Reflections on New York’s OneNYC plan

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan is an ambitious set of initiatives and goals for building a more resilient and equitable city. The 332-page document expands on the targets outlined in previous long-term sustainability plans to include a poverty reduction target of 800,000 New Yorkers over the next 10 years, zero waste to landfills by 2030, and the elimination of long-term displacement from homes and jobs after shock events like hurricanes by 2050.

I recently caught up with Arup planner Susan Ambrosini, who worked on OneNYC, to get her insights into an initiative that undoubtedly will have a major impact on any profession that works with New York City’s built environment.

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What was your role in Mayor Bill De Blasio’s recently released OneNYC plan, and how is it different from previous plans such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlanNYC?

We were subconsultants to HR&A Advisors, which played a leading role in developing aspects of the plan. We were brought in because HR&A needed our support with some of the technical pieces, particularly with respect to transportation analyses and mapping, as well as city and regional capital project spending.

What’s really different about this plan is that they are trying to better track how the City’s spending aligns with what regional agencies are spending on capital projects. It‘s a huge and complicated undertaking. We helped get them started by creating a snapshot of regional capital spending over the next ten years by agencies like Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the Port Authority, Amtrak, and various State agencies.

The other difference is that the plan looks at the city’s issues through four lenses now — they’ve added resiliency and equity to PlaNYC’s focus on sustainability and growth.

What are the big challenges to understanding how capital projects get funded in the New York City metropolitan region?

Currently, the agencies don’t coordinate among each other. It’s difficult for someone to look at spending holistically and really understand what’s happening at a regional scale. Agencies like MTA, the Port Authority, New Jersey Transit, and the City of New York all publish capital plans, but the time periods all vary and releases are staggered. They publish their own four-year or five-year, or maybe ten-year, capital plans. They all have projects that last longer than the capital plan time span, and they have different ways of classifying where projects are in the cycle with respect to fund allocation. They also all categorize projects in different ways. So for example, comparing state of good repair spending across agencies isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.

That was the real value in what we did — we gathered all the information and presented it in maps and tables that are easy for someone to understand. This helps empower the public to push agencies towards more accountability in the future.

NYCSubway_HOR_Alan Bloom

What sums of money are we talking about, and how much capital spending does the City directly control?

New York City’s ten-year capital budget is around $60 billion, and the amount of spending regionally is about $266 billion. Because of the issues I mentioned before, we had to extrapolate to get to a 10-year regional spending estimate.

What type of infrastructure spending is covered in the capital estimate?

The estimate captures all sorts of public works, from education to sanitation, but primarily transportation; resiliency and recovery spending, reflecting post-Sandy funding; as well as energy and water. We also reached out to companies like Con Edison and Verizon to incorporate telecommunications.

How does New York compare to other large cities when it comes to tracking capital spending?

I think its position is fairly typical. Many cities struggle with the same issue of coordinating infrastructure spending, both across City agencies as well as with regional players.

New York City’s government wants to facilitate regional coordination in capital planning and make the process more transparent to stakeholders

We’ve seen some cities we work with do some exciting things. In New South Wales, Arup created an online map that allows you to see and track capital spending. It’s easy to use, with icons that represent different types of projects, summary information, and budgets.

New York City’s government wants to facilitate regional coordination in capital planning and make the process more transparent to stakeholders. They’re open to using an online mapping tool as a way to achieve this. The tristate region is incredibly complex, though, and the absence of any regional regulatory authority creates governance and investment obstacles.

What is the biggest category for capital spending in the New York City metropolitan region?

Roughly half of the spending is transportation related, which is broken out into a few sub-categories in the plan — largely focused on key projects such as Second Ave Subway, East Side Access, and airport improvements. Resiliency is another major category, but it’s overarching, and incorporates spending in all areas.

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Second Avenue Subway

Can you discuss the links between transit planning, jobs, and affordable housing in OneNYC?

The plan sets out a clear goal to increase residents’ access to jobs. I think a lot of people have been feeling the crunch of having to move further outside the city’s core in order to find affordable housing, which increases their commute. This can make a family’s situation unworkable if you’re caring for kids or family members or if you have a second job. New York City already has one of the highest average commute times in the nation.

Credit: Arup

A 45-minute commute puts Long Island City residents within reach of 2.3 million jobs

As a solution, you can create more affordable housing units near job centers in places where real estate is getting expensive, but it’s almost impossible to create the number of affordable units you would need to satisfy demand. So building affordable housing in those areas can really be only one part of the solution.

A 45-minute commute gives Flatlands residents access to only 70,000 jobs

A 45-minute commute gives Flatlands residents access to 70,000 jobs

Another option is to bring jobs farther out of the center city, so that they’re closer to these neighborhoods that are more affordable. I think that that’s an approach that makes a lot of sense for a city like New York. You don’t necessarily want to create too much more housing density in Manhattan, for a variety of reasons — historic preservation, for example, and quality-of-life issues like pedestrian comfort, transit congestion, and shade and shadow impacts.

HuntersPointSouth_HOR_Arup

When complete, Hunter’s Point South will contain thousands of affordable housing units

The third approach is to provide better transportation links between housing and jobs, which is also critical for New York. The plan emphasizes expanding Select Bus Service, ferry service, and considering subway expansion — like going past Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, where the 4 train currently ends.

What parts of the city are ripe for becoming job hubs?

You want most job centers to be in places with good transit access. In the outer boroughs, this could be places like Flushing, Jamaica, East New York, Sunset Park, or the South Bronx.

There are obviously land use and economic considerations as well. There’s already been some focus on developing these areas before the plan, but it was typically talked about as an economic development issue. It wasn’t framed as “we’re bringing jobs closer to where housing is more affordable.”

What about using an advanced train communications-based train control (CBTC) system for improving transit? Has that been discussed?

It’s my understanding that MTA is slowly rolling this out throughout the city. Right now we rely mostly on mechanical systems to do train control, and the advanced train communications system digitizes the system and allows us to get more capacity out of the existing system without more expensive infrastructure projects. So that’s on its way.

JFKAirtrain_HOR_Sean Marshall

John F. Kennedy International Airport’s AirTrain uses CBTC technology

Surely this would be the cheapest way to improve transportation and help get people to jobs. Like if you wanted to do something in the next two years to really improve the commutes of New Yorkers, wouldn’t installing a CBTC be the thing to do? 

It doesn’t really solve the problem of lowering people’s commute time drastically. It can shorten travel times, but not substantially. It decreases the number of delays, which can make commutes more consistent. This helps with livability and has economic benefits, but it won’t make a big dent in an otherwise really long commute. If someone is commuting an hour and that becomes 57 minutes, it’s helpful, but not really solving the greater issue.

The real gains with CBTC are in increasing capacity. The L-train is an example: being able to accommodate increased population in Williamsburg.

How are we going to pay for everything in OneNYC? The City only preliminary budget towards the MTA’s $32 billion 5-year capital plan, and the MTA has a significant amount of debt. How practical is OneNYC in terms of addressing the transit needs of New York City residents?

The primary role of a document like OneNYC is to lay out an ambitious but reasonable vision. I think the plan is practical with respect to the things the City has control over. It isn’t proposing any overly expensive or ambitious transit projects. I agree with the plan’s emphasis on Select Bus Service, which is an affordable way to bring faster, more reliable service to a lot of people.

NYC Bus_HOR_NYCMTA

That said, the City’s contribution to MTA’s five-year capital program was $657 million in the final budget, which is up from around $100 million a year in the past to around $130 million a year. And the City makes a lot of other investments in the MTA and transportation, including around $1 billion each year in operating expenses and funding to specific projects, not to mention billions of dollars in tax revenue and capital funding to the Department of Transportation to fund bridge, tunnel, highway, street, and bus transit improvements.

But still, there is a huge shortfall, clearly. I think New York, MTA, and the state government need to collectively reconsider road-based user fees. This was proposed by Bloomberg and rejected by the State several years ago. But many cities around the world are exploring congestion charges as realistic ways to account for the harmful impacts of driving and support transit expansion. Congestion pricing has been a big success in other cities.

What’s an example of a city that has really been making progress in terms of transit-oriented developments and improving public transit?

Los Angeles is the first one that comes to mind, but I’m biased because I lived there for several years.

What does Los Angeles do that New York City can learn from?

The residents of Los Angeles County did a transformative thing: they voted for Measure R, which is a half-cent sales tax increase that finances transportation projects. This money is directly funneled into transportation capital investments, like subway, bus, and bike infrastructure. The majority of the $1.5 billion Exposition Light Rail Line Phase 2 project, from Culver City to Santa Monica, was funded by Measure R. This and several other projects were fast-tracked after Measure R was passed. It’s because when you’re not relying on any, or as much, federal funding, design and construction can happen much faster.

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Los Angeles light rail

That said, Measure R also allows Los Angeles to be more competitive for federal funding, which is still really important for its subway expansion projects, among others. When you apply for a federal transportation grant, if you provide a higher local match, you’ll score better in their evaluations. This is really critical because when Los Angeles competes with transit projects and other big cities, it makes their applications more competitive.

Interview edited and condensed.

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