BUILDING A REGIONAL IDENTITY

Next New York: Air + Rail, March 29, 2013

Participants:  
David Bragdon
Joel Ettinger
Alex Garvin
Paul Goldberger
Arthur Imperatore
Deborah Marton
Robert Paley
Sam Schwartz
Marilyn Taylor
Robert Yaro

JOEL ETTINGER:  It costs a fortune just to keep what we have in a state of good repair. The interesting issue to me is financing. How do we pay for great projects in the New York metropolitan area?

MARILYN TAYLOR:  We are not Denver. We cannot just take twenty-three municipalities, vote on a sales tax, and dedicate it primarily to a single project. We have competing priorities here. We have to think about every single revenue stream that we have and how it is fairly and reasonably divided. We cannot just say, “Oh well, I need $10 billion for the Gateway Tunnel.” We have to make the case for it.  Only with a shared commitment can we make it happen.

. . .

ROBERT YARO:  Until 1989, there were two great world cities with divided transportation systems: New York and Berlin. Berlin fixed their problems but we still haven’t fixed ours. 

We have three not-quite-competing, but totally separate commuter rail systems that should not be functioning that way. We have underinvested in these systems for decades. And we have a set of institutional challenges. The Port Authority and the MTA were established to get day-to-day politics out of the business so that we would have freestanding institutions with independent revenue streams. The problem is that both institutions have become intensely politicized. If we were going to build an entity to build the Gateway Tunnel and a new Penn Station, it might look a lot like the Port Authority! It would have to be a bi-state authority.

The key thing here is elevating everybody’s sights. We want to maintain the place that New York has in the global firmament, but the reality is that the rest of the world is making these investments and we are not. 

London is doing the state of good repair work that we are doing, but they are adding dramatically to the capacity of the transportation systems at the same time. Virtually every other global city is. We have to get out of the paralysis that we are in now. We have to return to the connection between infrastructure and development. It used to be hardwired! 

Grand Central and the subway system were real estate scams! These were designed to create value and to capitalize that value into supporting both capital and operating costs. We need to get back to that and to other mechanisms to finance these improvements. I think that this is not a question of if we would like to do one or the other, because we would like to do all of these things. These are all going to be essential to the long-term wellbeing of this city and region. 

MARILYN TAYLOR:  I truly honestly worry that the 500,000 people who plod through Penn Station everyday have given up hope that it’s ever going to be any different. They’re just going to hunker down and walk down the corridor as fast as they can with no belief that anything else can happen. We must shift our thinking to what can be possible.

ROBERT PALEY:  The question that this raises for me is how do you first build a sense of regional identity? All these issues are fundamentally rooted in the notion that this is one economic region. Institutionally and politically it’s not a region; it’s a set of balkanized areas. We need to help the public understand that their well-being is connected to the region, not just where they live or work. 

. . .

DEBORAH MARTON:  I do not think it is just politics that are in the way. There is a kind of regional ignorance about the connectivity of these systems. There has to be greater public knowledge about how these systems work. Unless there is a broad understanding and a clarity of vision, I do not really see us moving forward. 

. . .

ALEX GARVIN:  We have to face the fact that no regional decisions are going to happen without picking up all of the individual political entities that are involved. The reason that the governors will not do this is that they are not supported in doing this. How do we get to the point where it becomes interesting for the governor of New Jersey to get involved? 

ARTHUR IMPERATORE:  As far as the ARC tunnel was concerned, Governor Christie was objecting to what a lot of New Jerseyans were objecting to. As heavily taxed people in a very congested state, New Jerseyans felt that they were subsidizing the New York real estate community, and that the overages on the project were going to be borne by New Jersey taxpayers.

SAM SCHWARTZ:  I am looking for a new acronym. I have been calling it WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?” As I have been going around pitching this idea, people have been saying, “What’s in it for me?” A lot of people don’t draw relationships to the greater good. We have to show people what’s in it for them and for all of us, even if they live in Staten Island or Nassau County.

. . .

PAUL GOLDBERGER:  There are two big problems we have touched on so far in this discussion. One is the enormous sense of localism: the failure to see beyond local boundaries to look at these problems regionally. That’s not new. 

But beyond localism, I’m concerned about a much more profound problem that goes far beyond our region, and is relatively new to our age, which is the disinclination to believe in investment — or what we might better call the refusal, or inability, to see infrastructure as a form of investment.

Every day we live on investments that the past generations made for our benefit, building infrastructure even when the economy was in more difficult straits than it is now. They did it then because they felt they had to, and we benefit from that belief.  And yet we are doing nothing to follow that same principle today — we are not investing in the future the way the past invested in us. If people were asked every day what they were doing for the next generation and they were forced to answer “Nothing,” maybe the way we view this issue might begin to change.

What ties together all the plans presented here today is that every one of them is doing wonderfully creative things with existing infrastructure. That further underscores the benefit we get from our existing infrastructure. And it makes our disinclination to look forward and see infrastructure as a necessary investment in the future even more disturbing. 

I think this really is one of the major American political and cultural problems right now, because it is all about refusal to acknowledge the burden we are placing on future generations if we bequeath to them a nation that is physically crumbling. And even though New York is more inclined to invest in infrastructure than much of the rest of the country is, I think we still have by far the lowest amount of infrastructure investment among the world’s most competitive cities.