Regional Plan Association Offers Recommendations Big and Smaller for NJ

John Reitmeyer | December 4, 2017 | Planning
From T-REX, a massive mass-transit agency, and a Meadowlands National Park to tighter governance and finances for NJ Transit and Port Authority

Among other things the RPA plan envisions a Meadowlands National Park.
The latest large-scale vision for the greater New York area put forward by the Regional Plan Association once again features a big dose of think-big proposals, including the creation of a new national park in the Meadowlands, and the establishment of a “T-REX” (Trans-Regional Express) mass-transit agency to seamlessly link New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

But the RPA’s new regional plan — just the fourth to be released by the nonprofit agency since it was founded nearly a century ago — includes several other, smaller-scale recommendations that could be adopted more rapidly if the region’s politicians can find the will.

Among those proposals are new reforms that would improve the governance and finances both of New Jersey Transit and of the Port Authority, a goal that would delight many frustrated New Jersey residents who currently use the region’s increasingly unreliable mass-transit infrastructure to commute to jobs in New York City.

“All too often it seems we have to settle, to accept high costs, poor service (and) unresponsive institutions. But this doesn’t have to be the case,” said Rohit T. Aggarwala, chair of the RPA’s Committee on the Fourth Regional Plan.

“The Fourth Plan offers a realistic agenda for making this region work for us all,” he said.

Controversial concepts

Released late last week, the RPA plan also doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. For example, it proposes scaling back the round-the-clock operating schedule of New York City’s subway system on weekdays to allow for more aggressive repairs and maintenance of the subway’s aging infrastructure.

While that suggestion has not been widely embraced — New York Mayor Bill De Blasio called 24-hour subway service a “birthright” in response — the RPA plan is drawing praise from many transportation advocates and environmentalists. They credit both the plan’s “one-can-dream” ideas and its loud call to enact basic reforms at agencies like NJ Transit for bringing new attention to the most important issues facing New Jersey and the region.

“It’s important to try to shake up the status quo because the status quo isn’t working right now,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey and co-chair of the New Jersey For Transit coalition.

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In all, the RPA’s new vision document runs to nearly 400 pages, and covers issues like affordable housing and social justice in addition to transportation and the environment. The fourth RPA plan follows the last vision document that was released by the nonprofit planning agency some 20 years ago, a third plan that prompted efforts to expand transportation options and preserve open space in New Jersey. The agency’s first two plans were released in 1922 and 1968, respectively.

Transportation, a hot topic

This time around, transportation is once again a hot topic, and the section on mass-transit pays particular attention to NJ Transit’s recent struggles under two-term Republican Gov. Chris Christie. They include a series of fare hikes and the routine raiding of capital funds to help sustain the agency’s operating budget as state budget subsidies have failed to keep up with rising costs.

The RPA plan recommends that NJ Transit adopt a finance model that’s used by other mass-transit agencies that involves dedicating funds generated through taxes and subsidies to help ease a reliance on revenues collected from fares.

“All the transit systems need more resources, and NJ Transit’s funding structure is the most precarious,” the plan said. “It is one of the largest systems in the country without a designated funding stream, with state funding to the agency subject to the uncertainty of annual budget negotiations.”

Overhauling the port

At the Port Authority, the report recommends overhauling both the governing and operating structure of the bistate agency, and eventually spinning off the running of its various transportation assets, including the Hudson River crossings and the PATH system.

“The central Port Authority body could then focus on its function as an infrastructure bank that finances large-scale projects,” the plan said.

Another recommendation calls for the establishment of a new, mainly intercity Port Authority bus terminal in New York that would be built under the Javits Convention Center. That facility would ease overcrowding conditions at the Port Authority’s main bus terminal located at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. The Port Authority is currently considering replacing the existing facility, or at least adding new levels to meet a roughly 50 percent increase in ridership that’s expected to occur over the next 25 years.

The RPA plan also calls for a realignment of the terminals at Newark Liberty Airport, and it assumes that Teterboro Airport, which is located in a low-lying area near the Hackensack River, will eventually be unusable due to climate change. The envisioned Meadowlands National Park would also be used to help provide education on the impacts of climate change.

Counting on T-REX

The RPA’s long-term view also envisions the establishment of a broad, three-state mass-transit agency that would eventually use several new trans-Hudson tunnels to help people move more seamlessly throughout New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The new, mega-transit agency would be called the Trans-Regional Express, or T-REX.

“T-REX would enable the transit system to comfortably serve an additional 1 million people by 2040, and support a growing regional economy,” the plan said.

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Under the RPA’s long-term vision, the proposed Gateway infrastructure initiative, which includes a planned new trans-Hudson tunnel and an overhaul of the existing, 107-year-old tunnel in use today, would also be expanded to allow trains to run all the way to Queens instead of stopping at Penn Station in New York.

Though it will take a lot of effort to accomplish some of the bigger visions laid out in the plan, Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, suggested the RPA’s vision document performs a crucial service for the region since politicians usually only look ahead to their next election. He also said it’s noteworthy that the concerns about NJ Transit that have been raised by his organization and others in recent years were prominently incorporated into the RPA plan.

“To highlight NJ Transit, and to make it as significant a portion as it is, I think is important,” Sifuentes said.

Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club, also credited the RPA for emphasizing the effects of climate change, including the need to expand the current Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative to emulate the more aggressive steps on carbon pricing that have been taken in California.

“A lot of places are moving in that direction, and we’re going to have to,” Tittel said.

Although he questioned whether the proposal to create a new national park in the Meadowlands could win any support in the current, Republican-controlled Congress, Tittel also suggested the RPA’s plan provides a valuable service by at least starting the conversation on such large-scale ideas.

“I think you have to start out and have vision, and then see what you can do,” Tittel said.