The Evolution of PlaNYC: Transit, Tight Budgets, and the Sheridan

Photo: Randy Rasmussen/Oregonian.

David Bragdon. Photo: Randy Rasmussen/The Oregonian.

Last week Streetsblog sat down with David Bragdon, the new head of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, to talk about next year’s update of PlaNYC. A new version of the city’s sustainability plan is set to be released on Earth Day, 2011 (that’s April 22), revising the 2007 roadmap for a city that prioritizes transit, biking, and walking.

In the second part of our interview (read the first installment here), Bragdon talks about funding transit in a time of fiscal austerity and the future of the underused Sheridan Expressway.

Noah Kazis: When we’re talking about transit, the elephant in the room is really the MTA’s finances. It has a $10 billion hole in the capital plan over three years. What can the city, what should the city do to shore up those finances?

David Bragdon: The city is already a direct contributor. Certainly the mayor had a proposal four years ago, before I got here, that would have provided ongoing financial stability for transit. Other people may have thought that wasn’t a good idea, but we’d like to hear what their ideas are, because nothing else has filled that gap in the meantime. So it’s sort of on the to-do list.

I mean, it’s essential for the city. The city depends on functional transit and continuing to expand and improve the transit network, and certainly the resources aren’t there right now. So in terms of what the city does, I mean like I say, there was a solution that was proposed, and I think we’ll keep looking for solutions that will work. Working with the next administration in Albany is going to be important as well.

There are a lot of interesting pieces to that Sheridan story that I think we’ll finally be able to move forward.

NK: If the state doesn’t step up? This is the Doomsday scenario.

DB: Well I think we’ll try to be positive about it with the new administration in Albany, and we’ll worry about Doomsday if Doomsday gets here. I can’t speculate about it.

NK: In terms of the progress on the transportation pieces of PlaNYC, a lot of the 2009 milestones haven’t been reached [PDF] because the money isn’t there. But there are some things that are in the city’s control that haven’t happened — bus lanes across the DOT bridges, for example. Is there a reason for the delay? Is there a way to expedite them, or are there some initiatives that might get taken out in the update?

DB: In a variety of areas, the city’s fiscal situation, and in terms of transportation the MTA’s fiscal situation, have prevented those from being realized. The same would be true in the parks arena. I don’t think there are a whole lot of things that haven’t been done due to lack of commitment. I think there are some that are going to take longer because of the financial resources.

I think that is a fundamental difference in the context for the update in 2011. The first plan assumed ever-expanding fiscal resources.

NK: Rereading PlaNYC, it really reflects a totally different economic situation. The assumptions just look foreign today, only a few years later.

DB: I think that is a fundamental difference in the context for the update in 2011. The first plan assumed ever-expanding fiscal resources at the disposal of the city, so that we were proposing a $400 million program to plant a million trees, or eight new regional parks, each of which is between 30 and 80 million dollars. Well we don’t have that luxury in the update. It’s really going to have to address the economic realities of the city, and actually be part of the solution for them.

NK: Does that mean there’s going to have to be a fundamental rewrite of the plan?

DB: No, I don’t think there will be a fundamental rewrite. Remember, it’s a thirty-year plan, so short term economic cycles shouldn’t restrict our visions and our ambition to build a greater, greener New York. It does force us to be more creative and innovative, and that’s a good thing.

In terms of a way to reduce the cost of waste disposal, for example, the economics of recycling become different the more the costs of disposal go up, and the cost of disposal has gone up a lot in the last three years.

NK: We’ve heard waste is going to be a new addition to the plan. At the Bronx Community Conversation I also heard food distribution. Are there any other new topics that are being discussed?

DB: I think that the area that really did not get covered last time is solid waste. I think you’ll see new initiatives in the other areas, but it’s not going to be a major change in direction.

NK: In the transportation section of the original PlaNYC, one thing that got relatively less attention was freight. You have a background in shipping. Is that something you’re paying attention to?

DB: Yes. We’re going to be looking at freight access. The key areas in terms of access to JFK would be one example, and the role of cross-harbor freight.

State DOTs, which often are not actually DOTs but are actually highway divisions, and cities don’t always have the same visions.

NK: In an interview with Oregon Public Radio, you said something that sounded like a hint about the Sheridan Expressway. You said Robert Moses put all these highways through low-income neighborhoods, and now we’re moving to restore them. And then you mentioned the Bronx River right there.

DB: Yeah.

NK: What has your office been thinking about the Sheridan?

DB: Well we have federal grants to be [thinking about it] – and that just came in recently. And so we’re looking at what’s called the social return on investment, to define return on investment to include some of the very important non-financial issues that sometimes don’t get quantified. What’s the return to community redevelopment goals, or access to the river?

That’s going to be kicking off here pretty soon. And in fact the Department of City Planning is currently looking to bolster its staff to do some outreach efforts specifically around the Sheridan Expressway.

NK: That’s good to hear, since the state DOT is moving forward on its own timeline.

DB: And maybe not on the same page from what I’ve heard. That’s an issue I’m experienced with from my previous job. State DOTs, which often are not actually DOTs but are actually highway divisions, and cities don’t always have the same visions.

NK: The last meeting I was at with them, they were arguing the correct way to analyze what to do with the Sheridan was to consider the Sheridan kept open versus the Sheridan remaining up but barricaded.

DB: <laughs> No, state highway divisions and urban areas really don’t mix very well. At least in probably 47 of the 50 states. The Sheridan, I think that will be a good project, because it brings a lot of different elements together: urban redesign, housing, social equity, environmental restoration. There are a lot of interesting pieces to that Sheridan story that I think we’ll finally be able to move forward.

NK: What should we look for from the PlaNYC update process after the community conversations are done next week?

DB: We’ll try and assimilate a lot of the things that we heard, and try to convert those into some draft proposals to take back out onto the street in February/March.