RPA’s Vision for Great New York Transit Depends on Fixing a Broken Bureaucracy

The fourth regional plan calls on elected officials to modernize and expand the region's outmoded transit networks.

RPA wants to empower a new public benefit corporation to deliver subway improvements faster and at lower cost, so the MTA can modernize the existing system and build these expansions without New Yorkers having to wait a lifetime. Map: RPA
RPA wants to empower a new public benefit corporation to deliver subway improvements faster and at lower cost, so the MTA can modernize the existing system and build these expansions without New Yorkers having to wait a lifetime. Map: RPA

This morning the Regional Plan Association released its fourth regional plan, an aspirational blueprint for steering greater New York’s growth until 2040. The document, which is available in full online, contains 60 major proposals to shape infrastructure and development, with a core focus on the region’s transit network and how it can support housing and jobs.

There are essentially two phases to RPA’s transit vision: bringing the existing system up to snuff, and expanding it to handle the demands of a growing population.

Today, subway service is deteriorating and bus ridership is falling precipitously. RPA has a 15-year plan to fix and modernize the subways while laying out a long-term vision to build out urban transit lines and the regional rail network. These transit investments are foundational to enable environmentally sustainable growth in the New York region, with an affordable housing stock that provides access to employment for people of all economic means.

“[Transportation policy] should all be about making the system as seamless and integrated, as friendly to the customer as possible,” RPA President Tom Wright told reporters at a briefing on Monday. “And we just don’t have that kind of mentality.”

Congestion pricing is a cornerstone of the effort, both to raise money for transit and to open up street space for more efficient uses. “We don’t manage the streets,” Wright said. “We want to try to move to a new paradigm on this.”

It’s impossible to summarize the full plan in one post but here are the major highlights for transit and streets in RPA’s fourth regional plan. The ideas are big and bold, but they hinge on the basics of better governance and project delivery.

A State Corporation to Fix the Subways

If stations are ever going to look like this, RPA says the subway needs a corporation solely devoted to its restoration. Image: ORG Permanent Modernity/RPA Fourth Regional Plan
If subway stations are ever going to look like this, RPA says the MTA needs to be restructured. Image: ORG Permanent Modernity/RPA Fourth Regional Plan

To dig the subway system out of its rut, RPA proposes a “subway reconstruction public benefit corporation” devoted to rebuilding and modernizing the entire system within 15 years. RPA thinks the MTA is not structured to see reconstruction through in a timely manner because political accountability is too indirect, and subway maintenance and upgrades are not as high a priority as they should be.

The corporation would have its own board of directors, and be under the control of the governor of New York. The new entity would be “first-among-equals… within the MTA,” said Wright, “which is not what MTA Capital Construction currently has. Our idea is… give it the special powers to cut through the red tape — to expedite, to do public-private partnerships and renegotiate labor contracts.”

The subway reconstruction corporation would be charged with expediting construction and procurement, and delivering projects cost-effectively. By speeding up implementation and lowering costs, the MTA would be able to modernize signals and rolling stock, retrofit the system for full ADA accessibility, upgrade stations with platform doors, and expand capacity at the system’s most crowded stations without making New Yorkers wait a lifetime.

Expansion Alongside Repair

Simply rebuilding the existing transit system won’t meet the needs of a growing population. “I would argue that a system that’s nicely maintained, but is too small for the region doesn’t work for us,” Wright said. “You have to do both.”

There’s a strong emphasis on regional rail and creating an integrated network with through-running service, enabling, for instance, New Jersey residents to easily get to jobs in Queens and Long Island. RPA sees the Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River, currently in the planning phase, as the starting point. More transit tunnels across the Hudson and the East River would need to be built to complete the vision.

RPA thinks regional officials must think beyond the Gateway tunnel project to further expand cross-Hudson rail capacity. Image: RPA
RPA’s long-term plan for regional rail relies on several new transit tunnels under the Hudson and the East River. Image: RPA

“The growth of the region is still going to be limited by our transit capacity and the Hudson River,” Wright said. “We have to be more on a planning cycle of not waiting until we’re about a minute away from catastrophe before we start to plan for the next increase of capacity.”

RPA also maps out potential locations for subway expansion, including a Utica Avenue line and Nostrand Avenue extension in Brooklyn, Northern Boulevard and Jewel Avenue lines in Queens, and a full Second Avenue Subway, including spurs to the South Bronx and under 125th Street.

On other major transit corridors, RPA maps out routes for bus priority upgrades and surface rail:

rpa brt light rail

Using Regional Rail to Make Housing More Affordable

RPA surveyed the region’s 328 commuter rail stations and found that of the 264 with sewage infrastructure to support dense development, just 43 percent allow construction of multi-family housing four stories or higher. If those zoning regulations are eased, RPA thinks the region can build housing near rail stations for 600,000 people.

With no regional entity to coordinate housing policy, getting those reforms through will be a “retail challenge,” Wright said, but RPA thinks individual townships and cities will warm to downtown redevelopment.

On NYC Streets, People Come First, Not Cars

RPA calls for reallocating street space from motor vehicle traffic to walking, biking, and transit.

RPA anticipates that “the shared public street space is likely to change more dramatically than any other part of the urban environment over the next few decades.”

RPA envisions streets where most space has been transferred from private cars to walking, biking, and transit. At present, about 25 percent of NYC street space is devoted to walking and biking. By 2040, RPA wants to see that number at 55 percent, with another 15 percent for dedicated transit lanes.

In the densest neighborhoods, RPA calls for car-free or car-lite zones, plus a network of car-free streets in Manhattan below 60th Street.

To get there, RPA says the city will need to put a price on all curbside parking, bring affordable bike-share throughout the city, and create a better network of bicycle-priority streets.

rpa ped priority areas

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The current MTA capital plan disproportionately funds commuter rail at the expense of the subways and buses that account for 93 percent of the agency’s ridership — and those priorities should change, argues Nicole Gelinas in a new report for the Manhattan Institute.”

    As cited here.


    Maybe, I responded, but eventually East Side Access would be finished and those priorities might shift to the part of the region that didn’t get what it was promised as part of the 1968 MTA plan.

    I guess the RPA was listening. At least they propose letting us bike.

    And I guess no one from the MTA has ever been in a the weekly NYCT meeting in which different capital projects fight over work trains, flaggers and GOs — WITHIN the subway! So now they want a whole separate organization that will somehow make Local 3 go away?

  • Fool

    Here is a crazy idea -seriously.

    The The Subway “Re”construction Corporation should be a for profit corporation that is transferred complete ownership of the NYCT infrastructure. Majority owned by the state but with minority listed on a stock exchange under SEC jurisdiction. A profit and federal audit requirements rather than state accounting principals would probably be beneficial.

    I mean how would such a corporation be significantly different philosophically than ConED or National Grid.

  • AnoNYC

    Good ideas here but I always felt the Triborough RX should head west once in the Bronx to Washington Heights, serving as a crosstown line. I wouldn’t run it towards Co-op City because the Metro North will fill that roll in a couple years.

    I also feel the buses is where mass transit can evolve the most in the shortest period, if only we could discourage excess driving.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Well, if you are going to do it, how about two? Private sector monopolies are still monopolies.

  • Fool

    The city can even run its own. So we can compare the two competing companies against a wholly owned government entity.

  • Newtonmarunner

    I think the RPA has made progress, but still a ways to go.

    I really don’t get Penn Station South or not hooking Gateway into East Side Access.

    I really detest the 3rd Ave. Regional Rail Line, and think when SAS is complete, the Q — not regional rail — should go to 3rd Ave. 3rd Ave. could continue to the Bronx, and prune the Dyre Ave Line. This will get rid of reverse branching (which decreases speed, capacity, frequency, and reliability), allow the 6 to transfer for Midtown West as early as 3rd Ave./138th St., give the Bronx Hub one more Line, give parts of Morrisania and East Tremont in between Harlem Line Stops better rail coverage, and allow for greater frequency on the White Plains Line.

    I also think Union Sq. and W. 4th — not 3rd & 14th and Houston —should be the regional rail stops. If the Brooklyn’s Brighton and 4th Ave. Lines are untangled — with one line going to 6th Ave. and the other to 7th rather than each line having a branch going to each line — the Union Sq./W. 4th trunk line will help relieve Barclays, Lafayette, and Canal St. for transfers.

    I also don’t like hooking Northern into SAS. Too few connections. It should go into the 63rd St. Tunnel (preferably w/Queens Blvd. Local) to 6th Ave. Local. Have QB express get 53rd St. Tunnel to 8th Ave Local. Switch Astoria and Flushing —Astoria to 42nd and Flushing to 59th — to better match demand, and add an infill 42nd/2nd Station to connect to SAS. If there isn’t enough space for Northern, and/or if the 53rd St. tunnel needs relief, create a 50th St. Subway from Court Sq. connecting to the local lines (standard 3rd, 5th, and 7th Ave. stops on 50th), and have QB Local get the 50th St. tunnel.

    Have Grand Concourse trains get the CPW Local, and Washington Heights trains get the CPW Express. No Express/Local merging. Jerome Ave should go Broadway/7th, and Wakefield/Dyre Ave. fully to Lexington Ave. Nostrand should all go to Broadway/7th, and Utica/Liviona to Lex. You can prune Utica by hooking it into SAS via Malcom X, Bushwick, Grand, and Metropolitan.

    Anyhow, that’s all I have to say about that. For now.

  • iSkyscraper

    The media is going bonkers over the whole “city that never sleeps” cliche regarding overnight subway service, but it’s not impossible to imagine a separate late-night network of high-frequency buses running on different routes that is designed to get workers and barflies around town. This is exactly how the Blue Night Network works in Toronto and it’s quite successful.

    Plus, when you consider that many NYC subway lines have late night headways of a stunning 20 minutes (often stretched to 30 with delays), the math of using slower but frequent buses can actually work out.

  • JR

    I agree. They go on-and-on about late-night service, but late night service has always been a joke. I’ve spent nights waiting half an hour for a train to arrive and once or twice, when I lived in Astoria, I was hit with a double Q, so I ended up having to wait an hour for an N train back to Astoria from Manhattan.

  • Fool

    New York is special and unique and think of the poor night janitors that have the same exact right to crappy subway service as glorious sun dwellers do.

    New York is unique and never sleeps, what is a Toronto?

  • ortcutt

    Dear RPA,

    Why do you produce a report that I have to struggle to figure out how to read? I clicked through a million pages looking for a PDF before finding the “Download the Plan” tucked at the very bottom of the page.

  • JarekFA

    So we have the LGA Air Train but no N to LGA?

    And no PATH to EWR either. And the JFK AirTrain has disappeared. I guess it’s reaching it’s expiration date soon.

  • iSkyscraper

    New York run by the Swiss, according to popular lore. Also, a city with night janitors who took French in elementary school but are otherwise pretty much the same as NYC night janitors…

  • Newtonmarunner

    A bus won’t work for a janitor who lives in Morrisania or East New York, and works in Midtown or FiDi. Local subways are necessary for that.

    Best idea is to eliminate inner-lining of reverse branches, e.g., A/B/C/D in Washington Heights/Bronx so speed, frequency, capacity, and reliability are all higher — even if they involve more transfers.

  • iSkyscraper

    Certainly the development of a late night network would require some study but there are options.

    Toronto, London or Berlin style setup could be East New York to Lower Manhattan in under an hour by dedicated night bus at 3 am if it made few stops and ran every 10 minutes — comparable to a 45 min trip on the 4 train running local with a 20 minute headway at that hour.

    Or, a Chicago-style setup where you run a couple lines 24/7 — say the 1 and the 4 and the Q and the 7 — for interborough long-distance combined with a network of night buses. That’s how an O’Hare airport worker gets back to the South Side after their shift.

  • Newtonmarunner

    Except NYC is twice the size of all those cities, save London. And more densely populated than all of them. Better rapid transit coverage than all of them, too. Further, work hours are longer in NYC than anywhere else, and people stay out later than anywhere else.

    Both London and Chicago have at least one line open. I could see something like 25-50 percent of the tracks be open, e.g., have Washington Heights get either the 1 or A/C, West Bronx get either the 4 or B/D, etc. and have the Bx1/2, Bx6, Bx15, Bx19, Bx36, Bx40/42, Bx41, and Q44 all run with stops only at subway stations and major destinations. Still be tough.

  • Joan

    Solid proof that the RPA is a shell of its former self. There are so many errors in the report it isn’t even worth reading. One right off the bat, when did I-87 become toll-less?

  • Ennis

    The Triboro line is the one freight-first connection between LI, New England, and New Jersey. If is goes away or is limited; the Selkirk Hurdle becomes a thing again. The RPA will not accept reality. +, if Greenport allowed the Cross Sound Ferry to connect into the LIRR, it would remove any trace need for these Long Island to Manhattan fantasies.