Big News & Big Ideas at RPA Assembly

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On April 25, the RPA Assembly, Regional Plan Association's annual conference, attracted nearly 1,000 people to discuss the most pressing issues facing the New York metropolitan region. Throughout the conference Northeast Corridor issues were in the spotlight. In his keynote address (VIDEO) U.S. Senator Chris Murphy discussed the importance of transportation in the regional economy, and the powerful impact access to transportation has on communities. He also emphasized on the importance of ensuring the needs of our most critical rail infrastructure are met, citing the recent RPA study that identified the $3.6 billion funding gap Connecticut needs to meet the most basic needs of the New Haven Line, the busiest rail line in America. Later in the afternoon, a breakout panel entitled "Getting Back on Track"  (AUDIO - MP3) with Amtrak President & CEO Joe Boardman, New York State Deputy Secretary of Transportation Karen Rae, New York City Commissioner of Transportation Polly Trottenberg, and RPA President Bob Yaro was devoted to discussing the path forward in terms of advancing the Northeast Corridor's most critical projects, including the Gateway Program and the redevelopment of Penn Station.

The panel's most sobering comments were by Joe Boardman, who described the severity of the deterioration of the North River Tunnels, which are over 100 years old. The storm surge that followed Hurricane Sandy flooded the tunnels with corrosive salt water for the first time ever, accelerating their deterioration. As a result, they will need long-term closure to make critical structural repairs and soon - in less than 20 years, Mr. Boardman said. Currently, maintenance is completed over the weekend in short bursts, which takes more time and adds significant expense. A new pair of rail tunnels, at our current pace, could take 25 years to complete, although they could take less than 10 years if we started today. The new tunnels would allow Amtrak and NJ Transit to operate while the existing tunnels are closed and rebuilt. Closing one or both of the existing tunnels and failing to build a new pair of tunnels would have a devastating impact on the regional economy as intercity and commuter rail operations from New Jersey would be crippled, and traffic would shift to other already-congested river crossings, such as the Lincoln Tunnel and PATH. The panel agreed on the need for cooperation from the entities necessary to move the Gateway Program forward, including Amtrak, the States of New York and New Jersey and New York City. Karen Rae suggested the establishment of a boiler room-type committee similar to what Governor Cuomo created to move the Tappan Zee Bridge project forward, where members of each agency would be sequestered in an office and given a singular mission - achieve necessary approvals and deliver the Gateway Program. Bob Yaro took this concept a step further and suggested this committee be institutionalized, where the agencies would enter into a joint venture as a new development corporation, as has been done many times in the past, e.g. Washington DC Union Station.

Audio from this panel (MP3).

More on this after the jump.

U.S. Senator Murphy's keynote address emphasized the important role of transportation in the development of cities in the region, especially in a region fractured by over 3,000 distinct government jurisdictions and a tradition for home rule. He cited the role of transportation in the growth and decline of Stamford and Bridgeport. Both were very successful cities in the Industrial Era, but an accident of geography solidified their futures. One is a 51-minute train ride to Grand Central, the other 81 minutes; it is this geographic advantage that Stamford has and the relative isolation of Bridgeport from the behemoth market of New York that contributed to their success and decline in the postindustrial economy. However, shortening that distance, and thus increasing regional accessibility, could turn the tide for Bridgeport. Sen. Murphy said transportation infrastructure will also help us achieve a more equitable society by improving access to opportunities and connecting isolated parts of the region. He also suggested the need to improve access to federal financing for railroads, especially for complex projects in multi-state corridors that have a hard time assembling private-sector financing and attracting outside investment.

The Getting Back on Track panel also included substantial discourse on Northeast Corridor issues.  Bob Yaro began the panel presentations by stressing the importance of rebuilding Penn Station New York and expanding trans-Hudson capacity in the Northeast Megaregion. Mr. Yaro has repeatedly traveled to London in recent years, inspired by their ability to move big projects forward. Crossrail, a major rail expansion program in London, is Europe's biggest construction project. It is funded by the national government, regional rail authorities, and local community levies in order to increase desperately needed capacity throughout the greater London region. Mr. Yaro charged the panel and participants to think about how Amtrak, the federal government, the City and State of New York, and the civic and business communities can work together to make the Gateway Program a reality here.

Joe Boardman spoke about the parochial nature of railroads in the Northeast Corridor, and the common approach of organizations to look at subjects like Penn Station as "my stuff" and not address the broader, regional goals. He called for more cooperation and an emphasis on selflessness. Turning to the Hudson River Tunnels, he said that at the rate we are going today, it will take 25 years to build a new pair of tunnels, but the existing tunnels have less than 20 years before one or both will need to be closed for critical repairs. Mr. Boardman said that, in the best case scenario, the tunnels could be built in 7 to 9 years, but that would take an enormous amount of cooperation that does not exist today. Furthermore, he stated that losing one of the existing tunnels would mean a decrease of train movements from the 24 per hour today to only six, primarily due to the logistical problems of getting trains in and out of one tunnel. If we don't get new tunnels built before the existing tunnels have to be closed, "what a hell of a mess it will be," Mr. Boardman said.

Karen Rae brought the New York State perspective to the panel. She said that to get a project like Gateway completed, with all of the different actors and complexities, we would need an oversight committee similar to what Governor Cuomo put into place for the Tappan Zee Bridge project. Pulling different organizations together under one roof and giving them the authority to make decisions and move the project forward, we could get this project underway and built sooner. She stated that the initiative has to be a top priority of all of the organizations involved to ensure its success.

Polly Trottenberg ended the panel discussion on a positive note, stating that in some ways we are lucky to be having this problem; congestion is a sign of economic growth, and the opportunities the New York region has in improving capacity and improving accessibility are great. She noted that the NEC Commission as an organization is a good start, but believes cities need to be more involved in the process. Nevertheless, the Commission has been an asset, especially in demonstrating to the Northeast Corridor states that Gateway is more than a New York - New Jersey issue, it is a Boston - Washington DC issue.

During the audience Q&A session, several big ideas on how to move the Gateway project forward came up, including the creation of a development corporation as has been done for similar projects in the past, use of trackage fees and surcharges on tickets to finance the project, and even the use of a value capture scheme that taxed business that directly benefited from the completion of Gateway. Joe Boardman referenced the potential for investment by private companies, particularly FedEx and UPS, who could conceivably use the Hudson River Tunnels for high-value freight into Manhattan during non-peak hours after Gateway is completed.

The many discussions about the Northeast Corridor at the RPA Assembly demonstrates RPA's continued commitment to these issues. The future of the Northeast Corridor and the New York metropolitan region are intimately linked and RPA looks forward to working with Amtrak, the States of New York and New Jersey, and the City of New York to advance Gateway and other critical Northeast Corridor projects as part of the RPA's Fourth Regional Plan process.

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