Profile: He’s Steering the Regional Plan Association into the Future

Meir Rinde | September 9, 2015 | Profiles
Thomas Wright hopes to find new solutions for today’s problems, while envisioning tomorrow’s infrastructure

Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association.
Who he is: Thomas Wright, 46, president of the Regional Plan Association

What he does: Wright became president of the RPA in January after serving as executive director for 13 years. The 90-year-old nonprofit does planning and research on transportation, economic development, land use, and environmental issues in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and advocates for smart-growth policies. It is funded mostly by foundations and individual donors but also has some government contracts.

Why it’s important: The RPA has been involved in numerous major projects, from the location of the George Washington Bridge and the revitalization of Newark to the construction of New York’s new Second Avenue Subway. About every 30 years it issues a regional plan; work on the Fourth Regional Plan is currently under way.

Wright and the RPA have long argued for a new trans-Hudson tunnel for NJ Transit trains — initially the now-defunct ARC tunnel and now Amtrak’s proposed Gateway project. In May the RPA and the Port Authority held a forum on trans-Hudson transit where an Obama administration official called Gateway “the most important rail project in the United States,” drawing heightened public attention to the poor condition of the current Hudson train tunnels.

His background: Wright grew up in Princeton and attended Princeton University, where his father served as general counsel and vice president and was described as the “consigliore” to three university presidents. Wright considered becoming an architect but chose policy work instead after spending two years organizing conferences at the Mayors’ Institute for City Design, a National Endowment for the Arts-funded group that trains mayors to be the “chief urban designers for their cities.” During conferences with planning experts, Wright was “a fly on the wall,” “soaking up” their discussions with the mayors, he said.

Public sector experience: Wright earned a planning degree at Columbia University and got a job at the RPA, first working on the Third Regional Plan and then heading the Newark office. Around that time, Gov. Christine Whitman had a “near-death experience” getting reelected and “got religion on growth management,” Wright recalled. As part of her smart-growth initiative, the state wanted a new State Development and Redevelopment Plan and recruited Wright to oversee its creation as deputy director of the Office of State Planning. The resulting plan remains the last one produced by the state.

“One of the things that’s critical, and I always tell younger folks in my office, is you’ve got to spend some time in the public sector to see how the kind of work we do has an impact,” Wright said. “You have to be able to see how it gets translated and accepted, or not, by the people working in the public sector, at a public authority or state agency.”

In 2001 the RPA executive director position opened up and he returned there for good. He also taught at Columbia for 10 years and has taught at Princeton for eight.

On-the-ground work: While the RPA provides a steady stream of research studies, press releases, and public-hearing testimony to advance its smart-growth agenda, it also serves as a consultant on town, state, and regional projects.

“To do this on-the-ground work is important because it helps us advance projects that we consider the priorities for the region, and it also gives us kind of street cred,” Wright said. “We talk about promoting more density and affordable housing around train stations, and we can say, Look! Here are the plans we created — one in Long Island and two in New Jersey and one in Connecticut, so we know what we’re talking about.”

Helping multiple groups: Wright said a “classic” RPA project that requires both community development and infrastructure expertise is the PATH train extension to Newark Airport. Since 9/11 it’s been apparent that Lower Manhattan needs better access to a major airport, he said, but rather than support an LIRR link to JFK that other groups wanted, the RPA advocated the “contrarian” PATH option. The latter could also provide residents of Newark’s impoverished South Ward better access to jobs in downtown Newark and New York, he said.

A couple years ago, as the LIRR option faded, the RPA wrote a study arguing the benefits of the Newark train extension, and the Port Authority put the project in its master plan. Construction on the $1.5 billion extension is scheduled to begin in 2018 and last five years. The RPA is already running “visioning” meetings in the South Ward to help the community figure out what kind of new housing or zoning changes are needed to take advantage of the planned station.

[related]“This is an opportunity to provide for an equitable social equity outcome with an investment that also serves the businesses community and drives economic development,” Wright said. “The problem with this project is that it happens to be in the state of New Jersey but it benefits equally New Jersey and New York. I think the only reason it didn’t happen a long time ago is because both states were trying to get the other one to pay for it. This is a classic RPA issue. Our point is, this is good for everybody, so instead of trying to wait for the other side to step forward, why don’t we all figure out a way to do this.”

Critics have said the Port Authority should be focusing instead on replacing its overburdened Manhattan bus terminal. Wright agreed that a new terminal is badly needed, but said no one knows what that $10 billion-plus project will look like and argued it doesn’t make sense to put other investments on hold until it is resolved.

New Jersey projects: A new Hudson tunnel is by far the RPA’s highest priority for New Jersey and the region (and the nation), given the rapid growth of jobs in New York in recent years and their importance to New Jersey’s economy. Of the three major investments called for in the Third Regional Plan of 1996, the Second Ave Subway and LIRR East Side Access are well under way and only the new tunnel remains in limbo.

The organization has also been very active in Newark. After the 2002 reelection of Mayor Sharpe James — who was later convicted of corruptly profiting from land-use decisions — the RPA pulled out of the city. But when Cory Booker was elected mayor in 2006 he asked Wright to help get residents involved in city planning, and the RPA ended up organizing a multi-day forum of community groups, planning organizations, and outside experts and produced a Draft Vision Plan.

Among other projects, the RPA has been involved in post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency work, publishing a report in 2013 and helping coordinate Rebuild by Design, an international design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On the Port Authority: While the RPA and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey have not always seen eye to eye, their common interest in overcoming political boundaries to improve infrastructure makes them natural partners. For example, they both played key roles in the ARC tunnel project before Gov. Chris Christie canceled it in 2010; they are working together on the PATH extension; and they jointly sponsored the May conference on cross-Hudson transit.

Wright said the Bridgegate scandal did terrible damage to the agency’s reputation, but he praised Port Authority chairman John Degnan and past chairman Anthony Coscia, who now heads Amtrak’s board. (He pointedly did not mention former chairman David Samson, who is under federal investigation.) He also said the current executive director and his three predecessors have been “terrific.”

Wright indicated that after Bridgegate some observers thought the Port Authority simply needed new people in charge. But he said much of the leadership has actually been good, and argued that more fundamental change is needed in the way major infrastructure work is advanced in the U.S. Such changes could rebuild public trust and allow agencies to tap into new sources of funding for hugely expensive and long-overdue projects like the trans-Hudson tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and various MTA upgrades in New York, he said.

Creating new institutions: In a recent newspaper editorial titled “Can Our Transit System Get Any Worse?,” Wright argues that the switch to highway travel and a reluctance to raise transit fares has forced cash-poor public authorities to delay projects and turn to governments for subsidies, leaving them “more vulnerable to political intrusion in decisions.” The solution, he says, is to allow them to raise money in new ways.

“People say, ‘Oh, there’s no money,’” Wright said. “There’s a ton of money. There’s huge amounts of money available if we simply think creatively about them.”

He pointed to congestion pricing in London and Stockholm, where drivers pay to enter central business districts. It has been so far rejected for New York. He noted that Hong Kong’s transit agency, a publicly traded company in which the government holds a majority stake, earns revenue from leasing land around stations. Munich merged its water, power, and transit authorities into a single, self-financing entity.

“A hundred years ago we were incredibly creative about creating these new institutions, and giving them broad powers and clear missions, and we haven’t revisited those issues,” Wright said. “We’ve got to look at our institutional structures and think, does this make sense? Does what we have here really have the capacity to deliver what we need, and if not, what new structures should we think about? I’ve been passionate about that, trying to foster that debate.”

Family and home town: Wright lives in Princeton with his wife, who runs a design firm, and their three daughters. His oldest will enter Princeton University this fall. He described himself as “deeply rooted” in the town.

“A lot of what I ended up doing at RPA and the issues I work on are shaped by having grown up in this diverse and interesting community, with a real downtown, a place where children can bike or walk to where they want to get to, and where you would meet people from a lot of different walks of life,” he said. “There are commuters and academics and local merchants, and I think that’s one of the things I do love about the place. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”