so many different governments, there’s so many different entities that have to deal with this, and then you put in the ocean and the water as you’re getting closer to, you know, the, the Atlantic. So because of the possibility of hurricanes and those types of things. So I’m curious about that, about the implementation and the thinking about climate change from the RPAs perspective.

Tom Wright (37m 44s):
Sure. I would say, I think there are a couple of areas in the fourth regional plan that were different from the prior three plans. One of them is call climate change, I think on housing and community development. We also, we were trying to really confront our own problematic history in terms of the history of zoning. And, you know, Richard Rothstein is the color of law deeply affected us. And, you know, after the plan came out, but 20, 20 and black lives matter and things affected us and kind of reconnecting to public health was another area where we were really trying to focus. So, so I’ll just say first that I think there are a couple of places where we saw ourselves kind of forging a different path from prior plans, but you’re right. Climate change was also really a major priority.

Tom Wright (38m 24s):
And to be clear, like, you know, we’ve always had an environmental program at RPA, but it was very focused in, in the 1920s, thirties, and forties. It was kind of about protecting Parkland largely and trying to carve out the first parts the day that the first plan was released in 1929, the Rockefeller family donated a large piece of land. They owned on the west side of the Hudson river to endow the Palisades interstate park commission as recommended in the regional plan was literally in the, in the conveyance letter. Cause then it was kind of worked out in advance. So we were, you know, we used to be doing that in, in the eighties and nineties. It was all about kind of farmland preservation and, you know, fighting suburban sprawl and trying to stop farmland is also very good for growing single family housing.

Tom Wright (39m 9s):
And, and so we were trying to try to provide that. So really in the last, you know, 10 to 20 years, we’ve kind of made a shift to, without giving up on preserving and protecting parks and trying to create more compact development patterns, but we’ve become very focused on climate change and reducing our carbon footprint and protecting from the inevitability of future storms and sea level rise. Again, this is the one of those areas where the only scale that you can think about climate change is on a regional scale municipalities trying to deal with this on a one-off basis, have no ability really to make. I mean, of course every single town should be looking at its carbon budget and trying to figure out how to reduce it, but they can’t really do that much by themselves, maybe New York, city, Canada, but you know, when you get down to, I like to point out there are 782 towns and cities in the tri-state metropolitan region.

Tom Wright (40m 6s):
And one of them is New York city and it’s almost 9 million people and 781 or not. And our planning system in the U S seeds, an enormous amount to local control. And, and in terms of forget carbon reduction for a moment in terms of, of kind of protection from storms and things, you know, what one town might do on its own to protect itself is going to very effectively flood its neighbors. And so we need to be Thinking Regionally about that issue. So it’s an issue that actually lends itself to the scale and the approach that RPA takes. Also, again, I talked about silos. It’s something where carbon is coming from our buildings. It’s coming from our transportation system, it’s coming from, you know, how we produce the energy and how we use it.

Tom Wright (40m 51s):
And so again, it’s kind of, it’s an issue that lends itself to thinking across the different issue areas. The other thing though, that I’ll say it was kind of an aha moment for us when we were thinking about this while we were working on the fourth regional plan was, you know, there’s the, there’s the old saying that if all you have is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails, but in trying to deal with farmland loss and watershed preservation, and the issues that we were thinking about saying in the nineties, what we really focused on was regional commissions. And we became very involved in the Pinelands commission in Eastern long island, the Highlands council in Northern New Jersey, trying to, you know, yes, when we could buy land to it, that would be good, but we recognize that you can never buy enough land to achieve the goals that we had.

Tom Wright (41m 39s):
And so we, we got really into the business of trying to create regional commissions that would over, you know, rule local land use to try and achieve necessary outcomes in terms of, again, farmland preservation or water protection and other things, what kind of, you know, actually for climate change, that’s a very good policy tool. Also, you know, the point is that the communities along the, you know, the south shore of long island or the Jersey shore, they can’t solve the climate crisis by themselves. But by creating a regional commission, putting them all together to coordinate their policies and their investments and thinking about where development should occur and other things, you can actually have a real, you can actually really address this.

Tom Wright (42m 21s):
And so we’ve been very focused on that. The other thing I’ll say is this is another area where the independent, you know, nonpartisan voice of RPA is absolutely necessary because while we’re trying to figure out how to, again, like invest in renewable energy and protect certain areas, you know, lower Manhattan, we don’t see a future, you know, in our time horizon, which is pretty long term where we will pull away from lower Manhattan. We, you know, we’re talking about the big U and ideas to protect it, but there are other places like parts of Staten island or the Jersey shore long island, where we developed on barrier islands. We developed in vulnerable areas where, you know, they get flooded. And if we pay for them to people to rebuild, we know that we’re just putting them in harm’s way.

Tom Wright (43m 4s):
And so the ultimate strategy has got to be retreat, and that’s not something that you can expect a public agency or an elected leader to lead with. And again, it’s kind of necessary for RPA and our partners, you know, in the environmental community and others to go out there and swing on that tree limb and make sure it’ll hold and maybe take some of the slings and arrows from the opponents. So that it’s safer for the elected leaders to come along and say, well, I hate this, but you know, they’ve kind of proven that it’s the only thing to do because buyout programs work. They need to be funded, but they’re never going to be very popular. And so it’s really important to have an independent group. And in some ways I would say RPA is kind of constitutionally organized to be able to take on those fights.

Tom Wright (43m 51s):
We have a large board, diverse funding. A lot of my board members have been in the public sector. And so they really understand this. I mean, I like close to half of our board members have actually served in the public sector. And so that’s what I, And I, I like to say that, you know, when I’m being criticized for doing the right thing, that’s when my board seems to be very happy because that’s what we should be doing.

Jeff Wood (44m 15s):
It seems like a positive result.

Tom Wright (44m 17s):
Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Well, so thank you for asking about it because climate is a new area for us relatively compared to, you know, the prior three plans, but it’s obviously something that’s not going away. And that is only going to get worse before we start to turn it around.

Jeff Wood (44m 31s):
Absolutely. Well, what I’m going to do is I’m put the links and stuff in the show notes. So folks can get access to the fourth regional plan. And some of the other stuff, we didn’t get a chance to talk about bike networks or infrastructure banks or those types of things, but maybe we’ll have you on back in the future to do that. We really appreciate your time, Tom. Thanks for coming on the show.

Tom Wright (44m 47s):
Thanks so much for interviewing me having a chance to share this with you. And I’d be happy to come that some other time.

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free