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Posts from the "Regional Plan Association" Category

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Honoring the Tappan Zee, and Other Highlights From the RPA Assembly

Today, the Regional Plan Association held its 23rd Annual Assembly, gathering many of the region’s transportation and development players under one roof. Unlike recent years, when the buzz was about congestion pricing or DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian programs, this year’s program didn’t have much to excite livable streets advocates.

This afternoon, the Regional Plan Association chose to honor one of the men responsible for the transit-free Tappan Zee Bridge. Image: Thruway Authority

Instead, one particular project had the spotlight during today’s luncheon, when RPA gave a lifetime achievement award to Thruway Authority Chair Howard Milstein. In his acceptance speech, Milstein praised Governor Cuomo and the Tappan Zee Bridge project. “It should serve as a model for public works projects across America,” he said. Apparently without irony, Milstein added that one of the guiding questions for the transit-free project was, “What will best serve the people who rely on this thoroughfare every single day?”

“We recognized the importance of ensuring our project was environmentally sustainable from the start,” Milstein said. In announcing the award earlier this month, RPA Chairman Elliot “Lee” Sander praised the replacement bridge’s expansion of vehicle lanes across the Hudson River.

Although Milstein’s speech was an event centerpiece, the program was headlined by Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, who spoke briefly about transit-oriented development in Stamford, where he previously served as mayor, and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who concluded her speech with a full-throated endorsement of the Low Line project, a plan to create an underground park in the former Essex Street trolley terminal below Delancey Street, near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge.

A late-morning forum on the future of Penn Station focused mostly on the immediate political hurdles facing the effort to relocate Madison Square Garden. The arena’s special zoning permit is before the City Council for renewal, and MSG is seeking an indefinite permit. A coalition of groups, including RPA and the Municipal Art Society, are proposing a 10-year renewal instead, to allow the city, state, and property owners to embark on a process that would eventually relocate the Garden and reconstruct Penn Station. A City Council vote is anticipated in June, according to MAS President Vin Cipolla.

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Brooklyn Greenway Milestone: City Announces Full Implementation Plan

A cross-section envisioned at one point along the greenway. Image: NYC DOT

The Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway started out as a glimmer in the eyes of a few dedicated volunteers 14 years ago. Now it’s a comprehensive city plan to build out a ribbon of parkland from Greenpoint to Sunset Park.

At the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s annual benefit yesterday, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced the release of an implementation plan for the full 14-mile greenway, which will serve as the backbone for car-free biking and walking along the borough’s waterfront. The plan consists of 23 segments that can be fed into the city’s capital construction pipeline.

“This document marks both the end of the planning stage and the start of a new era,” Sadik-Khan said in a statement today.

The backstory of the greenway could some day form a textbook for grassroots livable streets activism. The founders of the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative — Meg Fellerath, Brian McCormick, and Milton Puryear — hatched the idea in 1998. In 2005 their vision took a huge leap forward, when Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez secured a $14 million federal grant for the project. Following NYC DOT’s 2008 decision to adopt the greenway as official policy, the city’s planning and outreach accelerated, with BGI, DOT, and the Regional Plan Association organizing dozens of public workshops over the past few years to map out the greenway route. ”Every step in the process was open and transparent and gave people an opportunity to express their ideas,” said Velazquez last night.

After a day when Republicans in Congress renewed their efforts to eviscerate and belittle programs for biking and walking, Velazquez framed the greenway project as a smart transportation investment. “It’s not only about providing public access, but connecting communities along the waterfront,” she said. “That is providing transportation options, so you can walk or bike, and burn some of those calories.”

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DOT Expanding Use of “Life Preserving Intervals,” With More to Come

One more tidbit from last Friday’s Regional Plan Association shindig: During the Q&A session at the “Cars vs. Bikes vs. Pedestrians” panel (a title that seemed unnecessarily provocative to moderator Trent Lethco, RPA board member and transportation consultant with engineering firm Arup, until he concluded that it “reflects realities”), I asked about leading pedestrian intervals.

An LPI, also known informally as a “Life Preserving Interval,” lets pedestrians enter the crosswalk before turning drivers get a green signal. It seems like a cheap and effective way to reduce injuries and deaths caused by turning drivers, but I wondered if there must be a hidden downside, since they are not more widely used.

Sam Schwartz answered first. He said LPIs were invented in New York, in the 1980s, and that they have a limited impact on vehicular capacity. Jon Orcutt said DOT has been adding LPIs at more intersections (watch the Streetfilm for LPI locations circa 2008) and “would like to get to the point where it’s the default.”

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DOT: New York City’s Complete Streets Are Built to Last

The New York City Department of Transportation is nurturing a culture of safer streets that it expects to outlast the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, DOT policy director Jon Orcutt said at last Friday’s Regional Plan Association annual assembly.

Kent Avenue in Brooklyn, where DOT installed the city's first on-street, two-way protected bike lane in 2009. Photo: Ben Fried

Speaking at a panel on the politics of multi-modal streets, Orcutt described Bloomberg’s PlaNYC as a “mandate” not only to modernize city transportation policy, but to “reinvent the public realm.” Building on infrastructure improvements that came about prior to the era of Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, including East River bridge bike paths and the west side Greenway, DOT’s physically separated bike paths and other more recent innovations have made cycling more accessible, Orcutt said, and have helped double the city-wide bike count over the last five years.

“One of the ideas here,” said Orcutt, “is you don’t have to be an endurance athlete or some kind of risk-taker to ride a bike around town.”

Fellow panelist and city traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz recalled the now-infamous yarn of how Mayor Ed Koch ripped up protected bike lanes on Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1980, following a spate of fatal cyclist-pedestrian collisions and a visit from President Jimmy Carter. As the story goes, Koch, Carter and Governor Hugh Carey were riding through Manhattan in Carter’s limo when Carey, in reference to the bike lanes, said to the president: “See how Ed is pissing away your money?” The lanes were removed a month after they were installed.

Schwartz cited the late 60s experiment that closed Central Park to cars from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., undone after Abe Beame’s wife got stuck in Manhattan traffic, and Rudy Giuliani’s Midtown pedestrian corrals, still in place today. To Schwartz, these are cautionary tales that point to the fluid nature of city transportation policy.

But Orcutt made a convincing case that the current effort has taken root. Last year’s media-fomented “bikelash” had the unintended effect of arousing public interest in bike lanes when many New Yorkers might otherwise have been indifferent, he said. When opinion polls consistently showed overwhelming support for bike infrastructure, said Orcutt, the negative stories disappeared. The anti-bike propaganda push, he said, “sowed the seeds of its own demise.”

As the city has added 200 miles of bike lanes, Orcutt said, communities are lining up to request public space improvements. With bike-share to launch this summer, some 10,000 sites were suggested for 600 stations. Pedestrian plazas are popular with business groups that understand the value of foot traffic, and more applications have been submitted than DOT can accommodate. “People are coming to us and asking for these things,” said Orcutt.

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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.

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HUD Grant Will Lay the Groundwork for TOD in New York and Connecticut

From Suffolk County to New Haven, the communities of New York and Connecticut are planting the seeds for a serious investment in transit-oriented development in the years ahead. Funded by a $3.5 million grant from HUD’s Sustainable Communities program, nine cities, two counties and six regional planning organizations have come together to develop regional plans for tying sustainable transportation and new development. Those plans are the first steps toward an impressive array of projects across the region, from new rail stations to new zoning codes around existing transit hubs.

The New York and Connecticut region have the best transit and rail network in the country, explained Robert Yaro of the Regional Plan Association, which is administering the collaboration, but also the largest income gaps and most expensive housing. For the region to continue to prosper in the 21st century, he said, it needs to embrace its transportation system as the backbone for continued development, including affordable housing.

By mid-century, said Adolfo Carrion, the regional HUD administrator and former director of the White House Office of Urban Affairs, the country will need an additional 200 billion square feet of development to house its growing population and economy. “It has to be vertical,” said Carrion. “It has to be reliant on mass transit.”

For that to happen, local government needs to lay the groundwork now, so that when the economy recovers from recession and the real estate market again kicks into high gear, dense and transit-oriented projects are built. This grant makes that kind of planning possible.

In New York City, for example, the Department of City Planning will develop strategies to encourage transit-oriented development at Metro-North stations in the Bronx and at the East New York LIRR station. “Growth in New York City in the right places actually takes cars off the road,” said Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden. The Bronx was selected due to its strong growth in recent years, she added. “The logical place for the Bronx to grow more is along its Metro-North corridors.”

In East New York, fantastic transportation resources are paired with major economic challenges and strong community organizations to partner with. The area near the train station will become what Burden called “a really complete neighborhood, live/work, mixed-income, mixed-use, that’s really walkable, bikeable with strong mass transit.”

In Stamford and Bridgeport, the grant will fund feasibility studies for new rail stations, which could catalyze the redevelopment of entire new neighborhoods.

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Ghost of Congestion Pricing Lingers at RPA’s 2010 Regional Assembly

Even when there's no breaking news at the RPA's regional assembly, the annual get-together at the Waldorf Astoria is a good time to gauge the collective mood of the people who run the region's transportation systems and think about planning for New York City's future. How often do you get the heads of the MTA, NYCDOT, and the Port Authority all in the same room?

At the last three regional assemblies, funding our transit system with congestion pricing or bridge tolls seemed within reach, to varying degrees. (After the State Assembly killed congestion pricing in 2008, the zeitgeist was still kind of optimistic, because the insiders knew that road pricing would be revived soon.)

This year, the impending transit cuts in New York and New Jersey cast a bit of a pall on the proceedings. At times, the atmosphere felt tinged with foreboding, like when Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch told the crowd, "It's hard to imagine what life will be like if we don’t make the investments in infrastructure that we have historically made."

The official theme of the event was "innovation," often encapsulated as "doing more with less" by speakers coping with shrinking budgets.

One of the more notable exchanges came at a panel on technology and transportation, when New York City Transit chief Tom Prendergast noted that the financial battering his agency has absorbed is "forcing us to do things we've never done before." One example: the MTA's new open data policy.

Prendergast didn't share much in the way of specifics, but he did hint that the MTA hopes to make transit arrival info accessible to riders before adding countdown clocks at every station and bus stop. "We're looking at simple and innovative ways of getting that information up to people on the street," he said.

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Infrastructure Bigs: To Compete, NYC Needs Congestion Pricing, Tolls

Holland_Tunnel_tolls.jpgTolls at the Holland Tunnel. Now the Port Authority is looking for the next financing model. Image: Library of Congress.

At a panel put on by the New School last week, some of New York's biggest players in transportation and planning came together to discuss the future of the city's infrastructure. They all seemed to agree: The city can't keep up with its global competitors without new sources of revenue.

Christopher Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority, framed the stakes: "We have to ask, what builds wealth?" The other panelists concurred: New York's health and economic dominance won't continue without consistent investment in its infrastructure, particularly its transportation network.

Seth Pinsky, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, put it more directly. "We have spent the last 20 years trying to get our infrastructure back to pre-1970 levels," he said. Without moving further, "We will not be able to compete with other world cities."

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Paterson Abandons Long-Term MTA Financing Effort

We're getting dangerously close to transit Armageddon.

Seeking a quick resolution to the MTA funding crisis, Governor Paterson lobbied over the weekend to get a Band-aid fix through the State Senate. The problem is, Paterson's plan provides no resolution at all. Fundamental details of the proposal are still sketchy, even as the governor pushes for a vote as soon as today, but there's no doubt that the numbers don't add up to a healthy transit system. Consider:

  • The revenue streams in Paterson's plan keep shrinking while the MTA's operating deficit keeps growing, meaning that further fare hikes and service cuts will be necessary in a matter of months.
  • All indications are that the latest proposal would direct zero dollars to the MTA capital plan, the five-year package of maintenance and expansion projects that is still completely unfunded.

By pushing for a stopgap measure on the Senate Democrats' terms, Paterson has effectively abandoned the framework laid out by the Ravitch Commission. His proposal does not share the funding burden equitably -- car commuters pay nothing to keep congestion-busting trains and buses running. Nor does it address long-term funding needs, risking system-wide decline by leaving even routine maintenance unpaid for.

Observers are in the dark about the most basic aspects of the governor's proposal, like how much it would raise in total. Does the plan still fund upstate roads and bridges with a surcharge on New York City cab fares? Will service cuts still be necessary even if this plan passes? It's hard to tell when all the discussions take place behind closed doors.

Advocates aren't pleased. The Empire State Transportation Alliance -- a coalition representing business, labor, and environmental groups -- released a statement yesterday stressing the importance of funding the MTA capital plan now, not just passing a temporary fix. 

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Highlights from Today’s RPA Regional Assembly

The ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria is packed right now for the RPA's 2009 Regional Assembly, where Richard Ravitch just accepted a lifetime achievement honor. Many luminaries from the worlds of transportation, planning, and politics are here, and I've got a few minutes to post some interesting exchanges from earlier in the day, so here goes.

At a morning workshop about the challenges to funding transit during an economic downturn, Ravitch spoke about the current impasse in Albany that's putting New York's transit system at risk:

The difficulty, politically, in my judgment, is very obvious. There are very few short-term dividends, for people who run for office, in long-term investments. They don’t get the benefit out of it. It doesn’t have the same electricity to it as keeping the fare low. The benefits may not be realized until future generations. That is a political problem.

People are going to have to bite the bullet, in terms of usage charges and various taxes that will generate the revenue streams we need in order to build.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who served in the state legislature when the MTA was emerging from the financial catastrophe of the 1970s, added this perspective:

The 1970s crisis allowed us in the 80s to put new revenue streams in place and implement the original MTA capital plan. We had the ability to do these things because people remembered the bad times. But then you start to get complacent.

The politics in the legislature is more difficult now than it used to be. The Senate has switched parties; Republicans would like it to go back the other way. The Republicans won’t vote for anything and the Democrats can't unite. The only way around that, frankly, is for a few Republicans to step up to the plate. How do you do that? The leadership could step up and do a deal. It takes delicate political negotiating behind the scenes, and whether the public-spiritedness is there, I’m not at all sure.
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