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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Future of the Big Apple

Air Date: Week of

With big ideas for linking New York City's many railroad and subway systems to ease commuters lives, the Regional Planning Association of Greater New York is trying to ensure that New York grows in the 21st century and avoids the decline of many other major metropolitan areas around the world. Neal Rauch reports on one region's plans for staying on the map.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. New York, New York. Our biggest city and, according to most New Yorkers, the best. But as with many older cities around the world, New York is facing some major problems, including congestion, pollution, the loss of open space and declining jobs. As the world's urban leaders met this month in Istanbul to discuss the problems of cities around the planet, an influential private group was warning that unless New York's problems are addressed now, there could be hard times ahead for the city and its suburbs. And they're pushing a controversial solution. Neal Rauch has the details.

CISNEROS: Pittsburgh once had 800,000 people. Not only has the city of Pittsburgh lost population on a massive scale, less than one half its former size, but the region as a whole has lost population as it failed to substitute industries and firms for the loss of steel.

RAUCH: That's Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros recounting one of the most famous stories of urban decline in America. But he could have cited dozens more, regions that weren't able to change with the times and paid the price. Claude Shostel, head of New York City's Regional Plan Association, says it's a mistake to think that even New York could never meet a similar fate.

SHOSTEL: We are no longer destined for success. We have not been growing in the last decade. We've been growing slower than every other metropolitan region in the country. So we think the challenge now is a different one: not how to manage growth but how to create growth.

RAUCH: The Regional Plan Association, a private group of 60 influential business, civic, and academic leaders from around the New York metropolitan area, has been an important player for years. Its recommendations in 1929 helped lead to major rail, highway and open space projects. In the late 60s it successfully pushed for the protection of nearly 1 million acres of parkland and a multi-billion dollar investment in infrastructure. This time the RPA is warning against the decline of the urban hub, and against complacency by communities as far away as Poughkeepsie upstate; New Haven, Connecticut; Trenton, New Jersey; and Hicksville on Long Island.

SHOSTEL: During the recession of the late 1980s, when this region lost three quarters of a million jobs, all parts of the region were affected similarly. We are one metropolitan economy. People in the suburbs have a tremendous stake in seeing the central city succeed, and we have a tremendous stake in the central cities to see the quality of life in suburban areas maintained.

RAUCH: For the RPA the key to preserving that metropolitan area economy is to focus its resources back on the urban hubs around which it is built. New York itself; Newark, New Jersey; Bridgeport, Connecticut; and the like. Their plan calls for investments in inner city education for kids and adults, especially immigrants, who they consider an important asset, as well as investments in affordable housing. The RPA says the lack of affordable housing is a major reason why many companies leave the area, and this new investment would be linked to public transportation, cutting down on congestion and sprawl, and reducing pressure on undeveloped land. The RPA's vision for the future of the New York metropolitan region is based in large part on what's already in place.

LA GUARDIA: Our subway system is the biggest railroad in the world, and we carry more passengers in one day than many railroads carry in a year. For we carry over 6 million passengers a day, so it is quite an undertaking.

RAUCH: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had much to brag about by the 1930s. Even today the extensive network of subway and commuter rail lines is the envy of many other areas. Claude Shostel says the region could help ensure its future with some small but significant improvements.

(Echoing, milling sounds of many people)

SHOSTEL: What we've got now are 7 separate rail systems that were built independently to compete with each other. We're standing here in Grand Central Station. If we were to be able to bring the Long Island Rail Road into Grand Central Station, 40 or 50,000 Long Island commuters a day would save a half hour on their commute. Eight thousand vehicles would be taken off the river crossing.

RAUCH: The plan would also link New York's airports to Manhattan by train. All told the RPA wants to expand the city's 1,250-mile rail system by 25 miles. That's only an additional 2%. But advocates say the benefits would be tremendous. Reduced congestion and quicker travel times would help stem the flow of jobs out of the city. One detail of the proposal illuminates a key theme of the Planning Association's vision: linking improvements in the city with services for the suburbs. The RPA wants to resurrect the long abandoned idea of building a new subway line on Manhattan's East Side. Claude Shostel says it will succeed this time around, because it would serve more than just city residents. Commuter trains would also use the tracks to bring suburban riders directly to Manhattan's financial district.

SHOSTEL: Every time you dig a new tunnel it had better serve 3 or 4 purposes. Now, if it serves the people on Long Island and Westchester and the Bronx and New Jersey Transit, we feel that we have a better chance of getting Federal funds and other transportation funds to support a broader set of uses and a broader constituency.

RAUCH: Claude Shostel says forging regional bonds through joint efforts and a new tri-state authority would be the best way to ensure that the New York area can command the resources it needs for the next century, and that would also help to protect vital and threatened green spaces from the Catskill Mountains to the New Jersey Highlands. The Regional Plan Association has no authority to make its prescriptions a reality. That's up to elected officials and the voters to decide. But in a public television on the RPA report, the Republican governors of New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York all had at least some positive words.

SHOSTEL: We're going to look to try to incorporate as many of the ideas as are practical and as are financially achievable, so that we can start thinking well into the 21st century and not just to the next budget or the next election.

RAUCH: And indeed, New York Governor George Pataki has endorsed proposals to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Kennedy Airport and Grand Central Station. But it'll be tough going for these and other changes. On the key point of regional cooperation, the movement's in the other direction. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wants to dissolve the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs bridges, tunnels, and trains across the Hudson River. Joe Rose, who heads the New York City Planning Commission, says regional agencies are part of the problem.

ROSE: The regional institutions that we now have, such as the Port Authority and the MTA, what you see is funds being taken from city revenue sources and transferred to suburban projects. That's the direction that both the politics and the institutional biases have been creating investment in New York for quite some time, to the city's great disadvantage.

RAUCH: The Association's proposal to pay for its plans might also be ill-fated. The price tag is $75 billion over 25 years, or $3 billion a year out of a combined tri-state budget of over $100 billion. The RPA suggests covering some of that cost by raising gasoline taxes and bridge and tunnel tolls. Bad idea, says Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation.

GARGANO: We cannot do what we did in the past, continue to add taxes. Increase gasoline tax, increase tolls, increase business tax, increase personal tax. Those days are gone.

RAUCH: But RPA president Claude Shostel warns that without these investments the days of the region's international leadership may be gone.

SHOSTEL: We will be poorer, we will be more polarized, and our environment will be compromised, so that fewer and fewer people will be willing to put up with all of these inconveniences, and they will go to Atlanta and Dallas and Tokyo and London and Paris and places that are investing in their infrastructure. And the further that goes on, the harder it will be to turn it around.

RAUCH: On the other hand, Mr. Shostel says, New York still has the best hand around, and will stay on top if it plays it right.

SHOSTEL: We still have unspoiled mountains and countrysides and farm lands, and because of our cultural diversity, our entrepreneurial workforce, this is still the place where the world congregates, where people come, that is still the most exciting place with the best quality of life of any major metropolitan region in the world.

RAUCH: Few residents of the New York metropolitan area would argue against this vision of the future. But achieving it is another matter. The RPA's proposal calls for bigger government and higher taxes, at a time when politicians consider support for either as political suicide. The future, whether bleak or hopeful, is abstract, while today's political calculus is very real. So the Regional Plan Association's blueprint may end right there, just another ambitious idea to add to the pile. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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