Response to <span class="caps">RPA</span>

ReThinkNYC’s Response to the Regional Plan Association’s Critique

May 16, 2017

On May 9th, ReThinkNYC held a sold out event called Plan 2050 at Cooper Union to introduce our Regional Unified Network (RUN) proposal. The event included presentations by Sam Roberts, Jim Venturi and Lane Rick along with a panel discussion afterwards that included Chris Jones of the Regional Plan Association, Margaret Newman (Arup), Sam Schwartz (Sam Schwartz Engineering) and Dr. Vukan Vuchic (Professor Emiritus, University of Pennsylvania) . The entire event is available online here

RUN is a new way of seeing the region that offers tremendous opportunities for economic growth and sustainability. It is a multi-modal, multi-nodal network to get from anywhere to everywhere on mass transit. This is the same principle that works well in Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, London and even Philadelphia. Every other major city is redirecting rail traffic to new tunnels that unify their existing disparate systems.  What every one of our peer cities around the world has shown is that a transit system that expands the core is also better at accessing the existing core.

This is exactly what RUN provides New York — except, the new tunnels needed are already proposed as part of the Gateway Program. These new tunnels under the Hudson River are absolutely critical to the future of our region. We believe that they are the most important infrastructure project in America, and must be funded.

The second phase of Gateway would include a new terminal station adjacent to Penn Station at a cost of many billions of dollars; RUN is built on the first phase of Gateway, as an alternative to the new terminal in the second phase. RUN transforms Penn Station from a nightmare for commuters into a far better facility, and increases the number of passengers and trains that can travel to and through Manhattan. It is an alternative version of the same fundamental project that achieves far greater benefits for the region.

On May 16th, Tom Wright of the RPA released a formal response to the ReThinkNYC proposals.  We welcome his input.  The Regional Plan Association has long provided crucial leadership and forward-thinking analysis and solutions, stretching from the First Regional Plan in 1931 to their work on our region’s airports and the Javits Center this decade. Every New Yorker who cares about our infrastructure and transit system owes the RPA a debt of gratitude for the work they’ve done, and are still doing today, moving the conversation forward on those issues.

This post is a response to Tom’s, and is intended to keep moving the conversation forward. We’d encourage you to either read his post first and then our response, or read them side-by-side. We come to this with an open mind and a willingness to improve our proposal based on constructive feedback, as we have already done. A respectful and open dialogue about the best way to achieve our shared goals will, ultimately, lead to the best possible results for the New York region.




The Great Hall at The Cooper Union | May 9th, 2017


Sam Roberts, The New York Times


Lane Rick, ReThink Studio


Christopher Jones, RPA
Margaret Newman, ARUP
Sam Schwartz, Sam Schwartz Engineering J
im Venturi, ReThink Studio
Dr. Vukan Vuchic, University of Pennsylvania
Moderated by William Menking, The Architect’s Newspaper

Now to Tom’s points:

1) Expanding capacity at Penn Station. Through-running at Penn Station meaningfully increases the number of peak direction trains that can be run through and to Penn Station. The changes at the track and platform level we have proposed significantly increase the capacity of the existing Penn Station; we would, for example, triple vertical circulation.

Most importantly, through-running at Penn Station should not be, and does not need to be, contingent upon an additional project to add new tracks under the East River at a cost equivalent to that of Gateway. At a time when Gateway itself is not yet funded, making “Gateway East” a pre-requisite to through-running effectively eliminates the realistic possibility of through-running at Penn Station for the foreseeable future.

The potential need to increase track capacity under the East River is separate from the need for through-running at Penn Station, though the improved efficiency of through-running meaningfully increases capacity under the East River.

We agree that Penn Station, if operated as a terminal as it is today, is at capacity, meaning that taking any tracks out of service will disrupt service. That is why we spent an enormous amount of time working on a phasing strategy – included in our booklet explain RUN as an appendix starting on page 84 – that addresses the need to maintain service while making changes at Penn Station that will ultimately increase its capacity. Our proposed phasing strategy is designed to make track changes at Penn Station the final step in the process.

By first moving terminal functions out of Penn Station to Port Morris and Secaucus, we can reduce required dwell time and end the need for trains to cross in front of each other. Putting terminals beyond the core but close to it allows us to best accommodate unbalanced demand for peak and reverse peak service, and allow existing rolling stock to serve Penn Station.

Our approach has been vetted and supported by some of the foremost transit experts in the world, including Sam Schwartz and Dr. Vukan Vuchic, who designed Philadelphia’s through-running system.

Making Penn Station into a through-running station alleviates train congestion and expands capacity and flexibility. 

2) Addressing Climate Change. The ReThink plan is explicitly designed to take into account the reality of climate change. Our new terminals and runway at LaGuardia are at a higher elevation to deal with sea level rise. Regardless of whether our plan is adopted or not, major investments to protect LaGuardia are needed, unless it is to be abandoned.

The New Meadowlands study (MIT CAU+ZUS+Urbanisten) has identified the area through which our trunk line runs as a critical area where “federal money is best spent when it helps address not just flood risk, but rather the combined effects of flooding, heat islands, pollution, social vulnerability and vital network.” (see Rebuild By Design, MIT CAU+ZUS+Urbanisten ‚The New Meadowlands, 2014, chapter 1, From Regional analysis to Pilot projects, pp 20.)

The trunk line hubs (Secaucus to Port Morris/Hunts Points) represent optimal locations for investment given the concentration of critical infrastructure (transportation hubs, power plants, etc.), exposure to multiple hazards and the challenges of social vulnerability. The protection systems proposed by Rebuild by Design are a combination of protective berms (at Hunts Point/Port Morris), active landscape (e.g. restoring the meadowland parks), tide gates, and rainwater collection systems. Of note, our Port Morris facilities are outside the flood zone from Hurricane Sandy and are all elevated at least 10’ above the high water mark in that storm. While we may not note the flood plain on everything we publish, it is something we take note of at every point in the process of crafting a proposal like RUN.

The ReThink plan does not include dense development in the Meadowlands – unlike proposals from others – due in large part to climate change. We protect, reuse, and improve existing critical infrastructure in the Meadowlands, but our view is that climate change makes the Meadowlands suitable as a transfer station only rather than as a development hub. 

With all that said, we take to heart the true critique that we have not been explicit about some of the technical work we’ve done to account for climate change. RUN is primarily a transit plan, and our published materials have been focused on those elements of our proposals, but we will be more explicit about the technical work we’ve done on this front moving forward.

3) Improve LaGuardia. Here, we admit to a fundamental difference of opinion. LaGuardia should be New York’s business airport hub, not JFK or Newark. It is the closest to Midtown, and, with the transit connections and longer runways we have proposed, would command an enormous premium for transatlantic and transcontinental business travelers. It should serve the highest-value routes. Our plan does not require more flights out of LaGuardia, or a convoluted connection to mass transit; larger planes would allow each flight to carry more people and connect to the entire mass transit network on the west side of the airport.

4) Serving Existing Communities. One of our core motivating principles was to better serve and link existing population and employment centers. Our RUN proposal gives transit hubs to major population and employment centers that currently lack such access. For example, Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and LIRR run through but don’t stop in Sunnyside, Queens. The nearly 8‑million people living in Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk Counties would benefit immensely from having a major transit hub on the actual island of Long Island.

There are significant benefits to South Bronx residents of adding a single major hub with access to all three suburban areas, and our vision would include links to the ferry network and local bus networks. Current plans for new trains service to the East Bronx do not include access to Metro-North’s Harlem and Hudson lines, nor do they provide direct access to New Jersey, nor do they provide a direct rail link between the Bronx and Queens, nor do they provide as quick and easy a transfer to Long Island – all of which our plan does. Our Bronx transit investments would give that borough dramatically improved regional mobility, far above and beyond anything currently proposed or in the planning process that we are aware of. Combined with the benefit of connecting LaGuardia to the transit system on the west of the airport, the benefits of a hub in Port Morris are significant, for the Bronx and for the region.

Our Secaucus hub is designed to take advantage of the unique proximity of rail lines that once provided passenger service to Northern New Jersey until they were abandoned in the postwar period.  The waterfront terminals that once served these passengers are gone, but our proposed hub at Secaucus would offer the opportunity to restore service on these lines using modern light rail technology, akin to the Camden-Trenton River Line. The expanded transfer hub would be designed for multiple transit modes and would be optimized for simple and seamless transfers.

The best way to serve existing communities is to drastically increase the utility of existing transit assets, which our plan does. Reverse commuting is the fastest growing service provided by Metro-North, showing the intense demand for suburban job access that exists today in the New York City region.

In conclusion, no single investment can solve every problem with our transit system, but a cost-benefit analysis, and cost-per-rider breakdown, of our RUN proposal would compare extremely well to major ongoing transit investment projects across the region – particularly when one compares just the incremental costs of Penn South to our proposed alternatives. Rather than spending $7–8 billion to demolish a block and a half of Midtown to create an obsolete terminal, why not unite the region by rail by making transformative investments to upgrade service through the core, and improve mass transit options for Queens, the Bronx, New Jersey, and the entire region?

Read our book ‘Vol 1. First Steps — The Regional Unified Network’ for more detailed information on our proposal.