As the planning agency for metropolitan New York, the Regional Planning Association (RPA) deals with a unique set of planning challenges. With these challenges in mind, RPA recently set forth on the "America 2050" campaign, which challenges policy makers to concentrate on regions as the focal point for the county's rebirth and rejuvenation. To detail this campaign and regional issues in New York, TPR spoke recently with Robert Yaro, executive director of the RPA.
Recently, the Regional Plan Association invited Speaker Pelosi and Portland Oregon's Congressman Earl Blumenauer to discuss Congress' efforts to prioritize "Rebuilding America." What motivated RPA to focus on America's need for infrastructure investment?
That was the Regional Plan Association's (RPA) annual regional assembly. Nancy Pelosi and Earl Blumenauer keynoted the event this year. Their presentations were about this project we've been working on for the last four years at RPA: "America 2050," our proposal to create a national infrastructure investment plan. The expression that both Congressman Blumenauer and Speaker Pelosi used was "a plan to renew and rebuild America." We had more than 700 prominent civic, business, and government leaders in the room, mostly from the New York metropolitan area, but also others from across the country, to discuss in a series of breakout sessions what elements of the strategy might be.
For the last four years RPA and Congressman Blumenauer have attempted to elevate regional infrastructure investment to a national priority. Why does this matter now deserve federal attention?
We did start thinking about this several years ago. There were a series of things that came together. One was the notion that all of our competitors around world-Europe and Japan and China-were engaged in long-range investment strategies around moving people and goods. The rest of the world is building high-speed rail, expanding commercial aviation systems, and building integrated goods movement systems that involve new connections between seaports and rail systems. Really, we're the only place in the world that doesn't have that kind of long-range investment strategy. The European Union began a project called European Spatial Development Perspective in the late ‘90s that really was a continent-wide investment strategy. They've also pursued what they call a trans-European network of rail improvements and goods movement systems-bridges, airports, and so forth-designed to tie Europe together and create capacity for growth.
What got my attention was the Census Bureau forecast. I've been spending time in Europe, which basically has a stable population. The Census Bureau came out around 2000 with a set of long-range forecasts through 2050 that included the fact that the U.S. is likely to add somewhere between 120-150 million additional residents. That's a 40 percent increase in the population of the country by mid-century.
You don't need to be a visionary to see that we've already used up nearly all of the capacity in the big infrastructure systems that were created in the 20th century in this country. We have no capacity for the kind of growth that is being forecast by the Census Bureau. We're involved in this really stiff competition. For the first time in more than a century, the U.S. has to work to compete globally. We're simply not creating the capacity that we'll need to accommodate the population growth that is forecast and the economic growth that we should be getting.
In 1997, I was asked to speak at a national planning conference in Beijing. China has had this extraordinary movement of hundreds of millions of people from western China to these fast-growing coastal regions. The question came to me that Los Angeles has had population growth and big migrations in the past; what was our national development plan? And I said, quite honestly, we don't have one. We have had these plans in the past; Thomas Jefferson put forward a national plan in 1808, and Theodore Roosevelt put forward a second national growth and development strategy in 1908. The second one was built around natural resource development.
But it's been 70 years since we've thought at that scale. It's time to do it again. That's really where America 2050 came from. We've been working very closely with Congressman Blumenauer from Oregon, and then through Earl we've made the connection to Nancy Pelosi, who has been creating a real vision in the Congress for this idea.
What is driving the need for America to renew and rebuild America's infrastructure? Is it global competition?
The U.S. is competing globally with Asia, and increasingly with China, which has become our prime trading partner and one of our economic competitors. They have to clean their clock when it comes to a manufacturing economy. But they're moving into services, and they're building the capacity for that kind of growth in China with national, regional, and mega-regional scale economic development and infrastructure investment strategies. We're simply not doing that.
For example, in Manchuria, the Rust Belt of China, the Chinese government is investing hundreds of billions of dollars in infrastructure, research, higher education, urban and industrial land remediation, and urban amenities. They're rebuilding the economy of Manchuria in a very comprehensive way. By comparison, in the Midwest-in the Great Lakes region stretches from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin-the federal government is approaching with as a laissez-faire attitude, saying, "Have a nice day, it's not our problem." There is no coherent federal policy or investment framework for dealing with the problems of failing regions across the country, and whether it's the Great Lakes or the Great Plains or the Southern Appalachians or the Mississippi Delta, there are all of these large, under-performing places across the country. It's not just individual cities any longer; it's whole regions of the country.
How might regions best inform a new federal "renew and rebuild America" agenda? Both Congressman Blumenauer and Washington Post Columnist Peirce have long advocated that regions should rive the 21st Century plan for America. Do you agree?
You can imagine that the RPA really believes in regions. The notion is that we need a national policy and investment framework. The analogy that we've been using is the interstate system. That really made late 20th century metropolitan regions possible. They were organized around these metro-scale motor-access highway networks.
We need to do that again, to create that kind of framework for 21st century growth and development. This time around, it has to be built around a new set of concerns regarding climate change, carbon reduction, and reducing our reliance on oil imports. It has to be a different system, not simply adding thousands of lane miles to the interstate system.
There needs to be a national framework, but at the same time, we believe that the components of the system and the implementation really need to come from regions, from the bottom up. The big metros in the country represent more than 80 percent of the population and an even larger share of the economy.
We are also seeing the emergence of these mega-regions in the world and across the country, places like the Northeast, Southern California, and the Bay Area. There are some specialized infrastructure needs in these places, principally high-speed rail networks. The challenge is that these places are too big to be serviced efficiently by highways and too small to be efficiently serviced by air.
The mode of choice in the rest of the world for dealing with mobility at this scale is high-speed rail. I know Mark Pisano has been pushing the idea of maglev in Los Angeles. What's needed is a high-speed transit system, and the rest of the world is ahead of us. The Japanese are 40 years ahead of us in building these systems. And China is moving very aggressively to build a national network of high-speed rail links and maglev links.
If we were to renew and rebuild the infrastructure in America in this century, should it not be cleaner and greener?
We've been talking about what we're describing as a triple bottom-line for these investments. These investments obviously have to make sense from a mobility and transportation point of view, but we believe they also need to make sense in terms of the "three E's": economic competitiveness, environment/climate, and equity-operating at every scale, between communities, and within and between regions. It's kind of like a regional version of No Child Left Behind. There's no region left behind; we can't have a national investment strategy that leaves large areas of the country out of the national prosperity.
You advised New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on his green initiatives. Will the city's plan include clean and green infrastructure?
Very much so. I'm on the mayor's sustainability advisory board, which is a group of private business and civic leaders who helped to shape the city's PlaNYC 2030, which is a sustainability plan for the city with a target at year 2030. It's all organized around a set of climate, sustainability, and economic development goals for the city.
The plan is driven by the city's growth; we've added 1 million residents over the past 15 years, and we expect another million residents by 2030. We're looking at something like 800,000-900,000 additional jobs in the city by 2030, as well.
Like the nation and the Northeast, we really don't have the capacity in our big infrastructure systems and housing supply to accommodate that, and that's really what the plan is about: creating that capacity while, at the same time, making the city greener and more climate friendly and mitigating climate change and reducing our contribution to carbon production. Also, we need to adapt the city to climate changes that are already underway or that we know are coming.
We have a head start over the rest of the country. We started with a carbon audit that concluded that the average New Yorker produces about 29 percent as much carbon as the average American, due to the fact that such a large percentage of the city uses public transportation instead of driving, there is a lot more multi-family housing, and we have the world's largest heating and cooling co-generation system.
We have this head start, but we're not resting on our laurels. It's a very ambitious plan: 127 separate recommendations needed to make New York greener, more sustainable, to give ourselves the capacity for growth, and to make it a better place when we're done. We want to improve the city's quality of life, which everybody understands is the fundamental asset that we have in attracting and retaining the skilled, entrepreneurial people who drive the economy in New York.
If in a year we interview you again about America 2050, what progress will have been made?
We're just approaching the one-year mark of the announcement of PlaNYC, and it's an amazing story. We had one highly visible setback, and that was the refusal of the New York State Legislature to vote on the congestion pricing proposal. That was one of 127 policy and investment recommendations.
Probably close to 100 of the recommendations of the plan have been implemented already or are in the process of being implemented by the city through the administrative action of the mayor or the New York City Council. We have three big proposals in the plan that require state legislative action; congestion pricing was one. There were separate proposals for the creation of a regulatory commission to manage brownfield regeneration. We haven't gotten that yet, but we're working on it. The third one was an energy board that would enable the city to do its own long-range energy planning and regulation related to power production and distribution.
But virtually all of the others are moving ahead. A year from now, I think we'll probably see that most of the recommendations from the plan have been implemented. But we need to sustain it. Mayor Bloomberg is term-limited; we will be making the transition at the end of 2009 to a new mayor. A big part of the challenge is going to be to make sure that the next mayor maintains his commitment to climate sanity and sustainability.