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The 4th Regional Plan (Part One)

Published 9 June 2020 | 2,103 words | Categories: Journalism

Recently I came across this organization for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area.

“Regional Plan Association (RPA), the nearly 100-year old research, planning and advocacy organization focused on improving the tri-state area’s prosperity, infrastructure, sustainability and quality of life, today [November 30, 2017] released its Fourth Regional Plan to help elected officials, policymakers, and advocates plan for the region’s future. Throughout its history, RPA has released once-in-a-generation Regional Plans that have shaped the area’s growth…. The plan finds that while the overall tri-state economy is booming, the region is not working for everyone, and major changes are needed to ensure continued growth and more equitable prosperity.“


While this all sounds good in theory, let’s go over each point one-by-one.


SECTION ONE: “Fix the institutions that are failing us”

PART ONE: Transform the way we govern and pay for transportation

1. Reduce the cost of building rail transit

“Rail transit projects cost more and take longer to build in the New York region than anywhere else in the world. For transit riders as well as taxpayers, that means higher costs, less reliable service, and a system that fails to reach many areas or provide affordable and frequent connections.“

In general the recommendations are fine. They’re mostly aimed at increasing productivity, having better decision-making, and streamlining management. Upfront costs should be low, with high potential benefits, making this a priority for regional implementation. Reform would then carry over into some of the issues raised below.

2. Restructure the Port Authority to function as a regional infrastructure bank

“The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has been a valuable financier and developer of critical infrastructure. In recent years, however, its operations and credibility have suffered.... To realize the Port Authority’s potential and preserve its important mission, the entity must be reformed…”

Overall, their recommendations are iffy. The ideas are a bold new step which might work out, but there are a few parts which make me wonder. The RPA reform would also add uncertainties and new administrative layers which may have questionable efficacy. The Regional Plan Association claims to have done a lot of research for the “fourth plan,” but their overall report is so full of holes I doubt that any one part can be 100 percent trusted. That applies to this section too, which has me lean “no” even though I’m undecided.

3. Create a Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation

“New York City’s extensive subway system is the lifeblood of its economy, but faces a dire crisis. The system’s infrastructure is aging and unreliable and uses outdated technology. By almost every metric, service is deteriorating…. The MTA, with its current financial and operational structure, is not capable of rebuilding the subway system.”

RPA argues that the MTA has too much on its plate, excessive and opaque bureaucracy, inefficient or outdated regulations, and insufficient funding. Their recommendation is a new organization because “A crisis demands undivided attention. A new Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation should be created with no other goal than to completely rebuild the subway system within 15 years.” They don’t have specific thoughts on how to pay for this.

What fascinates me is not seeing a hard suggestion to streamline the MTA. The RPA basically says they’re too far gone so we need MORE bureaucracy and inter-agency conflict. That doesn’t make any sense. Fix the MTA and ensure a specific sub-department will focus on fixing the subway system. Then consider other options if necessary. The first idea to solve an issue should be to trim excess, not add to the mess. Extracting more blood from taxpayers who are already squeezed by the state is NOT an adequate first answer. Many of the MTA’s problems are easily solved (or at least known) according to a New York Times report.

4. Modernize transit systems outside New York City

“Outside of New York City, the tri-state region has the three busiest commuter rail systems in the country as well as bus systems that serve millions of local, regional, and long-distance trips. Funding for these transit systems has not kept pace with growing demand, and in some cases has been drastically cut. NJ Transit, Metro-North, and the Long Island Rail Road all need to scale up their operations.“

RPA outlines five primary challenges: inadequate funding (especially for NJ Transit), political interference, lack of investment (maintenance), insufficient resources to address inequities, poor attention to customer service and accessibility. Ridership is decreasing on most lines due to one or more of these issues.

The recommendations are mostly increased transparency and stronger laws/guidelines to eliminate loopholes. What RPA says is generally fine, aside from questionable proposals for new taxes, and some vague ideas which don’t have realistic paths to implementation.

The RPA neglects to mention the numerous NJT-specific issues. What plagues New Jersey Transit is highly public compared to other systems, in part from the disastrous $1.3 million audit released in 2018. The report by North Highland Worldwide Consulting said "NJ Transit has no strategic plan, no retention program, no knowledge management program, and no succession plans… an overly complex organizational structure matched by equally as complex business processes. The organizational culture reflects 'buck passing' and siloed behaviors, low employee morale, and ill-defined roles, authorities, and accountabilities."

I’m not sure the RPA can do much to “reform” such a broken system.

5. Charge drivers to enter Manhattan, price highways, and transition to vehicle-miles tolling

“As gas taxes can no longer be depended on to generate consistent revenue, there are concerns about how to finance road maintenance and upgrades at a time when transportation infrastructure needs are growing.”

The tri-state region has some of the highest gas taxes in the nation. NY is #7, NJ is #11, and CT is #9. NY and CT are also two of the seven states which apply full or partial sales tax to gasoline. What makes this unreliable? RPA argues that “gas tax revenues have stagnated as vehicles have become more fuel-efficient, and hybrid and electric vehicles have become more popular.” Yet the surging popularity of SUVs and trucks reduces average fuel efficiency. In 2018, New York only had 36,854 electric vehicles (out of 4,890,916 total automobiles) and NYC ranks at the bottom among cities offering charging stations. Governor Cuomo vetoed a pro-electric vehicle bill in December 2019. The state isn’t friendly overall. While more “green” cars are expected to sell, I’m still skeptical of proposals to “include tolls on all major highways, and ultimately on actual miles driven.” Particularly since the region isn’t economically attractive compared to other states, and more people are leaving New York than any other state. Of the 10 most expensive states to live in, New Jersey is #10 (tied with Rhode Island), Connecticut is #8, and New York is #3. In December 2019, the New York Post reported that “New York was one of only 10 states to suffer a total population decline in 2018-19 — its fourth consecutive annual decrease after five years of growth, and the largest population drop of any state.”

I do, however, agree with RPA that our infrastructure maintenance is pathetic. But I’d first ask where taxpayer money is going and how to improve efficiency there. Not immediately jump to new ideas for fresh taxes. Twenty-six states already impose fees on electric vehicle owners and “make no sense in an era when EV sales are only beginning to take off. Plug-in electric vehicles today account for only about half-percent of cars on US roads. EV fees will not make up for shortages in roadway investments caused by other factors.” A new analysis by Consumer Reports “finds this approach is both an ineffective way to make up for highway fund shortfalls, and punishes drivers for choosing a zero-emission alternative to traditional gas-burning vehicles.” In all 26 states which impose electric-vehicle fees, these exceed the cost of a gas tax; as much as 200% higher. 

RPA then recommends tolls for NYC’s East River bridges and equalizing their fares. In theory that sounds fine, depending on the amount. It could hurt intra-city commuters and I don’t know what the consequences are for that. RPA argues that lack of tolls is "encouraging commuters to drive instead of taking public transportation, merely to avoid the cost of a subway or bus fare." This part doesn’t make any sense--driving in NYC is expensive and a hassle in general. Even if NY’s subway system is famously bad, it’s inexpensive compared to driving. One site estimates unlimited NYC transit use as $1,452 per year and driving a car at approximately $3,000 per year in the city. The latter doesn’t even include tolls, parking, unscheduled maintenance, or depreciation. Public transit is the clear economic choice by a wide margin.

RPA’s second recommendation is to add cashless tolls to major roads and highways aside from the 3 regional highways which do have tolls. They say “It is unfair to toll only a handful of points in the network, because some users end up making up for the loss” without realizing that some roads are used more than others. Adding tolls--even variable tolls--to ALL major roadways will hurt low-income communities. But RPA doesn’t stop there. They have another idea: 

“Ultimately, the most fair way to charge people for using the road network is to base it on the actual amount of driving they do, regardless of which roads they use. Known as a Vehicle-Miles Traveled (VMT) fee or Miles-Based User Fee (MBUF), this method utilizes GPS and cellular technology… Fees can be set higher or lower based on capacity, vehicle weight, or fuel efficiency. Adopting VMT/MBUF would require all three states to coordinate implementation, which might involve establishing a regional or mega-regional organizing body similar to the E-ZPass interagency group. Ideally, federal action would also be part of the implementation to help smooth out interstate issues and create a uniform set of standards nationwide. Although there is the potentially critical issue of the public having concerns initially about privacy due to the use of GPS and cellular technology to gather data… If 10 cents, for instance, were charged for every mile driven on the region’s highways, about $5 billion a year could be raised.”

This idea is, frankly, stupid. One of the rationalizations is to “reduce unnecessary driving, and encourage other ways of getting around (like biking or taking the bus).” Few communities in the region have viable public transportation or bicycle paths. Cars, particularly in rural New York, are a necessity for getting around. There’s no way around that. Then GPS and cell phone tracking is incredibly intrusive even if they did add strict rules on data collection and usage. But this recommendation is mostly absurd for combining a high fee with additional overhead/administrative costs. It’s expensive for everyone involved.

Within two seconds I thought of a better plan: expanding DMV capabilities and using AI to parse records. On annual NY state inspections, the mileage is listed on forms--when information is sent to the DMV, current mileage can be compared to previous mileage records, with taxes on the difference. The bill can be automatically mailed out (email is free) or auto-charged to an EZPass account. Or implemented alongside state taxes when it comes to giving refunds. This requires zero location-tracking and minimal government intervention, at a fraction of the cost RPA’s ideas would incur. Ten cents per mile is also suffocating. I used to have a long work commute due to economic necessity, and a ten-cent fee would've cost 5% of my income. I don’t know about other Americans but an extra 5% tax seems unacceptable. I already pay state and federal taxes. More and I’d join the 180,000 people who move out of New York each year. Oregon’s new fees have an option for 1.7 cents per mile, making RPA’s 10-cent example ludicrous.

Gas and electricity have different prices/logistics so I’m not sure if this is an option, but why not have charging stations cost nearly the same as gas stations? If it costs $2.56 per gallon in NY, and the gas tax is $0.63 of that, just tack on $0.63 for electric vehicle charging stations for the per-gallon equivalent. The math will need adjustments of course, but I don’t understand why RPA hasn’t considered this option, since it’s easier and cheaper to implement.

Given how New York frequently mismanages funds, and continuously ensures ever-higher costs to living here, I wouldn’t trust Albany with anything new. They should first get better at budgeting.

To be continued.

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