NY Moves: Big Ideas, Small Budget

Eighteen billion dollars—that’s the estimated cost benefit of the Gateway Program rail project that would link Penn Station to Newark, N.J. via a new tunnel through the Hudson River. The problem is finding the $12 billion in funds to build it in the first place.

“Every minute you knock off the commute from a station into midtown Manhattan adds about $3,000 to the value of a home within a half mile,” Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, said Wednesday morning during a panel discussion on innovative transportation. “I believe that many of these investments really pay for themselves.”

That was a recurring theme during the panel, hosted by Jonathan Bowles of the Urban Institute. Big ideas, but a small budget to pay for it. Despite universal agreement on the need to replace infrastructure that’s more than 100 years old in many places funding remains a challenge.

Joining Wright on the panel, which was part of City & State's NY Moves event at New York University, was Guy Palumbo of IonFleets and New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, and all agreed that with funding tight stakeholders have to be very careful in which projects they prioritize.

Wright said one project worth exploring is a rail system connecting Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, which lead the New York area in new development and job growth.

“Travel between those boroughs is growing at roughly twice the rate of travel in and out of Manhattan,” he said. “And what this would do is provide a (way) for people to get between those boroughs much, much more rapidly.”

But right now, Wright said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital plan barely has enough money to fund the replacement of wheels and electrical circuits in the existing subway system.

Guy Palumbo, New York operations manager for IonFleets, said his company is working to improve driver safety as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero Plan, which is designed to end traffic-related deaths in the city by 2020. The company, along with the Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), is testing a pilot project designed to track drivers’ behavior and alert them when they are making unsafe decisions.

“We’re looking at improving driver behavior,” Palumbo said.  “Staying too close, creeping in front of the car in front of them, drifting into the lane, opening the door and hitting a guy on a bicycle.”

Wright said New York area transit authorities should push for technology improvements as a way to improve their customers’ experience.

“I tend to think that part of reason the MTA was really slow to get the countdown clocks in the subway systems is because the countdown clock does not move anybody from point A to point B any faster,” he said.  “But the experience of the users of the system is dramatically changed by knowing that the next train is four minutes away as opposed to having no idea.”

City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez agreed that more funding was necessary. But he called for that funding to be tied to more community feedback. He said his constituents want to be involved in the decision-making process to make sure that their money is going towards projects that will help their daily lives.

“There has to be a mechanism for the community who will more affected,” Rodriguez said, referring to plans for the East Side Access transit system, which is designed to free up subway capacity by bringing a commuter rail to the Grand Central Station terminal. “How much from that project will be reinvested in the local community?”