Regional Plan Association Puts Tri-State Area’s Future in Its Sights

Tom Johnson | November 17, 2014 | Energy & Environment, Planning
Revitalization and technology’s effect on marketplace are high on the list of concerns to be addressed

Credit: NJTV
Former NJ Gov. James J. Florio
With the Regional Plan Association fashioning a new strategy for the tri-state region, officials and others have suggested they should focus on revitalizing urban areas and how technology may dramatically change the job market in the future.

Further, they should not neglect the impact global climate change will have on the region, according to former Gov. Jim Florio. He was on a panel at the Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark on Friday, discussing issues affecting New Jersey as the RPA prepares its fourth regional plan.

RPA is a nonprofit group that deals with a variety of issues affecting the tri-state region including economic development, transportation, and environmental causes.

Previous plans have been instrumental in proposing wide-ranging recommendations dealing with transportation, economic development, environmental issues, and open space in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

There’s no shortage of issues facing the region. Its transportation infrastructure desperately needs an infusion of funding; its drinking water systems and wastewater infrastructure requires urgently needed expensive upgrades; and its aging power grid demands costly investment to make it more resilient if extreme storms like Hurricane Sandy hit the region.

While some governments have dodged tackling these difficult issues, executives at RPA say they can make recommendations without fear of political payback.

“Because we are a civic organization, we can say a lot of things that are politically inconvenient,’’ said Chris Jones, vice president for research for the RPA. He said the three big issues to be addressed in the fourth RPA plan would focus on housing, jobs, and taxes.

“Our government institutions are ill-equipped to address these challenges,’’ Jones said.

To some extent, Florio agreed, citing climate change as a huge issue facing policymakers. “The question is will it be a problem or a catastrophe,’’ he said. “It’s important to understand the status quo is no longer acceptable.’’

The former governor said part of the problem is getting more people engaged in the issues facing the state, such as climate change.

Others on the panel argued the plan should focus on affordable housing and raising wages for low-income workers, “We need to be certain people have a decent standard of living,’’ said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Jones echoed that argument. “There is a rising crisis of affordability,’’ he said. “The promise of the suburbs is fading.’’

That is why most of the panelists said the new plan should focus on urban areas—where many young people are now flocking.

The state needs to focus more of its policies on urban areas and many of the issues they face, such as transportation, improvements needed to infrastructure and schools, according to Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz,

But job prospects will be more challenging in the future, according to Dennis Bone, director of the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship at Montclair State University and a former president and CEO of Verizon New Jersey.

The rapid changes in technology that have transformed the Internet into such a major change in various employment sectors over the past two decades are likely to only accelerate in the future, Bone said.

There will be winners and losers because of that development. The changes will create more high-paying jobs for workers with the skills to adapt to a high-technology environment, Bone said. The losers could be middle- and low-income workers displaced by those changes, he said.

Florio agreed. “We are not putting together policies to all these changes,’’ he said. More research needs to be done to determine where future job growth is going to occur, he said.

Berger also said the region needs to come up with a plan to deal with housing foreclosures. “The foreclosure crisis is an albatross around our neck for economic growth,’’ she said.