Soundings

Dick Netzer
RPA, RIP?
Spring 1996

In February the venerable Regional Plan Association released, with some fanfare, its Third Regional Plan for the New York metropolitan area—a plan that misdiagnoses the region's problems and proposes “solutions” that are utterly wrongheaded.

The plan begins with the premise that the region as a whole—not just the older cities in it—faces a likely future of economic decline and no population growth. It foresees two other major risks: that the spread of urbanization into the region's watershed will endanger the water supply, and that today's social problems will get much worse. But the economic projections are surely too pessimistic, since they're little more than an extrapolation of the miserable economic performance since 1989. And if these projections are anywhere near correct, the RPA's environmental scenario is wildly implausible: a region with a declining economy will not see thousands of acres of farmland and forests torn up to build 3,500-squarefoot houses and shopping malls, as the plan envisages.

In any case, the proposed remedies are ludicrously inadequate to the problems foreseen. RPA sees the economic problem as stemming from two deficiencies: inadequate transportation for commuters and a poorly trained workforce. Most observers rightly turned first to the transportation proposals, since the RPA's past work in transportation had been excellent and highly influential. Not so the new plan. Its most dramatic idea is to spend some $25 billion to connect the commuter railroads into a comprehensive "Regional Express" system. This system would do two things that the present commuter rail network does not—neither of them sensible. One is to link all the separate lines together, to serve the vast numbers—your fingers and toes will suffice to count them—commuting each day from one side of the region to the other: between Westport, Connecticut, say, and Metuchen, New Jersey.

The second is to permit workers to take the commuter trains directly to their offices, without changing to the subway. RPA’s chief planner claims that this is the way things are in “every other major city in the world” with an extensive commuter rail system. Not so; not even in Paris, the city RPA takes as its model. RPA contends that the lack of commuter rail stations in lower Manhattan is the reason for the area’s decline; it overlooks the economic characteristics of the area, notably its heavy dependence on declining employment sectors like government and commercial banks.

The plan is full of frivolous ideas, like its infatuation with the 42nd Street streetcar, which RPA contends would revitalize the entire midtown area (not exactly a wasteland today). More likely, it would be no more than a tourist attraction, like the Saint Charles streetcar line in New Orleans. Another such diversion is the suggested merger of the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. In fact, both are already large and cumbersome; many of their activities are strong candidates for privatization. Then there are all the architects' fantasies illustrated in the plan, like a pedestrian bridge across the East River in the 40s, depicted as a modern Florentine Ponte Vecchio!

RPA's proposals for worker training, social services, and governance are vague and softedged. Generally, they entail spending more public money, not at all in tune with the world of 1996. Consider this recommendation on worker training: “RPA's workforce campaign calls for a mobilization of . . . leadership to scale up, coordinate, and sustain existing reform efforts . . . reconnecting work and education with a system of lifelong learning, connecting the region's new workforce to a changing labor market, and improving the physical connections between communities and employers.” Stirs the blood, huh?

The first two regional plans, in 1929 and 1968, were truly pioneering works. The 1929 plan invented regional planning, introducing the very idea that urban economies can be studied and their futures forecast. It also proposed the elaborate system of highways, bridges, and tunnels that was built in the following 40 years. The 1968 plan anticipated that the economic future of large metropolitan regions in the Frost Belt would not be kind to old central cities. This was a revolution in thought, and it turned out to be right. The 1968 plan also contained a trenchant analysis of the problems with local zoning regulations and proposed improvements in the region’s rail system, many of which were made in the 1970s and 1980s, with good results.

The RPA has a proud history. But there is a strong case for euthanasia among venerable civic organizations, given that the creation of new ones is so easy and the death of old ones so infrequent. For at least a decade, many policy wonks in New York have considered RPA a leading candidate for an honorable windup of its affairs. The Third Regional Plan clinches the case.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: