Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 43: Lessons Learned from 100 Years of City Planning

Episode 43 guest speaker, Tom Wright

Future of Infrastructure: Lessons Learned from 100 Years of City Planning

with Tom Wright

Tom Wright is the CEO of the Regional Plan Association. He joined the podcast for a discussion of what they’ve learned by taking the long view of city and regional planning.

Episode 43: Future of Infrastructure: Lessons Learned from 100 Years of City Planning

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

Tom Wright is the CEO of the Regional Plan Association, an organization that brings together research, communities, and politicians to help plan the New York metropolitan region. He joined the podcast for a discussion of what they’ve learned by taking the long view of city and regional planning.

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Future of Infrastructure: Lessons Learned from 100 Years of City Planning

Tom Wright is the CEO of the Regional Plan Association, an organization that brings together research, communities, and politicians to help plan the New York metropolitan region. He joined the podcast for a discussion of what they’ve learned by taking the long view of city and regional planning.

New York’s best kept secret

Tom Wright is the President and CEO of the Regional Plan Association. The RPA recently celebrated its centennial anniversary as an organization.

“It was in the spring of 1922 that a bunch of civic, and business and political leaders came together to launch the Committee on the regional plan, which became Regional Plan Association, and subsequently four major regional plans. The thing about RPA is were like the best kept secret in New York. People don’t know. They just kind of think that New York sprung up with its highways, and bridges and networks, its park systems, its communities, without any intention, without any design behind it.”

Wright shared, “And the truth is that Regional Plan Association, as a private, nonprofit, civic group, no mandate, no charter, we have no weight of law behind anything we say, but for a hundred years, we’ve been doing research, and talking to communities, and thinking about the future, and preparing these long-range plans.”

The Gateway Project

Wright’s currently working on one of those long-range plans; an enormous project that has been sitting on the sidelines for years.

“The Gateway Project is right now, probably the largest infrastructure project in the nation moving ahead, currently with support from President Biden to the two governors of New York and New Jersey, Kathy Hochul and Phil Murphy, and Amtrak, and all the way down in city hall here in New York, and everyone. Its seeds go back a hundred years, or over a hundred years. The existing tunnel under the Hudson River that connects New Jersey to New York Penn Station was built by the Penn Railroad about 111 years ago. It moves with the tides. It’s actually not embedded in bedrock, but in the muck underneath the Hudson River. And so, as the tide goes in and out, the tunnel moves.”

Wright continued, “It flooded during Superstorm Sandy, and saltwater got into that 100-year-old-plus tunnel and is now eating away at the concrete. I’ve gone through it in a special car Amtrak has, where they have kind of, you know, viewing windows and floodlights. And you see the concrete falling away from the walls and puddles of water between the tracks. And when you are at the bottom of the Hudson River in a tunnel, you don’t want to see water there. So, this is aging infrastructure that needs to be fixed.”

Wright said that this project sums up a lot of the challenges with infrastructure in the United States because this is not a project that can get delivered within an election cycle, and so often support for these projects relies on elected leaders.

“So, you’re looking to political leaders to support a project that they won’t get to cut the ribbon on. And they know that. That’s asking a lot of them. It also of course, connects these two states. And both of the states kind of think, well, I have more priorities within my state that I ought to be pushing in front of this. But it requires things like where do the people go when they get to New York, because anybody who’s been to Penn Station lately, even post-COVID, knows its handling about three times as many people as it was designed for.”

Wright added, “So, we’re going to have to expand Penn Station to create more capacity. We need to fix it so that it’s not a miserable place. It should be more like Grand Central, and we have to get everybody on board with, you know, how you allocate who pays how much, who gets how much capacity, what’s the best utilization for it, but realize that this is the weakest link in the chain that runs from Washington, DC to Boston. This is the entire Northeast Corridor, which represents over 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product, is really at danger with this – with the imminent failure of the existing tunnels. So, that’s why we’re so focused on getting the Gateway Project going.”

Identifying challenges and solutions

“The way we used to do these things, you just bulldozed a line across the Bronx, and you put in the Cross Bronx Expressway or other things, with devastating impacts on communities. And we’ve put in place safeguards and laws to make sure that we don’t do that again, and we never should be doing that again. So, what that means is that when you look at a project like Gateway, you’re going to have community input and involvement at all phases of the project. And I focused on the Tunnel, but in some ways, Gateway is really a project that starts in downtown Newark, and it’s doubling capacity all the way from there to Seventh Avenue in Midtown Manhattan. And eventually, it’ll probably – it should extend all the way to Sunnyside, Queens.”

Wright continued, “And so the way we do these projects today is to make sure that we have robust public engagement, public discussion, transparency, and we change the projects. It’s not just about telling people more what you’ve decided to do, but actually changing your decisions about what to do based on the feedback that you get and improving them.”

There’s been a lot of progress in New York when it comes to changing infrastructure, largely due to the rebuilding efforts after 9/11.

“I think that in New York, we became much better at doing this post-9/11, because the rebuilding of lower Manhattan after the terrorist attacks engaged everybody in the city, in the region, in the nation, frankly, in the world was interested in what was going on. And it became such a part of the discussion in everyday life. And what happened, I think, is that New Yorkers became better clients. They became more active and engaged. And part of the idea of why RPA exists is because we believe that when people become more involved in these decisions, we get better outcomes, we get better decisions.” 

Wright added, “And so, you know, post-9/11, developers hire better architects now. And they don’t try and shortchange the architects, because they know that they’ve got to build something that’s beautiful that people will love. And politicians understand that creating these, the next generation of infrastructure, is something that people want. And so, we’ve seen a real sea change in a lot of this.”

Lessons learned in the RPA

London is the city that New York looks to the most for inspiration, but Tom Wright has learned plenty of lessons inside his own city as well.

“Institutions matter and institutional structure matters. What are the revenues? What is the decision making? How you prioritize things is going to shape whether or not you build a Gateway Project, or just fill potholes on streets kind of thing. And we’ve looked at our other examples in our peers around the world. Most people don’t understand that the Greater London Authority, I mean, the kind of modern London is only a 22-year-old invention. It was in 2000 that they created this new structure with the Mayor of London and Transport for London. They did congestion pricing, and they started to kind of really take off after that. So, we’ve looked at those kinds of models and thought, you know, what should we be doing with our port authority, our MTA? How does the city, and the state and the states work together, and to try and put some better practices. And there’s definitely things we could learn from other peer cities.”

Wright continued, “So when I started at RPA, I actually started as an intern here while I was in grad school 25 years ago. And when I started at RPA, I thought our job ought to be to put ourselves out of business. If we can just get the governors, and the mayor, and the big agencies and authorities to do what we’re recommending, then we can go home. And what I’ve learned over time is there has to be this civic institutional structure, too.”

“New York is blessed with not just RPA, but all of the wonderful civic groups that we partner with them, environmental organizations, transit advocates, community development, historic preservation. It’s on and on and on. You have to have that other side of the coin that we don’t implement anything. I’m not going to sign a contract to build the Gateway Project. But we put pressure on, and we work with the public sector to make sure that they’re making decision making and moving in that right direction.”

Civic perspective matters, too

“When we’re at the table with government, industry, academia, nonprofits are at the table, of course, residents, good things happen. Often, that kind of engagement is focused at the local level. And that’s where it’s kind of grown up from, in many ways, because people really care about what’s happening outside their front door. When you’re thinking about the Metropolitan scale, you’re talking about issues, again, nothing’s going to get done in four years. It requires thinking across political boundaries.”

Wright added, “There are 782 towns and cities in the New York metropolitan region. One of them is New York City, and 781 are not. (Laughter.) And there are three states and then the final thing is you also, when you’re thinking of the metropolitan scale, you’re not just looking at transportation, or just looking at community development, or just looking at landscape preservation, but you’re thinking across all of them. That really does require a civic perspective, to get outside the silos, to get outside the bureaucracy, to get outside the political process, and kind of figure out where you’re trying to go. And I think that that’s a unique piece of this thing.”

“My hope is that it’ll germinate from the community-based groups, but coming up to the metro scale is really important. When I was a grad student, kind of talking about this, there really wasn’t much understanding of the importance of or kind of agency around metropolitan planning, because we don’t do it well here in the United States. Again, the New York metropolitan region, there is no government agency that’s thinking about this region, literally. Even at the federal level, Connecticut is up in region one with New England, and New York and New Jersey or region two with Puerto Rico. You know, even the federal government, HUD, and DOT and EPA don’t think about this as a single region. So, that’s why a civic group is so important,” Wright concluded.

To find out more:

Regional Plan Association

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