Quick Hits From the 2012 RPA Regional Assembly

The tri-state area’s transportation and infrastructure leaders are gathered at the Waldorf Astoria today for the Regional Plan Association’s annual gala. For a few years now, the proceedings at the Regional Assembly have been haunted by the death of congestion pricing and bridge tolls in Albany, and lately the complete gridlock in Washington over a national transportation bill has weighed heavily as well. With large-scale transportation projects like the ARC tunnel falling by the wayside and funding streams for infrastructure getting weaker every year, there’s not much new stuff in the pipeline, at the regional scale, to get excited about (unless you get excited about boondoggles).

On the local scale, things are looking brighter. As NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said at a morning plenary, “the innovation is happening in cities.” New York’s expansion of the number 7 line using value capture financing and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s ambitious 30/10 transit plan were repeatedly cited as examples of how cities might move forward using new funding models.

Mayor Bloomberg headlined the morning schedule and briskly ran down his transportation and planning agenda, citing past achievements and future goals. A few notable quotes from his talk:

  • “Bike lanes and pedestrian plazas have made our streets safer and livelier for everyone. Buildings in Times Square and Herald Square have more rent coming from the first floor than the entire rest of the building, because there’s so much foot traffic.”
  • NYC quality of life “will get even better this summer when we launch a bike-share program that will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere.”
  • Bloomberg noted that the city has accomplished most of the goals laid out in its long-term sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030, in 2007. “The only things that haven’t happened yet are those that needed Albany” to move forward, he said, a not-so-oblique reference to congestion pricing. “There’s a lot left to do to put our regional transit system on a sound financial footing.”

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the mayor maintained that Governor Andrew Cuomo “understands the needs” that Albany must address. Bloomberg also singled out Cuomo’s major transportation appointments — Joe Lhota at the MTA and Pat Foye at the Port Authority — as great choices.

Lhota, who sat on the morning panel that included Sadik-Khan and two former Port Authority chiefs, revealed a few interesting tidbits about the future he sees for the MTA.

  • Adjusting public comments he’d made earlier, to the effect that the MTA can’t afford new mega-projects in the next five-year capital plan, he said: “As far as big projects, I could see an extension of the 7 train down to 23rd Street and the West Side Highway, maybe not in the next capital plan,” but in the one after that. More urgent, he said, is to “start thinking about expanding the subway for the 21st Century. We need to improve throughput [i.e. run more trains on existing track].”
  • As the panel was discussing the unfortunate consequences of having the NYC region’s transportation network carved up between a complex array of different governments and public agencies, Lhota said the new Metro-North service to Secaucus for Jets and Giants games could be something to build on. Coordination between agencies could allow more trains to run through Manhattan instead of stopping there, which would add capacity to the regional rail system. Lhota has “had discussions with NJ Transit and Amtrak about future uses of Penn Station,” and said the details of agreements on everything from funding to labor would be devilishly complex.
  • Lhota has had preliminary discussions with Deputy Mayor Robert Steel about using “forms of value capture” — special taxes on development, for example — to fund transit expansions.

There’s an interesting set of panels at the Regional Assembly scheduled for the afternoon. We’ll have more updates later today.