Gateway to the future


Chip Barnett: (00:03)
Hi and welcome to another Bond Buyer podcast. I’m Chip Barnett. My guest today is Tom Wright. He’s the president and chief executive officer of the Regional Plan Association. The Regional Plan Association is the nation’s oldest independent metropolitan research planning and advocacy organization. The RPA is a private nonprofit corporation, which aims to improve the infrastructure and sustainability in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut metropolitan region, and increase the prosperity health and quality of life of the people who live there today. We’re gonna be taking a look at all things, transportation with a special emphasis on the ongoing Gateway project. Welcome to the Bond Buyer, Tom.

Tom Wright: (00:47)
Thanks very much for having me.

Chip Barnett: (00:50)
Can you tell our listeners a bit about this Gateway project? Maybe give them some of the background on what’s been going on with that.

Tom Wright: (00:58)
Sure. Gateway is the latest iteration and hopefully the successful one to essentially double capacity under the Hudson River, along the Northeast Corridor. This has been a long time, uh, priority for planners across the region in New York and New Jersey and really the entire Northeast corridor. Because if you think about it, it’s, it’s a corridor that runs from Washington to Boston and the weakest link in the chain. The choke point, the entire system is, are the two tracks that run underneath the Hudson river. There are now over 110 years old. They were built in the mud. They moved with the tide. They flooded during Superstorm Sandy. And so we know that we really need to do, we need to create new tunnels to double the capacity and then allow us to take the existing tunnels out of service to make repairs to them because essentially the concrete walls are deteriorating after being flooded during Superstorm Sandy.

Chip Barnett: (02:03)
Okay. What’s new with the project. What are some of the latest developments that have been going on?

Tom Wright: (02:07)

Well, it’s been, you know, President Biden has been an enormous supporter. Amtrak Joe has always loved this and it’s been up and down over decades, literally. In fact, in an earlier iteration called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, it’s construction was begun in New Jersey. They started digging the tunnels behind the Palisades when John Corzine was the governor of New Jersey and then Chris Christie came in and canceled it. So again, it’s been up and down, but recently we’ve started to see things really heat up. The passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill meant that there was more federal funding there than ever before New York and New Jersey have both been deeply committed to the project, especially governors, Kathy Hochul and Phil Murphy who’ve both shown real leadership in supporting it. And then the federal, I mean from the president on down to Secretary Buttigieg. Folks may know the number two person at the U.S. Department of Transportation Polly Trottenberg is the former city DOT commissioner. So she needs no explanation about the importance of this.

Tom Wright: (03:09)
So we’ve started to see the leadership come together. And I should mention also of course, Chuck Schumer, who’s been a huge supporter. Senators Corey Booker and Bob Menendez in New Jersey and Amtrak chairman Tony Coscia. Just about two weeks ago, finally, New York and New Jersey announced that they had agreed to an MOU, a memorandum of understanding, which essentially codifies the funding formula for the main piece of it. One other thing I think that’s important to keep in mind is Gateway is not just new tunnels under the Hudson River. It’s really a kind of series of investments that starts in downtown Newark, New Jersey, and runs about 17 miles. It’s improvements to bridges over rivers in New Jersey. It’s the tunnels themselves under the Hudson River, it’s new concrete boxes that would go under the Hudson Yards where new city is going up to bring, to bring the trains in there.

Tom Wright: (04:12)
And then eventually it’s really the expansion and renovation of Penn Station itself. And so there are a lot of moving parts to this, but what, what the governors of New York and New Jersey did first about a month ago, they announced that they had agreed to hire a very highly qualified professional named Kris Kolluri to be the new CEO of the Gateway Development Commission, which is kind of the entity that is going to be overseeing planning and financing for this. And then they agreed to the MOU on a major piece of the funding. There still is an enormous amount of work to do because what we’re talking about is say for the first piece of this, there’s gonna be about $6 billion in federal funding coming in with the feds paying for half of the project, and then New York and New Jersey each picking up about 25% of it. And to get that $6 billion from the federal government requires what’s called a full funding grant agreement. And there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to commit that kind of funding from the federal government. This is a larger project than has ever been done with that kind of funding. And so it’s still going to take a series of steps in terms of identifying the local funding match sources, identifying the entities that will lead the procurement process and figuring out contingencies in all of all of those complicated factors.

Chip Barnett: (05:36)
Well, that’s a really great step forward. It’s really been about time that this has really moved ahead. What’s the next step? What’s next for Gateway?

Tom Wright: (05:47)
Well, we wanna see a series of agreements say around the procurement process, what will be the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s role in this? The Port Authority obviously has a lot of expertise in building large by state infrastructure projects, but it also has its own capital plans and its own financial plans and bond covenants and things. So there are complications around that also there’s a lot of work being done in Manhattan around what to ha what should happen at Penn Station. Amtrak recently announced that they had hired a very highly qualified team of design and engineering firms led by a very well respected engineering firm, but with architecture firms, Kohn Pedersen Fox and Grimshaw, who have done projects like One Vanderbilt at Grand Central and Fulton Station in lower Manhattan, they are on contract to design the expansion of Penn Station.

Tom Wright: (06:42)
There’s also an RFP out on the street right now for a few more weeks for teams interested in working on the renovation of Penn Station. Meanwhile, New York City is very involved in designing the public spaces around it. So again, it’s a very complicated puzzle because each piece of it has kind of different constituencies that are prioritizing it in different jurisdictions. Amtrak owns Penn Station in New York City controls its streets. So kind of, they’re gonna have to be a number of interlocking arrangements and contracts that come together. I will say one benefit for us here in New York is that we do have some experience with these kinds of large massively complicated projects, because of course the rebuilding of lower Manhattan after the attacks of 9/11 was a similar kind of all hands on deck moment when we were rebuilding the PATH system and the subway system building, a Memorial of course to 9/11, but also with development sites.

Tom Wright: (07:49)
So there’s some muscle memory there and there’s some experience that some of these entities and public officials have, which is really quite good. For instance, the current head of the MTA, which is deeply involved in all of this because it brings the Long Island Railroad and later Metro North into Penn Station is a guy named Jano Lieber who worked for Silverstein Properties and was one of the lead real estate people at the World Trade Center redevelopment, the chairman of the port authority back then was a guy named Tony Coscia, who’s now the chairman of Amrak. So there’s some confidence that we have public officials with the experience and skill sets to deliver something of this magnitude.

Chip Barnett: (08:35)
Fantastic. Okay. We’ll be right back after this important message. And we’re back talking with Tom Wright, head of the RPA. Let’s take a look at some of the other initiatives and issues that RPA stands behind. Can you discuss the fourth regional plan that had recommendations to modernize transportation systems?

Tom Wright: (08:59)
Sure, I’d be very happy to. So Regional Plan Association is a little bit unique as an organization and people keep misnaming us and thinking that I must have misstated the name of my own organization, because it must be the regional planning association, but we’re actually called the Regional Plan because ever since we were first founded in 1922 with the convening of the Committee on the Regional Plan. And in 1929, we actually released the first plan for New York and its environments it was called. And since then, once every generation, this organization has put out its own plan, a strategic vision for the entire 31 county metropolitan region, spanning parts of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, essentially Trenton up to New Haven, all of Long Island, the lower Hudson Valley centered around New York City, of course. And so we did a second plan in the 1960s, a third plan in the 1990s, and just about four years ago, we put out RPA’s fourth regional plan.

Tom Wright: (10:02)
And so what we’ve been doing ever since is really trying to focus on how to do the implementation of that plan and the advocacy around it. We had 61 major recommendations that fit into kind of four different categories, action items. One was about modernizing and updating the region’s transportation system. Another was about confronting the challenge of climate change and finally, really getting serious about carbon reduction and what we would need to do around that. Another was around making the region affordable for everybody in the region. And the fourth was around fixing government institutions, governance to say, bring down the cost of capital construction and really address some of the kind of systemic challenges that face the region. So as an organization, what we do then after putting out this plan is really look for opportunities to partner with public sector leaders and other civic groups.

Tom Wright: (10:59)
And again, keep in mind at RPA, we’re a private nonprofit, a 501C3. Our reports carry absolutely zero weight of law. We have not been chartered by the City of New York or any of the three states. But we have our track record, over the last hundred years is pretty good about a lot of the ideas that we’ve put out there that people thought sounded kind of crazy when we first proposed them become implemented over time. In ’96, in our third regional plan, we talked about building not just the gateway project, but also the Second Avenue subway and connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal and charging people to drive into Manhattan to pay for it. And when we did that, there was no congestion charging in London or Stockholm, and there was no public funding behind Second Avenue subway, Eastside access or Gateway, and now we’re moving ahead quite well on that. So, so we’ve been looking to implement major elements, uh, of the fourth regional plan. And again, it really depends on great partners in the public sector, but right now we’ve been working very closely with both, of course, Eric Adams and the Adams administration in City Hall in New York. And we have three governors who’ve been very res responsive to many of our ideas. So that’s been really very rewarding.

Chip Barnett: (12:20)
You know, you mentioned congestion pricing, where does that stand now in Albany?

Tom Wright: (12:25)
So the New York State Legislature adopted congestion pricing in the state budget now about three years ago and it got bottled up for a couple of years by the Trump administration. They simply the U.S. DOT had to sign off on the environmental reviews. And for years they just sat on it and refused to move on it. So now, again, working with the Biden administration, we’re seeing it move the MTA, which is the lead agency. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has hired consultants and been doing their work. And essentially been answering questions, asked by the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of the environmental review process. We anticipate that process to be wrapping up later this calendar year, hopefully in the fall, there will be more hearings. There will be a published environmental assessment, and once that’s public and signed off on, then essentially the consultants have about 10 months to implement the program.

Tom Wright: (13:27)
So really what we’re probably looking at is sometime late next year, that it’ll go into effect. You know congestion pricing has worked everywhere else it’s been done around the world. New York is uniquely suited for it as with Manhattan is an island. We have about a dozen and a half crossings in Manhattan south of 60th street that need to be monitored that compares favorably with, I think it was over 168 that London had to monitor when they turned on their system initially. And what congestion pricing should do, it’s dual benefits. Of course, what we’re talking about is charging people to drive into Manhattan. It’ll all be electronic. There won’t be cash toll booths going up on seventh avenue, but instead we’ll, we’ll be kind of monitoring and charging people similar to easy pass today.

Tom Wright: (14:18)
And what, what it’ll do is it’ll raise money for mass transit, which we need. We anticipate over a billion dollars a year, which the MTA is counting on to fund a significant portion of its new five year capital plan. But also it’s using a simple market economics to encourage people, to incentivize some people who don’t need to drive in, either to change their behavior, to go at a different time of day or not to drive in, but to take transit or bike or find some other way get into Manhattan. And of course, one of the things that’s really important for people to keep in mind is we’ve seen this everywhere congestion pricing has been implemented — a small reduction in the number of vehicles in an enclosed system can yield very large benefits in terms of traffic reductions. It’s the last car that tries to run across when the light has turned red, that gets stuck in the intersection that essentially leads to gridlock. And so it’s only a small reduction that we need in the number of vehicles to start to allow traffic to flow in Manhattan in an efficient way again. And so that’s the real important thing here. It’s not just about raising money for mass transit and and tolling people, but it’s also using pricing to manage the system so that we don’t have what economists call the crisis of the consumption where something’s free. And so people consume too much of it.

Chip Barnett: (15:47)
RPA has also backed modernizing the city’s subways, the public transit, and looked at ways to deal with climate change, such as cutting carbon emissions and scaling up renewable energy sources. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tom Wright: (16:03)
Yeah. I mean, similarly, this is basic kind of Economics 101, the idea is to put a price on carbon and to figure out how to, to measure the externalities that it causes and create mechanisms that will help fund our transition to renewable clean energy sources. Again, New York City and state have both been leaders in this. And, and there’s a kind of wonderful competition going on right now between New York and New Jersey and Connecticut, all of which want to be national leaders in offshore wind, which we believe is really one of the great game changers for our region. We have the New York bite, which is where kind of Long Island juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, the fact that we have consumers are right there at the shore in New York City, that we have the Atlantic Shelf. So it’s not deep water to install the offshore winded and that the wind is fairly constant moving up the Atlantic seaboard really makes us one of the most ideal places on the planet for offshore wind.

Tom Wright: (17:03)
Again, we had to do some catching up the federal government wasn’t issuing leases, and wasn’t really doing its kind of environmental review for a while, but now we’re seeing catch up on the federal side. And the three states have been very aggressive in wanting to develop and support this nascent industry. And I think that’s gonna be a game changer for us in terms of reducing carbon emissions in the tri-state metropolitan region. But really what we’ve gotta look for is kind of across the board. New York City passed a law, Local Law 7, which is going to kind of phase out gas and electrify buildings in New York City, which is one of the greatest carbon emissions areas. And we’re just seeing a lot of great innovation across the board, in both the public and the private sector, um, to try and reduce emissions.

Tom Wright: (18:00)
The flip side of it is we’re also really working to try and protect their certain communities where we’ve built up like lower Manhattan that we’re gonna have to protect from rising tides and more frequent and fierce storms like Superstorm Sandy, which we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of. And so we have a lot of work to do protecting those communities where we can protect them. And in some places where we, we developed on barrier islands, that really probably can’t be protected. And so figuring out how we’re gonna transition away from those areas that we know the sea is gonna claim. Let me give you one instance where at RPA also, since we look at transportation and infrastructure and community development and climate issues holistically, one area we look at is our, our region’s airports, air travel is vital.

Tom Wright: (18:52)
We are gateway region, it’s vital to the economy of our region, but our airports, several of them are at the water’s edge. And so we’ve done assessments to figure out what is sea level rise and climate change need to our mean to our airports? Actually a small airport, Teterboro Airport, also owned and operated by the Port Authority, is the one that is most threatened by climate change. A lot of people kind of assume that Kennedy Airport must be in difficulty because it’s there at Jamaica Bay. But in fact, it’s actually raised up in protecting the Upland communities from sea level rise. So we kind of look at those intersections and try to figure out where is growth most appropriate, where do we need to protect communities and where should we start to transition away?

Chip Barnett: (19:38)
Exactly. And voters also have a chance to weigh in this November with the $4 billion bond for environmental issues.

Tom Wright: (19:47)
Yeah. Yeah. New York is gonna be doing an environmental bond, which we hope passes and we’re, we’re working with the league of conservation voters and other groups on that. And, and I feel like I should, I should state clearly that at RCA, you know, we’re a small nonprofit, we have a wonderful board of directors, uh, that gives us leadership and, and, and we have terrific relationships with many of the public leaders, but really most of what we do is in partnership with other civic groups. And one of the wonderful things about this region is that there’s this robust ecosystem of groups on the environmental side, on the business side groups, transit advocates, uh, you know, just you name it. There are lots of groups working on these issues, design public space advocates. And so we often find ourselves in partnership with them kind of providing the regional perspective to the very local planning issues that they’re thinking about.

Chip Barnett: (20:40)
Could you talk a little bit about affordable housing and the housing crisis here in New York and the Tristate area?

Tom Wright: (20:47)
Sure. You know, when we were doing our projections for the fourth regional plan, we looked at kind of 25 years of economic and population growth, from 1990 to 2015. And kind of what we had had now that period 1990 to 2015 included two major recessions, one of the early nineties, which I was coming outta college then and knew how hard it was to get a job. And then of course the Great Recession as it’s called of 2008. But during that period of time overall, we actually saw fairly robust growth in the tri-state region. And New York City in particular really was growing, population and jobs, quite well. When we look out to the next 25 years, most of the projections of the city planning department and the agencies that look at these issues were estimating that growth would be at only about half the rate for the next 25 years that had been for the prior 25 years.

Tom Wright: (21:49)
That was not because we didn’t have a good mix of industries that wanted to grow or that people or that the private sector wasn’t investing in companies and growth in our region or anything like that. The reason the growth estimates are so much lower in the future is because we were being held back by two major things. One would be our lack of investment in infrastructure, our transportation in particular, also energy, but then the other real big impediment to growth and prosperity in the future is housing. Our housing production fell off a cliff in 2008 when the recession came along, it was after all a kind of bursting bubble in the housing market and production is never returned to where it was at the end of the 20th century, in particular while New York City. And we’ve had mayors who have done their best to try and, and, and encourage more residential development, especially affordable housing, New York has been, has been doing okay with that, but not as well as it should be.

Tom Wright: (22:52)
And a real problem is that it’s a regional housing market and that outside New York City, you’ve basically go two very different stories going on simultaneously. And one is in New Jersey, there is housing development and growth going on. New Jersey revamped their laws in the nineties, making it easier for towns to do redevelopment. They invested in mass transit. They did things like Brownfield’s legislation and other things to kind of encourage redevelopment downtowns. And of course they had what’s called the Mount Laurel decisions. They really mandated that towns were producing affordable housing. We don’t have that in Long Island, in Southwestern Connecticut in Westchester or the Hudson Valley. And when you look at the entire region, you can see that because there’s very little new housing that’s going on in those parts of the region. And I think that leads to unbalanced growth overall, and really us failing to meet the housing targets that we’re talking about.

Tom Wright: (23:54)
And just to give a sense of this kind of over the last 10 years or so housing production in Nassau County has been about one 10th of housing production in Hudson County over in New Jersey, uh, in terms of, uh, if you, if you kind of score it per thousand residents, um, really for every, for every 10 new units that are being built in Hudson county, one is being built in Nassau County. This is despite the fact that the Long Island Rail Road is getting massive upgrades with the third track in East Side access. And that Long Island has a lot of communities and a lot of places, frankly, that should be redeveloped older, suburban malls and employment centers that would provide a real opportunity for new mixed use walkable, livable communities. But too often, the local communities aren’t allowing that. So we’ve dug in on this and I’ll say in particular at RPA and as an urban planner, I feel some culpability around this issue. In the 1930s and forties, RPA was all about helping communities write new zoning codes.

Tom Wright: (25:00)
Zoning was upheld in the famous Euclid v. Ambler case by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926. And after that happened, we started to see towns writing zoning codes and many of them codified single family zoning as the kind of highest and best use, creating more exclusionary communities, creating more segregation based on race and income and really choking out housing opportunity for far too many people. So as an urban planner, and especially at Regional Plan Association, we have tackled this head on and become very active in recent years, working again with grassroots organizations across the region to try and first to do research around the causes of, you know, why are we not getting the housing that we need? A lot of it is regulatory, the whole so-called NIMBY effect, not in my backyard where local opposition springs up to every single time a new housing development project.

Tom Wright: (26:03)
And so we’ve been kind of working in partnership with groups. One of the ones I’m very proud of is a group called Desegregate CT — Desegregate Connecticut, which was essentially a grassroots organization that we helped incubate. We gave them some staff support and provided, um, financial support. And now it’s actually an RPA entity with a full-time staff member on our staff to, to really kind of work at, at the state level to overhaul the regulatory structure that creates single family zoning. And one of the things we focused on the two really have been one is what we call accessory dwelling units or ADUs, essentially saying in mature suburban communities where the infrastructure can handle it, allowing for homeowners to add that granny flat above the garage, or, uh, the little accessory unit on the back of their house. It won’t destroy the character of the community.

Tom Wright: (27:02)
It’ll give homeowners an opportunity either to retire in place or to get some income off of their home, which is probably their single most important asset. And it creates more economic diversity in communities. So we’ve been doing work to try and promote and allow it in communities around the region. And then the other thing is what we call TOD or transit oriented development. And we estimated that if just about half of the land currently used for surface parking lots around commuter rail train stations was redeveloped at some kind of moderate densities with garden apartments and other things, and some structured parking and other things you could create housing, you could create about a quarter of a million new housing units in the region.

Tom Wright: (27:59)
And that would be, those would be, those would be units close to transit, so close to job opportunities they would help develop the property tax base in those communities, keeping taxes from going up, and they would be providing again, more diverse housing choices for a population that is getting both younger and older, which is to say, we have need more housing for people starting out in their twenties, and we need more housing for people who are retiring in their sixties and seventies. And what we have right now is a kind of market and a regulatory structure that only wants to produce large single family housing on large lots even though that doesn’t really, that’s not really the kind of housing that we need for the next 25 years.

Chip Barnett: (28:37)
Do you have any last thoughts for our listeners today?

Tom Wright: (28:40)
Last thoughts, you know, here’s what I’d say. When I got into this field about 25 years ago, metropolitan planning was kind of an oxymoron. Planning was really done at the local level and it still is, mostly, a kind of retail town by town kind of land use planning issue, but more and more the issues that people are concerned about and that the public sector needs to respond to are ones that transcend political boundaries, carbon emissions, falling rain, water, traffic, it doesn’t care which side of a state or municipal border it’s on. And what we’re seeing is that public officials have come to recognize that. And so we’re starting really, in some ways, this is a field that’s just developing over the last 10 or 20 years. We’ve had some real successes back in the nineties — we were all about trying to protect watersheds and farmland and things like the Highlands Council in New Jersey, or the Pine Barrens Commission in Eastern Long Island were established and they worked and they were very successful.

Tom Wright: (29:49)
So now we’re gonna have to do similar things to address climate change. We’re gonna have to do similar things to figure out how to house the next generation of people who wanna live here and how to invest in our transit system. But the good news is that I feel like the pendulum is swinging in the right direction. And people are paying attention, recognize these issues and recognize that we probably need to invent some new models to look at them. RPA was created in 1922, in 1921, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had been created, New York City, greater New York in 1898. There have been times in our history when there have been kind of bursts of innovation and creativity to create the institutions we needed to solve the problems we were facing. And I think we’re entering a period like that right now.

Tom Wright: (30:41)
So I’m always gotta be a glass half full kind of guy, o work in an advocacy organization like RPA, but I’m really excited about what I think is gonna happen in the next couple years between congestion pricing. I think these, ADU and TD bills are gonna pass, and we’re gonna start to see new housing opportunity created. I think we’re gonna build Gateway, fix the signals on our subways, build things like the Inner Borough Express. I think that the next 10, 20 years are gonna be really exciting ones for, for the communities and the people living in New York and the tri-state region. So I’m excited to see what we can do.

Chip Barnett: (31:19)
Tom Wright of the RPA. Thank you very much for being here with us today.

Tom Wright: (31:24)
It’s been a great pleasure talking to Chip. Thanks so much,

Chip Barnett: (31:27)
And thanks to the listeners of this latest Bond Buyer podcast, special, thanks to Kellie Malone, who did the audio production for this episode. And don’t forget to rate us, review us and subscribe From the Bond Buyer, Chip Barnett, and thanks for listening.

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